By Sonny Singh
“Terrorist.” “The enemy.” “Dangerous.” Whenever I ask a group of students what common stereotypes about Muslims are, these responses are repeated without hesitation. To me, it comes as no surprise that these common societal perceptions of Muslims trickle down to young people—and impact how they treat each other.
In 2011, filmmaker Christina Antonakos-Wallace made a 10-minute documentary called Article of Faith, which was featured in the Media that Matters Film Festival. She followed me around with a camera and documented some of my work to address the overwhelming problem of Sikh students being bullied in NYC schools. While the film is very personal for me, it illuminates a problem much more widespread to New York City and our entire country—bias-based bullying and harassment, in this case based on being Sikh or Muslim.
Since then, HEART has used the film in over 60 workshops in NYC schools on addressing bullying and/or post-9/11 racism, from 4th to 12th grade. Some might be surprised that kids so young can understand and relate to the content in the film. The reality that we’ve seen time and time again is that even 9 or 10-year-olds have learned negative stereotypes about Muslims and are very ready to talk about them.
After watching the film, we usually talk about why Sikh youth in particular are being bullied and harassed. Student responses almost always include, “Because they’re different,” and, “Because of 9/11.” Sikhs are indeed often mistaken for Muslims, but that is not the heart of the problem, we discuss. “No one should be treated like that, whether they’re Muslim or not,” a student declared to the class a few weeks ago at a workshop I was teaching at a Manhattan high school.
Once we identify anti-Muslim bigotry, or Islamophobia, as the overarching issue, we discuss why an entire community (of 1.5 billion worldwide) has been blamed for the actions of a few. Through this discussion, students grapple with and begin to unpack the core of what stereotypes are. Students then start making connections to their own experiences and observations.
For example, at a middle school in Hunts Point in the Bronx, one Dominican student told the class about how her dad has a big beard and has been called a terrorist many times. Another Latina student talked about her father who also has a beard had experienced similar things, including being harassed by the police. A black student talked about being followed around in a store where the owner assumed he was trying to steal something. After he shared that story, many more hands darted up with stories of their family members being questioned by the police, unjustly arrested, or treated with suspicion solely because of their skin color.
Finally, we transition into talking about taking action. To get the brainstorm started, I ask the students what the youth in the film did about bullying and harassment. They spoke up, they shared their experiences with others, they protested. They didn’t remain silent. While Article of Faith brings up a lot of sadness and anger for students who watch it, it also leaves them with a sense of hope and empowerment because of the courage of the youth in the film.
I ask students, “So, what can we do about it, what can you do about this problem?” Younger students often respond, “Don’t judge people,” or, “Help someone if they are being bullied.” Some high schoolers suggest: “Don’t believe everything you hear in the media,” or, “Organize more workshops like this.”
Sometimes students may still leave with more questions than answers, which to me is a success. Encouraging students of all ages to think critically is the first step to debunking stereotypes. Young people are ready and willing to talk about these complex and challenging issues. As educators, it is our responsibility to initiate them.