Professors Mehnaz Afridi and Courtney Bryant lead interfaith forum confronting Anti-Blackness

By Rebecca Kranich, Staff Writer

Two of Manhattan College’s most renowned religious studies professors recently spoke at a virtual event hosted by Lewis University. Rev. Courtney Bryant, Ph.D. and Mehnaz Afridi, Ph.D. joined Maureen O’Connell and Laura Frank from La Salle University to discuss anti-Black racism and religions. The panel provided dialogue from an inter-faith perspective, representing Catholic, Protostant, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

The coordinator of the event, Christie Billups, from Lewis University, opened up the event, emphasizing the dark history all religions share in terms of anti-Black racism.

“While we recognize that many communities have been marginalized and demonized in our nation’s history, today we will focus on our complicity in anti-Blackness across religious histories,” Billups said.   

Bryant began the forum by recalling her experience within the Protestant and Baptist faiths and their contributions to anti-Black racism. 

Bryant converted from Protestant to Baptist at the age of 12. Bryant shared her memory of the unequal allocation of resources for the white choir group over the Black gospel choir at the Protestant church and the heavier focus on Black music in the Baptist church. However, the remnants of white culture overshadowing Black culture were still present. 

“Interestingly, the white Jesus remained on the stained glass windows of the Black church houses,” Bryant said. “Despite the celebration of Black culture and Black music, Black bodies continued to be perceived as inferior.”

Bryant has been teaching at Manhattan for four years. She is an assistant professor of religious studies and she serves as Pastor of Inclusive Engagement at All Angels Church in New York City.

Afridi gave her perspective as a South Asian, immigrant, Muslim woman, and she notices anti-Black sentiments within Islam. 

“[Muslims], as most religions, experience a lot of amnesia,” Afridi said. “This means that we forget what we are taught in our religious faith. For example, in the Hadith the Prophet Muhammad said ‘O people, your Lord is one and your father Adam is one. There is no favor of an Arab over a foreigner, nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over Black skin, nor Black skin over white skin, except by righteousness. Have I not delivered the message?’.”

Afridi continued to mention that regardless of how diverse the community of Muslims are, there is still a major race problem. 

“To understand the full extent of this, we have to look no further than how Black Americans especially Black Muslim Americans are treated by their own community. [Look at] the segregation that has been created in terms of different racial lines within Islam,” Afridi said. 

While the event focused on the panelists, Billups importantly highlighted the necessary relationship between discomfortability and building genuine connections among people and groups.

“I think authentic togetherness goes back to the idea that this includes sometimes being uncomfortable or vulnerable in order to build these essential relationships which will help us walk towards greater understanding and dismantling of anti-Blackness,” said Billups. 

After the forum, The Quadrangle talked to both Bryant and Afridi to discuss the specifics of anti-Blackness within their teaching and lives as women of color. 

When asked about the importance of voices of women of color in religious communities, Bryant discussed the need for their stories to be heard. 

“It becomes really important for women to be able to tell their own stories, particularly as it pertains to God and theology, because so often, ideas about God are principal tools in the subjugation of women and women of color,” Bryant said.

Similarly, in an email to the Quadrangle, Afridi commented on the struggle within Islam regarding the hierarchy of culture and race that has been perpetuated over time.

“I am an Asian Brown Muslim woman and it’s been a struggle to be a minority on all levels within my own community.  The hierarchy looks toward Arabs as being the “authentic” voice of Islam because Islam came from Mecca and Medina, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed” Afridi said.

When asked about the need for inter-faith dialogue, Afridi focused on the crucial role women play within these spaces. 

“Women across religions share an important voice, we can share our own struggle within the masculine power and their institutions. It also gives us an opportunity to learn from other faiths in terms of what women across faiths have accomplished,” said Afridi.

When asked about her position as a female professor of color, Bryant discussed her work as a Black academic scholar at Manhattan College, a predominantly white institution, or PWI. Furthermore, she admits the tough challenges with teaching white students about topics like race and religion.

“Initially it was challenging because you have to teach from a different perspective and a lot of times, what I’m teaching [white students] disrupts their sense of security and stability in the world,” Bryant said. “When you’re pulling that brick so the foundation completely tumbles, you have to take into consideration the students.”

In a final question regarding the hopes for the future of religious communities, Afridi and Bryant responded similarly, both noting their admiration for younger generations. 

“My hopes are that we begin to see the many hues of each culture,” Bryant said. “So often, we think about racism and  anti-Blackness as only harming Black people. But we are all made to conform to these very rigid standards of what we think it is to be an acceptable woman. My hope is that we will see young people having the courage to live outside of the lines.” 

“I think as Muslims we have lost the message of Islam,” Afridi said. “In the seventh century, we were already freeing slaves and asking the first Muslims to be equal to others. But, I have seen a lot of younger Muslims punch back against the traditional organizations in America that are Muslim to ask the questions about race.”