A ninth-grader sits in school every day. He has no disciplinary problems. He is the only black student in his French class. His teacher constantly refers to him, in front of other students, as “the thug.” On one occasion, she says, “Look, the thug is here.” On another, she calls on him by saying, “Ok thug, what’s the answer?” In yet another instance, she declares, “Let’s ask the thug.” She even calls him a “thug” in other languages. The other students laugh, following their teacher’s lead. She does this for some time. On one particular day, she decides to refer to him as “the nappy-headed thug.”
The child finally tells his father what is going on. His father approaches the school administration, complaining about the teacher’s bigoted remarks. He asks for a public apology from the teacher. He is told he will receive no such thing. The father then approaches the press to tell his son’s story.
We all know what happens next. Al Sharpton shows up at the school. The teacher is fired for creating a hostile environment. Her termination is carried out unconditionally. She finally apologizes, much more publicly than she would have in the first place. Anderson Cooper dedicates an entire telecast to the whole episode. He interviews the child, his father, the superintendent, and numerous experts, who all wonder how something like this could ever happen in, of all places, a school. No one defends the teacher. Everyone discusses what we need to do to ensure that this never happens again.
That’s what would happen, right? That’s what should happen, right? No matter the background of the student in question, right? We all agree that any teacher who says such things to a powerless student, in front of his impressionable peers, over and over, should be dealt with swiftly, right? That’s the country we live in, right?
Well, I have to admit, I invented the whole story, sort of. The
The superintendent and school board in Broward declared that they took these matters seriously. But five days doesn’t sound serious to me. They said that they do not tolerate these types of comments. But five days sounds sort of tolerant to me. Five days is nothing. It’s Monday through Friday. Five days is a workout challenge on the cover of a supermarket magazine. California has a 10-day waiting period for gun purchases. That’s two suspensions. We know what the weather is going to be like in five days. You would think that her suspension should at least be longer than the forecast on the evening news.
Now, I know that people make mistakes. But this wasn’t a mistake. This was a pattern of conduct. But things are different when the victim looks like us, or when his name sounds like our names, or when he’s a “raghead.” The penalties are different, feeble, or nonexistent. Like five days.
In America, things are different when racism is directed at Arabs and Muslims. When it happens to us, it’s fashionable. It’s without consequence. People don’t lose their jobs. Politicians don’t get run out of office. In fact, they gain votes. In short, Arabs and Muslims are racists’ last hope. We are the last group one can be openly racist against, without fear of social or political consequence.
What if Deyab had been white and his teacher had called him a “honky”? Or if he had been Latino and she had said, “Look, the wetback is here”? Or if he had been Chinese and she had announced, “Let’s ask the rice-eater”? Or if he had been Jewish and she had called him “the beanie-wearing cheapskate”? Even Fox News would have thought that five days was ridiculous.
Yes, in America we celebrate our differences. But we Arab and Muslim Americans are different in a different way than everyone else is different. And we see it every day.
We saw it last month when the murders of three young Arab Muslim Americans at the hands of their white neighbor, in their own home, was ignored by major news outlets for almost 24 hours.
We saw it in 2008 when a woman at a John McCain rally in Minnesota declared that she was not voting for Barack Obama because “he’s an Arab.” John McCain then quickly grabbed the microphone from her and clarified, “No ma’am he’s a decent family man.”
We see it just about every day when Barack Obama is consistently accused of being a secret Muslim. And we see it when he consistently denies that he is, without ever saying that it should be of no consequence if he were.
American politicians build platforms on bombing Arab lands. American senators write letters trying to stop peace agreements with a Muslim nation. American filmmakers make movies where American soldiers literally see Arabs only through the scopes of their rifles.
I think about those frat boys in Oklahoma. They were alone, chanting terribly racist things. Their community found about it and excommunicated them. And then I think about Deyab again. He was hounded by his teacher in a classroom setting. She also chanted terribly racist things. Her community found about it and essentially forgave her. The actions of a bunch of nineteen-year-old college kids racially demeaning African Americans (who weren’t present) cost those boys their college education. But the actions of a high school teacher racially demeaning her Arab Muslim student (who was right in front of her and his classmates) cost her five days.
If a punishment is meant to fit the crime, then the crimes in Oklahoma and Florida must be different, right? Oklahoma looks like an armed robbery, and Florida looks like a speeding ticket.
That is the world we Arab and Muslim Americans live in. Constant dehumanization of our existence is the norm. And no American is immune from the effects of this bombardment. It should be noted that Deyab’s teacher, the one who called him a “raghead Taliban,” is a Latina American, and his superintendent, the one who levied her pathetic punishment, is an African American. I wonder if he would have dropped the hammer a little harder if Deyab had looked more like him and less like me.
It is quite a scary thing when even some Americans of color, who have been victims of systemic discrimination themselves, find bigotry against Arabs and Muslims to be so tolerable, so bearable, so unworthy of real reprimand.
I am reminded of one of my own experiences. Twenty-four years ago, I was 13 and in the eighth grade. I decided to run for class president. My dad made 500 photocopies of my face (there were only 150 kids in my class), and I posted them all around the school. That same night, America bombed Iraq. The next day, I found many of my posters had been vandalized. “Go home terrorist” was scribbled all over them. I took one of them to my favorite teacher and asked her to do something about it. She looked at me, looked at the poster, and then looked back at me. “There’s nothing we’re going to do,” she told me.
I was devastated. I’d never felt as small as she made me feel in that moment. But that was a long time ago. America has advanced. In 1991, we got utter disregard. In 2015, we get five days. That’s progress, right?