What brought you to the United States originally?
So I was born in D.C. but I never lived there, I spent like a month [there]. So I technically have an American passport, but I don’t identify with American culture. I don’t really consider myself American, I didn’t grow up here. I came here in search of education; to me, towards the end of high school, I kind of had this perception of the higher education in America as being qualitatively better than either, you know, certain parts of Europe or other parts of the world where I could have gotten an education. I was also curious to experience America as an adult black man, which I had never done.
Where did you grow up?
I never spent longer than three years in one country. I guess I spent the longest time in Dakar, Senegal, which is where my Dad’s from–that’s in western Africa, and that’s a mostly Muslim country. My Dad’s Muslim, 97 or 98 percent of the country in Muslim, and that’s where I grew up and where I would call home for sure.
Did that environment influence your upbringing at all?
Oh hell yeah. I went to Qur’anic school during the summers that we were there. I was meant to learn Arabic, I definitely prayed when my Dad prayed, and whenever we went to visit my Grandma we would pray. So it was definitely a huge part of my life, like, if I didn’t go to mosque on Friday it was a big deal.
And do you feel that you took any of that with you, while you were living in other places?
So my first time living in the States was when I went to boarding school in Buffalo, NY, and that was definitely when I sort of strayed away from influence. It was definitely a point when I began to experience not being in a fully immersed Muslim culture, or not being around the influence of my Dad. That’s the first time I started eating bacon, and you know, kind of pushing the envelope and exploring what it meant to not be in that immersive environment. But I did take a lot of things with me at the same time, I hung out a lot with the Muslim kids and I would actually visit the mosque on a decently regular basis, just because it was a community thing and it made me feel safer in the region.
You said that you came here to pursue education; do you think you’ve been successful? How have you worked to achieve that?
It’s definitely been a positive influence. I’ve definitely grown. Like, looking back on it now, I would have grown in the same ways anywhere else, but it kind of gave me a better perspective on what a Western understanding of Muslims is. Like even though I’m technically not practicing, based on the fact that I’m black, I’m a man, and I recently rock a beard, I’m very easily categorized as a “Muslim” man, and that kind of stayed with me no matter what. Especially since before coming to Hampshire College I went by Ahmed, so it was pretty evident upon introduction that I had some sort of relationship to Islam. And that came up pretty regularly in conversation with folks. They’d ask me about it. They’d ask me about what my beliefs were, what my interpretations of the Qur’an were, and things like that. So, I mean, it [coming to the U.S.] was successful in terms of finding out a lot about myself and my relationship to Islam but I don’t think it would have necessarily been different in a different place.
Are there any challenges or obstacles that have come with navigating that identity in the U.S.?
Oh hell yeah. I’m fully confident in the fact that I haven’t been able to get a job in the Valley based on my name. My legal name is Mohammadou Habib Abdul Abbas Diagne, and like on my resume it says Mohammadou Diagne, but its such a quote-unquote foreign name and its very obviously distinct and I know its something that has affected my job opportunities in the valley, and that I can tell has affected my job opportunities in the Valley just purely based on the fact that people who had different sounding names were able to get jobs that I wasn’t.
What do you think the future holds for you? Where would you like to be in 5 or 10 years?
It’s really hard to say, especially with this rise of Islamophobia attached to a racialized agenda. Islam isn’t homogenous at all–there are 1.5 Billion Muslims, and within that there are so many varieties and ethnicities and different secular and non-secular groups. But being inherently related to this group, being understood as part of this homogenous group, I honestly believe its only going to get worse in terms of how I’m associated and the racialization and discrimination I experience because of that.
How do you understand and navigate the differences, but also more importantly the overlap, between that identity as a Black man in America, and also someone from a Muslim upbringing who maybe outwardly presents as Muslim?
I mean there are definitely a lot of similarities, the first one being that I am understood as a threat in most situations, based on the fact that I occupy that identity. This is a common story, but I do get pulled over by TSA regularly–and I travel a lot–so pretty much every time I travel on a plane there’s some sort of random search, and the random searches become more intrusive as time goes on, which reflects my experience as a Black man, in terms of how I’m understood as a threat when I walk around certain neighborhoods or how people understand me as a threat when they’re walking on the sidewalk. There is an immediate recoil or tension in the space and everybody’s kind of aware of it, and everyone kind of understands why they’re aware of, it including myself, but its never really mentioned. It’s just kind of there. It’s like standing tension, and that standing tension is something that I percieve to be based on both my Muslim identity and my Blackness.
So what are you studying at Hampshire College? Do you think it addresses some of these ideas you’ve mentioned?
I study political philosophy with a concentration in critical race theory, which really, to me, just means that I read a lot of Western political philosophy and try to apply a racial analysis to it. You know, include race where race has explicitly been excluded–which happens especially in an academic environment.
What do you want to do with that concentration, what do you hope to achieve?
So I’m a political organizer, I am a social activist, so in terms of what I can achieve with that particular degree, it’s honestly more about having a better ability to express myself orally and in written form so that I can further my education. Once I get this degree (from Hampshire College), I’m also planning on getting a communications degree and applying for a fellowship so I can learn Arabic. So it’s kind of like a means to an end.
Anything else you want to speak to that we didn’t ask about?
I could talk about the experience of being a racialized Muslim verses a non-racialized Muslim. I have a lot of friends who are practicing Muslims, who are white-passing, and who don’t have the same experience with Islamophobia that I do. I find it interesting, just in terms of who gets to be understood as a threat based on their Muslim identity and who is kind of considered “okay.” I’m thinking about friends of mine who share pretty much the same name–I mean my name is Mohammadou and their name was Muhammad–when we were travelling together, I was the one who was consistently being pulled aside for further questioning. So we would both get randomly searched and that was regular, but once [my friend’s] random search was over, I was generally the person who would get the extra questioning. So it was interesting to see how my treatment was consistently different from this other person’s, who also shared a Muslim identity, who had a Muslim name, who by all accounts would also be considered a “threat.” But based on their proximity to whiteness they were less targeted.
How do you deal with those situations, what is your response when you encounter that sort of discrimination?
It’s kind of going with the flow but understanding that I’m going to be considered a threat in most of these spaces. So with that understanding, I move with the confidence of knowing that I personally am not a threat to myself or the other people around me. Despite the fact that I know I could be criminalized and that some violence–some fatal violence, even–could occur towards me, I know that I’m not the one in the wrong. I’m not the threat. I’m not the one producing that violence. With that knowledge, it makes it a lot easier to handle a lot of the general antagonisms and discrimination and violence, because you realize that it really is a system, and the individuals who are reinforcing it are either ignorant or genuinely just dislike you. And if they dislike me, it’s not hard to dislike them.