President Trump has sparked a fire in 19-year-old Lyric Harris, a Muslim student determined to make a change in the community by being a Black, Muslim activist. After President Trump signed his executive order, which was dominated by refugee restrictions and temporary provisions aimed directly at limiting immigration from jihadist conflict zones, Harris was inspired by this controversy in politics. After being a Muslim convert for four years, she had never felt inclined to wear her hijab but she decided to wear her hijab as a sign of pride due to the intense political atmosphere.
“I didn’t wear my hijab at first. When I first got here, I went a whole year without wearing it but when all this stuff began happening with Trump, I felt that I had a purpose to wear the hijab,” Harris said.
Harris converted to Islam when she was 15 years old. She was fascinated by the way Muslims referred to the Qur’an, and began her journey to understanding the Islamic religion.
“My experience as a Muslim woman has been great but when people look at me differently because they see the hijab, it gets annoying,” Harris said.
Harris has had experiences of discrimination with people at work and her high school; however she faces the greatest opposition and adversity when it comes to people in her own community. She realizes that her identity as a Muslim and African-American woman confuses some and makes others uncomfortable.
“In the Black community, I am shunned because I am not Christian and in the Muslim community I am shunned because I’m not Middle Eastern or African,” Harris said.
Though Harris has faced discrimination simply for representing her religious identity, she credits her continuing interest in activism to her parents and her passion for research. As a child, she travelled from state to state and each place she went to she was in a different community with people of all kinds of diverse backgrounds.
“I’ll say we moved to about 3 different communities. Moving around sparked my interest in learning instead of just being in a box,” Harris said. “All my life I’ve always wanted to research things. I’ve always researched things to find out what it felt to be something other than what I was because I’ve always wanted to see the other perspective.”
Learning and researching about different diverse communities and injustices help her to be educated so that her activism can be all the more intersectional.
Activism has evolved to a point where it intersects with many other issues people could be advocating for/against. Women’s studies professor, Jameta Barlow, at Towson University explains intersectionality in American society.
“The term intersectionality has always been used in academic terms but today you see activists and advocators using the term more,” Barlow said. “Intersectionality shows the overlap of different categorizations of gender, race, class and other identifications. One thing this term introduces is the disadvantages of these overlapping identities.”
Barlow explains that the term is coined by legal scholar, Kimberle Crenshaw in an academic paper that she wrote in 1989 entitled, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” In this paper, she explained a case where black women in the legal field that would file for discrimination had to choose race or gender but either one didn’t fully capture the experience. Crenshaw explains that the issues of Black Woman’s experiences are at the intersection of race and gender among other intersections.
“I like talking about intersectionality even though it’s kind of been commodified by other people it came out of the experiences of Black women, it came out of Black feminism,” Barlow said. “The way I explain it to students is ‘In this moment right now, I am Black and in this moment right now, I’m a woman. But at both moments I was a Black woman.”
If an identity is not coined or cohesive an identity crisis can incur. Psychology professor Bethany Brand at Towson University explains how simple it is for identity crises to occur.
“It usually begins in the adolescence stage, where a teen doesn’t find cohesion in his or her identity, however it is not strange to find that adults struggle with their identity as well,” Brand said. “It is possible that if a person has nobody similar to look up to, in terms of a role model, it can take a person longer to accept their identity.”
According to a study by the Critical Media Project, society prods us to think of our identities in singular terms instead of as multiple, intersecting parts. Accepting and understanding our individual identities means understanding how we fit in or don’t fit in with certain groups of people. One has to be aware of the fact that some groups wield more social, political and economic power than others. Those that are not in power are judged by external markers (what the eyes can see). These overlapping identities are not only external but are comprised of values, ideologies, beliefs and personal experiences. Boxing in a person to have one identity doesn’t promote intersectionality.
“I shouldn’t have to choose between being Black and being Muslim. The Muslim Ban is not just a Muslim problem and police brutality isn’t just a black problem,” Harris said. “I want to show my peers that there’s a bridge between the two.”
Barlow wants those that are more privileged than others to realize that if the people around you aren’t free, neither are you. There is a flawed aspect in humanity if a person believes that freedom is possible without their neighbor.
Harris, in her own way, is trying to create that role model figure in herself so she doesn’t face an identity crisis. Overlapping identities has inspired her to be a better activist.
At 16 years old, Harris was excited to get her first job. She found a job at a pizza shop near her home and decided it would be the perfect place to start work at. During the interview process, her employer seemed okay with her being Muslim and wearing her hijab while working. She’d also made it a point that she’d like cover her arms while working by wearing long sleeved shirts underneath her work shirt. The job seemed like the perfect fit for her until an incident occurred with her manager the first week of working.
Wrapped up in trying to make a delicious pie of pizza, Harris barely noticed the distasteful looks her manager was giving her on the first day of the job as she worked. Harris’ manager kept a close eye on her but after awhile she walked swiftly toward Harris.
“You cannot work on this pizza if you don’t roll up your sleeves,” Harris’ manager said.
Harris explained that she wanted to keep her sleeves down for religious reasons. She was practicing modesty however her manager wasn’t concerned with her representation of her religious identity, she just wanted Harris to do the task at a hand the way she wanted her to do it. She went on to criticize Harris for wearing her hijab in the shop.
“The manager at the pizza shop I was working at didn’t understand why I was wearing the hijab. I remember her telling me to take ‘that towel’ off my head,” Harris said. “She said it didn’t look good, but I wasn’t wearing it for fashion.”
Harris shortly left the pizza shop after this incident. Though it was her first time experiencing discrimination as a Muslim woman it played a huge role in propelling her into the field of activism. After her run-in with discrimination, Harris began researching various policies and laws against discrimination. She began to find out how she could protect herself from these kinds of incidents.
“I’m always researching. I look up policies, research Black history and I’m constantly reading the Qur’an,” Harris said. “When you’re well read on these kinds of topics, there’s nothing that can scare you because your mind is strong.”
Harris draws inspiration from Malcolm X as an activist. Though she’s experienced discrimination outside of her community she points out that she experiences and notices certain stereotypes from the Black community and the Muslim community.
“It’s just like how Malcolm X said it, ‘The Black woman is the most disrespected creature on Earth.’ That in itself explains that typically it I should be placed in an area where I’m damaged but it actually empowers me to fight,” Harris said.
She explained the standards she feels Black men have placed on her and other Black women in society to “always be strong,” and “always hold them down,” however she feels that Black men should have more recognition for a Black woman who is helping out in their communities. When she first became a part of the Muslim community she recognized the heavy amount of influential male leaders. When she first became outspoken in the Muslim community she realized that her intersecting identities caused some leaders to question where she comes from and how knowledgeable she is about Islam.
Harris understands that there are pros and cons to being a part of these communities as a woman with intersecting identities but emphasizes that the pros of being a part of them outweigh the cons. On her road to becoming an activist, she not only researches issues on Islamophobia and racism, she immerses herself in activism culture in order to strive to be the best activist she can. She is proud to describe her activism as intersectional since she is an example of what it means to have intersectional identities.
Kira- Lynae Pindell, a Black cis-gender feminist is a part of a collective in Baltimore called Black Women Rising. This is a group that empowers Black woman activists and teaches them how to healthily advocate for a cause.
“I’ve learned that justice for those with multiple identities comes in various forms,” Pindell said. “See, I’m all for justice, but justice in all forms. The quality of justice is not the same for everyone.”
Pindell compares justice to bread, explaining that just because everyone deserves bread because they are hungry doesn’t mean that they need the same type of bread that someone else has. She uses this analogy to compare the difference between justice and equality.
“We can all be equal but our crossover identities cause us to be deserving of different kinds of justices,” Pindell said.
Barlow chimes in on the difference between equality and justice by explaining the far spectrums the terms are on.
“Equality means everyone’s equal but that assumes everyone started the same,” Barlow said. “When we’re talking about justice, justice may be something different. We’re not always talking about an eye for an eye; it might be an eye for a body. People are on different starting points so equity is more important than equality.”
In Pindell’s experience, she has dealt with many different activists who support those with intersecting identities and those who don’t support others with multiple identities.
“Black activism in Baltimore seems very male-centered. I love supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, however, there are other factors to being Black,” Pindell said. “It doesn’t stop at my blackness, there’s my gender as well.”
She recognizes that those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement are not just straight males, but males that are a part of the LGBTQ community and women who are transsexual support these movements. The issue that often goes unrecognized is the sexuality of that Black man or the femininity of that Black woman.
According to The Spectrum, a 2017 article written by Maddy Fowler uses feminism as an example for why intersectional activism is important.
“If you care about women’s issues but not black women’s issues, then your feminism is not about equality – it is simply a perpetuation of white supremacy,” Fowler said.
Fowler goes on to explain the importance of being serious about ending white supremacy and fighting for a more just and equal society. In order to do this, activists mustn’t attend Women’s Marches yet ignore racial justice issues in the aftermath.
Pindell hints at this idea in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. Her experience at a Black Lives Matter conference in 2015 displayed the issues of intersectionality within the movement.
“Most people are convinced that the movement is geared toward saving our Black men however, our Black men aren’t the only ones who are victims of police brutality,” Pindell said. “Black Trans women are being attacked, little Black girls are being accused of being prostitutes and our girls and women are being raped. At the conference, there was a division of the kind of activists that were there.”
She explains that during this particular conference, women began chanting, “Black Women’s Lives matter!” while men challenged them chanting, “Black Men’s Lives Matter!” These chants broke out against the female and male activists that attended after a Black woman at the conference expressed her desire to see more women represented in the movement.
“In a time where we were supposed to be unified, the issue of interesectionality was challenged during this chant. Black women wanted to be recognized,” Pindell said. “They were saying, ‘Hey, we’re not just Black, recognize that we’re women as well.”
Harris wants to attend law school and obtain her degree in order for those in government to listen to her. She explains that without a degree or two degrees behind you that it’s difficult for those in power to listen and take you seriously. Law school won’t make Harris an activist; however she’ll be a better one after she has studied the law. Pursuing an education in law helps her to be an effective advocate who understands the way policies work. Harris understands that, in a way, pursuing a career in law is a form of activism, however, she doesn’t want to box herself into one category so she accepts whatever position she may end up in the future as an activist.
For now, Harris continues to gain recognition in the community. Her ways of reaching out seem minuscule but has gained her some attention in the Towson area.
“I put myself out there and I challenge myself,” Harris said. “I go up to different places and conferences, I wouldn’t be invited or on a list but I’d just show up and listen.
By listening, she enhances her messages. Harris understands the importance of intersectionality within her activism, so much so that she has stepped outside of her identities and has went on to understand the identities of those who are disabled. She spent some time this semester helping out with the Special Olympic Games. During her time, she came to realize just how intertwined our identities were and how they affect our status in society.
“I was working with lower class, African-American adults with disabilities this semester. It amazed me that not only race but class plays a huge part on who you become in society. This makes me want to do my research even more,” Harris said.
She likes to call herself a truth-speaker because as she researches and she learns she in turn speaks the truth to the people that want to hear it.
In her activism, she draws a lot of inspiration from Malcolm X and strives to represent that strength as an activist just as he did in his time alive.
Her future in advocacy continues to get brighter. Over the summer Harris will be working with a Muslim advocacy group based in Baltimore called the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) in their internship summer program. She hasn’t been assigned with her tasks for the summer yet, but she hopes to receive tasks tackling the subjects of Islamophobia and racism.
“It’s not just about us being Black in this world, we’re being attacked spiritually no matter what color we are,” Harris said. “I know my role is to get people to maneuver in their greatness and we can’t do that if we’re always mad. My purpose is to speak truth.”