Tiffany Willoughby Herrard is a Professor in the African American Studies Department at UC Irvine’s school of Humanities. She received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University, and her Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara in Political Science. Her current research examines the international dimensions of race, identity, and the racialization of poverty. Hear her thoughts about issues on Islamophobia, racism in America and the contemporary meaning of tolerance.
Q: Looking at more recent history, what are some of the main concepts and ideas people should be able to recognize and understand about tolerance in America?
T.H.: In terms of a definition of freedom or emancipation, tolerance, while necessary, is certainly not sufficient to achieve something like freedom. Because, it is about coping in that situation and not so much about having enough of a historical understanding of how power works and about how domination and subordination work-and the mechanisms associated with them- but to actually be able to engender the compassion, or reparation for harm or remedy for injury. So tolerance is a pretty low, low humanist standard for sort of a universal notion of what human is and human rights might be.
Q: How do you feel about the current climate of Islam and how it is being portrayed, propagated, and perceived by the American public?
T.H.: I like using the word “Islamophobia” [to describe it]. I think that’s a really powerful frame for talking about the current climate. The first time I went to South Africa I became good friends with someone named Burma Chu. She was the first person who ever said to me the word “Islamophobia” and we had a really long talk about what it meant for her to see a woman veiled and how proud she was and how she articulated that as a feminist consciousness…I started to think about Muslim American womentheir role in women of color feminism, and their role in critical race feminism, and what kind of resistance was being mounted by feminists during the early 1900s that would help us understand better, and put in longer termed context this contemporary Islamophobia. the fact that so many of these debates about race, class and gender and Islamophobia are centering on women’s bodies and what they wear, I just think that’s really, really important to pay attention to.
Q: Can you give examples of effective resistance?
T.H.: It just all comes in different types and forms. Some of it is proliferation of writings, and some of it comes in films. You have to assume that resistance is happening, you have to document it, and you have to proliferate the knowledge of it. The Black press was incredibly important…but also grass roots organizing, building community centers and places where you can teach people the kinds of things you all spread and take for granted in your studies at university like ‘how does colonialism work? How does conquest work?’ When young people were desegregating schools, any journalist could put a microphone in front of them and say ‘tell us about why you want to go to this school?’ And they literally could tell them what the political agenda was of the organization they were a part of, why they were willing to take those risks, not because they were trying to articulate an American identity but because they had a radical, liberating notion of what it meant to be human, to develop and manifest who they were in the world.
Q: In terms of the current state of Islam in America especially with the “Ground-Zero mosque” debate and the pastor burning the Qurans, what is fueling all this supposed anger and hate?
T.H.: Some of it is about distraction and confusion because some of the reported information about the Ground-Zero debate that I had access to about the different funding sources are really interesting. So when you look at Rupert Murdoch’s relationship to the funding, it’s sort of like huge media elites being able to manipulate the public and confuse people, which is just like this sort of power for the core’s racial vigilantism. That is the American identity, racial vigilantism and people’s ability to participate in it. So that’s part of what’s motivating it and I wish I could say it was just about simply an attitude of hate or something we can measure in public opinion polls but the Qur’an burning I think was just meant to you know thwart provocation to incite and legitimize and provide cover for violence.
Q: What is the most important lesson Muslims should be able to be able to learn from history in order to better their situation?
T.H.: Avoid the analogy [between African Americans and Muslims] and be about resistance, on every front. The analogy piece is really important because the way anti-blackness has worked historically in this country, in the way that racialization has worked in this country is that there is a process by which other groups are co-opted and then pitted against each other and then left for survival. I mean it just happens over and over again, so the analogy piece is really important because you don’t want to look up ten years later and realize that ‘oh my God,’ the state and social norms have enabled you to not advance human freedom for Black people, but that’s what the history has been, so that’s why the analogy piece is really critical.
NASIR MALIM is a third year Biological Sciences major at the University of California, Irvine