Naming Racism In High School: One Muslim’s Story
By Hussein Rashid, Ph.D.
In Florida, a middle school Social Studies teacher also runs a white nationalist podcast. She openly declares that she is trying to teach children that they worth less than their peers. She encourages others to enter civic institutions, and destroy functioning communities. She is openly preaching a covert race war. Many of us look at her actions and are surprised by her open racism. Yet, the casual racism that she advocates entering our schools already exists. She is simply the most recent visible example of it. I recognize that that racism exists now, I did not when I was in school. It is also because of my high school experiences that I am better equipped to name racism.
I went to Elmont Memorial High School, in Long Island, New York. As you entered the town, there was a sign that said “Gateway to Nassau,” the name of the county we lived in, where our town was the first one coming from New York City. My graduating class was one of the last that was majority white. The town was experiencing white flight, and as a result, my school had a diverse student body.
“Every story I read about Blacks and Whites, or any other racial group, was wrong. The stories were incomplete.”
When I say diversity, I do not mean Black and White. My people had histories and cultures. They were African-American, and they had families from places like Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Haiti. They claimed Irish and Italian descents. My friends were not just Latinx, but Colombian and Mexican. They were not just Asian, but of Indian, Chinese, and Filipino background. This granularity helped me understand that every story I read about Blacks and Whites, or any other racial group, was wrong. The stories were incomplete, and the writers did not realize they were incomplete, so they lied to help us make sense of the world.
In high school, I was vocal about my belief that Palestinians are people, with rights to human dignity and self-determination. There was a rumor that one of the school superintendents did not like that position, and was keeping me from certain opportunities. It was my friends, across the racial and religious spectrum, who lobbied with my teachers to make sure that I was considered for everything.
We had a guidance counselor that many of my closest friends and I shared during our college application period. He advised all of us who were people of color not to apply to top tier schools, saying it would be a reach for us. He pushed his white advisees to apply to schools that he was telling us not to apply to. The reality was, all of the people he was saying were not capable graduated in the top ten percent of the class. All of us got into top tier schools, and none of the people he said would fit got into the places we did.
And then we heard we took spots from our White friends. The racism of our school structures indoctrinated our friends. It did not matter we spoke more languages individually than they did collectively; that we had higher GPAs; that we scored better on the SATs; that we did more extracurriculars. The only reason we got into places like Columbia was the color of our skin.
“Racism adapts, and grows, and thrives. If we do not name it, it will live in in the open, continuing to do damage every generation.”
I graduated from high school over 25 years ago. It was not the racism of a generation earlier. Nor is it the racism of now. Racism adapts, and grows, and thrives. If we do not name it, it will live in in the open, continuing to do damage every generation. We do not outgrow it; it outlives us. We have to pull it out by the roots and burn it.
School safety officers discipline students of color and the differently abled, but do not stop school shootings. Florida cannot provide paper for classrooms, but have money to buy guns for teachers. This action is racist. The students who will be denied the ability to learn are students of color. The students who will be put in life-threatening danger will be students of color.
So let us condemn this openly racist woman in Florida. But do not let us stop there. Let us also condemn every bit of racism that exists in our schools today, and recognize that it is not just about openly declaring yourself racist. It is more than explicit racism, or implicit bias, but the very ways in which we run and structure our schools.
It is also our schools that give us the best chance of defeating racism, not just by direct education, but by creating schools that were like mine, where we can learn through experience the lies that are told about each other.
Hussein Rashid, Ph.D. is founder of islamicate, L3C, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy and cultural competency.