Standing Firm For Faith: A Black Muslim Woman in Corporate America
April 1st, 2019. My first day at my new job as a software engineer at a small company in downtown Minneapolis. From early in my college career, it became painfully clear to me that little to no diversity existed within the technology field. As a Muslim Black woman, I’ve had classes where I was the only woman and other classes where I was the only Muslim, but none of that fully prepared me for what was to come. At my first morning stand-up meeting, I was the first one in the room, watching as my new coworkers began to slowly trickle in. As the room began to fill up, something immediately stuck out to me: I was the only woman, the only Black person, and the only Muslim. All three. All of my coworkers were white men, with the exception of one Asian man.
After what felt like a scene from Hidden Figures, I returned to my cubicle and began to dwell on the one thought that anyone in my position would contemplate, the same familiar thought I had during some of my undergrad classes: “What the heck am I doing here?” I began weighing the pros and cons: “I’ve never seen my parents happier.” “Someone has to be the first, right?” “I’m holding the door open for others to follow.” This train of thought went on for hours.
A month and a half went by and I, by the will of Allah (SWT) Himself, found the power to push myself out of bed every morning, sit through my hour-long commute, and catch the early-bird parking discount in the ramp across the street.
My tasks were starting to make sense, although the daily stand-up meetings never really got easier, resulting in a daily dose of discomfort. Thankfully, all of my coworkers were kind, helpful, and respectful—until one day I overheard one of them talking. I was in my cubicle when I decided it was time to pray Duhur. Halfway through my prayer, I heard two words that immediately snatched my attention from my prayer and redirected it toward the conversation: “Islamic terrorism.” The older white man who said it very loudly then said: “oh sh*t she’s Muslim,” in what I assume was intended to be a whisper—apparently remembering that yes, the one and only Black Hijabi who works here, at this very small company, is in fact a Muslim and probably heard him considering that these paper-thin cubicles are uncovered from the top. I really thought he’d stop there after stumbling upon this realization, but instead he continued. He went on to mention 9/11 and made a comparison between the hero who stopped the Colorado school shooter “because he sensed what was coming” to the same instinct in coming across “Islamic-looking people” on an airplane. Once I finished praying, I sat back in my chair, doing everything in my power to calm what was now my boiling blood.
It was Ramadan. I was fasting. We’re taught that fasting means more than simply refraining from food and water. It means improving ourselves in every aspect of our lives, which by default meant controlling my anger.
I reminded myself of something that Imam Omar Suleiman once said: “We are ambassadors of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH.” That comes with great responsibility, considering how amazing he was in character, mannerism, and resilience—and with that reminder I remained calm. I texted my friend about what happened, and by the end of our conversation, I had made my decision: I was going to say something.
That evening I came home and wrote an email to my supervisor, explaining to him everything that had taken place. Shedding light upon the challenges I faced on a daily basis as the only Muslim, the only Black person/POC, and the only woman in the workplace. How it was hard enough without someone perpetuating stereotypes about one of my identities. Thankfully, my supervisor’s response was nothing less than incredible. He apologized for what had taken place and acknowledged every aspect of my concern, making sure I felt validated. He offered to further discuss it in person so that he could ensure he deals with the situation in the best way possible. During our discussion the following morning, I informed him that I wanted to move forward with a formal complaint, which he understood. Upon confrontation with my supervisor, my coworker said he didn’t intend to offend me and, if I was comfortable, wanted to sit down with me to apologize. I agreed for a few reasons—one, that it was Ramadan, the month of forgiveness, and two, that I can sense that every decision I make is taken as a reflection of my religion as a whole.
I sat down with this man, and he apologized, but there were certain issues where we just couldn’t see eye-to-eye. For example, when I made an effort to explain to him the struggle that comes with the identities I hold, he replied with: “I don’t see you as a person of color,” an argument that us, POC, have heard way too often. It’s a form of dismissal of the obvious struggles that come with being a minority. I attempted to reiterate that this was in fact institutional and that when I walk down the street the way people perceive me and treat me is very different from how he is treated as a white man. His response was “I get looked at differently because I’m fat,” further solidifying that this wasn’t going to go anywhere. In all fairness, we did find some common ground. For example, the fact that he is anti-Trump and, most importantly, the fact that he recognizes that the select few individuals who make the rest of us Muslims look bad are nowhere near an accurate representation of Islam. I expressed to the best of my ability how harmful the comments he made (which he didn't even remember) are and how damaging they can be to a community that is already marginalized, further contributing to and perpetuating incorrect narratives and stereotypes.
24 hours prior to this incident a mosque had been set on fire in Connecticut, and less than 2 months before that we lost 50 of our sisters and brothers in a senseless attack in New Zealand stemming from and fueled by hateful comments and false narratives such as the one I overheard at my workplace.
I feel the weight of my identities on my shoulders. I know that everything I do will in one way or another be attributed to one, if not all, of my identities, resulting in an immense amount of pressure and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Hence, upon hearing a stereotype being reinforced against one of my identities, I felt a personal responsibility to stand up and defend it—because if I don’t, then who will?