[The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own.]
Three long days of the “School Administration Staff Development” end my summer. I endure the uncomfortable chairs, the endless Powerpoints and colored-coded folders. Engaged in the perpetual stare-down with the cruel clock, I barely register the introduction of the two attorneys from Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Although only 40% of all Iranian-Americans identify themselves as Muslim according to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), Iranians find themselves being targeted, as if being Iranian is automatically synonymous with being Muslim.
Among the many case studies and statistics, the March 2018 NPR Article Muslim Schoolchildren Bullied by Teachers and Students is clearly alarming for all students. In this article, author Akiniya Ochieng writes “Muslim children are more likely to be bullied in school than children of other faiths. A new survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) reveals that 42 percent of Muslims with children in K–12 schools report bullying of their children because of their faith, compared with 23 percent of Jewish and 20 percent of Protestant parents.” Almost half of the Muslim students report being bullied due to their faith. However, over 60% of Iranian Americans identify themselves as a faith other than Muslim. This is yet another important point of in a series of misconceptions regarding Iranian-Americans.
In Negin Farsad’s hilarious article I’m an Iranian and I used to feel Black (2016), Farsad writes with regard to the post 9/11 backlash of extreme stereotyping:
“I really thought, how could people associate this kind of violence with a whole religion (Islam) and an entire region (the Middle East)— that’s just crazy! That’s like stereotyping 1.6 billion people. Who does that? Americans. We Americans do that. Post 9/11, mainstream American media was all about creating the following critical associations: Islam = the promotion of violence. Muslims = violent people with dusty faces always running around the desert. The Middle East = a place full of violent people with dusty faces always running around the desert, plus women shrouded in what appear to be blankets.”
Farsad, a self described comedian, is obviously using the comedy element of exaggeration to make the point regarding the giant leaps some Americans and the “American Media” take in perpetuating stereotypes.
Whether or not an Iranian student is a practicing Muslim, students from Iran may be targeted and bullied as if he or she is Muslim. Additionally, the Trump Travel Ban includes Iran, almost as its centerpiece, banning Muslims and all citizens from Iran (and other predominately Muslim countries) from entering the United States. This serves to further stereotype Iranians as not only practicing Muslims, but as dangerous people.
The political landscape (Trump and his GOP) needs to be acknowledged, but not scapegoated as an excuse for the increase in bullying behaviors. We, in public education have literally felt the rise in anxiety from the moment Trump rolled down that escalator. In fact, a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center noted over 90% of educators “reported the school climate had been negatively affected by the election.” A school climate already struggling to find footing under the shifting sands of social media, gender identity, increased academic expectations, adolescent anxiety, school violence fears, and bullying.
The very word “bullying” has taken on a life of its own. As an administrator at a middle school (where 10-14 year olds’ social skills are about as ‘honed’ as a cow’s hoof), I am in charge of ensuring that 1500 students treat each other with respect every minute of every day. In many ways, we expect more from our 12 year-olds than we expect from adults. As these adolescents are discovering who they are, and in doing so recognize similarities and differences, we tell them: ‘you will not tease, bully, harass, shame, or otherwise make a comment about another student’s race, religion, skin, culture, size, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation, language, accent, social-economic class, athletic ability, intellectual ability, political affiliation and/or every other possible difference.”
During a staff development presentation, my initial instinct mirrored a childhood memory. When my brothers and I were pestering each other in the back seat of the station wagon on a long road trip, my father would glance into the rear view mirror and declare, “No one says another word to anyone! About anything! Ever! I don’t want to hear another word come out of anyone’s mouth!” Followed by, “You don’t want me to pull this car over!” And my father didn’t have to deal with what we could have been texting, posting, tweeting or trolling.
This memory was prompted by a frustrated feeling of being overwhelmed, outnumbered and up against impossible odds. Yes, I felt heart-sick when it CAIR described the feeling of “being naked” when a “hijab” is torn from a young girl’s head. I felt angry with the descriptions of teachers presenting lessons to entire classes where Islam was portrayed as a terrorist organization. I was furious to hear of school officials who remained impotent while this activity repeated itself over and over.
However, short of telling my entire campus to never speak to each other again, I felt suffocated by sheer enormity of my responsibility to my Middle Eastern students as well as to every other child who arrives each day as a possible target of being bullied. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw 1500 faces staring back. No, I am not going to demand absolute silence and I am not going to ignore the problem. I am going to find ways to make a difference. If I am honest with myself, I know it is the smallest of consistent changes that can have the greatest impact.
I need to seek opportunities, take advantage of teachable moments and set clear expectations. It begins with communication. Each and every member of the staff needs to be highly aware and sensitive to any comments made about Iran, the Middle East, Islam and/or Muslim students. Our counseling staff must individually reach out to this population on a regular basis to “touch base” and ensure they are feeling safe and comfortable inside and outside the classroom. Working with our PTA, our Middle Eastern community of all nationalities and faiths, must be actively encouraged to participate in multiple activities.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the curriculum must be screened, adopted and taught in K-12 classrooms. A curriculum supporting the rich history and culture of the Middle East as well as Islam. There is an inexcusable void of literature and opportunities for students to study this entire region of the world (most notably in high school where the Euro-centered focus leaves little room for much else).
Resources and literature are available. The Islamic Network Group (ING) is an excellent website featuring a wide variety of online curriculum related to teaching about Muslims and their faith. Titles include Getting to Know American Muslims and Their Faith, A History of Muslims in America, Muslim Contributions to Civilization, and Muslim Women Beyond the Stereotypes. A free resources Website specific to the study of Iran is Iranian History, Culture, Politics and More which features curriculum, video clips, website links, photographs, text and guest speaker information.
The feeling of being overwhelmed can slowly give way to the feeling of empowerment. Empowerment ignited by compassion and purpose. Yes, children growing up today face a multitude of horrific challenges. Not only do they risk judgment from their peers in a school setting, it is potentially a 24/7 experience via Social Media. Compound this with the political climate and it’s no wonder we are witnessing the increase of adolescent anxiety.
Instead of demanding silence or “pulling the car over”, we must turn to what has always worked to dispel the darkness–the light.