The Racist Within Me

I do not have one Muslim friend. Not one. I’m not even sure how I’d go about making a Muslim friend. I suppose I could do as one fellow suggested and go through the phone book looking for Muslim-sounding names and call somebody.

“Mr. Patel? Could I please speak to Mrs. Patel? … Mrs. Patel? You don’t know me, but I am looking for a Muslim friend and I was wondering would you be my neighbor? ”

For far too long Tim and I lived in a community that I promise you was only  7 percent minority — of any sort. And, just for the record, this was a town in Oregon, not Georgia. I cannot tell you how many times I complained about that. Having been raised in a military family in the South, I was used to a completely different texture. I missed the diversity. I missed hearing different dialects, different stories.

Living in a community where everybody looks alike and thinks alike is its own form of hell. It’s like that Groundhog movie where you wake up every single day to the same old thing. Imagine having to sit across the table from Pat Robertson every morning and every night. He’d probably be entertaining that first day but I bet after a month of him, we’d all be scanning the phone book for a Muslim friend.

What’s truly disturbing is that not only do I not have one Muslim friend, I have never had a conversation with a Muslim. Well, nothing beyond, the friendly exchange of commerce  having to do with cab fares and motel rates. I’m not sure how a person lives in America and manages to avoid any conversation deeper than that, but I can tell you it’s entirely possible. I’ve done it.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I was at Duke University this week attending Muslims in America: The Next 10 years, part of the conversation for the Religion Newswriters annual conference.

Sometimes it feels like there’s a racist woman inside of me trying to take over my entire personality. She’s the reason I feel uncomfortable talking about all this. She nudges me, reminding me that I know people who think that the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim. She tells me that a lot of people will be offended if I write anything about the Muslims I don’t know.

Best to be quiet, she says. Don’t upset people.

Sometimes, I’d like to strangle the racist within me.

If only I could get a firm grip on her.

What about you? Have you ever struggled with this? How have you gone about silencing the racist within?

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  • Janet Lee

    This post reminded me of an incident in Montreat, NC. Jason and I were wandering around one beautiful autumn day and I slowly became aware of the fact that there were only white people there. I began to consciously look for a dark face in the sea of white, but only spotted one Asian-American girl.

    I have a complicated history with racism. I was also raised in a military household in various countries. We moved back South just after the schools began integrating. The way I had been raised, I had no idea that blacks and whites weren’t supposed to get along.

    My initiation into Southern race relations was pretty ugly and I carried a lot of resentment for a very long time.

    I will never say that I’m not a racist. It’s human nature to gravitate towards those “like” us.

    I will say that I make a conscious effort to set aside what I think I know about a person based on the labels I can put on them and allow myself to get to know the human under those labels.

    P.S. Hope to see you tomorrow in Charleston!

  • Kim

    I too so miss living in a diverse community. I grew up in Athens, GA. Such a wonderful environment to meet and know all kinds of folks. Where I live now is so white bread, middle class, southern. I did have the joy of knowing many Muslims and Hindus and all kinds of people in Athens…it was a huge gift to me.

    This summer we have decided to take our youth on mission, not overseas, this year…but to Michigan to the largest population of Muslim Americans in the US of A. We are NOT going to “convert them,” but to work with them on some community projects, listen to them and just plain get to know each of those who work with us, as a person…a really cool person that God loves and fashioned.

    I think that this experience will be invaluable to our students, whose hearts are incredibly open – but whose experiences are narrow. Really excited about the opportunity for us all…
    Want to meet up with us?

  • Peg Willis

    I managed to reach junior high, never having had a friend of another race – except the girl who lived next door to me and was half Indian (feathers). She was just a person – like me. Only prettier because she had dark hair, eyes, and skin, while I was so white I was almost transparent. In junior high a Negro girl (that was the polite term at the time) was assigned to me as locker partner. She was the only person of any color (except for my next-door neighbor) in a school of about 1,200 students. Fortunately for me, I was not only transparent, I was a nobody. Nobodies have no image to maintain. Nothing to lose by being honest. So I became her friend. What a blessing she was to me! Not that she did anything spectacular – but I learned that the freedom to be honest with one’s self is way more powerful, way more precious than popularity, style, prestige, and even the cuteness factor. What she did was show me that by being an honest nobody, my life had value, and was quite delightful-thank-you-very-much. I can’t think of any greater gift she could have given me!

    • Peg Willis

      PS – not a single Muslim friend. 🙁 Yet. 🙂

      • Jennifer Haynes Khedr

        You can add me on facebook if you want. Then you’ll have one 🙂

  • this is so honest of you. thanks. I’ve been able to relate at times, growing up in a church and Christian school where I you could count the minority members on one hand.

  • Mary Bartram

    I do have a Muslim friend….I am learning alot I did not know before. Like they believe in Jesus, that he is in heaven and he will come back. They do not believe he died.
    But you know I think we believe in more the same stuff that differnent stuff. anyhow those people spend a lot of time on their faces before God. They believe it is the same God we believe in. But I guess we don’t believe it is the same God. Well I do and I am happy to have a Muslim friend that prays 5 times a day. Maybe she prays for me sometimes. Most of the time I have a hard time praying once a day let alone 5. I love her. She is so beautiful and she had me help her with her h ir. That is a special privilage to see her haif most people do not, just family.
    It is a blessing and I think we are all to narrow minded because we fear what we do not know. So get to know more I don’t think it is all bad. My friends name is Maka….pray for her too…even if it is just once a day.

    • Mary Bartram

      Help me with her hair….

  • Zira Allah dunyayi oyle sevdi ki, biricik Oglunu verdi; ta ki, ona iman eden her adam helak olmasin, ancak ebedi hayati olsun.

    That’s a bad rendering of a well-known text because my keyboard doesn’t allow me to add the umlauts or distinguish between the dotted and undotted letter “i” that represent different sounds in the Turkish language.

    The text? John 3:16. In Turkish.

    Newer texts, sadly I think, have abandoned Allah, the centuries-old Arabic term for God also used for hundreds of years in Turkish language Old and New Testaments, in favor of a newer term: Tanrih. It’s a step away from what we should never step away from, the first statement of the Nicene Creed: We believe in one God…

    I don’t have any close Muslim friends today. When Jean and I lived in the Republic of Turkey from ’71-’73, they were our neighbors, our landlord’s family, our restaurateurs, bakers, food providers, merchants, utilities clerks, bus drivers, taxi drivers, ferry captains and crew members.

    No close Muslim friends today. But there was a motorcycle accident in 1972 when I was in the ditch and two Samaritans (German speaking Muslim Turks) stopped to help as Americans passed by. I’ve never forgotten that. I hope I never do.

    Here’s a suggestion. The next time you, or anyone out there, are in the audience when Shane Claiborne speaks, ask him to tell you about the hospitality of the Iraqis who provided free medical care to his group in the early days of the U.S. invasion.

  • Margaret Thompson

    Do what a friend of mine, Betsy Wiggins, did in the aftermath of 9/11. She called the nearest mosque and asked to be introduced to a Muslim woman so that she would not be in the same position as the author here. To read what happened next, go to this story, which just appeared in the NYTimes: Or check our organization’s website: This has been a blessing to so many of us in Syracuse, NY….

  • Jennifer Haynes Khedr

    I am a white woman that grew up in America. My father was racist and I always hated that in him. I grew up a Christian, but left Christianity and became Muslim. Even though I never experienced what you described, I can relate to it. I understand it. But the good thing is you are acknowledging it and that in itself shows that you are not really a racist. You’re curious, but you are also probably a little scared, but you’re certainly not a racist. I would be glad to add you as a friend if you want. I’m on facebook. Even though I’m living in Egypt now for most of the year, you at least can say you have a Muslim friend 🙂

  • Pat Pope

    “Imagine having to sit across the table from Pat Robertson every morning and every night. He’d probably be entertaining that first day but I bet after a month of him, we’d all be scanning the phone book for a Muslim friend.” LOL! Well, that’s one way to spur inter-faith discussion!

    But seriously, I’ve had the opposite experience in that my uncle was a Black Muslim all my life and although their faith is rooted in the Civil Rights era, they share many similarities with other strains of Islam. I’ve also had Muslim co-workers, one of whom I used to have meaningful conversations with. With this and other experiences with people from all walks of life (to which I’m grateful to my parents for providing that kind of exposure), I sometimes am mystified and even angered by the things others say or believe about Muslims or anyone different than them. But then I’ve had to remind myself that what was normal for me, has not been the case for others. So, I’m working on toning down my anger and trying to respond a little more humbly and patiently. But really, even if one has never met someone of a different race, religion or culture before, it would just seem like common sense would prevail and we Christians would at the very least seem them as God’s creation and not an object of curiosity or an enemy to be feared.

    If you haven’t read any of them yet, I’d refer you to Chris Lahr’s posts over at Red Letter Christians. He’s been doing a series mostly aimed at white/black relations, but his points could really be extrapolated out and applied to any relationship between people of differing backgrounds.

  • Mary

    I live in a very diverse community. I have had one conversation with a young but lifelong Muslim woman and one conversation with a young, formerly Christian woman who is in the process of converting to Islam.
    The lifelong Muslim’s first name was Fatima–(which started the conversation as I know there is a place in Spain with that name) She told me she was not from Spain but rather from somewhere on the African continent and that she was named after “Mohammed’s perfect daughter”…I told her that she was the first Muslim that I had ever had an occasion to talk to and she said good-that she welcomed the exchange because many people think all Muslims are terrorists…later, I admired her beautiful paisley umbrella and she said she really liked it too and that if anyone ever tried to take it from her she would “stab them” with it…(I found that a bit off-putting).
    The Christian who is converting to Islam said that she had fallen in love with the Koran…I got the impression from talking to her friends that she had somehow been traumatized by someone in her church…
    I believe we are all catechists for our faith/church…but that some of the catecheses has unintended consequences/effects.

  • I have a very good friend who is a strict Muslim mother of four children who lives in Saudi Arabia. My youngest daughter is named after her – and the Lord told me to do that. We met via the internet, but I’m the one she calls via Skype when she has family trouble. She sent my husband some robes to wear when he had a hip replacement – thought they’d be easier than pants. 🙂

    We are so different, we are so alike. God is so good and gracious to us. 🙂

  • Early

    Growing up in Chicago, I had friends of every tongue, faith, and hue. Now, I’m trying to raise my son in a small town (just up I-84 from where you were). He’ll hear a some Spanish, but there are no Muslims, no Jews, few African-Americans, even fewer Asians or South Americans here. I worry his lack of experience of diversity will make room for quiet, passive, and oft-unacknowledged racism that’s endemic in rural America. I think if we all had more Muslim (of Jewish or Black or…etc.) friends, we would build a stronger immunity to the active, intentional racism that seems to find big megaphones in the country, including from some pulpits.

  • Mary C

    Here in Richland, not too far from you Karen, our church has an Interfaith Youth Group which has regular meetings with the young people from the Muslim Center in West Richland. On 9/10 they sponsored a walk for peace from the church to the mosque… ( and I am fortunate to have several Muslim friends. That said, I have a harder time confronting my conservative, fundamentalist friends about issues they perceive as liberal because I just want to “keep the peace”. Communication skills are needed on all sides.

  • Ben

    Hi Karen,

    Monochrome skin color/cultural background is something I’m also highly attuned to, perhaps partly accentuated by past experiences teaching at a historically black university and also at a women’s college! Thanks for sharing.

    I wanted to offer a word of critique. Perhaps “racist” is not the most appropriate term for a post like this, even or especially as an attention grabber. Islam, like Christianity, is not a “race” but a religion or perhaps an ideology, depending on the construct, even if many Muslims worldwide are darker skinned than the average Northern or Western European. Nor is ignorance or lack of exposure necessarily due to racism. “Racist” also conjures up all sorts of emotional and unsavory associations, and I know many people of goodwill (including some Muslims) who critique Islam or particular expressions of Islam, but may know and love Muslims. Also, in preparing my Harvard thesis on Evangelicals and Muslims, I never encountered an Evangelical author or spokesperson who claimed “the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim” or its equivalent. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone say such a thing, other than when people impute such sentiments to others, as Imam Rauf does in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

    Perhaps some food for thought for your future posts?

    Grace and Salaam (Arabic for Peace),


  • CraigHoloboski

    Your muslim “friends” do not believe in Freedom of choice when it comes to religions. If you unequivocally say, “I reject the Koran and Muhammad as a prophet” the later parts of the Koran say your “friends” should kill you as a Heretic. My neighbor is the sister of a General of one of the Middle East armies in a well known country. She told me that if she told her family she was not going to raise her daughters as Muslims, her brother would come here with a diplomatic Passport, execute her in her living room, and take the daughters with him. I do not dare use her name lest this occur. Where they approach a near plurality, read the Koran yourself and see what it prescribes. The later parts of the Koran govern over earlier parts, reflecting Mohammad’s later life experiences. While there is the possibility of converting you, there is room for limited dialog with you. What a tragedy that Christian women do not do their homework first before speaking online. Make friends with a Hindu woman in India and ask about her experiences with moslem “neighbors”.