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Insensitive students, staff are no joke in any school setting

Chairs and desks in a classroom

Omaira Alam –

On January 22 six young ladies from a local Ahwatukee high school decided to wear black T-shirts with gold lettering that when they stood together spelled out the n-word. They took a Snapchat photo of it which was subsequently downloaded and the photo went viral.

Since then the six ladies were suspended for five days, although a petition has been circulating demanding their expulsion, and rightly so. One of them has apologized publicly with her mom at her side. Apparently it was a joke for one of the ladies’ boyfriends.

But what’s the punch line?

I don’t get it. I don’t understand how in 2016 students from an affluent suburb think that using a racial slur that carries the weight of over 400 years of oppression, systemic racism and blatant, institutionalized discrimination can be a joke. What kind of school climate allows for this sort of behavior unchecked?

But, the joke’s on us. While we may be smug enough to think that this offensive behavior is the result of a public school environment, it should not surprise us to know that Islamic schools in fact do not lag far behind in failing to stop racial and discriminatory behavior.

Often times Islamic school educators and Muslim students bring their own colonial mindset into the classroom, leaving many students vulnerable and having to deal with hostilities from fellow classmates and teachers.

How then do we develop classroom environments that encourage sensitive dialogue, safe spaces for deep conversations, and authentic community-building?

First we need to talk about it. We need to have the discussions and we need to address the issues coming into the classroom. We need to provide sensitivity training for our teachers and administrators, and to stop laughing at culturally and racially charged jokes thinking that it’s okay; it’s just a joke. We know it never is just a joke.

Second we need to develop empathetic and merciful frameworks around which to engage students and teachers as part of our desire to establish Prophetic pedagogy.

Finally, we need resources to help us do this. Two organizations are working to make for more inclusive classrooms in Islamic schools, as well as provide resources to deeply understand the racial and discriminatory undercurrents. One is a syllabus developed by Margari Hill through the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. The focus is to bring African-American Muslim history into the everyday of Islamic schools.

The second organization works primarily within the field of special education and was founded by Imam Omar Suleiman from MUHSEN (Muslims Understanding and Helping Special Education Needs).

Both these organizations, as well as the support and commitment of community members, are necessary to help our communities eradicate racism and discrimination, and build authentic Islamic learning environments.

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