Our Education System Must Lead the Fight Against Racism

From increased bias-based bullying in schools against Sikh, Asian American, Muslim, and LGBT students, to a rash of hate crimes on the streets against these same groups — some committed by teenagers — it appears our education system is failing us when it comes to addressing homophobia in America and racism within the War on Terror. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there is no doubt that walking around with a turban, beard, or a hijaab in America requires immense courage and bravery.

Our children (and some adults) are confused about those who wear religious headwear and maintain uncut hair as part of their peaceful religious practice, including Muslims and Sikhs. Are all people who wear turbans bad? Well Osama bin Laden was bad and we know he wore a turban, so is everyone who wears a turban a threat? This includes Sikhs, whose members wear turbans and maintain uncut hair to uphold the religious values of equality, justice, and faith in one God, but have experienced a disproportionate amount of hate crimes since 9/11. On its face perhaps this question feels ridiculous, but time and again we have seen incidents of hate motivated violence that clearly indicates how detrimental to the American identity it is to paint a broad brush on minority communities and make snap and often prejudicial judgments.

Just last Saturday, Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh Columbia University professor, doctor and peace activist, was walking with a companion in Harlem when he was brutally attacked by a large group of teens and young men, who shouted “Terrorist! Osama, get him!” Shortly thereafter, a Muslim woman was also attacked a few blocks away. Police are investigating whether the incidents are connected. Unfortunately, these attacks fall squarely within a long line of attacks on Sikhs and Muslims following 9/11, including the mass shooting in Oak Creek at a Sikh gurdwara just last year.

Given that the perpetrators involved in this attack are alleged to be teens and young men and these crimes continue even a decade after 9/11, what are our children taught in schools? What are our children trained to think when they see a man or woman with a religious headcovering, a beard, or dark skin? Of course, our schools do not bear the sole responsibility for educating our youth, but they have a significant role. In a compelling piece about the War on Terror and our education system, professor Falguni Sheth argues that our students, even the ones who self-identify as “left of center,” are not taught to recognize the racism within the War on Terror, or to question indefinite detention, torture, and bombings, and how it is linked to America’s history of slavery, oppression and colonialism. She points out that there is sometimes a conflict between being a “good citizen” and being able to appropriately criticize the ideological war on Muslims.

Instead of addressing any implicit racism underlying ideologies and common narratives within the War on Terror, too often, our education system remains silent. However, it is crucial that our schools help teach our children to recognize the racism in all facets of America, and the world, and to tackle bias against any American or human. If we don’t teach our children to combat anti-Muslim and Sikh bias, as well as other forms of bias, the results are terrifying, both at school and on the streets. A recent Sikh Coalition and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) bullying report on the state of New York City’s schools found that over 50% of Asian Americans, including Sikhs, reported that they had experienced bias-based bullying at New York City schools, and that bias-based bullying has increased by 20% since 2009. In other words, our children continue to internalize hate and bias against those (wrongfully) perceived to be a threat to America, or a threat within America.

It is imperative that New York City schools and schools across the nation implement appropriate and substantive religious diversity training and anti-bias training into their anti-bullying programs or curriculum. The only images that students currently have of turbans and beards or hijabs are lifted directly from the almanac of terrorism, which as we know, cannot help promote peace and understanding. We need to impress upon our school systems long-term curriculum measures aimed at painting an informed picture of all faiths and backgrounds, we need to teach our students in-depth about other religions and cultures, about post 9/11 backlash and bias against Muslim, Sikh, Arab and Hindu communities and how it’s wrong, and we need to prepare our children to question the mixed messages they receive from the media, politicians, and other leaders about their fellow Americans. 

After all, one of the main differences between a bigot and a non-bigot is education. I have no doubt that if we start with our schools, we’ll help decrease hate crimes against our communities.