It’s been two weeks since Ahmed Mohamed’s story broke, and became somewhat of a feel-good viral event. It had all the right elements: a racist encounter with a rare happy ending; a worldwide trending hashtag; the support of people like Mark Zuckerberg and President Obama; invitations extended to conferences and schools, free stuff offered everywhere. The situation was rightly viewed as an extreme case of what so often happens; the unfortunate reality faced by kids like Ahmed met the silver lining of being validated, being heard.
In this, the world proved itself to be a little better than everyone had thought, maybe. “Our faith in humanity was restored.” Racist Islamophobia was, perhaps for the first time since 9/11, widely acknowledged as a cruel sham. And when Ahmed took to Twitter on his now verified @IStandWithAhmed account, he thanked the world for their support. He hadn’t expect people to “care about a Muslim boy.” A heartbreaking statement, and then it was proven wrong, right? At least for as long as a news cycle.
When the photo of Ahmed first went viral, the 14-year-old lanky in his NASA T-shirt, my brother sent me a message from six time zones away. I was emotional at that point, looking at Ahmed in handcuffs. He seemed—or maybe it was just me—to be holding back tears. His pain and embarrassment were extremely visible; he knew that he’d never forget this moment for the rest of his life.
I knew what my brother would say before he said it, because I was thinking it as well. Ahmed could have been my nephew or cousin, or any other nerdy and black Muslim kid we knew who was eager to please adults and prove their worth. What struck us both so hard—to the point of physical agitation, on my end—was the sense that it was a version of what had happened to us. Getting arrested over a clock was far more extreme than anything I’d experienced, but, having grown up in Canada, the child of Muslim refugees from East Africa, there was nothing about the escalation of his treatment that surprised me.
If you live in America and are black, Muslim or even both (the jackpot), you have had your intelligence and curiosity met with skepticism so many times that it becomes the norm. As the youngest of four siblings, I realize now that we barely understood what was happening. It was my siblings, actually, that took the place of the teachers that ignored me.
My eldest sister littered our home with books, for example. She was the one who encouraged me to love reading or feel confident enough to pursue writing. And still, when she was in her (mostly white) high school, she’d been told she shouldn’t continue in her gifted English class despite her impressive marks. Now, she tells me that she went to her guidance counselor, who told her she wasn’t ready for gifted English, even despite her grades. “She told me that I probably shouldn’t think about university too much, because the farthest I’d go would be community college, at most.”
When I asked her if she, at the time, she regarded their reasoning as racist, she said no. “Mom and Dad taught us to trust teachers,” she said. “I just thought they knew better that I did. I felt so confused because I was getting better grades than my white friends in the class.” She did go on to university, but she still dropped the gifted class. It took her until adulthood to realize the undertones in what her guidance counselor and teacher had been saying. She became extra vigilant looking out for her own children as they grow up.
My brother was discouraged the same way eight years later when his guidance counselor told him she wouldn’t recommend he take calculus, a required class for his university admission into biopharmaceutical science. He simply “wouldn’t be able to handle it,” the counselor said. My brother, unlike my sister, knew what was happening. “I knew they were being racist,” he told me, “which is why I did it anyway and got an A.” I have a cousin, now a successful lawyer, who had multiple teachers hear this ambition and laugh in his face.
The dominant narrative about my generation is that, from childhood, we’ve been promised the moon. We’ve been given impossible ambitions, an excess of validation at every turn. Every time someone echoes this, it reminds me of the pure invisibility of people like me. People like me talk about our childhoods in a way that necessarily involves racism and dismissal. “How was it at school?” we ask.
Trading these stories among ourselves is the only way they get validated. The skepticism that blankets a person of color in a white room extends to their experiences of racism. “You’re playing the race card” is what you never want to hear it. And yet, the stories are near-universal, and universally similar—as if there were a book that racist teachers and guidance counselors read during college, telling them exactly how to break kids down. The similarities don’t end with stories, they continue on with the feelings that go along with them, past and present, then and now.
It’s so difficult for a child experiencing racism to not believe it’s their fault. It’s so easy to believe there’s something wrong with you—so much easier than understanding how fundamentally an educator can neglect the essence of their job. It took me until junior year to realize that something was at play other than my failings. That year, a teacher accused me of plagiarism because an essay I wrote was “suspiciously advanced.” Upon telling my white friends I thought what she’d said was racist, they told me that the teacher was just being a jerk. The reaction left me wondering what exactly she’d have had to do for someone like me to be believed.
The answer, it seems, is arrest me. And when it comes to Ahmed Mohamed, this probably wasn’t the first and it certainly won’t be the last time he will have to deal with racism in academia, regardless of what he pursues. He is strangely lucky, I think, to have his battles recognized so early and widely—to be able to acknowledge in public that he thought no one would care about a Muslim boy. Far more of us just live quietly, believing that there’s nobody to care about us or listen to our stories.
I’m troubled less, in the end, by Ahmed’s treatment than the fact that so many people found it surprising. It just scratches the surface, just barely, of the deep pain and confusion kids like him experience in school. The next Ahmed will surely not have a hashtag to support him. He probably won’t even tell his parents.
Sarah Hagi is a Canadian writer. You can follow her on Twitter here
Illustration by Tara Jacoby