Amanda Saab is used to harnessing her platform as a nationally-recognized baker to smash harmful stereotypes.
She accomplished this when she fell into the public eye in 2015 when she became the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to compete on Gordon Ramsey’s MasterChef reality show, and again in 2016 when she started hosting her Dinner With Your Muslim Neighbor popup series, teaching cooking classes, opening her own bakery and hosting a travel show called Chef in Hijab. On the screen and at the dinner table, she was able to dispel anti-Muslim attitudes and bring people together through a shared love of food.
When online chatter around systemic racism and police brutality began to proliferate this spring in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Saab says she knew if she was going to help bring about change, she would have to use that same platform to get her message out.
“When everything happened with George Floyd, it was such a polarizing moment in this country,” Saab explained. “For me, it was an easy choice because it’s always been important to speak truth to power.”
But Saab chose to not just stick with speaking out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She also chose to turn inward to start a conversation about the anti-blackness that prevails in her own community.
“Anti-blackness can come in so many forms – from using derogatory terms to refer to Black people to not being vocal or taking a stand. To my non-Black friends who have not shared, who don’t know what to do – sign the petitions, make the calls, show up, do the internal work, teach your kids.”
Saab to post her views challenging such bias to make a difference. While the 31-year-old baker and activist is well aware that she can’t solve the entire social justice issue on her own, she decided that she could at least start in her own backyard in the Arab community in Dearborn.
“I called out how people in the Arab community treated Black people or used derogatory terms because change starts at home and within our own community.”
Saab began posting about the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and support for Black Lives Matter. She was very clear on her stance during the movement and encouraged others in her community to understand their implicit biases and be vocal in their support.
Her posts were shared among the Arab community in Dearborn and beyond. She got a lot of messages of support and others that were less supportive.
One particular post that ignited a flood controversial responses was a repost from local activist Khadega Mohammad calling out Arabs for using the word “abeed,” a racial slur that means slave in Arabic but that commonly is used to refer to Black people.
Along with the repost, Saab made a strong statement: “I celebrate Arab culture widely. Everyday. It’s all over my page. From hospitality to food and generosity. The bad of Arab culture I will also call out. These things are not mutually exclusive. If you find offense in the truth— Well let this be a wake-up call. Complacency and silence further perpetuate a system of oppression. My responsibility is to call it out in hopes of progress.”
“I lost a lot of followers,” Saab admitted. “The part that really got to me was that I felt like people were hiding from the truth.”
She doesn’t understand why it was so triggering to some people to call out anti-black racism in the Arab and Muslim community, especially because her approach and delivery is always with kindness.
“It makes me concerned for the state of my community, to be honest, but there are a lot of people who engage in conversation and try to understand, which is much needed,” Saab said. “Once you have that momentum, you just keep it moving.”
Despite the backlash, the engagement encouraged Saab to continue the conversation.
Saab continued by starting a WhatsApp group called Dearborn for Black Lives with like-minded individuals who had a passion for social justice and worked in a capacity of racial justice work to see what changes could be made for long-term solutions.
“We’re not trying to take up space in places we don’t belong, but rather support the people that are leading the way to help dismantle a very unjust system,” Saab explained, adding that she wanted to make sure that the work was helping to amplify Black voices instead of muting them.
It wasn’t long before the online debates jumped from the virtual world to the real world.
Saab also works at the City of Detroit in the Civil Rights Department and her colleague, Paige White, reached out to her and suggested a Dearborn protest to combat the racial profiling Black people face by the police. Saab hopped on a Zoom call with about seven or eight people and got to planning.
“She told me ‘everyone I know that is Black is afraid to drive through Dearborn because of the police and the racial profiling,’” says Saab.
“We listened to our Black friends and neighbors who wanted us to have this protest and what they thought was the best route,” Saab said. “We took their lead and that’s how we planned the first and second protest.”
The first protest was planned within three days and was attended by about 400 people – including elected officials, even amid concerns over social distancing during the pandemic and reported instances of surveillance in Arab and Muslim communities like Dearborn that tend to make residents hesitant to take public political stances.
While the protests have subsided, Saab and her team continue to do behind-the-scenes work like meeting with the mayor and other public officials so that they can bring about changes in legislation and policy.
If you’re wondering if Saab has abandoned her love for baking, she has not and in fact, she also participated in Bakers Against Racism – an initiative that encouraged bakers to use their skills and treats to raise money for organizations that fight racism. The international event raised more than $1.6 million to fight racism
“Everyone did their own part by having bake sales in their own communities,” Saab explained. “It’s definitely something I’d participate in again and it’s a way I can use my skillset for good.”
She kept it simple and sold cookies, crispy treats, and brownies – raising more than $700 that went to American Civil Liberties Union Michigan and Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, a racial justice education organization based in Detroit that puts a positive image for Muslims and takes a stand against racism, which Saab found to be fundamental to her faith.
While Saab’s work has been focused on lifting Black voices, she’s conscious about not overstepping. She believes it’s important to follow the lead of Black people, and Black women especially, and listening to what they have to say and take action and direction the way that the like.
“I do hope my Black friends will check me if I ever overstep,” Saab said, acknowledging that she has many privileges that allow her to navigate space more easily than the people that are directly affected by issues such as police brutality.
Saab believes in order for us to have systemic change and progress it’s going to require everyone to their part.
For her, that starts at home.
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Bisma Parvez
Bisma Parvez is a freelance writer and reporter who graduated from Wayne State University with a BA in English and a BSc in Radiation Therapy. Previously, she was a reporter at the Detroit Free Press and has bylines in HuffPost, The Tempest, and Muslim Girl. She is a founding board member of KBK Relief Foundation. Her passion is to portray the Muslim experience and uplift her community in the mainstream media. She is a proud American, Canadian and Pakistani Muslim, a Detroiter, a mother of two beautiful children, and a speaker of truth.