Every time we talked about 9/11 in class, heads would slowly turn in my direction.
I was the only hijab in my class, grade, and school in Nashville. The lack of representation around me was more suffocating than the actual scarf around my neck. I worried that my classmates were learning to see me as the enemy.
In our World History textbook, I searched for chapters about the endless accomplishments of the Islamic empires only to find endless pages about the academic and technological advances of Europe. I would think about the beauty of my religion and how its message of peace and forgiveness was blatantly forgotten. Instead, Muslims were portrayed as the barbaric enemy from the days of pirate ships to the horrors of ISIS and everything in between. I never got to see myself — or the achievements of Islam — reflected in what we were studying.
I craved stories in which Black and brown people are visible, and their accomplishments are recognized. But I had to seek those out on my own.
This issue did not just affect me; it affected everyone who wasn’t white. From the sugarcoated retelling of slavery in America to the twisted notions of American colonization quests in places such as the Philippines and Hawaii, violence targeting people of color was being whitewashed. It’s no accident; rather it’s a part of the structural racism built into the American education systems. Schools need to diversify their canon, teach history unfiltered, and raise awareness about the importance of diversity and inclusion.
Over the past year, laws targeting critical race theory seek to hide the truth about racism in America. While still in high school, I signed a petition to remove Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a woman who vocally opposed the construction of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, from the Tennessee textbook committee. (The petition failed, unfortunately.) I researched critical race theory — and learning the truth about it, wondered why some white people were so threatened by it. I heard about how one of my favorite novels, “The Hate U Give,” about a young girl and her experience with racism and police brutality, was banned in Katy, Texas.
In high school, I was a part of an organization centered on diversity, equity, and inclusion work and bringing people together to talk about difficult topics. We organized a conference this past summer about issues surrounding race and identity. Some of the conference sessions included topics such as global citizenship and self reflective identity work. As the conference rolled around, I was too busy managing the logistics of it that I did not have many moments to enjoy the fruits of our labor. But on the second day, a few friends and I sat in on one of the lectures.
A professor was explaining and breaking down critical race theory. I remembered hearing about it in the news, and about how many states had banned it, or were trying to. The professor explained that critical race theory means pulling back the veil on historically obstructed lessons. It means putting the truth forward without hindering the facts or changing the narrative. So why are people afraid of the truth? I then realized that white people who perpetuate racism fear the truth will expose them. They protect themselves by using local laws to cover up American history.
Those who mobilize to include and amplify the voices of marginalized communities look toward a future when Black and brown students’ histories and stories will never be misrepresented or excluded in the classroom. I fight for a future in which young people can embrace their culture, race, and heritage in and outside their schools. I envision a future with honest and wide-ranging history lessons, diverse reading lists — a future that will bring us closer to racial justice, educational equity, and real visibility for all.
Salwa Daouk is a first-year college student from Nashville who serves as a League Leader for EdTrust Tennessee.