“I Was Becoming One of Those People I Despise”: A NYC Teacher Reflects on Her Own Racial Biases

As a teacher I’m so humbled and thankful to be able to shape the formation of young, viable minds for a living. The student-teacher relationship that I’m sharing with you in this week’s blog post is particularly special to me because it has forever informed my pedagogical views on the profound impact of not only my relationship with my students, but also the potential implications of my biases on their  academic and social outcomes.

You see, for reasons I’m still not really clear about, I was becoming one of those people that I despise. The ones who clench their pocketbooks close to their sides and cross the street when they see a couple of Black kids merely walking in their direction. Except in my case it wasn’t Black children that I feared. It was Muslim women, particularly those dressed in their full, black garb. Why was I all of a sudden becoming so fearful of this group of people who did absolutely nothing to me to warrant such fear?

I found myself becoming even more fearful when I saw Muslims in my neighborhood. I would see women in groups dressed in their hijabs on their way to the mosque and I would cross the street for no other reason than the fact that they were there. I didn’t like who I was becoming and I felt ashamed about the prejudice that drove my actions so I prayed earnestly about it.

Then came Hassani – a beautiful, smart, young man — who happens to be Muslim.  In teaching him, he and his family — especially his mom, a woman who looks much like those I use to shun — taught me so much about life. They reminded me that we are all human beings who desire to be loved and accepted by those with whom we come in contact, especially those who we teach and from whom we seek to learn. They reminded me that there is no fear in love. They reminded me that love conquers all.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had not been honest and aware of my biases? Would I still have advocated for Hassani to be changed to the honors class when my colleagues and I recognized his aptitude for more challenging coursework ? Would I even have recognized his ability if I’d stayed in that discriminatory state of mind? What other biases and prejudices was I bringing to my classroom each day that negatively impacted my students?

I’m writing today about this uncomfortable truth because I think it’s important to remind all of you who take the time to read this post that, as enlightened and open-minded as we may think we are (I know I thought I was), we come to this table called life with a lot of stuff. As an educator, that stuff can profoundly help or hurt our students. We need to reflect and assess our thinking and our pre-conceived notions on an ongoing basis, and either eradicate them or check them at the door. That’s the least that we owe our students.

I will never forget the lessons my beloved student Hassani and his mom taught me. I will always treasure the personal and professional growth that having him as my student afforded me. From teaching me phrases in Arabic and the nuances of fasting during Ramadan as a teenage boy, to the way the media was influencing my thinking, they shined a light on it all. A light so illuminated, it caused me to see myself — the ugly parts of me — and to happily make the necessary corrections to those character flaws.

Now, as I walk past droves of Muslim men, women, and children in my daily travels to work, and as I teach a significant population of Muslim, Sikh, and Punjabi students, I can properly appreciate and learn from them, not arbitrarily fear and scorn them. For this, I’m forever grateful.

Thank you, Hassani.

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