Hijab, identity and prejudice in the USA: An interview with Muslim convert Kristin Dieng

By Roni Roseberg

The dictionary definition of “hijab” is a “traditional scarf worn by Muslim women to cover the hair and neck and sometimes the face.” The term can refer to any head, face, or body covering worn by Muslim women that conforms to Islamic standards of modesty.

I met Kristin Dieng online through the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a non-profit organisation dedicated to building unity between Muslims and Jews thorough dialogue, education and social action.

Kristin is American-born, a Muslim by choice and living in the US – a place that is not always friendly to Muslims. At one point, she mentioned that she previously wore hijab.

For various reasons, she made the difficult decision not to continue wearing it. Her decision interested me, and I decided to ask her about it.

Kristin Dieng

In some ways, her experience has paralleled my experience as a Jewish woman, being in a minority in the US, facing questions about the meaning of being on the fringes of US society or assimilating.

Her experience as a Muslim has also overlapped with that of Muslims who come to the US from abroad. In other ways, it has been different from theirs.

When she wore hijab, her light skin and eyes, native command of English and complete familiarity with US culture baffled Muslims she met and sometimes provoked their questioning of her commitment to Islam.

Additionally, Kristin is aware that her husband, originally from West Africa, and her three brown-skinned sons with Arabic names, face a variety of challenges that a white, Christian family never would face.

Kristin is in the precise position to observe white privilege in action, racism and the reactions of communities, Muslim and non-Muslim.

In our dialogue here, she reflects on both the obvious and subtle nuances of in-group and out-group dividing lines. Our exchange was not only educational for me but ends with practical suggestions for society. 


In our initial conversation, you unpacked white privilege and observed that it is not only a set of advantages, but a code for kindness among people who look similar. When you appeared different from white people due to your hijab, you were discriminated against by white Americans.

Does that now (since you’ve chosen not to wear your hijab) make you feel suspicious or jaded about what had originally appeared to be an inherent kindness before you put on the hijab?

Yes, I have to be honest and say that I am very suspicious of people’s kindness now, as I often question whether they would be as kind of they knew I was Muslim, or knew that I have a black husband and children. 

I definitely often feel like a person who is “passing” (similar to a black person who is fair-skinned and not immediately identified as black, but assumed to be white) with people assuming I am Christian, when I have other identity allegiances. 

I do think people’s kindness is genuine when they’re kind to those who appear similar to them.  But I think many people are unaware of how they limit their kindness. 

When I do mention that I’m Muslim, or discuss my black family, I do often get a quick physical reaction, whether a pulling back or a blinking of the eyes, and then other reactions. Often that includes a deep silence and a feeling that they’re uncomfortable, followed by a floundering around for a new topic of conversation. 

Rarely am I asked about my religion, or my family. Instead, I’m almost always presented with a change of topic to something that’s common or familiar to them. In other cases, people quickly find ways to leave my presence.

However, I do think there are other things at play in these interactions.

By people assuming I am Christian, or assuming that my whole family (hence allegiance to “white culture”) is white, I think that assumption of assumed “commonality” establishes an assumed trust, or an assumed common background and similarity of thinking, that results in an openness and a willingness to be kind, that lays a foundation for our interactions. 

This openness, or kindness, is held back from people who look different, until an actual commonality is determined through conversation. If the effort to find such commonality is even made.

Knowing, from my experiences with hijab, or my experiences with my black children, that many people hold aggressively racist or prejudiced opinions, though, I often wonder if I should even mention my religion or my family (assuming it’s relevant to the conversation). 

Do I mention why I don’t eat pork when presented with a meal containing pork? 

Do I mention where my husband is from (West Africa) when people express interest in him? 

Do I discuss the struggles with racism that my kids experience when others are discussing their children’s difficulties in school? 

Because the truth is that, often, my sharing my own truth results in unkindness or a deep withdrawal from conversation with me.

That need to filter myself from others, or carefully share the realities of my life, results in a certain frustration with those who don’t have to filter their thoughts and sharing of personal details.

How are you supposed to be open to others, or trust others, when so often you receive a negative reaction when you’re honest about yourself?

With this said, there is a common shared experience among black people, native people, Jewish people, etc. of dual-identity, or a need to filter one’s personal details, thoughts and opinions.  Where you present one identity to the white community, and a separate identity to your religious or racial community.

The topics of conversation you choose, the language and idioms you use, and the opinions you feel comfortable discussing, they all change. For white people, this difference, or a different way of thinking and interacting with the world, can result in the larger white community no longer considering you “of their own.” 

The easy comfort and kindness often disappears and a feeling of distrust or suspicion takes its place. You, in effect, lose your “membership” in the white community but in exchange you gain community with a multitude of other groups.

Wearing hijab in America often recognises someone as belonging to an ethnic minority community.

On the other hand, Muslims extended themselves to you, especially seeing your hijab as a link. So how are the two groups (“white” Americans and Muslims) juxtaposed in your mind? Is there less emphasis on skin colour in the Muslim world?

When you’re a white Muslim, there is limited acceptance in the larger Muslim community.

Due to theology and a common belief system, Muslims will accept you as one of their own.  However, there is often a certain distrust that you’re a “real Muslim.” Due to the assumed, and real privileges that white Americans possess, immigrants are often very distrustful of a white person choosing to be part of a largely marginalised group. 

With the American Muslim community made up primarily by first generation American immigrants, not being an immigrant means you stand out. This results in both curiosity and suspicion – whether you wear hijab or not.

Hijab, though, does play a role in a white woman’s interactions with the Muslim community. If you wear hijab full-time, there is a certain assumption that you have “thrown your lot in with the Muslim community” and you’re given a greater acceptance. 

By being a visible minority and losing many of the privileges that you have as a white American, everyone understands that you’re now experiencing prejudice that all visible Muslims experience. You now have a commonality of experience. 

If you are white and don’t wear hijab, though, this commonality disappears, and, with it, the natural shared kindness that I previously described existing in the white community.

African Americans then have a completely different experience interacting with the Muslim community, with racism playing a role, as well as other realities (i.e. born American vs. immigrant), that I can’t speak of as a white Muslim.

You say that your whiteness protects your sons in a way that a black parent might not experience. What does that say to you about the black experience in America?

What change would you like to see for black parents?

I have to be careful, as I can’t reference black experiences in America first-hand, I can only share my understanding of that experience through my reading of books and articles and conversations I’ve had with black friends and family. 

But I can say, yes, white American’s tolerance for difference limits their willingness to accept behaviours different than their own (music, art, conversational topics, etc.). This then forces African Americans and other minorities to behave according to white-determined accepted norms, rather than perhaps what they themselves would consider appropriate. 

In addition, minorities need to constantly interact with white people’s nuanced prejudices.

For example, there is often an assumption that black people raising their voices communicates extreme anger. Whereas a white person raising their voice is assumed, often, to be passionate or deeply concerned or authoritative. 

A white person can thus raise their voice when having a conversation with school authorities, if concerned about something in school, in a way that black parents often cannot. Or a white parent can discuss concerns about racist incidents involving her child that often an immigrant, or a black person, cannot. 

I’ll give you an example. When my son was in middle school, white children on his bus bullied an immigrant Muslim student with constant chants of “ISIS” or “terrorist.” The boy, after weeks of constant taunts, yelled the f-word at the kids and was promptly kicked off the bus.

The bus driver ignored the weeks of bullying but she immediately acted on the one incident of misbehaviour of the brown student. My son reported this incident to me and I called the school to report the whole situation. I spoke with school officials, the transportation department, I demanded they pull bus videos and I reported the whole situation to a national civil rights organisation. 

I received an immediate response that was responsive, cooperative and helpful. They took the situation seriously. I am doubtful whether the boy’s mother, an Indian immigrant, would have received a similar reaction had she reported the situation from her son’s perspective.

I believe my whiteness, and my familiarity with the language and culture of the school administration, got me a more proactive response. I have had many conversations with black friends about how they’re often labelled as “problem parents” when they call themselves to report racist incidents involving their kids. I haven’t been labelled as such when reporting incidents involving my own children.

What does this say about the black experience?

It says that black people must behave according to white norms in order to be accepted, tolerated or successful. In social, school and professional settings, where the administration of rules is run by run almost completely by white individuals, white culture is dominant. With other cultures often barely tolerated but rarely celebrated. 

It reminds me of the constantly used phrase “but I don’t see race” as a way to defend against racism.

That line starts with an assumption that seeing race is a bad thing, acknowledging race is a bad thing. Rather than the truth – which is that race and difference can be celebrated and educational (understanding and learning from other cultures and nationalities) and it should be acknowledged.

Race does affect the daily experiences of minorities – ignoring their experiences is a denial of their humanity.

What change would you like to see for black parents?

Since white Americans hold most of the power in the United States, change needs to start with them. I’d like to see white Americans become more tolerant of differences. Differences in language, culture, ways of seeing the world, worldviews and religions. 

I’d like to see white Americans listen more, rather than always dominating conversations and public spaces. There has to be a willingness to not assume that the “white way” is the “correct” way to do everything. 

There needs to be better working knowledge of cultural differences in all settings, but especially by those in charge of schools, businesses etc. White people need to better understand their biases and often unconscious racism in order to treat others more equitably and with greater humanity.

The recent death of George Floyd in the USA highlighted the ongoing struggles faced by Black Americans.

If you were teaching a class to high school teens, what would you like to tell them?

That the world, including and especially the United States, is made up of a multitude of people, with various ways of understanding and interacting with the world. It’s important to study other languages, cultures and religions in order to open one’s mind to differences. 

Understanding differences will also help you better understand your own beliefs and assumptions. For example, it’s very hard to truly understand what makes America great, and not great, without having a deep understanding of alternative ways of doing things and being able to compare between different options.

Live abroad. Experience other cultures first-hand and be able to then see your own culture and country from a new, more educated perspective. It’s when you truly experience something different from what you assume is the “norm” that you start listening more, understanding more, and pre-judging less.

This isn’t just something that the white community needs to do (although it’s perhaps most necessary given the sheer power of the white community in all areas of the United States).  It’s something that all communities need to do in order to interact with, and appreciate, people different from themselves.

I would honestly like for all white Americans, and even non-white Americans, to wear traditional Muslim clothing for one month. Without telling anyone you’re not Muslim. I’d like for people to inhabit, outwardly, the Muslim identity and interact with the wider American populace, experiencing what it’s like to be something different than you are. 

I’d love if people could inhabit other races, but that’s too difficult. It’s not difficult, however, to wear some different clothing. Especially as Muslim clothing tends to be at the centre of discrimination and prejudice. 

It’s then possible for people to experience prejudice and hate first-hand (white Americans, that of a minority group, African Americans that of an immigrant, etc.).  It’s very hard to know what privileges you have without losing them.

I’d love to educate high school students on actual Islamic theology, so that opinions are based on facts rather than misinformation. And I’d like students to speak with actual Muslim women about why their wear hijab, rather than them making assumptions of oppression and external force.

Much like I wouldn’t ask a Muslim to teach on the essence of Christianity, I think people should be educated on topics by those who are experts within their own fields.

Has your bicultural, biracial family experienced discrimination in your town? If so, have you considered changing states or countries? What fears do you have for your husband and children? 

Yes, my husband has been called the n-word more often than we could count. My children have also been called this term, both in public places and at school. 

To be honest, though, I find such racist incidents happened a lot more when I’m present, when my children were younger in age. Then incidents at parks and playgrounds were common.  Parents called my kids names and moved their children away from mine. Some incidents were quite threatening. 

As my sons have grown older, and larger, adults realise that they’re likely to get push-back to physical and verbal threats, and so they remain quiet. Prejudice more often takes the form of unkindness, silence and passive aggressive interactions.

My greatest fear is my children having a violent interaction with police, either a racist officer or an officer scared of black people, and thus more likely to react inappropriately to a “perceived” threat. For example, an officer making the assumption that my son is reaching for a gun when he’s reaching for his ID (think Amadou Diallo in 1999 in New York). 

There is nothing more terrifying to a mother than losing her child. I’m scared of this happening with my husband as well, but I trust my husband to remain calmer in complicated situations due to his life experience.

My sons are 18 and 20. They haven’t yet interacted enough with the world to know how to respond to nuance and danger.

Of course I’m also concerned about the ways in which discrimination may impact my kids’ opportunities – their ability to succeed in employment and provide for families. I want them to thrive.

We have considered moving abroad. Something a man said recently stuck with me – an African American who now lives in Germany. He said that they have racism there, but it’s not backed by the threat of guns that exists in the United States. That the threat of guns heightens the danger inherent in all situations here.

I find that true. It’s the sheer number of guns among our populace to puts the lives of police in danger and thus they are more sensitive when working and more likely to shoot civilians. With that said, we spend a lot more time considering what city we’ll live in. 

My father builds homes as a contractor and we wanted to have him build us a house. But the only land we can afford is in areas outside the Twin Cities [Minneapolis and Saint Paul] – areas that are almost 100% white. That wasn’t an option. 

When we travel by car, we’ve found that overt racism tends to happen when we’re about 30+ minutes outside any urban area (this holds true in every State, not just Minnesota). Racist incidents go down the closer we are to cities.

We therefore restrict where we’ll consider living, what schools we want our kids attending and even where we travel.

Being a hijab-wearing white Muslim in the USA brings an (often) new experience of prejudice.

You are living with a foot in each of two worlds. It is not easy, yet you see benefits to it. Can you talk about that? How does it enhance your life? Does your faith give you strength in this challenging situation?

I feel like a person who experienced Plato’s cave theory. Before I became a Muslim, I experienced the United States as a white American woman. I knew there was racism and prejudice, but I hadn’t experienced it myself, directly. 

Knowing there is hate is not the same as having a woman physically prevent you from reaching your injured son because she hates his colour so much, seeing real hate in her eyes. Wearing hijab, I had a window into how non-white people experience the United States. 

I saw how white people often treat non-white people. I love my country, but there is a very dark side to how minorities are treated in the US – a reality many white Americans haven’t experienced or don’t understand. 

Before becoming Muslim, I saw and experienced one segment of America. I still experience that part of my country, but I now better understand how other communities experience the US as well. That’s important. 

It’s important to how I treat and interact with others. But it’s also important internally to how I understand myself and my role in the world. Marrying a black man, being married to black man for 20+ years, and having black children, this has further expanded my view of, and experience with, all segments of the US. 

I thought the US, the cave, was one thing, only to see that the world was much more complex, but also more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. I have more access to other languages, other cultures, other worldviews and religious understandings, other viewpoints and ways of seeing reality. My world has expanded.

It’s hard to say where my faith has given me strength to deal with all of these complex issues, as the truth is that my faith has given me a completely different filter through which to see the world. Islam is not something you practice on a limited basis, it’s a religion that comprehensively covers every action every individual undertakes. 

It teaches me the importance of being a great neighbour. It teaches how all humans are created equal, and that we are only unequal in our actions to help others, protect the environment and be good caretakers of our families and communities. 

It demands that you give someone 70 excuses for bad behaviour towards yourself in case you’re misunderstanding a situation, the person is having a bad day, he/she is reacting out of hurt, etc. It’s a faith that encourages kindness and justice and action when you see something wrong.

It helps me be a better person, and that, itself, makes me stronger and more willing to interact with those different from me, or in situations unfamiliar to me. And to do so in a humane and intentional way. It also, literally, has opened the world to me. 

The Muslim community in the United States is incredibly diverse – it’s a community dominated by immigrants. I therefore have constant interactions with Hispanic Muslims, African Muslims, Asian Muslims and European Muslims.

This constant mixing of cultures and languages means you literally have the whole world at your fingertips. That is a blessing and it’s a constant opportunity for education and knowledge.

Given the current situation, many people are trying to take a hard look at themselves, reassessing their strengths and weaknesses, particularly in regards to race. And while I personally find political articles educational and helpful, many people only respond, or listen to, stories of a personal nature.

So I’m going to be brutally honest about myself here. Specifically as it relates to my own personal path of understanding race in America.

Most of my friends and colleagues know that I once wore hijab, the Islamic head covering, for many years after I converted to Islam. It was a personal choice, and one I believed in deeply.

When I made the decision, I made it in a state of innocence and naivety. I did not know it yet, but I would be completely unprepared for what I was about to experience. I saw hijab as a form of modesty, and a commitment to my faith.

What I did not see, not truly, was how the world would see me wearing it.

After three years of wearing hijab, I made the decision to take it off. It was a very difficult decision, and I had many conflicting feelings about it. At the time, my reasons for no longer wearing the hijab were all largely practical. 

People who meet me now often ask me why I took it off. And I’m able to dodge the question by giving a simple one: it was the time of 9/11 and wearing it was a safety risk.

But the real question, if you want an honest answer, is why do I choose to continue to not wear hijab? Because that entails a radically different answer. And that answer is tied up in race and, yes, privilege.

When I started wearing hijab, I instantly lost my “whiteness” and all of the benefits it afforded. Okay, not benefits but privileges. A word I know that makes many white people uncomfortable. 

I lost the kindness that white women tend to naturally give other women. I lost the kindness of clerks and workers and most people just generally living their lives out in public. I lost the ability to be judged based on my actions, my character and my intelligence when interviewing for jobs. 

In fact, I lost my English language, because somehow when people see a woman in hijab, they so deeply believe it must be a foreigner that they no longer hear perfect fluent English. I lost all of the benefits that my hard-earned Georgetown education afforded me.

I could spend all day listing everything that I lost when I lost my whiteness, but the most important thing I lost was the safety that comes with it. I had previously always been left alone, when in public, to go about my day.  People left me in peace.

No longer. I was accosted verbally. Physically. In my car, in stores, on the street. Life became a series of threats and efforts by me to diffuse them. It was physically and mentally exhausting. 

It, day by day, chipped down my confidence, my belief in myself and my appreciation for my own value as a human being. I lost my belief in America and the American people. I lost my belief that people could be kind and good.

My primary concern became, always: where would I be safe?

By learning about other cultures and peoples, we can help fight racism.

So why I didn’t I put my hijab back on? Why don’t I today?

Not giving myself any quarter, the brutal truth is I do not want to lose my whiteness again.

I don’t want to lose the privileges that come with it. I now KNOW the costs of not being white. Deeply, in my marrow.  It’s one thing to take on a new identity without understanding the consequences. But I know them now.

I am not proud of the fact that I still believe in hijab and yet choose not to wear it. I am ashamed that I give more weight to my fear of people, specifically of American men and women, than I’m giving to my deeply held religious beliefs.

Now, twenty years later, I am the mother of three black boys. Two of them over 18 and over 6 feet tall. I thought wearing hijab taught me a lot about racism in America. And it did. 

It was necessary for me to experience racism in person, in my face, to truly understand the cost it imposes on the human psyche.

It’s necessary to look into someone’s face and see pure, adulterated hate to really understand how it feels it to have it directed at you. 

Having black children, though, has opened up a new avenue for me to better understand racism in America. It’s now a constant reminder that, despite being white, I can no longer avoid the costs of blackness.

This includes racial taunts against my children on playgrounds. Actual physical assaults on my children by people who fill up, somehow, with rage, just seeing them. We’ve had incidents at school, and on the bus, innumerable chats of n****r.  Each damaging to my children. 

I’m not even going to touch on my experiences having been married to a black man for more than 20 years. That’s another story for another day.

I am always aware that, as a white woman, I have the option to temporarily step away from it all. I can walk through small towns without the snickering, the whispers and the hostile stares. 

I can drive my car over the speed limit, or change lanes without signalling, without being scared for my life. I can, yes, enjoy smiles and kindness from complete strangers in the grocery store and in restaurants and other public places.

I can, in other words, take a break from the reality of racism when I so choose.  I can breathe deeply, regaining the strength necessary for when I’m with my kids, or my husband, and, again, another racist incident takes place.

This is not something afforded to people of colour. There is no taking their colour off as I did a piece of clothing. Or stepping away from my children.

Addressing racism, and racist incidents, often occurs daily, weekly, monthly. The exhaustion mounts and the stress results in physical consequences. 

The walls slowly, over time, come up. Because the truth is: when you look at a white person, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Will it be kindness, neutrality, or, on occasion, actual acts of violence?

If you went into a space and knew you’d be accosted one time in ten, would you then continue to go to that same place? 

Yes, it means that nine times in ten you’ll be okay. The majority of the time. But that one time in ten is still high, and dangerous.

Black Muslims account for 1 in 5 Muslims in the USA (Pew Research Centre, 2019).

So, do you instead make an effort to protect yourself by making other decisions when possible? Would it be natural to build up mental walls as a shield? 

Because the truth is: you can’t avoid that place. Because that place is your city, your workplace, your country. Now imagine this is also your children’s reality too.

Can you imagine the strength it takes to send your children out into the world every day knowing that that one in ten situation still applies? And you have absolutely no ability to protect your child.

That this is the reality of their world, and they simply have to learn to adjust mentally and physically in a manner that allows them to stay sane. And still believe in their self-worth. That they need to continue to focus on school and homework. And then later on, as an adult, to go out into the world, to work every day, drive down streets, function successfully, always knowing danger lurks just on the edges.

This is my personal experience with race. With my children all still at home, I use my white privilege, unapologetically, to protect them for as long as I can.

They can enter stores without being followed as long as they’re with me. They can ride in my car, safer with a white driver than driving on their own. My youngest can have school conferences where any hints of racism will be immediately called out, in a way that might be perceived as “threatening” if done by a black parent. 

I’m quite aware that I can’t keep them by my side forever however. That this small amount of privilege afforded to them by their proximity to me, and my whiteness, will end. And it is terrifying. It’s a reality that black mothers and fathers deal with from the moment their children are born.

I wish that everyone could share in the experience I had while wearing hijab. It was, truly, the ability to walk in another’s shoes. In the shoes of someone who appeared, at least visually, to be radically different than me.

Although, of course, me without hijab is still me, an American Muslim. But without that one piece of cloth I am, somehow, given the benefit of the doubt that I am “just like everyone else.” Whatever that means. I’m still me.

I found my time wearing hijab traumatic. Not because wearing a piece of cloth on my head is difficult, or oppressive. But because of how others’ misperceptions and prejudice altered their view of me. 

It has left me with deep scars. But it also gave me a perspective and a learning experience that no amount of money could buy. It has also given me a new lens, if you will, through which to view the world. A more accurate lens. One that sees everyone’s humanity much more clearly. 

This is something that each person in our country needs. Because we’d all be acting radically different with one another. We’d be practicing a lot more kindness to strangers.

Thank you for your heartfelt, candid insights. I wish more people could walk in others’ shoes. Perhaps there would be more understanding in the world. I also wish we were neighbours. 

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this blog are solely the author’s/interviewees and do not necessarily reflect those of Voice of Salam. 

5 Replies to “Hijab, identity and prejudice in the USA: An interview with Muslim convert Kristin Dieng”

  1. Eye opening article, one I very much appreciated. I am wondering whether Black American Muslim women wearing the hijab face a similar kind of wariness from immigrant Muslims as do white Muslims.

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  2. Very candid and insightful and sadly, so true. I cannot speak for the entirety of her experience, but I am sharing a lot of its aspects, being a white European immigrant married to a visibly Arab man with children, who are often discriminated against for their last name and looks. Having an accent and wearing a headscarf puts me right away in the situations Kristin describes so well: the silence when you speak about personal things or people get to see you in person for the first time (see job interview or people you previously talked to on the phone only), the drawing away, the indignation when I claim to be from a European country, a claim that makes me a liar and a fraud by people who think they have a right to define my identity for me (assuming openly or secretly that I am “one of these refugees”(=a special category with a certain set of prejudices attached to it) that went to Europe first and then continued her exodus to the US…), and the realization that people suddenly might avoid letting others know that they know you a little better, because they are just as desperate to keep their white privilege position with those around them. It is extremely subtle, it’s not the slur you receive straight in your face, it’s more like a slow dripping that steadily eats away on your confidence and self.

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  3. I wish the whole world could read this and have an open mind and heart towards others. This is a very insightful article. Thx Kristin for sharing your eperiences.

    Like

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