The Trials of Ahmed: A Story of All People of Colour
So by now, pretty much everyone in the world with access to an internet connection has heard of Ahmed Mohammed, the 14 year old, 9th grade boy from Irving, Texas.
My younger son is about to turn 14, is a freshman at his high school, and is in a similar position to Ahmed, in that the teachers, counsellors, and kids don’t really know him yet. So, I’ve been reflecting on the events.
The story of how Ahmed indulged his love of robotics, made a rudimentary clock, and took it to school has spread far and wide.
If you need to do a recap to get up to speed on the events, this article presents a good timeline of events.
There are some points worth emphasising, because they stand out for their sheer unlikelihood or furious injustice:
· The claims put forward by the teacher, principal and law enforcement that they genuinely felt the device was a bomb seems unlikely given that at no stage did they evacuate the school, or call the bomb squad.
· Ahmed’s parents were not present during his questioning, and it is unclear whether any advocate for the child was present.
· A 14-year-old boy was intimidated and interrogated by a group of adults in authority, who patently did not believe him despite his repeated claims that he had made a clock. He was removed from the school in handcuffs, marched past staff members. An act that would appear to be designed to shame and scare him.
· To date, there has been no apology to Ahmed or his family from the Irving mayor, the police, the school district, or the school. Beth Van Duyen, the mayor, issued a statement defending the actions of the school and law enforcement, which she later amended to acknowledge that had it been her own child, she would have been “very upset”. MacArthur High School issued a letter to parents of children attending the school, which justified their actions as necessary in keeping the children safe.
I think one of the reasons this incident has resonated so deeply with people around the globe, other than the fact that it’s yet another example of racial profiling, is that we were all awkward teenagers starting high school at some point. We all empathise with that feeling of not fitting in, of wanting to be seen, of wanting to be recognised and valued. We all understand that queasy feeling of being singled out by those in authority (just think about going through a security check at any airport), of being helpless in the face of people who start from the position that you are guilty and you have to prove yourself innocent.
For people of colour, this is a particularly hot-button issue. None of us are surprised by this incident, this really isn’t news for us. Don’t get me wrong, it infuriates us, it just isn’t out of the ordinary for us.
Some form of this distrust and bullying, is a common experience for most of us. We can all cite instances of being singled out by teachers, police, or others in authority while our white counterparts are not. All of us have the same story, in varying degrees, to tell. This cruelty, this mistrust, this segregation, is our common and commonplace experience.
A point that our white friends, companions, colleagues have difficulty grasping. They believe themselves empathetic, because really we’ve all had experiences of being singled out by authorities for something, but they fail to realise that for every instance that they’ve been singled out, we’ve been singled out 10, 15, 20 times. We’re asked for ID every time we present a credit card for payment. The times we’re not frisked at the airport are the unusual instances, the times when we look around in shock, when we hurry through just in case somebody realises their mistake and calls us back.
Our white friends don’t seem to get it that this is our daily experience, that the exclusion, the singling out isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it’s so subtle that we question ourselves. Did that really happen? Am I being paranoid?
When I raised my hand to answer a question in class, but was ignored, consistently, in every class, despite having been the one who read ahead, did the homework early, did extra, and knew the answer (Oh, Ahmed… I so get why you made that clock). Was that really a thing?
On the rare occasion I handed in work late at school, I was automatically assumed to be not working hard enough and was chastised with furrowed brows, while my white friends would get a giggle and a “I know you’ve got a lot of outside of school commitments, but you really have to get your homework in”. What about my outside of school commitments? Am I being paranoid?
When the pharmacist took one look at me and then spoke slowly and loudly at me explaining the contraindications of taking some medication with another. I hadn’t yet opened my mouth, why was he assuming I was deaf or unable to understand English? Why are you shouting slowly at me?
Or when my white husband and I are waiting in line at a store for service, obviously together, and the shop assistants feel the need to ask each of us separately if we need service, while the white couple next to us is treated as a couple. Am I being paranoid?
Or when I pay for an item, but the shop assistant regularly gives the change back to my husband? Did that really happen?
When I caught the bus and would be asked by the dear little old lady sitting next to me where I was from. Every time. And when she wouldn’t be satisfied with my Australian accent or answer of the suburb I lived in, but wanted to know where I was from originally. Are you kidding me?
How about when people tell me that they “don’t see colour”, or “don’t think of you like that”, or that I’m “different” to other people of colour they’re disparaging? Did they really say that?
Or when people feel the need to touch my skin and tell me how “silky”, “velvety”, “beautiful” it is, how “lucky” I am not to have to lie in the sun tanning every summer. Is this really a thing?
And when I’m waiting for service, but am constantly overlooked, but my husband or the white friend I’m with receives service first time every time? Is that my imagination?
How about when we went to buy a house, and the selling agent looked through me, spoke only to my husband and said “a clever agent sells to the wife, because she’s the one who makes the ultimate decision”? Er… buddy, I’m right here! (We didn’t buy that house entirely on the basis that I refused to give that idiot a single cent of our hard earned money)
To this day, I still question what the two young men who rode their bikes past my family one day, singing loudly INXS’s “Original Sin” when they got near us, were trying to say. Did that really just happen?
What about when both my husband and I send emails to my older son’s counsellor at school, but only my husband’s emails are ever answered? Am I being paranoid?
And remember that these isolated examples I’m giving are plucked from days, months, years filled with these kinds of instances. They don’t happen in isolation.
My white Australian friends in particular have such trouble believing that these things happen in Australia. They’re very willing to believe that the issues of discrimination in the US far outweigh those that happen in Australia. Let me assure you, Australia is just as bad at race relations. Most of those events cited above happened in Australia.
So, what happened to Ahmed Mohamed is heinous, unacceptable, and downright racist, but it’s also really not unusual. I’m delighted that such a global spotlight has been shone on these events, that’s how change will be effected. I’m delighted that Ahmed is getting offers from colleges he’s interested in going to, getting invitations from influential, important people, that’s how his self-esteem and self-worth will be built. I’m especially happy for him that he’s got such a fabulously supportive family and community, that’s how he’ll know true love and acceptance.
But… there’s always a “but”… I also want to warn that precious boy that this won’t be the only instance of discrimination he’ll face. It won’t be the only time he’ll feel outnumbered. I want to surround him in a protective force field, as I want to surround all the brown and black kids who’ll face similar attitudes with love and protection. I want to scream my warnings to them, they get more subtle, they get smarter with their approach, their attacks are more veiled, while simultaneously wanting them not to lean in, wanting them to stand up.
It’s the eternal dilemma of every woman of colour who is a mother — we want our kids to have a better life, we want our kids to stand up for themselves, we want our kids to be treated fairly, BUT we want to keep our kids safe, we don’t want our kids to be targeted by authorities, to be singled out. How many of us have lost sleep worrying our kids will be stopped by police for no reason, will be arrested on flimsy charges? How many of us have had “the talk” with our kids? Every person of colour will understand “the talk” — it’s the one where you tell your kids, in tears of self-loathing, to lean in, to do what they’re told by teachers and police, to follow the rules more closely than their white compatriots, to attract no attention to themselves, to never talk back to anyone outside the home.
Ahmed’s experience highlights what it means to be a person of colour in a mainstream white culture, particularly after September 11th 2001. This may be the first time that what happens as a matter of course for people of colour has been discussed quite so openly, so broadly. This may be the first time that the stark differences in experiences has become so obvious, so widely condemned. That gives me hope.