Taqwa Through Anti-Bias Education

Margari Hill

My first taste of racism occurred in kindergarten, where my classmates barred me from drinking out of the water fountains. When I was in fourth grade, a  sixth grader in the neighborhood took her rage out on me, called me a N—- and pulled out a plug of my waist length hair. The trauma I experienced and the humiliations I endured from my classmates remain some of the most vivid memories of my childhood. These experiences left a little girl with a damaged self image.

Becoming Muslim was a significant part of my journey to recovering from the racism that I internalized. But as a Muslim, my heart was broken when I learned of racial bullying in our Islamic schools, weekend, and after-school programs. Sadly, parents and adults can contribute to racism and colorism in obvious and subtle ways. Some of the obvious ways include people I have lived and worked with. One Palestinian student told her Black teacher that her father reminded her that she was the prettiest girl in her class because she was White. Arab families criticized their children for not excelling above a mixed-race Black and Arab student in Qur'an class. Some of the comments I have heard about my light-skinned child are deeply problematic. While the obvious ways in which we reinforce racial bias and colorism can easily be addressed, the subtle ways we reinforce both include our failure to address race and racism pre-emptively.  In order to uproot racism in our communities, parents must  embrace their role as their children's first anti-bias multicultural teachers.

Children have the right to be raised as responsible adults who can function in a complex multi-ethnic society, and it is our duty to equip our children with the knowledge and skills to live dignified and ethical lives. Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: “Every one of your (people) is responsible, and everyone is responsible for whatever falls under his responsibility. A man is like a shepherd of his own family, and he is responsible for them.” [Bukhari and Muslim] Part of our responsibility is to teach our children to love themselves and others, something that is so important in a society that dehumanizes them just for being Muslim. Inequality in our society feeds off of people divided. We  must teach our children to not oppress their peers, and to instead begin to cultivate a sense of justice and duty to right wrongs they see before them. The Qur'an reminds us:

66:6

“O you who believe! Ward off yourselves and your families against a Fire (Hell) whose fuel is men and stones, over which are (appointed) angels stern (and) severe, who disobey not, (from executing) the commands they receive from Allah, but do that which they are commanded.” [Tahrim 66:6]

Although pre-pubescent children are not morally responsible for what they do, we as parents will be held accountable. and we must be aware of the seeds that are being planted in our children. Uprooting bias and teaching our children racial equity begins at an early age and we must address the root causes in age-appropriate conversations and teachable moments. When we fail to cultivate the values of racial equity in our children, we run the risk of them becoming adults with racial bias thoroughly ingrained in their psyche.

It is never too early to begin the process of teaching our children to see the beauty in all of Adam's 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) children. We don't have to worry merely about children biting and hitting each other when it has been proven that in their social lives children as early as four can socially isolate one another. One heart breaking video of a four year old girl crying because her classmates didn't like her because she was Black went viral. Derald Sue, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, points out that children recognize racial and ethnic difference between ages three and five. Some studies have even shown that infants demonstrate a preference for members of their own race. When I was a little girl, I would only go to women who looked like my light-skinned, African-American mother.  I would even tell people my mother was white and father was Black, much to her mortification. At three years old, my own daughter asked me why was I so brown when she and  and her daddy are beige. I don't use white because my husband is a light-skinned, African-American, as is my daughter. At four, she is too young to understand racial identities. 

From an early age, children will absorb negative messages about race and identity and that includes our own discomfort with the topic. While we may decry racist parents teaching their children to discriminate, sometimes we pass on subtle messages about race that cause them to treat others less. This is why it is important to address our own implicit bias and aversions towards some individuals. If we don't interrupt our own patterns, our children may take subtle cues and replicate them in harmful ways.

Derald Sue explains:

Many parents talk to their children about embracing difference, but in subtle, covert ways, they communicate something very different. For example, when approaching a group of black youngsters, a mother may unconsciously pull the child nearer to her. Also, many white parents often talk to kids about the evils of prejudice and discrimination, yet in their owns lives they have few friends or neighbors of color with whom they regularly socialize. These implicit communications are more powerful than any intentional efforts on the part of parents.

When we are not conscious of the films we watch and the books we read, we may reinforce racism. Even if our children do watch something that has a racist message, we can have conversations with our children about the portrayal.  

Although young children tend to not have racial conflict, elementary school aged children begin to pick up racist cues from family members, media, and their peers. Some of the oppressive behaviors I've seen in Muslim environments include:

  1.     Stereotyping
  2.     Making racist jokes
  3.     Using racial slurs in speech
  4.     Denying peers their rights, such as greetings or turns in line
  5.     Social isolation

We have to remind our children about our tradition.  Abu Hurayrah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) narrated: “The Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: 'A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim. He neither oppresses him nor humiliates him nor looks down upon him. The piety is here,' (and while saying so) he pointed towards his chest thrice. It is a serious evil for a Muslim that he should look down upon his brother Muslim. All things of a Muslim are inviolable for his brother in faith; his blood, his wealth and his honor.” [Sahih Muslim; 6219]

Administrators and program organizers often deal with the situations without context of how their family life may reinforce or challenge the bias that they are learning from their peers, media, and greater society.

As parents, we have to be aware that our children are being shaped by dominant narratives. Media bias, which  portrays racial, ethnic, and religious  minorities in a negative light, deeply impact the way they understand themselves and others. Our children can internalize dominant narratives and develop intense self-hatred, and other times they may project those narratives in how they treat other groups. Who are the characters of their stories? Are they watching films that portray characters of color in a negative light? Are all the characters who are considered beautiful and good, light-skinned and with blond hair? If so, we run the risk of teaching our children to only value Eurocentric physical traits.

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There are many things that we can do to begin the important work, starting with the literature and toys we bring in to our houses, and the words we use to describe others. We can begin teaching our children by purchasing diverse books that portray people of all shades and walks of life. I first looked for dolls that looked more like my daughter, and then purchased dolls of all different backgrounds.  I notice positive things in others, describe skin tones and hair textures in ways that affirm their beauty, their uniqueness, and similarities. MuslimARC's Executive Director wrote an article on “The Power of language.” Now I too am careful to interrupt language that is harmful, such as calling my daughter fair-skinned, because of the implications. We love our friends with coils, locks, and flowing hair. We read books that describe our hues and tones in beautiful ways. I look for books that describe how other children live around the world, focusing on the similarities. But in truth, we don't have to go too far. American Muslim communities are microcosms of their world.

49:13

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted” [Al Hujurat;13]

In “The Islamic way to Raise the Children” imam Mohamed Baianonie encourages parents to build a strong Muslim identity. He writes: “Encouraging the child's sense of belonging to the Muslim nation, by teaching him of the brotherhood between Muslims, teaching him to care for Muslims in any land, and that he is part of the Muslim body, to feel joy when Muslims are joyous, to feel sad for Muslims' sadness, and to do best to achieve the Muslim nation's goals.”  imam Mohamed Baianonie encourages parents do the following things to teach children these values:

  1. Take children to the mosque and introduce fellows muslims as brothers and sisters regardless of ethnicity or racial background
  2. Teach children the seerah and Stories of the Prophets
  3. Teach Muslim children empathy for those who are disadvantaged
  4. Build ties between children of the same age by taking part in celebrations and festivals

Learning from each other, our children can develop empathy, which in turn teaches humility and generosity.  How we treat each is part of our character and and how we relate vis a vis the other, is also part of building taqwa (God-consciousness). Part of anti-bias work means addressing how our privileges may blind us from seeing another person's reality. The advantages and privileges we work so hard to pass on to our children can inadvertently  contribute to arrogance. Studies have shown that privilege and power breeds lack of empathy.

It was narrated from 'Abd-Allah Bin Mas'ood raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: “No one who has an atom's-weight of arrogance in his heart will enter Paradise.” A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, what if a man likes his clothes and his shoes to look good?” He said, “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty. Arrogance means rejecting the truth and looking down on people.”[Sahih Muslim]. In order to avoid this, we have to think about what we value most in our children. Do we build our children up by telling them they are the most beautiful or  the smartest?  We teach them that Allah only cares about their character, not where they were born, their wealth, or what they look like.

It is important that we teach our children to develop positive self conceptions and develop empathy for others.  And begin to engage in conversations about cultural pluralism in the Muslim community and the society in which they live.  Anti-bias multicultural education is necessary at all levels of learning, from pre-school, in full time programs, after-school and even in summer camps. Because of the world we live in and our society, we must teach our children to respect each other, to not bully, to not make fun of, to not look down upon Allah's slaves.  We have to teach our children to appreciate each other so that they can be brothers and sisters and love being amongst the Muslims.  Allah made us different and this can be an important lesson in raising our children to have taqwa, to be amongst the mutaqeen.  

11 Responses

  1. Sr. Pam

    Assalamu alaikum Sr. Margari,

    Jazak Allahu Khairun for writing this piece. My prayer is that every Muslim parent, future parent or child read it and internalize the message. First, let me say to you that my heart breaks for the little girl you were. No child should ever be bullied or treated differently for any reason but children can be cruel and that’s why it’s vital that parents not only tell their children the wonder of our differences but also model real love for all our brothers and sisters (and I would argue for our non-Muslim neighbors as well). They do this by actually having friends of different races and ethnicities, and openly seeking to learn about others in front of and in concert with their children.

    As a white convert married to a dark skinned Arab man, I have raised all my kids to be aware and appreciative of our differences. And in point of fact, the verse from Al Hujurat was the one that cinched my belief in Qur’an and my conversion. Truly Allah SWA created us all with our many skin tones, likes and dislikes, cultures and languages. What a beautiful miracle! Seeing in print what I had known instinctively my whole life, made me know beyond doubt that I was meant to be a Muslim. Alhamdullilah.

    But still, the racism and bias pervades our communities. Some of our Ummah are more mired in their culture than their deen, and come from countries which have endured centuries of colonial rule where to be lighter was to be closer to the ruling classes. My prayer is that their children, being raised here will learn better.

    I make a point for telling all my Sunday school students that when the first sin was committed by Shaitan, it was disobedience to Allah, for sure, but the nature of the disobedience was racism, pure and simple. Shaitan, in his infinite hubris, believed himself to be above Adam AS because he was made of fire and Adam AS was only made of clay. How is this any different from the nonsense of someone believing in his superiority due to skin color or nationality?

    We can only hope that the current climate of Islamophobia will help our Ummah realize that we need to appreciate each other and stop “otherizing” each other. It’s more vital now than ever that we band together as one Ummah and that we make connections with our non-Muslim neighbors. This is my hope, at any rate. It should be pretty obvious to even the most ignorant among us that we should not be tearing each other down if the moment we walk out the door, the media and people in power are waiting to do it for us.

    I thank you so much for writing this piece and sharing your experiences. May Allah Azza wa Jaal magnify your message and make it resonate through our communities and families, ameen.

    Reply
    • Margari Hill

      Jazak Allah kheir Pam for your thoughtful reply. It really means so much for the woman that I am, but also in looking back at that little girl that I was. Yes, I hope our community wakes up to these realities. I hope that my words can be beneficial. I’d love to know more about how you address prejudice in your weekend school. If you have lesson plans, please do contact MuslimARC at info@muslimarc.org. We’re also working on piloting curriculum this year and I’d love to get feedback.

      Reply
  2. christine dorothy

    Don’t you see that your very message to children is undermined by your religion? The quote from the Koran, from ‘Allah’, states clearly that these non judgemental attitudes and acceptance of others applies ONLY TO MUSLIMS!! That is the problem.

    Reply
    • Margari Hill

      Thanks for commenting Christine. Actually the concept of Taqwa is not something we can measure. So, we should treat everyone the same regardless. In no way does it call for seeing others as subhuman, unlike the racist discourse that shaped our modern world. I could write an article about the ways in which the Jews of Medina were also considered part of the ummah and look to inspiration in the Qur’an that speaks to how non-Muslims are to be afforded dignity. These concepts of acceptance and shared humanity are extended to all humanity.

      Reply
  3. Jason Hammer

    The current state of affairs generally in our Muslim community has me avoiding most Muslim schools. I would prefer a really good Islamic school where this was not an issue and my children could benefit from Islamic education as well as the social settings. Unfortunately theres been too many horror stories about a lack of adab and respect toward black Muslims. I know of one school (which I will not name and shame) with a good reputation among our community (though I do acknowledge that our standards are low and we often celebrate mediocrity in our institutions) where several children from the same (black) family receive different treatment based on their color. The problem is real and its preventing unity and strength. Great article. Time to reflect and check ourselves.

    Reply
    • Salim

      Notice how silent and smug many Muslims are on this issue.Methinks the vitriolic hatred shown to black skinnedMuslims show how really people are not practicing the deen.Most merely go through the motions and believe that to be exclusive is to reserve racial purity.Except were it concerns white Muslims.We young Muslims are leaving Islam in record numbers.Is it better to marry non believers who are more tolerant than the iconoclastic small minded people we meet in the masjid.Also the children are encouraged to discriminate based on color and social class . Numerous fights and conflicts result due to racist practices in most Islamic schools.Now each ethnic group must form their own masjid.Just as the prophet predicted.The Ummah is very ill indeed.

      Reply
    • Margari Hill

      I have a pre-schooler and every day I dread the thought of my daughter being discriminated against in school because of the psychological and spiritual impact. This is one of the reasons why I founded Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. I am hoping that as we build capacity, we can work on training more parents, teachers, and administrators throughout the country. I’m presenting this week at ISNA Education West Zone, so I’m hoping that with more support and feedback, we can make a difference.

      Reply
  4. Anees

    Thank you for addressing this important topic especially given your personal experience. Insha’allah, discussions on this and related issues should take place within our communities and lets hope those of us yet to have children as well those raising young ones put into practice the actions you’ve suggested.

    Reply
    • Margari Hill

      Thank you for commenting Anees. Yes, I hope we can begin discussion and begin working to make our schools and masajid safe spaces where Muslim children of all backgrounds can feel welcome.

      Reply
  5. Rene

    Loved this story!

    As a child,my parents would play Santa and give us toys each year until the age of 12 but on one of the times but one X-mas year, they did something different. My little sister and I, woke up to seeing 4 dolls.The both of us received a White Barbie and a Black Barbie doll. Living in a White/White Jewish community ..Other than my parents, I didn’t know what race meant . I just thought that the Black doll was unique looking, I guess because we didn’t see a whole lot of Black people where I lived. Sometimes I think that my folks was also doing a Brown Paper Bag test on us. I could just picture it on their minds ..” Which doll they’re going to get?” I could see them cringing ..hoping for a positive result instead a negative one. Well..my parents didn’t have to worry about a thing…The both of us picked the Black Barbie doll. Why did we picked the Black ones?I don’t know..for one ,I thought that she was soo pretty: the big brown eyes, silky black/brown hair, beaming smile and mostly, she looked closer to us..as then-Black girls. My parents didn’t teach us about beauty being a color. Other reasons that they did it was because they wanted to know what race we belonged to and to be proud of it. Don’t get me wrong, we thought that the White Barbie was pretty and we played with her, but Black Barbie was a stunner. Along with getting us Black Barbie dolls, my parents also would show is beautiful Black actresses and models ( Black male/actors for my Brother) of all colors like Iman, Beverly Johnson, Pam Grier or Judy Pace or Lena Horne. They just didn’t limit beauty to one race or color.

    Far as racism, I was surprised and fortunate. I had good White friends who didn’t down us because of who we are and vice versa. The only time that race/color came up was when when my oldest brother went through his identity crisis and couldn’t understand why our White friends said that he was a Black kid in spite of him having the same light skin as they. Unless it was in private, I’ve never heard anybody bring up the ” N” word, showed any for of discrimination( At least until I was 16 but that’s another story and it happened in another state.), we played together, ate together and even seen a mixed couple in my community . That was what I knew back in the the day.

    As you’ve mentioned in your article, parents and other adults can poison vulnerable minds with their racism/colorism. Recently in Thailand ,there was a controversial commercial about a skin tone product. In it, the woman is initially portrayed as a charcoal colored woman( like all Black people are just one color) but once she use the skin tone cream, she becomes a peachy light color. At the end of the commercial, she says ” Be White To Win”. I was like arrghhh! when I seen that crap. Even Thai’s and non-Thai’s understandably complained about the it. I liken it to Nazism because Hilter thought that only blond haired blue eyed people could be real Germans. Unfortunately, Thailand isn’t the only country to practice racism/colorism. I think about the Black and/or darker skinned child that have to live in these societies..When you turn your TV you only see light/White figures on the shows, in politics, the president, governors and mayors are the same , in the magazines you find a woman looking more like Scarlett Johannsen than Kerry Washington and worse..a parent thinking that they hit the jackpot with their children’s potential spouse because ” White is right” to some of them. That can take a toll on the person making them feel bad about themselves.

    Even in a supposed ” melting pot ” like the United States, acknowledging darker skin is still a big problem.Sure, I walk out the streets of the ATL and see all sorts of people, pick up a Black/POC oriented magazine and even look at some people of color on TV but at the end of the day, it’s still majority White. I was celebrating Viola Davis’s Emmy win for her role on How To Get Away With Murder. As a lighter skinned Black woman, I was celebrating her because she’s a great actress and because it’s a rarity..especially a woman of her skin tone..to break through Hollywood like that. For Blacks..if you make it through you’re good because it’s a struggle for potential actors/actresses of color to get their big break there. Unless it’s a Sci-Fi flick, TV should physically reflect reality. The reality is that there is more than just White/light skinned people out there and beauty shouldn’t just mean having light skin.

    When it comes to racism, it’s a universal problem. Education starts in the home..with the parents, then schools. I cannot blame you for wanting intervention for your schools and your daughter.Though I’m not a Muslim, I would feel the same as a Christian. To some parents , teaching a young child about racism/colorism makes them feel uncomfortable,but I was grateful for my parents doing it to me. Otherwise , I would have been shafted from meeting some potentially great people, to appreciate them and to learn how to deal with a hostile racist society. Racism begins when a parent accepts bias as the truth.

    Reply

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