by Sana H. Aaser
While Muslims were celebrating the final days of Ramadan and Eid, two unarmed black men – Philando Castile and Alton Sterling – were shot and killed by police officers in separate events in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge. These recent events underscore a disheartening trend: young black men in America are nine times more likely to be killed by police officers than any other demographic.
Race relations have become all the more tense as self-proclaimed, “freedom fighters,” have killed six police officers in Dallas and three police officers in Baton Rouge. Although the news and social media have been filled with updates and opinions, few articles have been geared toward kids. Even those articles that make a case for why we should talk to our kids about it, don't explain how.
So, what do we tell our kids?
In the following sections, we will discuss: (a) a rationale for discussing race relations in America with kids, (b) a historical narrative to teach, (c) key topics to discuss, and (d) action items.
Why Muslims Must Tell Their Kids
As a parent, you might be asking yourself, “Why should I tell my child about race relations in America?” Here are three important reasons:
The cases of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling are each examples of a grave injustice in which police officers used their positions of power and authority to make a judgment and exert force unfairly. Islam teaches us to stand up against injustice wherever we see it. The Qur'an states “…do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is acquainted with what you do” (5:8).
Standing for Equity
The events that transpired in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge are part of a larger narrative of the persistent unequal treatment of people of color. This is not only morally reprehensible, but also against the teachings of Islam. Allah says “Oh mankind, indeed We have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you” (49:13).
Reflecting on the stories of the police officers who shot and killed these Black men, a discussion on our own awareness of biases and stereotypes is required. While the police officers might deny being racist, their actions say otherwise. Their hasty judgment led to the death of young men. In the same way, our own assumptions and prejudices can have terrible consequences.
This isn't just an American problem, it is an American-Muslim problem as well. The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative released a study in 2015, documenting serious forms of racism within the American-Muslim community. If you don't have time to read through the study, a summary (in pop-culture form) is available here.
Why Parents Don't Tell Their Kids
These are tough conversations. Parents may not want to have these conversations because they are personally uncomfortable. The American Psychology Association, believes that it is integral for parents to keep talking anyway, and that the discussions get easier over time. However, there are two common hesitations that parents have.
My Kids are Color Blind
One common hesitation that parents cite when discussing topics related to race is that “my children [and I] don't see color; we treat all people equally.” This argument, often referred to as “color blindness,” lacks merit because even if a parent allegedly does not see race, it still does not account for institutional racism. Secondly, studies show that our brains naturally discriminate and therefore, it is irresponsible to claim that one, “does not see color.”
My Kids are Too Young
Another common contention is that, “my children are too young to speak to about race,” or that “my children aren't affected by racism.” This is simply not true. An in-depth investigation by CNN, titled “Kids on Race,” in 2012 showcases that children as young as six years old have varying attitudes on race.
We recommend the following discussion for parents of children age six and above.
The Story to Share with Kids
Our goal is to share a historical narrative to help children understand the concept of institutional racism, as it pertains to Black people in America. This narrative follows advice provided from the journal, Multicultural Education.
What Monopoly Can Teach Us About Racism
Let's begin with a story. Imagine everyone in the family except for you (the child) are playing a game of Monopoly (or pick another game that may be more appropriate for your family, e.g. Pokemon, Chutes & Ladders, LIFE). We play for one hour, and now, each of us owns properties and has earned lots of money. Now imagine, after all of this, we let you (the child) join the game. You start with nothing. If each of us does the same amount of work, do you think you could win? No, there is very little chance, because you are starting so far behind.
This game is similar to the experience of Black people in America. Nearly 400 years ago, White European settlers in America went to Africa. There, the settlers kidnapped Black Africans and brought them to America. These Africans were enslaved. This means that they forced the Africans to work for them. From the time the Africans were children, they had to work all day and were not able to go to school either.
For more than 200 years, this is how Black people lived in America. Finally, a lot of people – some White and some Black – gained the courage to stand up against this. They said that enslaving people was bad, and that it needed to stop. And, they succeeded. Slavery was abolished, meaning that it ended. Black people were freed so that they could begin leading normal lives. Meaning, they could buy homes, go to school, and get normal jobs!
But, remember that game of Monopoly we played? Just because somebody is playing the game, that doesn't mean it was fair. Today, because they were treated unfairly from the beginning, Black people have to work harder than others for the same results. Not only that, when slavery was abolished, some people still had bad feelings towards Black people just because they looked different. Because of that, they treated Black people very badly. For example, Black people weren't able to eat at the same restaurants or even use the same bathrooms. These actions are called, “discrimination,” and some still treat Black people unfairly today.
For a more detailed history of slavery in America, this website is a good source. Additionally, “If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America,” published by Scholastic, paints a picture of slavery in America for children age five and above.
Key Watch Outs
Important notes: (1) Do not refer to the Africans as “slaves,” but rather say that they were “enslaved.” This slight difference underscores the initial act of injustice, instead of labeling a group of people with a term of disempowerment. (2) Clarify that over time, enslaved Africans were called African Americans, who are also called Black people, or people of color. (3) This narrative is a very simplified version of the history, and can be modified depending on the age of your children.
Given this history, below is a set of questions and activities that parents can engage in with children to help foster an understanding of fairness and discrimination.
Activity #1 – The Sweet Taste of Fairness
What does it mean if something is fair? Have Black people been treated fairly in the history of our country? We seek to answer these questions through this activity. You will need 12 pieces of candy. Follow the instructions and questions below.
Imagine President Obama gave me five pieces of candy and only gave you one. How would you feel? The goal of this discussion is to help children understand the meaning of “fairness.” It is in our fitra, or human nature, to be opposed to injustice and attracted to justice.
Now what if the roles were switched, and you received five pieces of candy and I only had one. How would you feel? The goal of this discussion is for children to understand that when we are in situations of privilege (e.g. when we have the candy), we must give to those who do not have it.
So let's say President Obama gave me five pieces and only gave you one. Now, President Obama comes back. He has four pieces of candy. Who should he give the pieces of candy to? The goal here is to foster a desire for equity instead of equality. By the standards of equality, each individual should be given two. But, this isn't fair because the child will only have three pieces total and the parent will now have seven! However, by the standards of equity, the child should be given all four pieces to make up for the prior deficit. That way, each individual has five pieces of candy.
In the American context, this goes against our beliefs about hard work paying off (the Protestant work ethic, the land of opportunity, etc). We like to believe that the good that comes to us is a product of our own efforts, not a privilege handed to us by a rigged system.
Final question: Now that we know about fairness and equity, do you think Black people have been treated fairly in the history of the United States? The goal here is to bring the conversation together. Black people in America have not been treated fairly. The over 200-year history of slavery (and lack of equity) means there isn't a level playing field.
In the Holy Qur'an, “Allah orders for justice and fairness, (16:90). Allah continues saying, “O you who believe! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor…” (4:135). Not only with your family and relatives, but even with others, Allah commands us to be fair and just.
Activity #2 – Tart Discrimination
Is it okay to treat people differently based on how they look? We seek to answer this question through the following activity. You will need at least four people and four lemons. This activity was originally created by the Anti-Defamation League.
Assign each person a lemon and ask the individual to become an expert on the lemon – how it looks, smells, and feels. Next, collect the lemons in one basket and move them around such that their order is not easily discovered. Finally, ask the participants to locate their lemon from the basket. Remarkably, most will be able to find their lemon.
Ask the individuals how they were able to spot their lemon. Some may reference the size, others may talk about color, etc. This is a precursor to a discussion on how people are like that – different sizes, shapes, and colors.
Now, collect the lemons again. This time, peel the lemons, and ask the kids to find their own lemon. Presented with this, the children will respond saying, “All of the lemons look the same!” This comment opens the door to the realization that people, similar to lemons, look different on the outside but are all essentially the same on the inside.
Final Question: If we, like the lemons, are all similar on the inside, is it okay to treat people differently based on how they look on the outside?The goal here is to bring the conversation together. Black people in America are still being treated unfairly because of the way they look.
The Holy Prophet says, “If one of you sees something evil, he should change it with his hand. If he cannot, he should speak out against it, and if he cannot do even that, he should at least detest it in his heart, this being the weakest form of faith.” We describe this notion of justice in our book, “Noor Kids Stand Up to Bullying.”
As parents, we recommend the following three actions to help alleviate the inequity associated with race in our communities. Some activities involve children, others do not.
Step One – Reflect on Our Biases
Where do biases stem from? According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue at Columbia University, it starts at home. She says, “Many parents talk to their children about embracing difference, but in subtle, covert ways, they communicate something very different. For example, when approaching a group of black youngsters, a mother may unconsciously pull the child nearer to her.” As parents, it is our responsibility, firstly, to reflect on our biases. If unchecked, these biases may manifest themselves in our children.
Step Two – Role Model Behavior
How can we protect ourselves from negative biases? The answer is simple: people. Dr. Wing Sue explains, “many [non-Black] parents often talk to kids about the evils of prejudice and discrimination, yet in their own lives they have few friends or neighbors of color with whom they regularly socialize. These implicit communications are more powerful than any intentional efforts on the part of parents.”
As parents, if we expect our children to grow up with an appreciation for humanity, we too must reflect such diversity in our daily lives through our friends and neighbors.
Step Three – Participate
As the Holy Prophet's saying goes, if we cannot solve this issue with our hands, we should at least speak out against it. Many scholars of note, including Shaykh Omar Suleiman and imam Suhaib Webb, have taken to the streets and participated in locally-organized protests. Participating in such events sends a strong message to children that we, as Muslims, have a responsibility to stand up with the oppressed.
If it is not possible to attend a protest, it is valuable to either call or write a letter to your local state representative. In your phone call or letter, you and your children should each discuss why you are troubled about recent violence towards Black people in America and express a need to hold responsible parties accountable. This too sends a strong message to children to participate in their local government.
This work has been created by Sana H. Aaser, Educational Director at Noor Kids. Sana has a Master's degree in education with a focus on equity and social justice. Her research on American-Muslim youth identity earned her San Francisco State University's highest honors as a graduate hood recipient.
Noor Kids is a Harvard-supported monthly, at-home Islamic education program designed by creative and scholarly experts to help 4- to- 8 year-olds learn and love Islam. To see a free sample, click here.