I’m not making this up. That’s exactly what she said.
The kids hadn’t finished their lunches or something. She thought they were being wasteful. With a heart full of beautiful intention, she sought to imbue them with perspective. Instead her words plunged me into a deep state of irritation and anxiety.
There are children starving in Africa.
This is most certainly true.The statement was jarring and awkward to me, though a reminder that despite the fact that much has changed in our world and in our educational lexicon… so much has not.
The thing is? Africa is not a country. Neither is Asia. Or South America. I’m not entirely sure that anyone who doesn’t have immediate ties to these continents could ever identify with the feeling of being completely robbed of one’s specificity for the sake of becoming a teaching tool to a young mind.
As a religious and ethnic minority born and raised in the United States, I have the incredible opportunity to experience being the “only” in a room quite often.
The only woman.
The only person of color.
The only Pakistani-American.
The only visibly distinct Muslim.
The only first-generation American.
There are moments not so far and few in between when these identifiers cast me in the role not of teacher, but of teaching tool. Close friends will hold me up as an example of what Muslims do and don’t do or how firstgens are this thing and that thing. I’ll be frank; I’ve met very few people who are adept at this and who don’t make me feel like the felt dolls my mother would buy me when we visited Pakistan in the summers.
Friends would come over when I was a child and we’d pull my dolls out of the toy box in my closet. First, though, I’d dredge up one of the Pakistani dolls. “This one is from Pakistan,” I’d say casually as I tossed it to my friend while I continued rummaging for more Barbies.
“Neat.” My friend would say as she tilted her head, moved the arms a bit and then put it away.
And then we’d go back to playing with the real dolls.
I feel like a member of that felt doll family sometimes. Here I am in my late thirties, so I should be accustomed to the repeated use of my ethnicity as a substitute for young American children having actual experiences with culture, geography, religion, poverty and injustice. But I’m just not there yet.
I have this awkward analogy I want to share with you, and I’m hoping it works.
Bear with me.
I had the pleasure of growing up in the Daytona Beach area. Every summer, when children in other parts of the country were going to lake houses or going to Camp Whatchamacaluka or whatever, I was going to the beach every day. My friends and I spent hours laying out in the sand and even more hours swimming in the ocean.
I went to school and hung out with a good number of lifeguards. On a summer afternoon around my junior year in high school, a lifeguard friend of mine commented offhandedly that people were crazy for swimming in the ocean.
I thought this was funny. Because obviously someone who works at the beach that doesn’t swim in the ocean is… well, odd. “Why?”
“I want to show you something. Come here.”
And my parents will be so proud to know that when I was directed to do this, I said what any 16 year old girl would say, which was, “Okay.”
He walked over to his lifeguard stand, climbed up and sat on the bench. “Come here, check this out.”
Being a rule follower, I was a little apprehensive of the sign that said only lifeguards were supposed to sit on the bench thingy up there, but, I mean, I was invited, so, I climbed up in three quick steps.
“Here,” he scooted over, “sit next to me and look out there.” He said it gravely as he motioned to the coastline.
So, I sat next to him and I looked. And I saw… sharks. Like, dozens. There were so many. More than twenty. Maybe a hundred. A lot. It was one of the creepiest moments I’ve ever had. I had swam in that ocean every spring and summer my whole life. I had never once (thankfully) made the acquaintance of a shark.
The only sharks I’d ever seen were on television or in an aquarium.
Twenty years later, I think of my cold-blooded, dorsal-finned summer buddies swimming in the ocean and I realize why it bothers me so much to hear someone talk about starving African and Asian children in the context of some sort of perspective-inspiring lesson.
Talking about starving children in Africa, the continent, is like taking a child to visit a shark in an aquarium and not letting them know that there are sharks in the water at home. As the mother of a little girl who we’ve labeled our “risk assessment specialist,” I completely understand and acknowledge the risks associated with introducing the topics of sharks as being in the water and not just in the aquarium. This is why I was wary of the analogy in the first place.
But we’re not talking about sharks.
We’re talking about people.
Every person is born with a right to dignity. When the impoverished of other nations are used as teaching tools for our children, we assault their dignity with our own needs. We also, more importantly, rob our children of extremely valuable lessons.
To children, especially small ones, Africa is not very much different than Oz or Hogwarts. It’s a place most have never visited nor will visit. The customs are unusual, the clothing and scenery are quite literally unreal.
Discussing poverty solely outside of the context of our nation makes poverty a fairy tale and robs it of its reality.
The exclusive brandishing of the impoverished of Africa, India, China or South America in the media, classrooms, and, yes, the Internet, represents a prioritization that I find unhealthy and even ethically problematic in terms of the kind of lessons it teaches our children and the general public about poverty. It doesn’t just objectify the individuals we brandish to our children and casually say, “Oh, this one’s from China,” but it also robs the impoverished of our own nation of their dignity by rendering them invisible much like the swiftly swimming shadows beneath the choppy waters of the beach in my hometown.
In the United States today, 15 percent of Americans are living below the poverty line. While one might argue that this is a small portion of the population, we should keep in mind that poverty is defined for a family of four as an income below $35,000. If we start to contemplate the realities of expensive child care, dwindling budgets for public welfare programs and the lack of affordable health care… well, $35,000 seems far too little. In fact, those factors seem to suggest that the poverty threshold should be further up.
Are Africa and Asia destined to be our laminated teaching materials that put poverty in a thick plexiglass aquarium?
How long will American children be shielded from the idea that poverty and injustice swim silently a few feet away from them?
As American parents, we regale our children with tales of exotic lands full of noble yet disadvantaged peoples and we feel proud as we teach them that poverty exists… but mostly over there and not here. We don’t consider that in teaching them to experience poverty at such a long distance, that we are in fact not preparing them to exhibit compassion as they brush against it in their own lives on a daily basis.
I think our children deserve more.
I don’t want to just take my kids to the aquarium.
I want them to know about where they’ve been swimming.
Faiqa Khan has been blogging for nearly five years, but has been planning world domination since she was three. A writer, teacher, wife and mother, she maintains her personal blog at Native Born. She also produces and hosts an interfaith podcast with her Abrahamic homey, Mike Scheinberg, on the Hey! That’s My Hummus! podcast. Faiqa is also trying to get her mediocre on as the Managing Editor for the popular humor site Aiming Low.