For a school play, “Aladdin Jr.,” my 9-year-old Muslim Arab-American son was told to sing along to a racial epithet targeting his own cultural identity.
Last year, our 11-year-old daughter gave a friendship necklace to a friend; that same friend told her that she was forbidden by her parents to have Muslim friends. Holding back tears, my daughter finally cried in the safety of our minivan on the way home from school.
The year before, a classmate in our 14-year-old son’s class Photoshopped his face on a female body strapped with explosives, then circulated the image to other classmates on social media.
Racism and Islamophobia are found even in the unlikely place of a Baltimore County school drama club. The incident of the racial epithet, mentioned above, occurred on my youngest son’s first day of practice. He and his classmates opened their playbooks to the beginning lines in which the setting of “Arabian Lands” is described as “barbaric.”
I was haunted by the image of my son standing, alienated, among his friends, staring at the painful word. I leafed through page after page of hideous tropes contained in the rest of the text: the bumbling misogynistic sheikh, the lecherous Arabs, the violent shopkeeper who threatens to chop off a customer’s hand. The list goes on.
There is no reason why an Arab-American child should be asked to sing along to a gross stereotype about his own culture and identity, or any child for that matter. Racism is child abuse, not only of the child it targets, but also of the children who are forced to engage in it.
And so, I simply wrote a letter to the drama club explaining the negative impact of the play’s racist history, continued use of racist language and caricatures that target Arab minorities. In response, the school’s principal, county administrator and other faculty determined that safe spaces and inclusion are the highest priority. As a remedy, they shifted the program to include a different production, and I applaud their leadership. The school held a meeting to give parents an opportunity to voice their concerns and ask questions about the decision.
Meanwhile, as Disney prepares to release its live-action retelling of the 1992 “Aladdin” film, it consulted with diversity experts to receive input to eliminate the negative stereotypes of the culture the film portrays. We are still waiting and hoping for news that a similar process will be applied to “Aladdin Jr.,” which profits on schools and will profit even more handsomely once the new film is released.
As the dialogue around “Aladdin Jr.” developed, more and more fellow parents reached out with words of compassion and understanding in a spirit of partnership. One father who initially decried an attack by “p.c. culture,” approached and said that he wouldn’t want any child to be hurt in our school community. He understood, after listening, that this is a story about real people and pain.
The story of the school swapping out the play aired on local television the same night, after angry parents called the station to cover the school meeting. Next, national news outlets picked up the story, including the alt-right media. Hateful messages began to pour in, targeting the school’s principal and my family. The rumor mill soon followed in our local community of the untermensch mom who "bullied" and "threatened" and called the media to get her way.
The least hateful messages expressed the core belief that our son bore personal responsibility to minimize, mitigate and self-manage the pain, so as not to inconvenience or disappoint anyone. On the other end of the spectrum were messages that read: “You are a F#%$% idiot!” “You are barbaric people.” “You are a terrorist.”
On Saturday the news came of the eleven innocent Jewish congregants murdered by a man who said he wanted “all Jews to die.” The shooter also expressed rage at the “Tree of Life” congregation for sponsoring Muslim refugees in the United States.
I thought of our principal who is raising a Jewish family. Bombarded all week with hateful messages, only to end the week in the most tragic news of the targeting of his own faith community.
I took my son to a solidarity rally with members of the Baltimore Jewish community the day after the mass shooting. They sang Hebrew songs of mourning and resistance and amplified their determination to continue standing with other marginalized people in resistance. “May their memory be a blessing!” they cried in unison of their brothers and sisters in faith who were murdered.
Two days later, driving with my son back from a day trip to Philadelphia, reflecting on all the diverse neighborhoods we visited, and also, on the tragedy of the mass shooting at “Tree of Life,” I counselled him.
“Diversity happens naturally but creating safe spaces for it to flourish is a very intentional practice.”
His actions as a fourth grader in working to educate his peers show he has already learned this lesson. When will the rest of America?
Danette Zaghari-Mask is an attorney for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. She may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.