Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Islamophobia

Today we share with you a special post written by @ilhamreads on her recent encounter coming back from Paris to Brussels. Through her experience she tackles subtle islamophobia hidden in blatant racism.

❝ If you’re following me on Instagram you probably know I had a lovely time in Paris. I’ve always been very apprehensive of staying in this city, because my head was so full of clichés of it being terribly islamophobic. I was afraid that being in Paris would mean I would get ugly stares all day, that I would have people insult me to my face or try to pull my hijab off. Thankfully, I was wrong, my four days in Paris were fine. They were great! Until the very end of my stay, when I realised it was much more complicated than in-your-face racism (and yes, I choose to conflate islamophobia and racism). Nowadays, islamophobia is deep, it’s oppressive and it is not a matter of isolated cases.

On the final day of my journey, I found myself taking a Blablacar from Paris back to Brussels, which is a very convenient carpooling system. I was in a car with three other people, they were all white. The journey lasted four hours, and the first three hours were great. We got to know each other, we talked, we laughed, we joked, we had so much fun! To be really frank, I don’t have many white friends and I think that’s something I need to work on. I thought, “see, this is going great. Obviously, not all whites are racist or islamophobic”.

The fourth and final hour was different, so different. One of the guys mentioned he had been to Guadeloupe (a French island in the Caribbean) and that he hated it, because ‘it was so racist to white people’. I was amused a little (but could feel the tension rising), and asked him what he meant exactly. He said these were black people who were genuinely ‘racist’ toward whites, that they had a deep hatred for white people and that he couldn’t stand it. I asked him if perhaps, this hatred might be worth exploring, explaining, or understanding. I mentioned slavery, and he snapped. He was pissed, saying that these people had never experienced that, it was their ancestors, and it was time to forget and move on, ‘for God’s sake’. He then said that, as a child, it was traumatic to be refused entry into some place ‘because he was white’. I said that maybe with that experience he could relate to hijabis in France who are often asked to remove their headscarves when entering certain buildings. Then, he said, “that’s not the same thing. You can’t choose skin colour, but you can choose religion. You can choose to remove your headscarf, I can’t change my skin colour” (side note: he’d just gotten a fake tan that morning, but that’s beside the point innit).

He continued and explained to me how hijab was such a symbol of oppression, “just look at the source of hijab: Saudi Arabia and Iran, where women are forced to wear it”, how it’s totally normal to have it banned from places because “we shouldn’t encourage islam to grow even more”, ‘it’s already bad enough in France”, “Muslims are taking over whole neighbourhoods”. He was also quite angry about halal food being IMPOSED on white people in schools. How it’s white people’s right to continue eating pork at school, and that they shouldn’t have to follow ‘sharia law’.

Meanwhile, the two other passengers became more and more uncomfortable. They didn’t say much (which says a lot, silence IS consent) but when they did, it was to add ‘nuance’ to the racist comments, and to add more problematic remarks. They kept talking about the danger of islam, the danger of ‘jihadists’ who ‘were everywhere’. My blood was boiling guys, I’m not sure how I kept so calm (but not silent). I guess Ramadan helped.

Also, these people were not idiots. Two of them had PhDs. They’re pretty educated, which is what scared me so much. And they were strangers to each other, it cannot be a coincidence that I happened to stumble on three random ‘extreme’ racists. For three hours, these people were so lovely, so fun, so ‘open-minded’. Little did I know such racist beasts would be unleashed when I started talking about race. They were so uncomfortable at first, and then so defensive.

I was stuck with these people, with nowhere to go. It’s one of the only times in my life I’ve genuinely and physically felt oppressed. I was relieved when the car ride was over, and I was left with such a horrible feeling. It was like all my hopes were crushed, yet again. It was a feeling of shock, sadness and anger, but somehow, a voice in my head said, ‘I told you so’. ❞

Ilham is a PhD student in Postcolonial and Comparative Literature, focusing mostly on Anglophone literature of Africa and the Arab world. Her research focuses on the effects of colonisation and violence on colonised peoples’ mental health. She writes book reviews and much more on her blog: Ilham Reads

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