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On Telling My Children They’re Not Terrorists

On September 11, 2012, a mob burned down a U.S. embassy in Libya. 

On September 12, 2012, I sat in my seven year old daughter’s classroom in which I work as an assistant and listened to another child try to explain why someone would kill an ambassador, an emissary of peace, over a movie on YouTube. Being an adult in a moment like this is very tough. Children look to us for answers about these things. Unfortunately, this is just one hateful thing leading to another hateful thing which will lead to another hateful thing. It defies rationality and explanation. Adults have no closure to offer in a story like this because we have yet to experience it for ourselves.

I suppose you and I should get the formality of this piece out of the way before I go further.

I know I’m not a terrorist. I know that you most likely know that I’m not one, too. I also know that I don’t owe anybody an apology for what a mob in Libya did even if we’re all Muslims and are the same shade of brown.

So, yes, I get that and I hope that you do, too.

Nonetheless, I know that there are people in this world who refuse the great distinctions between “them” and me. They don’t hesitate to use phrases like “terror babies” when referring to my children — children who are second generation Americans and consider no other place home but the U.S. They have no problem outright stating that I, a person who was born here, want to destroy this country’s oldest traditions and implant a draconian vision of religious law on all Americans. They even go so far as to use my religious identity as a smear tactic against the President. Imagine something about you that is tremendously special to you. Now imagine someone using that thing as an insult. Just wow.

It’s because of these people that I have to have the “We’re not terrorists” conversation with my kid. 

I wonder if other people have to have similar conversations with their children. Probably.

I can’t be the first mother to have to look into her child’s eyes and explain that even though we are the same in some ways to people who burn embassies, that we are different in so many important  ways. I’m most likely not the first parent that has had to explain that there are people who refuse to make those distinctions because they’re too intellectually lazy to do so. I’m quite sure that I’m not the first mother who has had to bite back the words “they hate us” because she’s pretty sure that even if it’s true, it’s not a helpful sentiment to communicate. Mostly because it robs the soul of hope — not only in its hearing but by its uttering.

When I was the same age as my daughter, I remember playing in a park with a friend of mine on a muggy, Florida afternoon in the fall. This was back before parents were too afraid to let their children out of their sights for more than ten minutes. Two older boys slowly rode by on their bikes, looked at us and then yelled, “Hey, Brownie, you’re going to be late for your meeting!”

Not missing a beat, I shouted back, “We don’t have a meeting today, DUH!!”

I looked at my friend and giggled. Her blue eyes looked back at me with a mixture of horror, awkwardness and a little anger, “I don’t think they were talking about girl scouts.”

We looked at one another for a second and then we, like children do, moved on without giving it another thought.

Except even though I had no idea what that moment meant and rarely thought about it, it stayed with me throughout my childhood. Seven years later, during the first Gulf War, when I heard the terms “rag head” and “sand n**ger” for the first time, I understood the significance of that moment of awkward outrage. As a seven year old, I didn’t understand because my mind didn’t have a name for it. At fourteen years old, though, my eyes had looked at textbooks with photos of swastikas, college kids at lunch counters and little, brown men in lungis marching to the sea to make salt.

In those first few months of the war, there was a lot of generally accepted anti-Muslim sentiment. It felt foolish to protest. It was better to blend in and keep your head down. I hid beneath a facade of flippant sarcasm that appropriated terms while all the while feeling shame, guilt, horror and anger. I showed people that it didn’t bother me by laughing at it. It took me twenty years before I could look someone in the eye and say, “I don’t think that’s funny and it hurts my feelings when you use those kinds of words.”

I’m not going to lie, sometimes, the protest still gets caught in my throat. Last year, a child in the class asked me if President Obama was a Muslim to which I replied, “No, no, he’s Christian, he goes to church and everything.” It wasn’t until several hours later that I realized that I should have said, “The right question is, ‘why does that matter?’ Can’t Muslims be President, too?”

Jihadi. It was like I was fourteen all over again.

Sand Ni**er. Keeping my head down.

Raghead. Trying to keep everyone calm.

Haha. Reminding everyone that some Muslims are quite pleasant, after all.

It’s been thirty years since the fall day that those boys called me “brownie” and I can’t believe I’m trying to preemptively deal with the possibility of someone calling her or her brother a “terror baby” right to their faces. I’m giving her words that she can use like “stereotype”, “prejudice” and “ignorance”. I’m approaching the teaching of our faith from a thoughtful paradigm that promotes peace and coexistence. I’m attempting to transmit skills that will allow her to convey a sense of compassion for others that would allow her to navigate hatred in the spirit of teaching and love.

Between us, though, I’m so worried that I’m messing this up  As I explain the realities of our situation in our own nation, I feel that same shame, guilt, horror, and so, so much anger from all those years ago at the fact that I actually have to do this. I feel it’s imperative to teach these lessons with a sense of hope and promise of improvement. For me, though, this is a story which has yet to experience any closure.

It’s often a battle simply to hope.

It’s a constant struggle to believe that it’s getting better.

I do it, but it’s not easy.

Maybe I shouldn’t try to make it look easy. Maybe it’s better to just be transparent about this. I could just tell her I’m not sure how all this is going to end, but that she can make a difference in her small corner of the world like I try to do in mine. I could tell her that hope is desirable to have but not always necessary to do the right thing.

I just don’t know. It’s hard to tell a story when you don’t know how it ends.

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