Columnist: Stereotypes harm others, breed ignorance

By: Temira Lewis – Columnist

When 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed walked into his Texas high school last Monday, the last thing he probably expected was to leave in handcuffs. Excited to show his engineering teacher his homemade digital clock, a feat that would be deemed impressive by anyone’s standards, this freshman had unknowingly entered into a situation that would lead to nation-wide debates about the extensive reach of Islamophobia.

According to The New York Times, shortly after Ahmed’s clock beeped during his English class and he revealed the device to his teacher, school officials notified the police, and he was soon removed from school in handcuffs to be interrogated by officers. What he thought was an innocent school experiment led to him being fingerprinted at a juvenile detention center and suspended from school. Assuming the clock was a suspicious or threatening object, perhaps a hoax bomb, his hard and remarkable work was confiscated to be further looked at by law enforcement officials.

In a time where we are constantly being told about the importance of STEM education, I find it rather troubling that a child would be persecuted by so many for displaying his interest in science and technology in such an innovative way. As a pre-medicine major, one of my first experiences at UD was attending the Minority STEM Summer Bridge Program, where we were encouraged to use our imagination to create a prosthetic leg out of recycled materials. We were all thrilled by the success of many of the groups’ attempts. Yet, for this Texas teenager, rather than being inspired by his skill and creativity, many people were threatened and suspicious.

I think it would be remiss not to acknowledge how internalized stereotypes surrounding his race and religion may have affected how the school handled the situation. Had the English teacher who said it looked like a bomb or the school officials who felt the need to alert law enforcement had a conversation with Ahmed and his engineering teacher, who originally applauded his invention, perhaps this situation could have been avoided. Instead, this child was humiliated and treated like a menacing criminal. Even when questioning Ahmed, law enforcement officials were continually discontent with his answer of it being just a clock, denying the minor from seeing his parents until he could answer their “specific questions,” and going as far as to make multiple comments about his last name, as reported by The Washington Post.

While the school officials continue to justify their course of action, claiming it is procedure to immediately report suspicious objects, there is something to be said about why any of this would immediately be considered as suspicious. It is clear to many that how this situation was handled could be seen as a manifestation of the anti-Muslim bigotry that has become so pervasive in our country. The Washington Post reports that in the years since 9/11, “annual hate crimes against Muslims have consistently hovered in the 100-150 range, roughly five times higher that the pre-9/11 rate.” And while I surely would not go as far as to say this occurrence is a hate crime, it does reflect how the sensationalized and irresponsible language encountered so frequently in the media has direct effects on human beings outside of politics, how it can influence one to pass judgments brought on by internalized stereotypes that aren’t based in reality. Language does not exist in a vacuum. The Islamophobic rhetoric our media frequently uses, too often by people who know very little about the religion, promotes an anti-Muslim narrative that rests upon the false idea that Islam is inherently violent. This affects millions of people here and internationally, and, unfortunately, sometimes it takes stories like Ahmed’s to truly examine why one would hold certain perceptions. I don’t think it is ever a bad idea to stop and reflect on why we think what we think.

Thankfully, Ahmed Mohamed received an outpouring of support, especially through social media, and has decided not to let what happened deter him from furthering his scientific endeavors. He is instead using his platform to help prevent this from happening to other children. Bright and curious minds like his should be nurtured, not stifled as a result of ignorance.

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