In her book, Being the Change, author Sara Ahmed explores the importance of social comprehension in the classroom; understanding those often tricky-to-navigate landscapes of race, gender, politics, religion, sexuality… In July 2018 Sara spoke at the Nerd Camp literacy conference in Michigan about the tensions many of us feel during big moments in history.
In her presentation, Sara shared with listeners her experience on September 11, 2001. As we reflect on the events that took place that day, we felt that Sara’s story perfectly highlights both the progress we’ve made, and the great lengths we still have to go as a nation of teachers, learners, and engaged citizens.
Here now is Sara Ahmed.
Below is a full transcript of Sara's presentation...
Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
Most of us remember where they were, maybe even who we were with—on that cloudless day of infamy. A day where everyone’s identity was at stake.
I was a senior at the University of Iowa, walking into my first class then promptly running out in search of the nearest payphone to call my big sister Samira who was living and working in Manhattan.
Phones lines were already down by then.
The only thing I could think to do was run home, turn on the news, and call my mom.
She picked up right away and said, “Your sister is okay. She is at home. And since you are okay, can you go over to the Iowa City mosque and check on them? I know they are on your street.
I went silent.
I live a life that Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies, describes as hyphenated.
On one side of my hypen, I am “American”. By birthright, by schooling and soccer games, by BBQ’s and birthday parties, by public library card, by voter card. I am brown-eyed Americana—1st generation. And on the other side of the hyphen I am East Indian. By blood and bangles, by saris and smells of chicken, and masalas, and curries throughout my childhood home.
But on 9/11 my hyphenated identity became a little more complicated. The invisible became visible.
See, my last name is Ahmed and I was raised Muslim. By Friday prayers, by Sunday school and summer school that I never wanted to attend. By a family who fasts during Ramadan, by a father who prays five times a day when he isn’t playing tennis or watching tennis. But to be fair to my practicing Muslims brothers and sisters… today, I more accurately identify as the daughter of two awesome Muslims.
So you can imagine how all those hyphens line up for me or a family like mine on 9/11.
Americans(hyphen)Indians (hyphen)Muslims (hyphen)Immigrants
And why when my mom asks me to go check on my fellow Hawkeye neighbors at the mosque I finally reply—“No way, Mom.”
And in her loving tone that only mothers can employ, she retorts… “I wasn’t asking you.”
She gave me “the look” through the phone.
Because she knew what was coming.
Soon after the news broke on 9/11 the American public retaliated against their fellow citizens… people who were born here like me, maybe like you. People who pledge allegiance to the flag, who vote, who study, who pay taxes—who have a name similar to mine…or the visibility of a beard similar to my father’s, a headscarf like my aunt’s. Even towards men who wear turbans—they are Sikhs, a completely different religion.
I felt the tension of identifying with the victims and with the perpetrators—a slight chokehold on my hyphen, because that is what was immediately assigned to me.
American—victims; Muslims--Perpetrators. Because that is what was immediately assigned to me.
My access to online check-in became an error message, kiosks at the airport were not an option, and multiple times, I wouldn’t be given a seat until boarding began, last on the plane. One day I was finally bold enough to ask the airline representative why this keeps happening and she said, "Oh it’s not a big deal, your name just matches someone on the no-fly list so we have to run extra security before we allow you to board. Soon you will be able to pay to get your name cleared…” TSA Pre-Check—it’s not a luxury for everyone, it just affords us the same movement through an airport as everyone else.
Many of the students you spend the better part of your day with live a hyphenated life. Indian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Latinx-Americans, bi-racial, multi-racial, religiously hyphenated, gender hyphenated, culturally hyphenated. Maybe you do as well.
Today, I speak in support of those kids, some silenced by the heteronormative white narrative that we have centered in this country. I humbly speak today as one of those kids, though we all have varying degrees of visibility, when I tell you that it’s not easy growing up hyphenated in America. The duality of your existence is questioned by implicit or explicit messages around you. You can be seen as just one of “us” -- or quickly ushered into a space of othering with one headline or news cycle, or unit taught in school. Neither of which you want. You are American when all is well, but quickly labeled by only other parts of your hyphen when convenient by the next oppressor.
You may suddenly have to carry the answers for an entire community -- be a spokesperson for the group. Knowing full well that even the smallest, closest communities vary greatly in the diversity of their humanity, but you answer with discomfort feeling the weight of your place in that moment and not having the language to say, “Well, I can’t speak for all 1.8 billion of us but…
Kids that live a hyphenated life are constantly trying to get it right on both sides of the hyphen as Jhumpa Lahiri puts it. They spend their day, their life, code switching through different norms, different spaces because of the way we default to center one race, one gender, one ability, one religion, one relationship, in this country.
I share this story with you today because in an age of 24-7 media inundation, our kids can come through the door, classroom or home, carrying the weight of any news, any story on their shoulders and on their hyphen.
And this student standing before you today, realized what it was like to feel the implications of an event, a tragic event, on her own identity but more importantly on those she loves most. So, if you could humor me for a second and take any recent news that you’ve read or heard this past year.
A school shooting.
A police shooting.
Now who do you see? With whom do you share an identity—racial, gender, religious, familial—either self-proclaimed or assigned?
Is it the victims? The perpetrators? The upstanders? The bystanders?
When we are honest and candid, when we hold up the mirror and dig deep, we may uncover some discomfort in the reflection. We may see ourselves in someone but have the privilege to walk through this world never being targeted for that shared piece of identity. We may feel a fleeting tug at how we can feel compassion for some but not for others, or how we remain silent in our shame but just can’t stand up.
No matter how you feel, all of us need to remain mindful that the morning after news shakes our small towns, our nation, or our world—someone nearby: a student, colleague, family, will start their day feeling a little less safe solely based on their identity. Or on their hyphen.
And those are the voices that we silence simply by doing nothing to make them feel safer.
On September 12, 2001, my parents decided to dedicate the rest of their lives to visiting local places of worship and to discuss Islam because they know, we know, there is more power, more sustainability for humankind, if we work to spread knowledge and compassion over paranoia, fear and hate.
We can’t afford to create single stories and false narratives based on sensationalized news headlines and social media posts. We need to get proximate to the human story.
It would be asinine to take the media-profiled identities of repeated perpetrators like Adam Lanza or Dylan Roof who have taken the lives of children in our schools and congregants in our churches, and generalize to form a single-story for young, White-American males wouldn’t it?
So why is my father being escorted out of security line to, in his own words, “a hallway full of Muslims” at O’Hare airport? Why are unarmed Black-Americans under fire? Why are Latino-American families scared for their children to walk to school alone for fear that ICE agents will intercept their kids en route of their right to access knowledge & books?
Why are citizens being scrutinized or taken off planes for telling their parents on the phone, “Inshallah or Asalaam-walakum.” Which literally translate to the same English phrase used by some of us who reach across the aisle or the pew every Sunday and say— “Peace be with you.”
Our students see themselves in the human beings, in the news we sometimes have the privilege of calling “issues,” “controversial” or “debates.” Do we see them? Do we see their hyphens? Do they know we see them?
And, with all due respect, the legitimacy of my family’s citizenship is not up for debate.
My mother asked me to go over to the mosque in Iowa City not only because she is a Muslim, but because she understood in that community they too were Americans. American-Muslims who mourned the same way we all did on 9/11. But she knew headlines would silence their hyphen.
This is a story from 17 years ago. And now it’s 2018 and the world continues to hand us curriculum.
When we get proximate to the human story, we find our identity in the humanity of others. That is all I am asking of us today, to get proximate…
To the family who flees danger, walks across two countries to seek asylum (a human right, not a handout) so their children can sleep safely at night with food in their bellies.
To the parent who tells their son to put their hood down because she doesn’t want him to suffer the fate of so many before and after him.
To the child who is scared to come out to their family and friends.
To the citizen who just wants to enlist to fight for their country but can’t because they’ve been told their gender identity is a financial burden on this government.
To the students and teachers down the road who are pleading to the courts for books & access to literacy.
We often ask kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes before we give them the opportunity to voice what it is like to be in their own shoes. I have made mistakes in the past in that in my own fears of being dutiful and being ok with the status quo, that I was working much harder to silence kids than I was to amplify their voice. And I have had to remind myself that we are not in the crusader, savior business of giving kids a voice— they already have one, and that we can be in danger of doing more harm than good when we don’t believe that. So the question I am starting to ask myself is, how am I actively contributing to a system that silences kids? And as soon as I see it, what I am going to do instead that centers their identity, their hyphen, and voice?
We can’t be in such a hurry to get to the social media Empathy Olympics or finish line with the most recent YA book on a diverse book list. Sit with those books, those stories, and read them again, pause and wonder what is happening to you in the transformation that writers like Jason Reynolds, Erika L. Sanchez, Angie Thomas, Mihn Le, Laurie Halse Anderson, Samira Ahmed (I had to get that one in there J), gift us through their own voice. Then figure out how to get proximate in your reality every single day.
Show kids that your shared school space is where they get to tell their stories, ask them what they would tell the world with the pen, the mic, the platform they already have in their hands and then get out of their way. Because a misconception of the reality of our world (one that I myself am guilty of buying into) is that young voices are not being silenced only by oppressive regimes and political leaders, but by the choices every single one of us make each day.
I’ve spent the first three weeks of this summer in the beautiful country of Guatemala learning the Spanish language and getting as proximate to the human story there as possible. And on the plane home I read a story in the NYT of a Central American man who was charged—under this Administration’s policy—with illegal entry while seeking his human right to asylum. And as the border agents pulled his three-year-old daughter away from him, she turned, confused, and asked her father where she was going. “to a summer camp,” was the fastest thing he could think of to make his little girl smile.
We have come together today as superfans of kids and literature, and as students of literacy and history we all know this:
There will be a day in the near future where this generation of world’s children will write their stories. Much like Anne Frank or Malala, The Little Rock Nine, or representative Lewis…
They will be armed with the pen, with the mic.—probably something like a talking hologram—and share with the world their truth.
Narrative Essays of being trapped in a classroom closet during the shooting. Memoirs of separation from parents at the border. Poetry from life in the cages. Argumentative essays of why it is wrong to rip families apart or deny DREAMERS the right to education. Snapshots of zip-tied hands and summer camp.
And our kids—and the kids of our kids—will be the audience— the readers who will see their humanity in these kids and these stories.
And they will have questions. Because we are raising them to not be silent.
So, when they look us in the eye and ask: Did you know about this? Where were you when this was happening?
We will have to look straight back at them as witnesses to history, and tell them the truth. And I hope and pray that our truth sounds like this:
That we spoke out—even when it was hard.
That we wrote.
That we read.
That we marched.
We checked on our neighbors—even when it wasn’t popular.
That we voted.
That we left our echo chambers to get proximate—to people.
And that we fought like hell to bend the arc of democracy towards the just side of history. Because if transformative progress is our goal, then every single one of us is a solution.
Peace be with you all, and thank you for all you do for kids.
Hear more read alouds from Sara Ahmed on the Heinemann Podcast
Sara K. Ahmed is currently a literacy coach at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand. She has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools, where her classrooms were designed to help students consider their own identities and see the humanity in others. Sara is coauthor with Harvey "Smokey" Daniels of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. She has served on the teacher leadership team for Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization devoted to developing critical thinking and empathy for others. You can find her on Twitter @SaraKAhmed.