Racism: A Virus Deadlier than COVID-19

Four arms of different races interlocked

Racism: A Virus Deadlier than COVID-19

By Shaza Khan

While our country has focused on fighting  COVID-19 through mandatory shelter-in-place, and recently, debating about the best way to re-open our country, there has been a virus deadlier than COVID-19 wreaking havoc in our society for centuries that far too few of us have focused on eradicating: Racism.

The horrific death of George Floyd came this past week on the heels of two other murders of young African Americans: Ahmaud Arbery and Breaonna Taylor. Since then, layers of painful feelings have come to the surface as centuries-old wounds have been made raw through these tragedies. They painfully demonstrate the ways in which this country has sanctioned the bodies of black people as beneficial only for economic gain, or otherwise indispensable. Indeed, these killings have been referred to as modern-day lynchings.

Muslim Educators Must Fight This Evil

Our beloved Prophet Muhammad said: “Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart—and that is the weakest of faith.”
We must ask ourselves, what am I doing to fight the evil of racism? What is my school doing to establish a more just society by fighting against racism? 
As Islamic school leaders, here are just some questions we should be asking ourselves:

Student and family experiences around racism:

  • How is racism manifested in my school in ways that are apparent and hidden?
  • What are the experiences of racial minorities as it relates to my school’s particular ecosystem? In particular, what are the experiences of African American or black students in my school?
  • Have I talked with students and families who are minorities in my school and listened to their experiences with an open mind (i.e. without being defensive)?
  • What can I do to ensure my school is more welcoming of individuals and families of all racial, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds?

Policies & practices that harbor racism: 

  • Do grading and discipline practices in my school disproportionately and negatively affect African American or black students, as has been been found to be the case in public schools?
  • What implicit biases do I or my staff have that impact the hiring and retention of African American or black staff? How can we uncover those implicit biases? How can we then address them?
  • Is there a particular race or ethnicity that is underrepresented in our study body proportionate to the racial/ethnic composition of Muslim Americans in our city or region? How can we diversify our student population?
  • How does my school choose who to give scholarships and financial aid to? Is there a particular racial/ethnic group that receives more? Is there a preference towards refugees or immigrants versus African Americans and other non-immigrants?

Racial consciousness through the curriculum:

  • How do we honor the racial and ethnic background of our students and countrymen and women in our schools through choices in our curriculum?
  • Do we teach about racism in our schools? What grades do we teach about it? Are there threads that weave through the entire K-12 curriculum that build an understanding of both individual and structural racism?
  • What is the hidden curriculum of our school– in other words, what is unintentionally being taught to our students through the actions, behaviors and policies of our school leaders and staff? What is the message we communicate to our students about who is accepted, preferred or privileged in our school?
  • When we have interfaith events, which churches or synagogues do we interact with? Specifically, do any of our interfaith events include black churches?
  • Is our history curriculum just an engagement with mainstream history textbooks, which have been known to omit or blatantly lie about our country’s troubled history with race and racism?

Activism to counter racism through an Islamic lens:

  • Do we present current-day problems facing society as problems that our religion has solutions to?
  • Do we teach our students that, as Muslims, we must do something about the injustices we see in our own neighborhoods, cities, and country?
  • Do we give students the tools to establish justice, whether it is only within their own spheres of influence, i.e. by making choices about who they befriend, how they can be an upstander and/or what media they consume?

Inclusive Islamic Schools Are Part of the Solution

Let us not believe that the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery are problems that white America alone needs to confront. Racism in America is a problem that we all must fight. As Muslims, we know that this fight starts in our hearts, in our homes, and in our schools.

Dried out land with verse from Quran about changing one's condition

Our schools are a microcosm of the larger society. Whether we would like to admit it or not, there is racism alive and present in our Islamic schools. As a Muslim, fighting the evil of racism is a matter of faith for us.

We cannot simply teach Islam as the five pillars and the seerah (life story) of the Prophet Muhammad. Instead, we must enliven Islam for our students and ourselves by putting the principles of justice to daily use by engaging the difficult personal and structural reflections and analysis that the above questions require.

Let’s start that difficult process now. Commit to reflecting on these questions today and journaling about it. Identify two or three issues in your school that you can tackle in some small way, right now. Create specific action-items to begin that process of positive change. Then, come back to the journaling in another month and on a regular basis. Are there other action items you can pursue, now that you have completed the first ones? Are there allies in your school who can help you pursue this agenda of an inclusive (or better yet, anti-racist) Islamic school?

Change starts with each one of us. Let this be just the beginning of a concerted goal that every Islamic school leader and educator takes up to unravel and defeat racism in America.

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