2018 Powerful Voices of the Year is a Sunday Series, featuring guest bloggers & parents covering some of the most important topics of our time; race, racism, religion, pregnancy and birth, grief and loss, entrepreneurship, women's rights, immigration, nutrition, sustainability, climate change, transgender voices, transracial adoption, foster care, art, representation, and yoga for surviving through crisis.
When I was growing up, my family was one of the few non-white families in a small, affluent suburb in Ohio. The world was divided into us and them. ‘Us’ included other Muslims. Other Pakistani-Americans. Other people whose parents spoke another language.‘Them’ was everyone else. We called ‘them’ Americans. We were Muslim, they were not. They were American, we were not. At least, not by itself. Our American must be accompanied by our other. Pakistani-American. Indian-American. I didn’t really identify with either. And yet these additions were necessary. Labels felt confusing and ambiguous. And labels were not allowed to overlap.
My confusion about my own identity in this pre 9/11 era was largely an invisible struggle. All children need time to sort through their sense of self, yet the tools needed for me to accomplish this undertaking were absent. Missing were mirrors that reflected my own story in the culture around me, mirrors that would have allowed me to see an image of myself beyond the one of my own making.
Since then the Muslim faith has been hijacked by the media and thrust into the spotlight. Gone is the absence. Now Muslim-American youth and their peers are surrounded by stories reflecting their narrative, but from a singular, negative lens. And they’re not alone. Many of our youth are caught between the formation of their sense of self amidst a myriad of media representation full of bias against them. As these kids, and many others, work to try and find ways to fit and connect, these bias continue to drive wedges between them.
And it is on this stage that I now raise my own children. Not wanting them to grow up with the feelings of confusion and isolation I had, I spent several years researching and crafting a safe environment for my children to grow and understand the many layers that shape their sense of self. But more than that, we have also given space to better understand others, and our relationship with our community. For it is not enough to simply know oneself, but to use that knowledge to build bridges. To connect.
The following are the pieces I felt were most integral in shaping a space in which bias is kept at bay and children (and adults) are given room to discover more about themselves, and how they relate to others:
1. Expose children to difference in meaningful ways
In his book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop describes how the United States is sorting itself into like minded groups at an alarming rate. We tend to live, eat, and play with people who look like us, and generally subscribe to the same beliefs and values as we do. The problem is that this sorting polarizes us, creating more rifts.
So what’s the solution? Diversifying our world is a good start. Teaching about difference can build empathy and understanding. But adding difference for the sake of adding difference is not enough. We can take our kids to try new foods, or attend multicultural festivals, and simply end up reinforcing existing stereotypes. Instead, difference must be experienced in ways that are transformative rather than tokenized.
How do we do this? In a nutshell, go deep. It is not enough to simply include a book or two in our children’s library with diverse protagonists. It is not enough to include black history in our child’s education for one month out of the year. We must go longer, deeper, further.
One of my favorite quotes by Tim Wise came when I asked him what could be done to counter the Islamophobia industry is heavily funded campaign against Muslims. He said to me that people’s hearts and minds aren’t changed by facts and figures, but by stories. By truly getting to know one another on an intimate level. By making connections. These are all vital components to experiencing difference. We must give our children time and space to not just know difference, but to relate to it, to internalize it, and hopefully, to empathize with it. We must give them space to ask questions about it, even when we may not know the answers. Even when their questions make us uncomfortable.
2. Listen to new voices
For so long the voices that get heard are those that have the most power. And it this singular narrative that lends itself to the most bias. To create an environment with less bias, we must amplify voices that have long been silenced.
Recently I went to a conference of several hundred children’s book writers and illustrators. As I, a brown, hijab-wearing woman, looked around, there was not one other face that mirrored my own. Altogether there were five people of color (yes I counted), amongst a sea of white women. Now, I don’t have anything against white women, in general. But I find it highly problematic that, despite efforts to diversify the faces of protagonists in children’s literature, the voices behind those characters are not diverse at all. These new age, diverse seeming stories are, arguably, old wolves in sheep’s clothing; old tales packaged in new art.
We must examine our bookshelves beyond the stories, and focus on the voices behind them. We must realize that media includes so much more than books. The images and pictures on screen and in print are some of our children’s biggest teachers. And beyond the two dimensional, we should be mindful of including more voices and perspectives into our children’s real lives as well.
3. Learn to treat everyone equitably, not equally
One of the biggest mistakes parents make that leads to bias is being colorblind. We don’t want to discriminate against color or gender or religion or any other label. And so, logically, we believe the solution lies in not seeing any labels. We believe in equality, which translates into everyone being treated the same.
And yet same is not always just. As a family, we often articulate how to restore order or settle disputes. “Sometimes, it’s not enough to be fair,” I tell them. “You have to think about where the other person is coming from and what they need.” When my little one cries over not getting a turn, the bigs know it's not enough to point out he already had a turn. His age and emotional maturity require more than simply an equal turn. So they wrap their arms around him, talking softly, and ask if he wants to sit with them and watch while they take their turn.
We must stop making our goal the equal treatment of all peoples. Because the truth is, many of us come with certain advantages. What is required of us is to better see people, to get to know them better, and to act accordingly. To act equitably, taking into consideration all that is unique and different. This is how we restore justice.
4. To identify privilege from without and within
We all come with certain privileges. In order to create a space in which our children learn to behave with justice instead of bias, every child must learn to recognize both the privileges they have, as well as those that are systemic.
With respect to systemic privilege, where the system has bias, this is only visible when one opens ones eyes. We open our eyes by listening to marginalized communities break down the injustice that is built up in their way. We open our minds by educating ourselves more about this issue. (Some good reads are The New Jim Crow, White Like Me, and How Does It Feel to Be a Problem)
Parents often think exposing our children to systemic privilege is inappropriate. Yet, as a result of this belief, our schools are filled with stories of bias and fictionalized truths. I find this approach more harmful and problematic. Critical thinking is not a skill reserved for adults. It’s one that must be introduced young, and honed as children mature.
One of the best ways to teach children about privilege from within is to do acts of service, but not in the way many engage in charity. Typically, when we give, we put ourselves in a better place-the upper hand. And those to whom we give are often seen as having a lower hand. Service is one of the most transformative acts for our kids, but only when we shift this paradigm to one of balance.
A few years ago my children and I would visit a park downtown to pass out food to people who were without homes. We’d park, they’d jump out, and I’d hustle to keep up. I was nervous about them greeting people here without me (my unconscious bias was at its peak). After several meetings, my kids began to ask questions about what leads to homelessness. They wanted to understand. During the course of our meetings, I started talking to these folks more. I heard their stories. I realized what privileges I came with. And what bias I brought with those privileges.
Pretty soon, an interesting thing happened that changed me completely. My kids started asking if we could visit that park to play. Now, as one could guess, this playground was not the best kept public space. And yet, it was a place of play nonetheless. Somehow, I’d never seen it that way. It was where people who had no home went to hang out, not where I ever thought to bring my children to play. It was where we went to give, not to receive.
For the kids, though, they saw no difference between these folks and the usual playground crowd. They didn’t have homes, but they were people. They were kind to them, they read books at the park, sometimes they’d catch their ball and throw it back.
So our paradigm began to shift. Despite the fact that we continued to bring them food, they no longer held the bottom hand, and we no longer held the upper. Our privilege no longer made us ‘better than’, simply different. And our responsibility simply became one in which we felt obliged to restore balance.
5. Learning must be life long
Maya Angelou famously said, “When you know better, you do better.” We are living in a time when we need a significant amount of doing better. But the path to better begins with knowledge. We must instill in ourselves, and in our children, that learning must be lifelong; that we must continue to strive for better understanding.
As we grow, our lives continue to grow more complex. We tend to spend more time doing and less time thinking. And yet thinking is precisely what is needed to ensure we’re doing the right sort of doing. In order for us to create anti-bias spaces for the next generation, we must take the time to weave education back into our own, adult lives.
"I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better." Maya Angelou
Saira Siddiqui is a writer currently pursuing her doctorate in Social Education. Prior to having children she taught for several years in the public and private sector. When she is not writing for others she enjoys writing for her own blog, Confessions of a Muslim Mom. She currently lives in Texas with her husband and three never-been-schooled children. You can find her on Instagram and facebook.
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