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Negative Stereotypes Hurting Muslim Children

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Wednesday, October 4th, 2006 Kristen DiPaolo | CWK Producer

“I was in our international business class. We were learning about what languages would be best for interacting in the business world, and Arabic came up. This guy was like, ‘Why would you want to learn Arabic? That’s what all the terrorists speak.’”

– Yosra Khalifa, 17

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As Muslim-Americans celebrate this holy month of Ramadan, many are also dealing with discrimination. A recent Gallup poll shows almost 40 percent of Americans admit they feel at least some prejudice against Muslims – and that may be having an effect on Muslim teens.

That prejudice became evident to 17-year-old Yosra Khalifa when she was at school, taking a business class.

“We were learning about what languages would be best for interacting in the business world,” explains Yosra, “and Arabic came up. This guy was like, ‘Why would you want to learn Arabic? That’s what all the terrorists speak.’”

She was surprised by her own reaction.

“I actually teared up,” says Yosra. “I didn’t think I would react that way. But it hurts a lot, because it’s something that you’ve always been proud of. Like being an Arab was something I’ve always been proud of, and just to see someone react like that – I don’t know, it hurt.”

According to Yale research, Arab-Americans are more than twice as likely to be depressed as Americans overall.

And, the study suggests, the reason is discrimination.

“A lot of times,” explains 14-year-old Haniyyah Taufique, “it was just like a random boy would come up to you and say, ‘is your uncle Saddam Hussein?’ Or something like that.”

“They will basically be ignorant about it and think that all Arabs or all Muslims are terrorists or whatnot,” says 17-year-old Adam Stanford.

Experts say because of insults and jokes, some Muslim teens want to distance themselves from their culture and their religion.

“They are wanting to be more of the accepted crowd,” says Soumaya Khalifa, executive director of the Atlanta Chapter of the Islamic Speakers Bureau, an Islamic outreach group. “They want to assimilate more, they don’t want to be labeled or stereotyped as being Muslim or Arab and all the baggage that goes with that- so they just want to be plain American kids.”

According to the Yale research, Arabs who have non-Arab friends are less likely to be depressed.

“It’s going back to the acceptance that’s helpful,” says Khalifa, “I’m not only accepted by my community, but I have friends outside the community. And it’s like a self worth type of a check-in. You know, ‘I’m good enough for the whole world!’”

Yosra agrees.

“I know a lot of my non-Muslim friends have stuck up for me, like when people talk behind my back or something,” says Yosra. “They have stuck up for me. And it means a lot.”

On a more positive note, experts say the events of 9-11 have motivated some Muslim and Arab teens to become leaders at their schools – promoting tolerance and education.

What We Need To Know

  • It’s important for children who face discrimination to talk about their experiences. Muslim parents should ask kids to share what happens at school. (Soumaya Khalifa, Islamic Speakers Bureau)
  • Teach children what to do if they hear insults or discriminatory comments. First, remain calm. It does not help to react out of intense anger. (Michigan State University Extension)
  • If possible, teach kids to confront the offending person in private. No one enjoys being corrected in front of others. Kids should repeat the offensive statement. That way the person will understand exactly what was considered offensive. (Michigan State University Extension)
  • Have kids use “softening statements” such as “I know you wouldn’t want to intentionally hurt people, and when I hear you say…” Practice positive confrontation by having kids think about how they would want to be confronted in a similar situation. (Michigan State University Extension)
  • Have kids think of themselves as educational activists. Counter inaccurate or stereotypical comments with information that helps increase awareness. Parents and kids can look up information about the Islamic faith or Muslim people on the Internet. (Michigan State University Extension)
  • Have kids invite further conversation. Ask the offending person if they are willing to discuss the issue further, and arrange a time. Also, make information and resources available. Kids can say something like, “I have an article I’d be willing to share that helps explain my concern. May I give you a copy?” (Michigan State University Extension)

Resources

  • Islamic Speakers Bureau
  • Yale University School of Medicine
  • Islamic Institute
  • University of Toledo

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