They did not learn this from me or from their teachers at school. In fact, I find myself amazed by all the controversy about learning race in elementary school – as if in class most children hear about race for the first time.
The way racism plays a role in American life is obvious to children from an early age. Before some children can ride bicycles, they watch videos of police officers killing black men. They see Colin Copernicus kneeling during the national anthem, hear political statements by LeBron James and Naomi Osaka, listen to songs like Childish Gambin’s This Is America, read books like The Hate U Give, watch TV shows like All American ”And, above all, they themselves experience racism.
It would be a tragedy if teachers pretended that none of this was happening and left the children free to figure it out. The task of the school is to provide a broader context for the facts of the world and to impart knowledge and skills so that students can navigate it. This means teaching the full history of America’s past and present, our ugliness and beauty.
And I would be careless in my responsibilities if I allowed my children to fall into the same mood of sacrifice that I succumbed to as a college student. We are Muslims from South Asia, and my children have experienced a considerable amount of anti-Muslim ridicule, which today is as much related to racial bigotry as it is to religious biases. We work with the school to make it better equipped to combat the problem of prejudice, and then I remind my children what a privilege it is to be a Muslim. I want them to derive their identity from a love of Islam, not from a hatred of Islamophobia.
My children are now 12 and 15 years old. As they pass into adolescence and become more attuned to the politics and culture of their nation, I want their schools to play an appropriate role in shaping them as citizens of diverse democracies. It means teaching a broad version of American history and fostering in them a sense of responsibility to help make the next chapter more equitable and inclusive. Citizenship is not a spectator sport.
It was a lesson I needed until the end of college.
In my last semester at the University of Illinois I conducted independent research with an African-American, professor of theater and education. Towards the end of the semester she invited me to a dress rehearsal of a play she had written with her graduate students. “Children are one of the most oppressed groups in our society,” she told me. The play was an experiment in a theater centered on children.
I really wanted to demonstrate how much I learned in our independent study, and was the first person to get up during a conversation after a speech. My professor smiled broadly when she saw me. I used a tone that was ridiculous. I focused on the scene in the play where the child goes to his room after a fight with his parents. In front of the entire audience, I found my professor and her graduate students guilty of racism and classicism for having written a character who had his own room. “And what about all the families where the kids don’t have their own rooms? Or black and brown families who have no homes? Don’t you realize that your play only makes them more depressed? ”