Dawud Walid is executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), a U.S. Navy veteran, and a member of the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC) Imams Committee.
My greatest struggle right now is fighting cynicism. It’s not cynicism with individuals I deal with, but cynicism about America, about American society, about how things are unfolding regarding race relations.
Racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia are out of the closet now. They’ve always existed in America, but [now] they’re on full display. And a lot of things that have taken place historically, to the African American community in particular, haven’t gotten any better since the 1960s.
We’re talking about police brutality, increase in mass incarceration, the income-equality gap not closing, and other factors. So, sometimes I wonder, is the American project a failure? Is this society redeemable? I struggle with that.
I do what I do to make a difference, but it’s not simple, especially when every day I go on social media or watch TV and see some unarmed African American or Latino getting shot by the police.
What I have been focused on more is working inside the Muslim community. I have a strong belief that American Muslims can’t effectively deal with racism and xenophobia without addressing the racism and classism that exists in the American Muslim community. I’ve seen some progress in our community in the last 3 years. We have a long way to go.
I wish I could have a heart-to-heart conversation with a football coach I had when I was in middle school in Chesterfield, Virginia. I remember feeling stripped of my dignity by this coach. I remember him saying that he liked me “for a n*****.”
On another occasion, I was invited to a church with some ball players. I sat in the front row. It was my first time in an evangelical church, and the congregation was all white. The sermon was on how it was against God’s will for the races to mix. This is in the 1980s. This isn’t the 60s. We’re talking 1986 or ’87.
So yeah, I wish I could have a talk with him, and that he knows what I do now. I would want to tell him that what he said hurt and made me question power, question authority, starting with my own. I feared even telling my mom, because it would get back to him, and maybe something would be said to her.
I’d never faced overt racism. I knew the stories. My mom went to segregated schools. I knew about my grandfather. I was under the pre-, early teen “I have a dream” myth.
It made me start questioning white folks. Because even when they claim they’re being complimentary—like, they value you for a skill—they still think that I or other black people are n*****s.
I would tell him that. Maybe he wouldn’t care. I’ve never had the chance to say it. I mean, it’s part of my journey. It’s part of what leads my cynicism today about America. It’s not a detached situation.
My children are dealing with the dual dilemma of being black and Muslim in post-9/11 America. It’s an extra layer than just being Muslim. My oldest son was born one week before 9/11. When I saw the second tower going down I thought, “Wow. My son will never know how it feels to be in the America where being Muslim was cool, like in hip-hop in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.”
I tell my three children that God made you free, so don’t be a slave of anyone. I try to make sure they do what they can to protect their dignity, and I tell them not to allow themselves to be puppets. By that I mean when people do something to incite them to behave or speak a certain way. Don’t allow yourself to be triggered.
I tell them that they’re going to have to work hard, but despite all the systematic things that exist, we still have an African American president. We have African Americans who are presidents of universities, who are world-class surgeons. That there are Muslim women such as Ibtihaj Muhammad who wins a medal wearing a headscarf at the Olympics.
Fatherhood to me is being a branch on the tree that connects them to their heritage, their lineage. I talk to them about the importance of Islam all the time, but also about their family, and our ancestors. Fatherhood also means being a sense of protection, that when they’re around me they can feel safe.
They’ll always have me as long as I’m on this earth and able to take care of myself. I will always do for them. It doesn’t matter if they were in their 30s or 40s. They’ll always have support, which is an expression of love.