“Dear Students: A Letter from Your Muslim American Teacher”
By Zaina Arafat, edited by James Yeh, originally published on VICE.com (2016)
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesYou don't look Muslim. You hardly even look Arab. You pass for nearly everything and anything else. People ask if you're Italian or Spanish or Greek. Israeli. Sometimes Mexican, occasionally Argentine.
For four years, you taught a class in the Midwest, in a swing state. You loved and respected your students, and they loved and respected you—they worked hard for you and for one another, they valued your feedback, they hugged you before Thanksgiving and Christmas, they came to you after breakups and family deaths and roommate quarrels. On the third to last class each semester—far enough in so they couldn't drop, but still two classes away from course evaluations—you'd tell them that you're Muslim. Many of them were surprised. You don't look Muslim. What does a Muslim look like? you'd ask. They weren't exactly sure, they'd say, but not like you. They'd admit that when they first saw your name in the course directory, they weren't sure what to expect. They thought you'd have an indecipherable accent (they imply that they're happy you don't). They thought you'd be wearing a headscarf. You'd smile, you'd laugh a little. You wouldn't mention that while you may not look like a Muslim, you are one. You carry your Qur'an from city to city, for years you fasted during Ramadan, you love your religion, you're heartbroken over the way its been hijacked by extremists. You travel to predominately Muslim countries once or twice a year to see your family. You wouldn't mention these things. Instead you'd ask if they had ever met another Muslim. We had one in our town, an earnest, young, male student offered.
You think about that earnest, young, male student, in the days after the election. Could he both respect you and vote for him, for a man who called for measures that would blanketedly and blindly ban all Muslims from coming here, a man who's now considering forcing Muslims to register as such? Did your student choose him? Does your student know that the man's stance threatens that part of your identity, even though you are the good kind of Muslim, you are a friendly Muslim, you are different than the Muslims on TV? You wonder if you should've spent more time on your lecture against stereotypes.
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