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 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:
“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 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:
- Making racist jokes
- Using racial slurs in speech
- Denying peers their rights, such as greetings or turns in line
- Social isolation
We have to remind our children about our tradition. Abu Hurayrah narrated: “The Messenger of Allah 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.
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.
“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:
- Take children to the mosque and introduce fellows muslims as brothers and sisters regardless of ethnicity or racial background
- Teach children the Seerah and Stories of the Prophets
- Teach Muslim children empathy for those who are disadvantaged
- 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 that the Prophet 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.