When racism is a minor offense

Imagine this.

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 events I described did happen, but the victim was not an African American, he was instead an Arab Muslim American at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Florida, part of the Broward County Public Schools district. His name is Deyab. And the teacher didn’t say “thug.” She said “Taliban.” And she didn’t call him a “nappy-headed thug.” On February 3, she called him a “raghead Taliban.” And she didn’t eventually apologize. She was ordered to attend diversity training. And she wasn’t fired. But she was suspended. For five days. Six weeks later.

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?

About Amer Zahr 181 Articles
Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."


  1. As a teacher, I find this abhorrent. I embrace all my students and all their differences what ever they may be. Their life is difficult enough with out them having to deal with being harassed for something they have no control over. The teacher should lose her certificate. Racism has no place in the classroom period. I teach in FL and a friend of mine lost his for 6 months for trying to help a female student. They said his advice was inappropriate. And they let this woman keep hers. Please report her to the DOE if you know her name.

  2. This is disgusting to the nth degree. Dayab and Amer are innocent victims of a long standing war on the other. Who is “the other?” It all depends on what is “fashionable.” Once it was normal to say words that are not only banned today but engender outlandish prosecution. One teacher used the word “niggardly,” of Scandinavian origin having nothing to do with the Latin word for black, and was reported by a student. The teacher was suspended. Once Jews were called “kikes,” portrayed as monstrous-nosed villains who used the blood of Christian babies for Passover, even lynched. Say but a demeaning or seemingly demeaning comment against Jews these days, like Helen Thomas, and you are lynched for “anti-Semitism.” Today, Muslims and Arabs are the targets. Most just look away or join in the bashing. The leader of this Arab/Muslim onslaught without any consequences is Israel. Israel can get away with the most heinous atrocities and is never properly chastised by world leaders nor the media as a whole. As Israel does, the sheeple follow. It is time to stop excluding any human group from such vile attacks. All must be treated with the dignity that is supposedly due to everyone in our democratic society.

  3. Yes Amer, we need Al sharptin in our community to protest these kind of things, instead , what we got ? We got some so called community leaders who like to pause for pics with government officials and post the pics on FB than go and protest incedents line this. We lack leadership so bad and until we have real leaders in our community , shit like this will always happen .

  4. My parents gave a name that is not Middle Eastern sounding. With my last name, I could get away from being Middle Eastern. That made things out in the world (career, education, etc.) a little easier. My siblings were not spared from having to deal with the racism that comes with people knowing that they are Arab and Muslim. Naming my kids, I did my best to spare them from the bigotry towards Arabs and Muslims. But it is not fair that we have be afraid to be judged because of our ethic or religious backgrounds, especially in schools – the places where our kids are supposed to be safe. I have to agree with Imad, where is OUR Al Sharpton? Why aren’t our children safe from bullying of this type? No one cares about hate crimes against Muslims or educators put in a position of trust who treat our kids like they aren’t equal to their white peers or other ethic peers. It took African Americans well over a 100 years to get equal treatment, how long will it take us?

  5. Best rules and appropriate punishment can only do so much where prejudices and ignorance rule the societal mindsets. I recall when the story of Abu Ghuraib abuses first broke out, conservative media hosts dismissed them as “fraternity fun” for the boys. Clearly, strict standards are not applied when the issues pertain to a section of society that lacks political voice. Muslims have a long road to travel – instead of punishment, they should strive for winning hearts and minds of those who disagree and hold grudges. At the same time, they also need to address their own shortcomings that tend to send wrong messages.

  6. This is horrendous behavior for any human being to indulge in, a deliberate extremely shameful act on the part of all responsible! A blight on the profession of teaching itself! Shameful bigotry! It is hard to find words to express my outrage! The teacher should be fired and so should the Principal!

  7. I cant say that I enjoyed your story as it was very upsetting. Thank you though I think we need more publications like this to get to the eyes and ears of all of the law makers of both America and Canada.
    I am a born Canadian, a muslim of Pakistani immigrant parents. In the late 70’s early 80’s I saw racism first hand no filters no 2 meaning comments, straight up “PAKI”. Not only by our peers in school, by our teachers saying “why did your parents come here? Go back to your farms” the principle saying “oh they’re just havin a little fun with you.. dont take it serioisly” the shop keepers and just random people who walked by you. It was as if the attention of the racist was diverted by the Indian and Pakistanis that were heavily immigrating to Canada in those days. The ” brown people” . They were given a new race to entertain themselves, the black comminities had become too strong for them.
    My father taught us to be humble and respectful, to look down to ignore distractions as he came to this country so we didnt have to struggle the way he and my mother did. To secure our future and educate ourselves with the same rights as equally as everyone else did in this country. To become somebody. And thats exactly what we did. With no support, no friends, with the bullies waiting for us to come out of class to throw rocks at us on school property. Others laughed as the bullies called us names and spit on us, Torture the whole walk home , for my older brother and I it was more like the dash home. My brother would prep me as soon as the bell rang just run and we can make it accross the road before they all gather, ” just run sis.. I will be right behind you”
    As the years went by and we moved around, from Oakville, to Toronto, to Markham I finally graduated, got married and had children. I thought to myself.. “thank god my children dont have to go through all that I have”. We have progressed in the communities. In mainstreem media in corperate jobs in political positions such as members of parliament and city consilors. We were fully participating as Canadians and felt that even though we were born here, this country is now our own country. Our sisters were free to wear thier traditional or religious garb. With no heads turning no one bothering to pass a comment, infact some things becoming apart of fashion. Schools had developed policies of tolerance and acceptace. Days dedicated to multiculturalism, international food days. Even a space had been dedicated for muslim students to offer friday prayers during school hours. I could have never imagined I would see this day. We were all educating each other to demolish ignorance. I believe that ignorance gives birth to racism and the more we educate each other, the more we will be able to eliminate this parent of the demon child named “the racist”. My children will be as Canadian as the next guy, their future is in their hands now. I taught them the same thing, to be humble and respectful and work hard to become someone.
    But then 9/11 happened. My fear of being brown became my fear of being Muslim. My children faced questions in school about terrorists and being muslim, and “why are all of you muslims so violent?”, questions they couldnt answer As this act had no justification. They had become defendants in the courts of the school grounds during recess and after school. Not invited to parties “..he’ll probably just bring a machine gun and kill us all..”
    My sons both cried and asked me so many questions that they had to answer to the next day. I went straight to the principal and she said ” oh it’s just kids being kids… No need to get all hostile over it… Now we cant punish every kid that has a question now can we ?” I just starred at her as an angry tear escaped my eye and rolled down my cheek.
    I thought to myself “Oh My God… Im Right Back Where I Started”

  8. Sorry this happened to you. I always especially pained when fellow teachers do something stupid or hateful.

    I teach 7th history in California, which includes the rise of Islam. I try VERY hard to present it in a positive light, tackling the question/perception of religious terrorism. Hopefully kids will come away a bit more enlightened than so many adults in our midst.

  9. Thanks for this column, which I’m saving as background for my upcoming talks that deal with racist attitudes regarding Arabs (as an author who specializes in writing about the Middle East for young people, and literature about the Arab world) .

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