HGI and CMSA hold Faith and Racial Justice Panel to Discuss Intersectionality

by, Samantha Walla, Production Manager

On Tuesday, Oct. 27 at 5 p.m., Manhattan College’s Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Center hosted a panel with the Office for Campus Ministry and Social Action titled “The Experience of Faith and Racial Justice” to discuss interfaith and racial justice in America amidst a pandemic and tumultuous election season.

The panel, held through Google Meet, drew a sizable crowd of over thirty students and faculty, many of whom shared their own experiences of intersecting race and faith. In addition to the attendees, representatives for the Jewish Student Union, Muslim Student Association, Fuerza Latina and Black Student Union sat on the virtual panel.

“This panel is really multifaceted,” said Mehnaz Afridi, director of the HGI Center and co-moderator of the panel alongside Courtney Bryant. “These are questions I’ve been asking myself, as someone in religious studies, as a woman who is a Muslim, as a woman in a country that is going through a lot of racial strife. But this panel also makes me ask the question, and I’ve always been interested in this question, of different faiths, and races within the faiths.” 

Afridi contextualized the intent of the panel by explaining her own experience as an Asian Muslim in a faith where her race was not dominant.

The panel began by introducing the winners of the HGI Center’s essay contest, which was held over the summer. The essay prompt asked students how they would create awareness about racism within their communities. 

Alixandria James, a sophomore public health major, and Robert Zurita, a junior religious studies major, both winners of the competition, will meet with Afridi for dinner at a later date.

James read from her essay titled “My Best Kept Secret,” which detailed her experience as a black woman in a predominantly white high school. Her understanding of racism became clear when she realized that compliments from white friends often ended by asserting that she was not like other black kids.

“I began to understand that separating myself from the black community didn’t make me a part of the white one,” James read. “This was a difficult realization, because it showed that I never took the time to acknowledge and be proud of who I was. It’s not enough to acknowledge racism, it’s what happens after.” 

Zurita’s essay also focused on the importance of decision making.

“We as individuals hold so much power and influence on a day to day basis,” Zurita said. “How we choose to demonstrate this can either contribute to ending racism or allowing racism to flourish.” 

After the readings, senior Ireland Twiggs and graduate student Naouras Almatar moderated the discussion and prompted questions for the panelists. After each panelist described their experience with faith and religion, Almatar posed the question, “How does your ethnicity change your experience from other ethnicities that practice in your religion, and have you ever experienced racism from [these religions]?”

Mamady Ballo, president of the Black Student Union, spoke on the way she is percieved as an African American Muslim through an anecdote in which she was not believed to be Muslim because of the way she looked. Because of this, Ballo feels that she serves as a proud role model for Muslim women.

“This is a religion that I was born into, but it is a religion [in which] I am always learning something new,” Ballo said. 

Viridiana Roman, co-president of Fuerza Latina, discussed how being Mexican has contextualized her faith from the celebration of All Saints Day, or Dia de los Muertos, to practicing her sacraments and worshipping entirely in Spanish. 

Raziel BenReuben referenced a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in which he claimed that one will not remember the words of one’s enemies, but the silence of one’s friends. BenReuben posed the question to the panelists, “What do you feel not only about what has happened, but the lack of words or the lack of actions from people who… were righteous in your eyes?”

James answered by describing the reaction of her friends to her essay, many of whom inquired if they had ever been racist toward her. James acknowledges this as well meaning, but it has sparked larger discussions within her relationships.

“It’s a confusing time because everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and I don’t want to be that person who doesn’t want to be friends with someone because they’re voting for x instead of y, but it’s a bitter issue,” James said. “It comes down to privilege and what you deal with on a daily basis. In my opinion, some things such as how we’re treated as humans and individuals are more important than the economy or how much money we pay in taxes.”

Courtney Bryant, a professor of religious studies, offered final comments to wrap up the panel. 

“The ways in which religion disrupts our sense of expectations especially when it comes to phenotype, that is how we look, becomes very important, but what also becomes very important is the way that religious identities are established based on particular kinds of looks, particular nationalities and the like,” Bryant said. 

While many people shared how their heritages have deepened their faiths, Bryant emphasized that there are commonalities between religions that can help to close gaps. 

“I take into consideration the doctrine of the human person in Christianity that suggests that all people are created in the image of God and in so doing the spirit of God resides in each of us,” Bryant said. “What’s beautiful about that I think is that is a doctrine that is shared by Judaism as well as some sects of Islam. So that gives us a kind of language to grab onto and understand together as we begin to grapple with what it means to be a human being, what it means to be a citizen in these United States … and what it means to be respected and regarded.”