On being a minority (if only for two days)

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On Oct. 7-8, I attended the Living the Faith convention, sponsored by the Islamic Organization of North America in collaboration with several other Muslim organizations and held annually at the Detroit convention center. This was my third time attending this gathering, and as in years past, I moved among lectures, workshops and meals with hundreds of other participants, most of whom were from Middle Eastern, South and Southeast Asian, African and African-American backgrounds—virtually all were Muslims. Whenever I attend this convention, I am one of a very few people of white European (and Christian) identity—in most program sessions I am the only one. For two days at least, I am a minority.

This year more than in the past, I reflected on why I do not feel like a minority in this large multi-cultural gathering. Why do I move so comfortably through a space filled with darker-skinned hijab-wearing (and some burkah-wearing) women and men in traditional Muslim dress? Why am I so comfortable in a space where almost no one looks like me? More to the point, why do I have to consciously remind myself of my minority status? Why is it not almost always apparent to me that I am different—that I do not really fit in?

As I reflect on these questions, I have come to realize that a big reason for my lack of conscious awareness of my minority status stems from the simple fact that I am not treated as if I am different. If I am asked where I am from and reply, "Decorah, Iowa," no one follows up with, "No, where are you really from?" No one looks at me as if I might be dangerous because I am a white man, even though this year's convention occurred only one week after a white man slaughtered 58 people in Las Vegas. No one asks me to comment on what "white people" or "Christians" think about a particular topic. No one wonders why I do not dress like them. No one treats me in a patronizing way as if I am inferior by virtue of being white. And no one ever acts suspicious of my patriotism.

Instead, I am treated with the utmost respect and dignity, my individuality as a unique person not defined by my race or religion respected in every encounter. I find this extraordinary in the context of an American society currently in the throes of a cultural backlash against the demographic reality that white majoritarian representation will go the way of the dinosaurs before the year 2050. With the rise of white supremacist groups spawned by the election of President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and the emboldening of those groups by the election of President Trump, best exemplified by the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally, it is clear that many of my fellow white Americans are not as comfortable living in full community with black and brown Americans as I am.

This is unfortunate since all the backlash in the world will not stem the demographic tide. America's future is a multicultural future, and I am one white person not the least bit concerned about having my racial group become a minority among minorities by mid-century. Perhaps it will only be in losing our majority status that white people will realize that we are in fact just one group of people among many other groups of people, neither superior nor inferior to anyone else.

If I can move so easily among a group of multicultural Muslims for two days without experiencing the kinds of micro-aggressions designed to make me aware of my difference, there is no reason we white people cannot do the same for the black and brown people living in our midst—in our communities, on the Luther College campus and all across America.

Robert Shedinger

Robert Shedinger

Robert Shedinger is a professor of religion at Luther College. He is the author of several books, including the 2015 "Jesus and Jihad," "Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion" and "Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety."

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