SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2011 Personal Memory Ethnographies
Fifth Grade Terrorist
I was only in fifth grade the twin tower tragedy occurred on September 11th, 2001 and although you’d think eleven year olds wouldn’t judge another for being different than they, my classmates did. After the Twin Tower tragedy, it was impossible for children of different ethnicities to grow as one. The problem was that the tragedy created unity between the majority of US citizens and at the same time created more animosity between US citizens and Middle-Eastern US citizens. This separation seemed to have even been passed on to children.
One day, shortly after the tragedy, a student simply asked me what ethnicity I was. I told him I was Assyrian. For some reason, although the classroom was very small, it felt massive and empty; the spotlight seemed to be on just me. He asked where my parents were from, I replied saying “They are from Iraq.” Immediately, he yelled, “You’re a terrorist!” in front of my entire class. I felt alone in a world with no one surrounding me. The classroom became something I wanted to escape in that moment. It became full of harsh feelings that struck me almost instantly; it was unbearable. All the classmates surrounding me were about 10-11 years old, an age where they should be full of happiness and laughter; they weren’t. Almost all were voiceless, quiet, yet it felt as if they were thinking unkindly about me. No one stood up for me or even spoke up to tell him he was wrong. At that point, for the classmates, their facial expressions spoke louder than words; all expressed faces of agreement with the boy, almost enjoyment of having found a new victim. As if the first accusation wasn’t hurtful enough, he then exclaimed to all the other students “She is going to blow up the school.” I was speechless, I felt ashamed, humiliated, and stupid even though there was no reason to be, and I had never felt so small in my life. First the boy and then my classmates assumed that just because my parents were from Iraq, I would grow to become a terrorist or that my parents were terrorists.
I asked myself many questions about what makes me so different. You look different than everyone else, your hair isn’t blonde, you don’t have blue eyes, and you speak a different language. How could he assume all Middle Easterners are that way? Well, my parents, they taught me to be this way, anytime I hear my parents speak of Muslims, it’s negatively, and I never hear anything good. I thought to myself, my ethnicity is Assyrian; I was born and raised in Florida. I’m not Muslim. My parents and extended family all grew up and lived in the Middle East, yes. But my siblings and I were baptized and my family followed the customs and traditions of an Assyrian Christian family in America. And even if I were Muslim, that wouldn’t give anyone a good reason to treat me differently. What did I do to him to deserve this? I saw my country get hurt by yours. They killed over 3,000 of my people, those guys from Iraq. No person that lives there can be good; they are all evil, all the men, women, and even children like you.
The reason for this accusation may have been simply that the boy had acquired from his surroundings negative feelings towards people different from himself, particularly Iraqis, and so acted upon it when given the chance. He was ignorant to the subject of equality and in turn was unaware of the negative effects of his actions, a struggle anyone, not just children, faces today.
Every classmate thereafter learned to have an assumption that if a person or their family was from the Middle East, they were corrupt. I truly felt different and alone in the classroom of students that I had thought to be just like me. And if asked my ethnicity or religion, I’d immediately say I was Christian when saying my ethnicity just to save myself from the torment that would invariably be wheedled out of the presumed “Islamic terrorist”. It didn’t make sense to me that someone would judge me just because of my parents origin or the religion I was born into, especially as children are deprived of having their own choice.
Issues like this didn’t just arise after the tragedy, but had been present for many years previously. Particularly, the Gulf War occurring in which the US bombed Iraq in 1991 created an atmosphere of anti-Middle Eastern and anti-Muslim attention in the US. The tragedy of September 11th, 2001 only increased that type of atmosphere. It initiated the way in which each generation, instead of changing their outlook on diversity of religion and race positively in response to these events, taught the next new generation to recognize difference and treat it contrarily. Although the US has progressed in a sense, many times it is taken back many more steps by incidents like mine, which reflected what was going on in the larger social context. The problems of racial and religious prejudice continue with the lack of education and negative attitudes, something so simple yet its doing could change the world. Now a days, parents overlook the importance of teaching their children to have better attitudes towards others, regardless of their ethnicity and/or religion.
Because I’ve been educated, I feel as if this incident built me into someone more aware, cautious and sensitive to the subject not only of race but also gender, class, and sexuality. I’ve realized that all need to be treated equally, as humans and as one, but still recognized as unique and treated respectfully for their differences.
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