A Lesson from #IStandWithAhmed: We Don’t Have to Be Invisible Anymore

Outpouring of support for 14-year-old arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school crosses racial boundaries

By Sandhya Bathija

This morning, my Facebook and Twitter news feeds were full of angry friends and followers who are standing with Ahmed Mohamed, a ninth grade Sudanese American student in Texas who was handcuffed and led out of his school after a teacher made a racist assumption that the clock he made was a bomb.

Usually, when our communities are targeted with discrimination like this, I have a few Asian American friends and colleagues who will take to social media to build awareness and educate.

Today, it’s completely different.

Everyone — white, black, Asian, Latino — is outraged over how Ahmed is being treated, and they are calling for teachers to be immediately reprimanded. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton even tweeted about it.

And then, President Obama invited Ahmed to the White House.

A few hours after the news broke, Ahmed, in a Twitter feed run by his family, thanked his supporters in disbelief.

It’s not surprising that Ahmed felt this way until today. Usually, Muslim and also Sikh Americans — many who are also part of the Asian American community — are invisible. Just last week, a friend from high school commented to me that he never thinks about racism against Asian Americans because of “ridiculous stereotypes that we have for the group that are mostly positive.”

Our communities’ struggles, we know, are often masked by some of the community doing well, making it appear that we don’t face adversity or racism. That couldn’t be further from the truth — it just rarely reaches the national spotlight.

On this year’s anniversary of 9/11, Advancing Justice | AAJC and a few other advocacy groups reminded Americans of the hate and racial profiling our communities have faced since that day. While the national media rightfully covered the anniversary as a solemn day of remembrance, it could have also included the narrative of the prejudice Arab and South Asian communities have since felt. Only after #AfterSeptember11, a hashtag where real people shared their stories of racial profiling and hate in a post-9/11 world, did mainstream media begin to cover this angle.

Like me, many Asian Americans are the children of immigrants. So are many Muslim Americans — regardless of where they hail from. I know my parents wanted to keep their heads down and just find a way to succeed in a country that they didn’t feel was their own. They didn’t stand up and fight for equality when they faced discrimination. A part of that was the desire not to make waves; the other part was they didn’t believe anyone really cared.

Today, we know that’s not true. As we’ve seen with other movements in the racial justice space, social media is changing our ability to become visible. Last month, #MyAsianAmericanStory gave Asian American communities the chance to respond to anti-Asian and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 2016 presidential race. And now, #IStandWithAhmed — trending in the United States — has turned this story of discrimination into a call for action.

While professional journalists may not have written about Ahmed 10 years ago, today they are. That says a lot. And it’s because we are finally making enough ruckus. We are coming together — online — to share our stories so justice can be served. It’s a lesson to our community that people do care. Now, we have to do our job to make sure we’re heard.