People have always considered me to look like they want according to where they were from. I have been mistaken for an Arab, a Persian, an Ethiopian, a Somalian, an Indian, and a citizen of a gang of other countries. I don’t mind. It has gotten me free meals and other swag. Most people assume I am muslim because of how I look. Again, I don’t mind since as soon as I open my mouth they usually take it back. Then they say “oh, you are from NYC” which I am proud of. Another thing about is that I know a gang of people. I have only been in two places in my entire life in which I didn’t know any one. I also love to talk to people and it takes no time for me to get to know someone. I am loud and enjoy joking around so usually I end up being the life of the party.
The other day I attended a conference here in Dayton, Ohio. I had the chance to encounter several people I worked with in the past. Some I have not seen in years. As usual, I was my loud jovial self. I even met a few people who just looked my way. One young Algerian woman swore I was from Algeria after a student and I spent a few minutes discussing Frantz Fanon’s time in that country during the Algerian revolution. I ran into a good friend who I haven’t seen in a while. He was sitting with another gentleman and I quickly introduced myself. Then the old friend and I just starting shooting questions at each other.
You know the routine: where you been? How are you? have you talked to so and so? I talked to him just yesterday? What about that girl I saw you with? Oh, it was your birthday? While we asked and answered questions, a gang of people walked up and greeted me. It’s the usual thing for me? I will admit that I felt bad for leaving the other guy but I haven’t seen my friend in close to a year. So I apologized to him. That was a bad move.
"Brother, are you a muslim?"
"No," I said quietly, "not at all. I get that alot, though, since I look like I am from the middle east."
"No, you a brother," he continued,"that is clear."
I knew where this was going so I rewound the conversation I had with my homie to see if I made any reference to Islam. I couldn’t recall if I did, but I doubt it. If anything, I remember doing alot of laughing and spent a great amount of time talking about fishing. Islam, not one word.
"I know we do that often," he continued. I could tell he was backtracking. "We like to assume someone is muslim by how they are talking."
"But —" I started to protest.
"No, I didn’t meant to offend you, brother," he went on. "I can tell by your spiritual nature that you are on the path."
I was confused then and I knew it showed.
"I’m saying - " I tried to protest.
"I am a disciple and you are disciple, so it’s only right that we recognize one another."
"But I’m an atheist," I finally said.
His face dropped.
"So I don’t get where you picked up this ‘spirtual nature,’" I went on.
My boy was holding in his laughter because he knew what was coming.
I usually am dressed up for work in a suit and tie. Sometimes it’s a tie and sweater. So I know for many people who are not used to working a business environment or on a college campus, they assume I must be clergy. Again, I don’t get it because when I ran through the hood, I never assumed that someone was clergy because they wore a three piece suit. I don’t speak in a sing songy voice like a preacher. I am loud but my NYC accent is very clear. If I am not at work, I speak in early 90s slang coupled with NGE vernacular which most people have no idea where it’s from.
The idea that I might have this “aura” is complete gobbledygook. What I have learned is that people will categorize you in a fashion they see fit. If they see me walking down the street talking to people, they want to say “he is someone important,” when actually I am the type of person who greets people while walking down the street. While how people perceive other people is usually harmless and it helps people cope, when this worldview is applied to religion it’s actually a part of cognitive dissonance.
I have watched people from different faiths “claim” me for their own. “Oh you must be a man of Christ,” or “muslim” and then when I say I am an atheist, they begin to stutter. Their worldview saw me in a fashion that allowed me to fit within that worldview. Instead of just seeing me as a person and then finding out how I roll afterward, it’s easier for most folks to just put me in a box. Again, it’s harmless in most situations but it will make someone look real stupid if applied in every situation. Or it allows people to say ridiculous things such as “Jesus was Buddhist,” or “everyone is Muslim because we all submit to Allah” without providing a shred of evidence and attempting to sound profound.