TO EMBRACE THE diversity around us, and to find our own place in this common humanity is not as easily beautiful as it sounds. Especially so for children.
A child in Kindergarten (in the USA) one day asked his teacher when other students like him would come into the classroom. The teacher realized that the student had reckoned that he was different. The child was from India, and probably did not feel like he belonged. The teacher responded that there were others like him already in the class, and pointed to someone from Mexico. The little boy said “You don’t understand, I mean like this” rolling up his sleeve, to show her he meant brown. That was an excellent moment in the classroom for a lesson in cultural diversity, and we as teachers or parents need to prepare well before the moment comes.
In fact the moment is always there. It is fascinating that even a 6-month-old infant can distinguish skin color, hair texture and facial features, and by three years of age, children do begin to show definite preferences for people who look like themselves. When I was in Malaysia, my son Maahin, was around that age. He was growing up seeing many Malay people all around him. The first time my husband would take him to the masjid however, he shook hands with all people, but insisted that people of African descent scared him. This was really strange to me, since we lived in a completely mixed neighborhood. Many of the kids who used to come to be homeschooled at my place were Africans. Maahin used to play with the kids and eat from the hands of their mothers. All the neighborhood was like an extended family to my child.
The choice was a simple one for Maahin. Because he played with the kids, and was in constant contact with the mothers, he was unafraid of them.
While we are all curious about the different, we are also all a little cautious; and this is exactly what children go through. They will come out loving and open, to all those around them, if we are loving and warm hearted to those around us. One Eid Al-Adha, my six year old decided that he would sacrifice some of his Eid money to send to the poor kids of the world. After I did that for him, and we got a calendar of all the kids’ pictures, he was really proud of all the faces his eight dollars had helped. But also, after seeing the pictures, he flipped the calendar over to where all the thumbnail images are, and began pointing out the kids he liked best. All of them had oriental eyes. Maahin’s early childhood in Malaysia, had made a choice for him.
The more we expose our children to healthy racial interaction, the easier it will be for them to see a common humanity in all those around them. Not only does this keep our children safe from developing unhealthy biases and fears, it also removes from them a habit of stereotyping themselves in the community. If we are able to teach our children to respect others and to treat them equally, they will learn to expect the same for themselves, and therefore will not be part of an apologetic and alienated Muslim populace.
A child as early as four or five years of age can very clearly pick up nuances and assign social characteristics based on what a person racially/ethnically looks like. If you carry a stereotypical image on any particular racial group, even without ever intentionally informing your child, still he/she will quite clearly begin stereotyping in a fashion very similar to yours. So the first step is really for us to be conscious of our own prejudices and values.
If our friends are diverse, our children will be open to all sorts of people. But if we prefer, for example, to go to the Indian masjid and always complain about the ways of the Arab people, then our children will most probably grow up with our biases, and have a very hard time breaking away from them later on. If we hope to see our children appreciate cultural and social diversity while sharing a common humanity, we, as parents, should be open to associating with all races. Look around and see who your friends are, what kinds of people do you mostly invite over, to whose homes are you most frequently paying a visit. If they all talk and look the way you do, chances are you have already passed on a clear message to your child. A message of preference and apprehension. Preference of those like him/her, and an apprehension of all who are different.
Likewise, the child will grow up, not only in her relation to others, but also in her perception of other’s relation to her. The first semester I was at college, I thought everyone stared at my hijab. The next semester, when I had gotten over my own self-projected image, I found no one interested in staring at my headscarf. We are more confident, if we get rid of our biases against others, and ourselves.
As parents we need to examine our biases, and to be cautious of the way we react when those culturally different are around us. Children will quickly pick up on these nuances. If Mom feels uncomfortable and steps up her pace while in the parking lot if there is a racially different person behind her, children sense that anxiety quite clearly. Likewise, it is sometimes the comments we mutter to ourselves, or the things we say about others that would sound shockingly inappropriate if our kid said them to anyone. Sometimes, it is just too late to begin wondering where they picked it up from—because it most probably all started at home, in a conversation you thought they weren’t listening to.
Children learn stereotyping from adults, peers, or the media. These are the very directions we need to look into. Watching ourselves and the other adults in our children’s lives is important. We need to be careful that we do not introduce our kids to making fun of others’ ways of speaking, dressing etc. Also look around to see if the neighborhood and community you live in is racially healthy. If your neighborhood is all one color, chances are we are creating a social and cultural barricade.
When your child goes to the playground, you can get a good sense of his preferences. If, for instance, he excludes some particular kids while playing, it may be a sign of some apprehension he has. Chances are, if we make friends of all groups, our children will only find color differences beautiful and never intimidating. We need to watch to see if our children’s peers are not breeding these types of fears too, and this can easily be remedied by calling together a mixed group of kids and inviting them over, where they can all play together and get over much meaningless anxiety.
Making sure our kids have toys, books, dolls, and games that are not racially exclusive is also of paramount importance. If your girl’s Barbie dolls are all the same size, color, and shape, then that will be the very narrow definition of beauty and acceptability that she will have. Watching out for the language in the media, or innuendos in comics etc. is also of colossal importance.
Much of our ingrained bigotry only begins as a joke (i.e., Arabs are terrorists, Malay people are lazy, etc.). All these are rude, stigmatizing generalizations blurted out from unthinking mouths. We Muslims are well aware of these types of stereotyping, and we all know how much they hurt. It is time we start consciously cultivating in our children a comfort in playing with those of all colors.