This article is part of an earlier Blog. We feature it here for your comment.
Let me begin by stating that I am a full-blooded Texan with redneck roots (not to say that I’m proud of that latter part of the description). Despite that, I am a convert to Islam and fairly observant in my faith. Outwardly, this is apparent in my groomed beard and head-covering in addition to the combination of my first name, which is Arabic, with my last name, which is from England.
I entered into teaching to make a contribution to my community. My first administrator in Texas public schools was African-American and, ironically, about the most bigoted person you can imagine. He had once made a comment that a district initiative, one that people were grumbling about, was “Like Islam, out to get you.” He also had numerous grievances leveled against him with the union from other minorities and women.
I entered into teaching in international schools in the Middle East in hopes that I might work in a quality institution where I assumed employees and students would be more open to diversity. To some extent this has proven true. But generally I have found that, perhaps more than the host culture, expatriot parents at schools in the Middle East are racist, n0uveau-riche elitists whose extreme distaste for the places in which they live lead them to live lives in a bubble where they move compound, to work/school, to mega-mall, to compound. When they have to engage with locals or non-Western expats outside of these contexts, one never hears an end to the complaints. I actually heard a colleague in Qatar describe her shady Indian repair man as “having a very foreign look.” When I replied, “Aren’t 75% of us here foreigners?” she said with a look and tone that could freeze mercury, “You know what I mean.”
The fact of the matter is, despite mission statements that hope to “draw upon our diverse community” and “honor our status as guests in the host culture,” many expat parents want more from an American or British school than a quality education; they want to preserve the bubble, exemplified in many schools’ celebration of traditional Western holidays to the neglect or total avoidance of local ones important to their significant national student populations. My experience as a White American Muslim is that I represent an intrusion into that bubble. I read a post which commented about having every comment and action scrutinized. That is what has happened to me.
I have been accused of denying the holocaust, despite being proud of my grandfather that was at Normandy and a great-great grandfather who was an Orthodox Jew. I have been accused of promoting my faith in the classroom, despite another group of teachers taking a field trip to a visiting sea-faring missionary organization aboard the Duolos. Parents with a McCarthy-style paranoia complained about a comment in my International Relations class that China is no longer a purely communist country. And finally, I was fired with 6 weeks left in the school year for discussing both Western and Muslim radicalism in my Middle Eastern studies class, a discussion which offended the daughter of a senior military officer in the Iraq war, and was given the rest of my package through August on condition that I did not attempt to contact parents or students for support (because there were many who did express their support).
I have often heard and read on this site a great many complaints about Middle Eastern schools and host cultures. I too am disgusted by the racism one sees from Arabs, all the more so because I am a coreligionist with most of them. Nevertheless, I think those of us living in this situation should use it as an opportunity to reflect upon our own cultural biases. Racism is intolerable anywhere from anyone. But how often have I heard my American and Canadian colleagues refer to a male domestic servant as a house-boy, a term which is reminiscent of derogatory names for house slaves? How often have I seen expats criticize legitimate but different cultural practices in East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East? Why are they living in these places if they find these differences so intolerable?
Bigotry is rampant in international schools, even in monocultural ones, like the one where I currently teach in Egypt. I think it comes with the views predominant in affluent, particularly newly affluent, families. I remember when I saw my second African-American teacher in an international school setting (the first was introduced to a school in Saudi Arabia) my me, at a conference in China. That this sticks out is noteworthy. My experience indicates that it is likely due to discrimination in hiring practices, but my African-American colleague in Saudi suggested that many African-Americans (and probably Latinos) desire to work within their communities to help these groups cope with the problems that prevent them from accessing the American dream.
What I do know, is that bigotry is an issue. I have seen it; my colleagues have seen it. Still, it exists everywhere, as evident from my experience in the States. Ethnic, religious, and other minorities must often make tough choices. We should not see ourselves victims but as ambassadors. If people don’t wish to give you the chance to make a difference, find people who will; there always are.