In the Western world, whiteness opens doors, eases bureaucratic hurdles, and goes unremarked on in the street, and in shops, schools, and workplaces. Now imagine that whiteness is optional. Imagine a Scandinavian blonde woman putting on her Muslim headscarf—a hijab that abruptly obscures white privilege. And now you see her: Medina Tenour Whiteman, author of The Invisible Muslim: Journeys Through Whiteness and Islam, choosing to make herself visible on the border of religion, politics, and culture.
Hurst will publish the title in December and Farhaana Arefin, who commissioned and edited the book, calls it “a genre-bending mix of history, travelogue, cultural reportage, and memoir. It is both personal and grounded in scholarship. Medina is by trade a poet and a musician with the strength of both those arts—the curiosity of a poet and the fun and energy of a musician.”
Yet, Whiteman says, “I originally cringed at the idea of talking about myself and my whiteness. Then I realized I was reticent because I was trained not to think of myself in racial terms, because whiteness is seen as normative. It was exhausting trying to prove my Muslim identity when, in truth, I straddle two worlds. So where do I belong?”
Whiteman’s genealogy is global: her American parents’ ancestries stretch from Europe to Australia and include Americans who benefited economically from slavery. Her parents converted to Sufi Islam and reared Medina—born in Spain—as a practicing Muslim in rural England. She studied in Africa, journeyed to pray with Muslims in Tibet and Ladakh, summered in a Turkish fishing village, spent a Persian holiday in Iran, traveled in Bosnia, and dug for her Spanish roots in Andalusia.
“I came to see a real advantage to belonging in many places, if you have a heart to bond with the people you find,” says Whiteman, whose earlier books include Huma’s Guide to Islamic Spain.
In Invisible Muslim, Whiteman writes, “For two decades, I tried to stride as far as possible towards the margins of the ummah (the community of all Muslims bound by faith) in an attempt to escape my whiteness and the blinkered culture that I associate with it. But, like they say, however far you travel, you always bring yourself along. This book is an account of that round trip, of those many occasions that caused me to question my self-assurance as a Muslim, as a white person, as a Westerner, and as a human amalgam of all those identities.”
Over the five years of working on the book, Whiteman found a framework in the current flood of titles addressing racism, particularly in White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. But she began to wonder, “Can we ever be accepted for the irreducible humans that we are?”
To seek—and to offer—such acceptance, Whiteman could no longer remain invisible, avoiding conversations about identity and belonging while shielded by the appearance of whiteness. Writing this book was “cathartic,” she notes, and she hopes “it might be helpful for other people struggling with this process, to read someone like me who struggles with my own identity.”