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Being Black and Muslim in London

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Studying in a foreign environment, as exciting as it is, can be a little daunting. For students who identify as members of marginalized groups, transitioning can be even more difficult. As I was preparing to study abroad, I remember hearing that only 5% of Black students travelled abroad, and I found this statistic to be troubling.  In conversation with my friend Adna, who identifies as Black and Muslim, I began to think about how the conversation around being Black abroad in places like England shifts, especially when there is a global wave of Islamophobia that seems to swamp the airwaves.
According to an article I read recently, the number of Islamophobic attacks, specifically in Manchester, have risen greatly. Adna, like many other students, falls into the intersection of being Black and being Muslim. Black students, Muslim students, and specifically Black Muslim students also deserve access to a safe, enjoyable experience. Adna shared some of her experience being a Black, Muslim woman abroad, in hopes of providing context for students who share this identity and are interested in studying abroad in the UK.

On “Myths” about Black Muslims in the UK

Within the global imagination, people have constructed the idea of what a Muslim person “should” look like. “People believe that Muslims are all Southeast Asian or Arab, and that Black Muslims do not exist. I’m Somali, and people also believe that Somalis simply are not Black. My supervisor, who identified as gay, also told me that he assumed I was homophobic because I was Somali, but proceeded to label me as ‘different’ because I did not act and think as he had expected. I was angry but I had to hide the anger.”
Stereotypes as such create tense environments for working, for studying abroad, and simply for living. Adna also spoke to an uncomfortable conversation she had at her predominantly-white work environment this past summer. “My hijab slipped at work, revealing my beautiful cornrows – courtesy of my mom – which led to my colleagues making remarks like, ‘I thought you had straight hair,’ ‘I thought you were South Asian,’ and ‘You don’t look Black.’” In her experience, people had developed narrow-minded ideas of who she had to be.

On Her Religion Shaping Her Upbringing

“I started wearing the hijab when I was 11, and grew up in an area with a lot of Muslims. I never felt it in school and with my friends, but when I would go into the city I would be very aware of the fact that I was Muslim. I would feel weird going outside after a terrorist attack and made sure to be extra nice to the white people I encountered to be like, ‘Hey, not all of us are bad.’ I knew I shouldn’t have felt guilt or shame because it had nothing to do with me, but I was still worried.” Like some study abroad students from marginalized groups do, Adna had to face ignorant comments about her identity when entering spaces where others had ever met people like her.

Being Black and Muslim at University

“My school is extremely diverse – I have made friends from different walks of life. Both my home city and London are diverse, but I cannot say I have ever been around such a high number of diverse people like in London. In London, I am less aware of the fact that I am Muslim and Somali – people seem to just mind their business here. On campus, there are luckily a lot of people that look like me, so I feel comfortable. East London, and London in general, is very diverse so I am not necessarily always thinking about the fact that I am visibly Muslim.”
For Adna, finding affinity groups and making friends were key to the development of her Black and Muslim identity growing up, but also at university. By meeting friends from different and similar backgrounds, she gets to learn new things about herself and the world.
To Black Muslim students who plan on studying abroad, as well as to non-Muslim, non-Black communities, Adna has this advice: “Do not tell us what to believe. Do not tell us how to identify ourselves. These things are for each individual to decide.” For students who want to engage in the amazing experience of studying abroad, it is important to acknowledge safety precautions to be taken, but it is just as important to prioritize the great people to meet, places to explore, and the brand new lessons to learn. Every student is worthy of this.
Rachel Godfrey is an African American Studies and Science in Society double major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She is currently studying abroad with IFSA-Butler in England at Queen Mary, University of London for the Fall 2017 semester. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.