Why do students in American high schools resort to humiliating Muslims and people who aren’t white?

Published: May 27, 2017

Aliza Fatima, 12, of Queens and a descendent of Pakistani parents, participates in the American Muslim Day Parade on September 26, 2010 in New York. PHOTO: GETTY

When the student body president of a Northern California high school won his campaign after posting an Islamophobic joke, I was not surprised. It is part and parcel of American high schools to reward students for racism, particularly when the school administration isn’t interested in protecting vulnerable students for the sake of ‘keeping the peace’.

By overlooking racist and toxic behaviour, schools inevitably normalise racism, misogyny, and heterosexism, all of which lend to bullying and cheapen the lives of many young people at these schools. And it’s not only the oppressed or the so-called victim who is negatively affected by this situation, but the oppressor as well, who finds himself falling into behaviour patterns that terminate potential points of connection and inhibit transformative learning.

But why do students in American high schools resort to racism? Socialised behaviour and enforcing hegemony is only part of the answer. The reason teenagers peddle jokes that dehumanise their peers is because they want to appear to be ‘cool’.

What is American ‘cool’? It’s being hypermasculine, socially acceptable, and bold. The ‘bold’ trait both includes and celebrates controversy, which bullies the weakest and from which the perpetrators emerge unscathed. It’s a kind of boldness that reinforces and enhances social mores, of which racism still remains a crucial part. The foundation of American confidence is built on the dehumanisation and humiliation of women, LGBTQ people, and people who aren’t white. And all this starts, and perhaps even reaches its peak, in high school.

But the compulsion for American ‘cool’ is rooted in insecurity, especially when it appears among high school students. It’s the insistence for social belonging that leads young adults to embrace, celebrate, and reproduce racism within their own generation. And Muslims have always been the convenient ‘other’ against which western civilisation has constructed itself, as Palestinian-American Professor Edward Said theorised and proved in his seminal Orientalism (1978).

The condition of this construction of identity against the Muslim other has only intensified in the aftermath of the War on Terror, the constant media barrage against Muslims in the name of fighting the Islamic State (IS), and the public validation of American Islamophobia with the election of avowed racist President Donald Trump.

The student under controversy at San Ramon Valley High School – the junior student body president –won his election campaign with the aid of a video he made where he promises to fight IS. While the video was taken down within 24 hours of uploading it, it clearly struck a nerve in a diverse part of the country. The school reported that the video used stereotypes of “Middle Eastern people” based on “their dress, names, manner of praying and religious dietary restrictions”.

The participation of two reportedly Afghan students in the video as ‘terrorists’ not only exposes the backhanded character of American racism, it demonstrates the lengths to which people who are not white will go to be accepted into the American fabric of belonging. For Muslims, there is always a price to pay for social acceptance, and that is our self-respect.

Racist bullying remains a chronic problem in schools in America, though it isn’t highlighted as much as sexism, homophobia, or transphobia. The Netflix TV series 13 Reasons Why, which incidentally also takes place in Northern California, exposes the misogyny and culture of rape and sexual harassment which is rampant in American high schools, and foremost enabled by teachers who ‘look the other way’.

The same dynamic applies to Islamophobic racism. A 2015 report by the California chapter of CAIR found that 55% of Muslim students reported bullying, which is twice the number of all students facing bullying on a national basis.

The fact that teachers are complicit or even instigators of bullying is as disturbing as it is unethical and counter-intuitive to the goal of education. The 2015 incident of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed being arrested because his teacher called the cops on him for making a clock attests both to the complicity of teachers in racism and the perceived threat of critical thinkers and talented students, who may be Muslim and not white.

The Texas school district where Mohamed studied and was unjustly led away in handcuffs faced no accountability, just as San Ramon Valley High’s junior student body president will face no discipline for producing images of violent Muslims, and ridiculing the culture and faith of his peers.

Even amidst the media furor and the concerns of parents who have dared to take a stand, the irony of a junior student body president winning a campaign built on racism isn’t lost. After all, Trump was elected president of the US in exactly the same way.

Iman Sultan

Iman Sultan

The author is a freelance writer and activist, currently based in Philadelphia. She tweets @karachiiite

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Brenton deed

    Hmmm in my experience Pakistani immigrants are just as bad… to some degree xenophobia is human nature as is tribalism and “belonging to a pack”.
    Teenagers are the most insecure people and therefore most likely to resort to these behaviours … but don’t be so quick to find in a reason in race or culture otherwise you are guilty of the offence you accuse others of.Recommend

  • Devon Smith

    Why do students in Pakistani universities resort to lynching Ahmedi Muslims and killing people who don’t believe in Islamic faith ?Recommend

  • Karl

    if she’s a Karachiite, then let her fix Karachi’s problems. There is no Human Right to be in USA. If she doesn’t like the place, she should get on an airplane and get out of here.Recommend

  • Amir

    same reasons why students of Ahmadi faith if found out in schools in Pakistan are ostracized, restricted movements, even expelled.Recommend

  • Pounce

    In Pakistan, students are regularly murdered on the cusp of a rumour. Little girls are shot dead for wanting to learn. Christians are told to become Muslims in schools and yet the author of this diatribe feels he can comment on Muslims living in the US.Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    The author should ask herself why is it that there’s an alarming increase in intolerance towards Muslims. There is an elephant in the room that every single Muslim refuses to see. Not one of them is prepared to recognize that there’s a problem in their community. The answer will present itself when this apathy ends – either through introspection or as an enforcement.Recommend

  • hoohaa

    Muslims must be glad that none of these countries are doing to them what Muslims in Muslim countries do to their minorities.Recommend

  • rama

    Is not the way Pakistan majority treats its minorities , Are you able to feel the pain of Hindu & Christians going through in PakistanRecommend

  • Gratgy

    “The foundation of American confidence is built on the dehumanisation and humiliation of women, LGBTQ people,”

    A Muslim talking about dehumanising and humiliation of women and LGBTQ people in America. That’s rich!Recommend

  • Bill Bixby

    Islam is a race? Hmmm…news to me.Recommend

  • Patwari

    The author is not comparing two countries. One is the most advanced nation
    on Earth with pristine, hallowed, Civil Rights Laws. The other is a Third World Country.,..like Hindu Desh. You are the one who cannot understand all this.
    But then there are other things. transpiring in Hindustan that you can compare
    by the same token,….!!
    Should we talk about Ghar Wapsi Campaign, Love jihad Campaign,..burning
    and destroying Christian churches [Delhi, Maharashtra] A Statue of Rama in
    every Mosque Campaign [from Yogi Adityanath, a Chief Minister to boot!!]Recommend

  • Patwari

    No, dead wrong,….teenagers are not the MOST INSECURE.
    They are average, just like anybody else. And basically “mirror”
    their community, where they live.
    Yes, their psyches are developing and the hormonal changes
    are in effect
    Tribalism and belonging to a pack are “antique” words. In this
    day and age, with a very fast moving society/culture and instant
    connections, media/electronics….these contentions do not hold water.
    One word….”78% ” increase in civil discrimination cases since
    Trump became president.Recommend

  • Pounce

    1) I’m not Hindu
    2) My family are …..Muslim
    3) My post was regards the rank hypocrisy ingrained within the faith when it comes to berating others.
    4) The US is not the most advanced nation in the worldRecommend

  • KlingOn2K

    You left out 20 other states.Recommend

  • kumar

    Because everything has a limit so is the toleranceRecommend

  • Bezukhov

    Until one of them is accused of blasphemy by a Muslim.Recommend

  • Bezukhov

    Ya think if Pakistan had “pristine, hallowed, Civil Rights Laws” it could be an advanced First world nation?Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    Hmm, please go out to a plaza in Pakistan and loudly proclaim that you are an Ahmadi and proud of it! Please attach a note to your jacket first so that the authorities might know where to send your body!Recommend

  • Patwari

    Hyuk hyuk hyuk. Had no idea. There are 20 more states
    in Hinduland ! Gosh ! No wonder, all two billion of you
    toilet less people, are biting chunks out of each other.
    Well, see, here, just mentioned the states where there are ongoing insurgencies . And a year round open hunting
    season on minorities….you know, like Dalits, Muslims, Jains,
    Christians, Untouchables….you get the gist?
    Specially since the Vermilion Lord ne Modi Sarkar ne Butcher
    of Gujrat took over the throne.Recommend

  • Devon Smith

    As far as I know Muslim terrorists killed Hindus in Kashmir and they are doing terrorism thereRecommend

  • numbersnumbers

    Author should note that the non-Muslim students in America do not pressure the Muslim students to convert to Christianity!Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    Living in an economic and military super power like Pakistan, you should be more generous towards your neighbours instead of abusing them.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Comment mangled by moderators to please their hindu masters.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Take a deep breath and repeat 10 times
    I yam a hindu, I yam a hindu, I yam a hindu,…
    You will be fine.
    [you can interchange ‘am’ for ‘yam’…like
    I am a hindu…;.no one will notice the difference.]
    Lord Rama will help you.Recommend

  • G.S.K. herzak

    America is a sh*thole. The whites there are supremacist jerks who deserve the pounding blacks give them! So glad that Hindus who supported Trump are getting whooped. Did the think voting for a white supremacist would help them?Recommend

  • G.S.K. herzak

    Than why are Hindus begging to go to Muslim gulf and not stay in their Hindutva Dreamland with toilets on every street corner- literally!!!Recommend