I bought my daughter a Black baby doll.
Hear me out before you decide what to think of that. I am not looking for applause – far from it.
I have been nauseated since the news broke about George Floyd’s murder. Because that is what it was – murder. Even if you accidentally kill someone, it’s still “manslaughter.” Although, I would be hard pressed to believe that what happened was an accident – an officer with 18 prior complaints against him, somehow still allowed to carry a weapon and “defend” the community, kneeling on the neck of a man who repeatedly told him he could not breathe. I cannot fathom that an emergency responder – who is supposed to know how to check for respiratory arrest, a pulse, perform CPR – did not know what was happening. That somehow he simply forgot that his job was to save lives, not endanger them, and that his entire career was supposed to be about protecting the people who could not protect themselves.
I’ve been alternately considering this recent flood of videotaped lynchings (let’s call them what they are) from two perspectives: that of a physician, and that of a Desi Muslim.
Dr. Zia, the physician, is horrified. I took an oath to do no harm. If I am ever at an impasse about a patient’s situation, this is the basic canon to which I return. Should we begin chemo for an 89-year-old man with advanced dementia and metastatic gastric cancer, who cannot recognize himself let alone his family and has forgotten how to eat? Should I talk to a woman who is in the throes of uncontrolled depression without a support system about how she needs to quit smoking? Should I take an action that, by the book, makes perfect sense – but for the very real person in front of me would cause irrefutable and possibly irreversible harm? These are the nuances, the art that no textbook, no lecture, no professor can teach the way that experience can. The stakes are high. The harm is real. The people are real.
I also work every day to provide equitable care, which is not as straightforward as it would seem: A Black man’s cancer and a white man’s cancer are treated with the same medication, but which one can afford it without going bankrupt is another dilemma in its entirety. Black women are more likely than white women and white men to die of heart disease – not because there is something different about their hearts, but because there is something different about their circumstances: the food and medicine they can access and afford, the time they can dedicate to being physically active, the opportunity they have to prioritize their health. And – this one I can effect – the physicians who will believe them as readily as they will believe a white patient.
Police officers are often my right hand as a physician, from appeasing a patient who has become unruly and potentially violent, to conducting welfare checks when we cannot get a hold of elderly patients, to escorting emergent cases to the hospital. And I know for a fact that Officer Chauvin took a similar oath to mine, one to protect and defend. We are part of a community, he and I, that puts itself on the line every single day for the greater good. It is the community of healthcare workers, first responders, society’s guardians: the wall between you and whatever may be trying to hurt you. Simply put, we would risk our lives for the lives of others (see: COVID).
So for one of us to take a life? It’s not just immoral. It’s personal.
Sunna, the Desi Muslim woman, on the other hand, is not surprised in the least.
Like many of you, I have seen firsthand the ugly tendrils of racism tangled throughout my community. When the gods of the West took it upon themselves to arbitrarily carve up entire continents centuries ago, enslaving human flesh because it was a darker color, they catalyzed a complicated, multifaceted process of systematic discrimination that is still very much at play, in pretty much every society. Somehow, from California to Calcutta, we were all force fed the same tonic that embedded itself in our DNA: that whiter is better, and darker is worse. At any given moment in Desi Muslim homes across the US (I cannot speak for non-Desis or non-Muslims, but I suspect something similar), you will find an undercurrent of racism connecting seemingly inconsequential interactions. It is sprinkled across the important and unimportant decisions we make on a daily basis, as common and as difficult to clean as the turmeric staining our countertops. In more obvious scenarios, elders paint the Black community with the caustic brush of stereotype- “kalley,” “kalloo,” and other demeaning references. In subtler exchanges, parents yell at their children to stay out of the sun, or their skin will take color. Women rub their faces with dubious creams from overseas that claim to whiten and brighten. Matrimonial ads pointedly seek “fair” or “wheatish” (don’t ask) complexioned partners.
Mothers pick the white baby dolls over the Black ones.
I am certain that if it were not for these recent circumstances that forced me to look inward and examine my biases, I would be one of them. I grew up without a single Black doll, although I had plenty of Barbies and baby dolls. The fault does not lie squarely with my parents. It is ancestral: We might be free in the immediate, concrete sense, but our thoughts are still very much colonized.
So then, we come to the question of where to go from here.
The examples in Islam and in the Qur’an that guide us as Muslims never cease to amaze me in how progressive they are, even through the modern, seemingly “woke” lens. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) dismantled the institution of racism, including the taboo of interracial marriage, in the 7thcentury. He appointed Bilal ibn-Rabah (RA), a Black man, as the very first muezzin to call Muslims to prayer, a position of undisputed honor. In his final sermon, gathering all of the wisdom by which his Ummah was to live, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) emphasized, “A white [person] has no superiority over a black [person], nor a black [person] any superiority over a white [person] except by piety and good action.” This reflects the basic premise of Islam and of every other Abrahamic religion: When Adam (AS) fell, he took all of us with him. All of us, then, start from the same place in our journey to curry God’s favor. When God does not decide our worth from our skin color, who are we to draw arbitrary lines?
The Qur’an states, “O ye who believe! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both” (4:135). So it is without hesitation that I stand with the Black community, so many of whom are also my fellow Muslims, against police brutality and systematic racism. And the request I have is twofold.
To my colleagues: If you wear a white coat, you should unequivocally stand for Black lives. I vowed, as you did, to “remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.” In a profession where we are called upon to stand with others in their most vulnerable moments, this stance should be reflexive. We observe daily the disadvantages shouldered by the Black community – the medical statistics alone are enough confirmation – and now we have a chance to advocate for better. There is no middle ground, and there is no other acceptable path.
To my community: Take a good, hard look at your biases. Would you allow your daughters to marry Black men if you approved of their character and their Deen? Would you allow your children to have Black friends without disproportionately wondering whether they are wielding a bad influence? Would you keep them from playing in the sunshine because they will get too dark?
Would you buy your child a Black doll?
If the answer is no, it is time to make some changes. Change is both a difficult and a deliberate process. It will not happen overnight. We will make mistakes, and some days will be two steps forward and one step back. But we must remind ourselves that in the history of our Muslim nation, Black Lives have not only always Mattered, they have been indispensable. A Black man (AS) liberated us from the Pharoah. A Black man (RA) overcame the weight of a literal boulder on his chest to chant the first athaan from a rooftop into the hearts of the Ummah. Black men and women (RA) were among the Sahaba who fought and died for God and our Rasool SAW. For them, we can at the very least commit to creating a new normal for our children. Maybe then we can hope for a future in which the next generation is free from the shackles of implicit bias and the horrible consequences that come with it.
It is certainly not instinctual. Most of us are at an age where our perspectives have already been tainted by this same implicit bias. Bearing witness against yourself, and committing to change, is a monumental task, and it can be difficult to know where to start. As for me and my family, I find myself frequently rereading the words on a sign hanging in my living room: “The most important work you will ever do will be within the walls of your own home.” I intend to start there. Bismillah.