For years, racism has been presented to me as an obsolete issue. As an elementary school student, I recall learning about the Holocaust, the key players in the civil rights movements and the Japanese-Americans during the internment era. I read narratives of Anne Frank and Frederick Douglass, but my attempt to actually recognize the contemporary incidents related to these persecutions frequently failed. These incidents were handled with a hands-off, historical approach, separate from present-day people and issues. Because of this, it’s easy to believe that racism is an ideology of the past. In order for youth to gain a more modern understanding of racism, the concept of racism needs to be presented in a more contemporary fashion through candid dialogue.
Unfortunately, racism isn’t only an ideology of the past. It still remains a very relevant problem today — even locally. As reported by the Daily, a 16-year-old Muslim girl was attacked on a school bus in Ann Arbor less than a month ago (Muslim teen reportedly attacked in Ann Arbor, 09/19/2009). The assailants, the girl’s peers, reportedly chanted, “Fuck Arabs, they are dirty,” while pulling off her Islamic headscarf. The girl required six stitches to her face as a result of the injuries.
When I first heard about this incident, I was shocked that it could have happened — especially in an area like Ann Arbor, which is celebrated for a liberal and diverse culture. How could anyone commit such a hateful crime? But then again, are these young assailants really at fault? These students, like me, have been introduced to the concept of racism as if it has ceased to exist.
But racism does exist, and kids are aware of it. For many families and teachers of children, a call for more dialogue regarding racial issues can be challenging to employ. Those who find the idea difficult argue that the more we identify and discuss racial differences, the more apparent race becomes to children. Contrary to this argument, according to a study published in Newsweek on Sept. 5, children naturally categorize almost everything according obvious visual factors like race. In the study, University of Colorado professor Phyllis Katz asked a group of 3-year-old children to choose friends out of a pile of photographs. Of the Caucasian children, 86 percent chose friends of their own race. Two years later, Katz met with the same children and asked them to split a pile of pictures using any method they preferred. This time, 68 percent of the children used race to categorize the piles.
Studies similar to Katz’s reveal that race is a visible characteristic to children, discernable at a young age. Assuming that this theory is valid, discussion about current racial issues in schools will not hinder a child’s ability to see each other as equals because children already inherently recognize differences in color. Children learn most from experience and discussion, so an earnest conversation on race will only build a better foundation for students to understand racism.
Experience and discussion is also what led me to a deeper comprehension of racism. As a Muslim-American, the time following Sept. 11 was a period in which my peers questioned my faith and neglected to understand Muslims beyond what the media reported. Initially, I was upset by these remarks. But then participated in multicultural and dialogue groups that raised awareness of Islam and encouraged conversation around racial issues. Because of my exposure to such programs, I was able to make better sense of what racial problems face the world today and help others avoid being racist.
When I looked into the story of the Muslim girl who was attacked in Ann Arbor, I couldn’t help but wonder if this crime could have been avoided if the assailants had been offered a type of racial dialogue similar to the one I had after Sept. 11. The assailants were African American, and could have been victims of racism themselves. But through their experience and education, they may not have been given the opportunity for dialogue to deal with racial issues and diffuse racial resentment. Had they been given the chance to talk about race, they may have seen racism as more than a fact of life.
Talking about prevalent matters of racism, rather than simply learning about the past, is the most important step for understanding racism and subsequently combating it. Until we recognize the fact that these issues are still alive, we will continue to fail students in their comprehension of race and racism. Once schools draw the bridge between past and present, these tiny improvements in schools’ racial and ethnic programs could change the way we address race forever.
Sunia Arif is a Business sophomore.