Updated: Feb 21, 2019
This entry is being posted on behalf of a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, to protect them from potential negative repercussions experienced by people of colour working in white spaces. The contributor is a non-Muslim teacher of colour in a Scottish school with a number of South Asian Muslim pupils.
What happens when teachers absorb media headlines without much thought? It is difficult to prevent… But what happens when these headlines perpetually dehumanise young Muslim people?
These are questions that haunted my mind as I felt suffocated in the staffroom populated entirely by white people. The story of Shamima Begum had been all over the news – the teenager who was groomed at the age of 15 and persuaded to leave London to join the Islamic State. At break time, her story soon emerged from teachers’ lips and, suddenly, everyone felt entitled to be the judge of her case. Many white liberals enjoyed the chance to prove their perceived open-mindedness and high moral grounds as they claimed that she should not lose her citizenship – it was international law.
As the conversation evolved, I weighed the emotional labour required to explain why it wasn’t the least surprising that a brown Muslim teenager would feel alienated by her country enough to abandon it and join an organisation that promised to show her recognition. Not only show her recognition, but validate her experience of “not belonging” in a country where whiteness is the norm, the preference. While it is much easier to write those thoughts down, in retrospect, it was much harder for me to find the words to express them without appearing too emotional – this would risk my credibility in front of a white audience. Having to justify myself would also take more than five minutes and I had a class to teach. So I let the moment pass, hoping the conversation would end but it began to take a humorous, dangerous note.
“She looks exactly like X pupil, don’t you think?” one teacher would say, obviously referring to a South Asian pupil, probably Muslim.
“No, she looks more like Y pupil!” the other teacher exclaimed as a different teacher entered the staffroom to join the conversation.
“Oh, don’t you think X pupil looks like the ISIS girl?” repeated the first teacher to the newcomer.
The conversation went on for a few more seconds as the teachers laughed at their comparison of an “ISIS girl” to a couple of their pupils, knowing that it would be highly inappropriate if uttered in front of a class. It left me incredibly uncomfortable, but I could find no way of expressing my concern. If I said it was insensitive, they would say it was just a joke. If I said it was racist, they would say they didn’t mean it that way and they would probably make it a point to isolate me for ruining their day. Did I have the energy to share my concerns to a senior manager? They were probably in on the joke.
The comparison of Shamima Begum with some of our pupils was not the biggest cause of my discomfort. Perhaps one pupil did have some features in common, although I doubt the comparison would have been as easy for the teachers if it had been two white teenagers. No, it wasn’t just that. It was the label “ISIS girl” that stuck with me. Was that all Shamima was being reduced to? A catchphrase and a terrorist organisation? Where was the humanity behind that name? Where was the “innocence before being proven guilty” behind that label? It just comes to show how easily people of colour are dehumanised, stereotyped and cast away based on one single decision.
And what did that dehumanisation mean for the pupils of colour in my school? Sure, the teachers are careful not to say anything insensitive in front of them, but what was the impact on their implicit judgement of pupils? Would their suspicions of Muslim girls increase under the Prevent strategy?
It had been two years since we were trained on the Prevent Extremism duty, which charges teachers with the impossible (and inevitably racist) task of spotting budding terrorists in their classrooms. I still remember being told it was not just Islamic terrorism that we were to look for, it was also sectarianism, for example. Yet we were only shown the five minute video of a brown Muslim boy being radicalised. Everyone’s minds would have already been polluted by the media’s excessive coverage of Islamic terrorism – it would have been the first thing on anyone’s minds. Nobody associated sectarianism to terrorism. So why didn’t they show us an example of sectarian terrorism? Whether intentional or not, that training only reinforced internalised racism and Islamophobia that I myself have to constantly, consciously unlearn. And now, I am seeing it in action again, bolder and stronger every day.
Maybe one day I will find more strength to speak out. But not yet – I am just about surviving. When I feel outnumbered and helpless in these suffocating white spaces, I truly hope that just by existing, I am resisting. If I’m lucky, my existence will provide some comfort to all my pupils of colour.