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Laila Alawa Headshot

Reading Into Acceptance: Why We Can't Remain Silent Anymore

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2013-10-31-6ABV_muslim_book.jpgWhen I was eight years old, I used to love consuming books of all kinds.

If you asked me what my favorite book was at the time, I was never able to name just one. So it comes as no surprise, that the bi-yearly Scholastic book fair that visited my fairly diverse elementary school was the most anticipated event for me as a child: the opportunity to find a book of my very own, the chance to spend a few dollars on my small-but-slowly-growing bookshelf was my idea of heaven.

As a child, I didn't understand why I could never find a book where the hero (or any of the characters, for that matter) looked like me. But that didn't really matter to my eight-year-old self, because I found a little piece of myself in every person I read about, regardless of how they looked or what they stood for: their dreams, feelings, and actions were something I had too, and for that, I found a bit of myself.

That didn't mean I wasn't more than a little confused, when my headscarf-wearing mother visited the school during a routine class visit, and my friends suddenly began distancing themselves from me after their parents whispered in their ears.

I didn't understand why I was suddenly alone. I was too young to comprehend that the differences that I thought were natural between my family and others, normalized simply because I never found a representation of my family -- a loud, happy Muslim-American family -- in the books I read, weren't natural to my former friends and classmates. They saw me as completely foreign, an anomaly not found and normalized in the books they bought and read at the school book fair, unlike other cultures, faiths and nationalities that were represented and developed through representation and simple humanization. That year in school was a lonely one for my eight-year-old self.

Recently, I was transported back to my childhood feelings of frustration and misunderstanding after seeing a news story about a father in Marietta, GA, who refused to allow his child to even finish reading a book that she had picked out at a Scholastic book fair, because it was about the Muslim tradition. In a school where 65 percent of the students were not native English speakers, and the book fair diversity included Christians, Muslims, and Jews, Thomas Prisock's complaint was contrary to his environment: "I don't want this culture around my children, let's get them educated first. Learn to read and write before we start teaching (about) the fanaticals."

Maybe Mr. Prisock is right.

Perhaps we should keep teaching 'our' children to maintain that beautiful sense of homogeneity and close-mindedness that is keeping us all separated. Maybe we should continue shunning people of different beliefs and traditions, simply because we feel, like Mr. Prisock said, "that culture there doesn't seem to have anything good coming out of it."
Let's foster yet another generation of individuals who have been taught, through the actions and words of their parents, that extending a hand out through the power of written words and carefully drawn pictures, gripping storylines moved along by characters everyone wants to be, is not okay. That prejudice and bigotry is normal and allowed.

Or maybe not.

Let's work on moving our nation in another direction. One in which children are allowed to grow up recognizing that the thoughts, dreams, and emotions they are feeling are same ones felt by children and people who don't resemble them in faith, ethnicity, color or preferences: one in which an eight-year-old child is able to find a book with characters with whom they're able to identify with -- and another child is able to understand the humanity found in the differences, an acceptance sparked by the latest book they've read, a book their parents were alright with them buying simply because it was all about differences.

At the end of the day, prejudice, bigotry and racism is taught by the adults in our lives. Children aren't born knowing to hate or misunderstand; it's fostered by parents, role models, and viewed situations. All people around us have the right to the same dreams, regardless of their differences. It's time that we allow children to learn this understanding, and it's our responsibility to make that happen.