Being Black, Sri Lankan & Muslim in America: ‘I Am Proud Of Who I Am’

There signs of a multiculturalism everywhere in the United States; it one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. So what is it like to be multicultural, multiracial and multiethnic in America? Huda Abdullah shares her unique experience with us. Abdullah was born to an African-American father and a Sri Lankan mother in Northeast United States and grew up in Northern California. According to her, being Sri Lankan and Black is a rare combination apparently, because it comes with plenty of stories. “I actually like explaining what I am, I am proud of it,” she shares.

‘Do you live here?’

Huda Abdullah

Huda Abdullah

I was going for a leisurely walk around my boyfriend’s suburban neighborhood one evening when I experienced what I recall as my first ‘real’ encounter with racial profiling. So basically, we were walking past a vehicle, and heard them lock their doors. We walked around a third time and that’s when the police pulled up.  Here I was in my pink polka-dot pajamas, answering questions to prove that we lived in the area and we were not up to no good. At the end of the day, the officer was actually really nice, and we ended up talking for over an hour about, just…life.

‘You don’t have any bombs in there?’

My second encounter with racial profiling in 2014 was when I was pulled over by a cop who randomly wanted to search my car. I don’t know if he was trying to be racist, but he kept asking if I did drugs — I kept telling him ‘No, I don’t do drugs’ or if I was drinking — ‘No, it’s the middle of the day, and I’m in a blue Ford focus with no tinted windows. What kind of drugs or drinks would I be carrying around?’ Well, my answers didn’t appear to appease him because he went on to search my vehicle. He patted me down, but of course, didn’t find anything. Even after all of this, he kept trying to find something to incriminate me with. What was even crazier about this particular event is that the officer was Indian. A white cop came over shortly after his interrogation and he was actually super nice to me, he was talking to me and asking me about myself — actually having a conversation with me. I thought he was so nice, but it was also so weird how the tables were turned. ‘You don’t have any bombs in here?,’ the Indian cop continued to ask. I was like ‘Why, is it because my last name is Abdullah?’ I was disappointed that an Indian police officer was insinuating that I was doing drugs and that I may have had a bomb in my car. Being half Sri Lankan, I wouldn’t have expected it from someone like him, because there are police officers who discriminate against people like him. I was totally shocked.

‘But, what are you?’

A lot of people will see me and say, ‘Ok, she’s Black.’ Others will see or hear my name and they’ll ask ‘What are you?’ It’s crazy because when I’m walking around with my mom, people will stare at us, because my mom covers her hair. I am always on my guard around her, especially because I am subconsciously waiting for someone to make a racist comment — my mom is kind of feisty but I know she won’t say anything. Some people will just stare at me and try to guess what I am.  ‘Are you Dominican?’, ‘Are you Sudanese?’, ‘Black and Mexican?’ I have had only one Indian identify me accurately as someone with south Indian features.

‘Is Huda really your name or is it a nickname?’

I grew up surrounded by Arabs, so I strongly identified myself as a Muslim first, at a relatively early age. I never really had to deal with the fact that I was Black and Sri Lankan, nor did I have anyone questioning who I was or where I was from. I didn’t start to really become aware of who I was until I was maybe seven or eight years old, when I moved to Northern California. The one question I receive that I think is really funny is about my name. The name ‘Huda’ means right guidance in Arabic —  I would get asked if ‘Huda’ is my real name or if it is a nickname my parents gave me. People are generally shocked when they realize I look black and have the kind of name I do.

‘What do you do in America?’

I visited Sri Lanka for the first time when I was in high school, but I was too young to really be aware of how I related to others and how they related to me when I was there. I didn’t feel like I was being scrutinized necessarily, because Sri Lankans are typically darker skinned, so people probably just assumed I was one of them. I will say that people who got to know me were really curious about me as an American. They would always ask, ‘So what do you do in America?’ Young girls and women were not allowed to walk around by themselves. When I would try to go somewhere by myself, I was always told to go with my dad or uncle. It’s a different experience, but it’s a beautiful country to visit. I have only met five people at the most in the United States who even know where Sri Lanka is. I always have to explain, ‘Well you know where India is right? Sri Lanka is the little country right below it.’

‘You’re not Black enough because you don’t like fried chicken’

As I grow older, I find that I lean more towards the Sri Lankan part of who I am. I never really grew up around African-Americans and I didn’t get to learn much of the culture except from what I saw from my dad. I lived in South Sacramento for two years and I got to really experience – not the Black culture, because the Black culture is not just this stereotypical experience. But I basically lived in the ghetto and I got to experience that lifestyle, which was completely different from what I know. I lean more towards the Sri Lankan part of me, because I relate more to it, just in the way I live my life. I am just different. People say ‘Oh, you’re not Black enough because you don’t like fried chicken.’ Well, I don’t like fried chicken, and I don’t like greens. Even my dad jokes around with me ‘How are you Black but you don’t like fried chicken.’ I just don’t like it, it has nothing to do with being Black.

‘No, I don’t speak Punjabi and I am not hood or ghetto’

I am really happy that I was able to grow up in such a multicultural environment. My family and my parents are friends with everybody — Moroccans, Indians, you name it. I grew up around so many different people and I got to taste their foods and experience their culture. It was quite nice. And so I am happy to talk about my identity when I am approached the appropriate way, and not in a discriminatory or hateful manner. People assume that because I am Sri Lankan, that I eat all types of Indian food. There is a difference — our food resembles South Indian food more closely. People in North India cook with more spices. So every time I tell people I eat what I know to be Indian food, the automatic thought is that I am about to eat something really smelly, which isn’t true. People approach my mom and I and start speaking Punjabi and we’re like ‘No.’ With being Black, I am automatically categorized as being scary, mean or ghetto. I worked at a fast food restaurant in South Sacramento where the population is majority Black. I would take orders over the drive thru speaker, and when people pulled up to the window, you could tell they were so surprised to see me. ‘Were you the one speaking? You sound white.’ I would think ‘What am I supposed to sound like?’ I personally don’t think I sound White or Black, I just sound like a person speaking in a personable and professional manner — I don’t even understand what that means.

‘Are you Black or Muslim?’

I haven’t really had anyone discriminate against me or exhibit hateful attitudes directly towards me as far as being a Muslim is concerned. Except for comments made on Facebook when there are heated discussions or the occasional annoying comment (I have had to go back and forth with some people), I haven’t had any racial remarks made towards me. On being Muslim though, some people have asked me (or my dad) if I am Black or Muslim. I personally didn’t think there was an option between the two very distinct identities – I am Black and Muslim. I am a Black and Sri Lankan woman who follows the Islamic faith.

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