People often ask me if I get attacked for being a Muslim. Although I might get a racist/ethnic slur shouted at me every now and then, it is actually a rare occurrence.
When it does happen, it usually takes me by surprise, and on a good day, my reaction will be to smile and ask that the person have a great day. On a bad day, my reaction will most instinctively be me telling them where they can shove my scarf once I take it off.
The thing is that as a teacher, I have never had to deal with any sort of racism or attack on my faith or ethnicity in the classroom. But for the first-time last year, I had a student besmirch this perfect track record.
I was invited to co-teach with a teacher in a Detroit Public School. One thing I do when I am entering a classroom as a guest instructor is that I articulate what mutual respect looks like.
The speech will go something like this: “Now, I don’t want to demand respect—I want to earn it. I have put my phone on silent. You will not see me checking it. You will not see me texting. Also, when you speak, I will look you in the eye and make sure to never speak over you. I do this expecting the same in return.”
One student broke the rule of mutual respect and continued to speak over his peers and me time and time again. I said to him, “I’ve politely asked you to respect when people are speaking and to wait your turn,” calling attention to the breach of the social contract we had set at the start of class.
He went into attack mode. “I don’t take directions from people with doo-rags on their heads,” he responded just loud enough for me to hear – referring to the head wraps that are popular today and a trend among African Americans.
After a few gasps and a couple of muted giggles, the classroom fell silent.
I walked slowly up to his desk and with a warm smile looked him in the eye, “When you have to attack someone physically, it means you can’t compete with them intellectually. Now, I know that’s not the case here and I’m sure you want to take back what you’ve said. But you won’t have to. All I want you to do is think about what you’ve said, ask questions if you have any and we’ll move on.”
With that, the rest of the class time offered the opportunity to encourage him to participate in the discussion with no more reference to what we wore that day on our heads or bodies.