They didn’t learn this from me or their teachers at school. In fact, I find myself bemused by all the controversy over learning about race in elementary schools — as if the classroom is where most kids are first hearing about race.
The ways racism plays a role in American life are obvious to kids from a very young age. Before some kids can ride a bike, they are watching videos of police officers killing Black men. They see Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem, hear the political statements of LeBron James and Naomi Osaka, listen to songs like “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, read books like “The Hate U Give,” watch television shows like “All American” and, above all, experience racism themselves.
It would be a tragedy if teachers pretended none of this was happening and left kids to their own devices to figure it out. The job of the school is to provide broader context for the facts of the world and to pass along the knowledge and skills so that students can navigate it. That means that a full history of America’s past and present, our ugliness and our beauty, needs to be taught.
And I would be remiss in my duties if I allowed my kids to fall into the same victim mind-set that I succumbed to as a college student. We are South Asian American Muslims, and my kids have experienced their fair share of anti-Muslim taunts, which, these days, are just as much about racial bigotry as religious bias. We work with the school so that it is better equipped to deal with the problem of prejudice, and then I remind my kids what a privilege it is to be Muslim. I want them to derive their identity from loving Islam, not hating Islamophobia.
My kids are now 12 and 15. As they progress through adolescence and become even more attuned to the politics and culture of their nation, I want their schools to play the appropriate role in shaping them to be participating citizens of a diverse democracy. That means teaching an expansive version of American history and instilling in them a sense of responsibility to help make the next chapter more just and inclusive. Citizenship is not a spectator sport.
That was a lesson it took me until the end of college to learn.
In my final semester at the University of Illinois, I did an independent study with an African American female professor of theater and education. Toward the end of the semester she invited me to attend a dress rehearsal of a play she had written with her graduate students. “Children are one of the most oppressed groups in our society,” she told me. The play was an experiment at a type of theater that put kids at the center.
I was eager to demonstrate how much I had learned in our independent study and was the first person to stand during the talk-back session after the performance. My professor smiled broadly when she saw me. I used a tone dripping with scorn. I targeted a scene in the play where a child retreats to his own room after a fight with a parent. In front of the entire audience, I declared my professor and her graduate students guilty of racism and classism for writing a character who had his own room. “What about all the families where kids don’t have their own rooms? Or the Black and brown families that don’t have houses? Don’t you realize that your play is only further oppressing them?”