When You Are The Stereotype
'Sometimes, you have to be violent.'
Everyone froze and turned to my student, Amir who had dropped those words as casually as suggesting an ice-cream flavour. I stared at Amir, and in a desperate attempt at telepathy, tried to convey to him to choose his words carefully.
Before me, I had my usual Sunday group of Muslims students as well as a Jewish youth group who were visiting for the day. We were having a discussion about ways to react to ignorance and bullies. The discussion was going well until Amir, the class clown of my group, raised his hand. The Jewish boy sitting next to him shuffled slightly in his seat and glanced at his teacher.
I cleared my throat. 'What do you mean exactly, Amir? I feel like violence only makes the situation worse.'
Amir shrugged, oblivious to the sudden uneasiness in the room. 'I mean, not physically violent, I guess. Just, like, I notice when I stand up straighter and talk louder, it stops the people teasing me straight away.'
'Ahh, right.' I nodded slowly. 'I think the word you're looking for is assertive. Being assertive, not violent,' I corrected, 'is definitely very important.' The boy next to Amir still looked alarmed.
I took a deep breath and tried to change the topic. 'What about positive reactions? I know that for me, I get a lot of smiles and kind words.'
Another Muslim student, Rashid, raised his and I gestured to him to talk, holding my breath. 'Once, there was this guy who was bullying me, making fun of Muslims. Then this older guy, Jake, stood up for me.'
I breathed a slow sigh of relief. 'Wow, that's great! There are always people willing to help.'
'Yep.' Rashid agreed. 'Jake punched the guy, and now he never bullies me.'
It took all the strength I had to restrain from face-palming right there. The other kids seemed more confused than ever. Before this, we had just had a discussion about how both religions uphold peace, how Islam was often unfairly portrayed in the media, and now my students were taking this whole thing backwards.
What do you do when someone perpetuates a stereotype about themselves?
As I drove home afterwards, I ran through all the things my kids said wrong, all the stereotypes that were left unclarified. Why couldn't they be more mature about this? Didn't they realise they already had so many misconceptions placed on themselves before they even spoke a word? Why didn't they think before blabbering out whatever came to their minds? I'd have a serious talk to them about it next week, I resolved.
I thought back to when I was their age. Twelve years old. I sighed. I might have been no better. Twelve. They were so young but they would learn, eventually, the weight of their words and actions. They would learn that what others might say sounded different when it came from them.
It made me think of all the times I've been terrified to appear as a stereotype.
I remember sitting in a politics class at university, shrinking in my seat and fuming at myself for not doing the readings, as my classmates debated the Middle East and Islam around me. I remember wishing the ground would swallow me as the subject of the oppression of women in Muslim lands came up, and then losing myself in articles that night to make sure I was better equiped to speak up next time. I remember feeling like my hijab was a flashing light, drawing eyes to me, begging me to contribute, but a fear of not saying the right thing strangled my words. I was horrified in those moments, that I appeared to be the stereotype. Stifled, ignorant, passive.
I remember a Muslim friend telling me that she made an effort to appear more outspoken, to be more animated, though it could be uncomfortable for her as a strong introvert, just because she hated people to assume that she was their typical submissive Muslim woman.
What do you do when you know you seem like the stereotype? Vehemently act the opposite?
As difficult as it is for me to admit, being someone who can be overly concerned with appearances, it's okay to sometimes be exactly what people expect you to be. I don't have to smile at every stranger, be artificially nice or loud, hoping that it might change a perspective.
I can - if I feel like it, but I don't have to.
Sometimes, we seem like the stereotype. Because we are human, and humans are varied. Whether you're a shy Muslim woman, or a mum who loves to cook, or a brown guy who likes to code.
My students are allowed to be children. I am allowed to be learning. We are allowed to be unapologetically ourselves.
What are you thoughts? Have you ever felt this way? Comment down below!