My 8 year old asks me if I will attend the Holiday Celebration at her public school. “Of course I will.”
She asks me nervously, “You’re not mad that I’ll be singing about Christmas?”
This is the struggle of working toward becoming part of the discourse, of indigenizing minority faiths into Pluribus. The holiday celebration at her school which is, of course, in December, features a good deal of Christmasy elements, some Hanukkah, and some Kwanzaa as well. They have been rehearsing songs about Hanukkah, Santa, and Kwanzaa this year. She has begun to notice the curricular and extracurricular silence on Eid, Ramadan, and Hajj. What about Diwali and Holi? Nope, not them either. The school is living in demographics of the past, when the city, located in a college town, has large numbers of East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and other populations. The school library, she tells me, is displaying books about the holidays, and nothing about Muslim holidays.
Uncertainly, she says such things as “I want to be reflected in the school,” and “It makes it hard for kids to believe in their own things.” She is too young, at times, to distinguish between various layers of identity, and mixes up “faith” and “country.” But she knows something is missing. Sometimes she’s just excited about singing about Santa in front of the whole school.
She also knows she doesn’t want to complain about the absence too loudly. She doesn’t want to be a misfit. I ask her if she’d like to perform a song about Eid. She seems embarrassed at the idea. My East coast American husband is uncomfortable with the idea of being too strident vis-a-vis the issue. He doesn’t like talking about his religion or his feelings in public. He doesn’t like the idea of coming across as demanding and entitled – because we are a minority, of course. And I am an immigrant from a Muslim-majority nation and sometimes, it is hard for me to wait for crumbs. Also, I immigrated to a country where the legal framework does include me, so why should I self-silence? My husband says we need to come up with a perfectly secular suggestion – a secular song about Eid or giving or Ramadan? Ideas, anyone? – that would be acceptable to the school, and in the absence of such a suggestion, perhaps we should just wait.
Waiting is hard. My 8-year old is growing up and I don’t want her to think of herself as always on the sidelines of the collective, never ‘reflected’ as she puts it. I want her to think of herself as a part of the collective, not apart from it. I want her to sing songs about Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, Diwali, and Eid with her friends. I want this to be something that grows out of the school, not something that we raise as an Issue, a Problem. If/when Eid is incorporated into the Holiday Celebration – well, I cringe also at the prospect of the Islamophobia.
We Muslim Americans are a youngish minority demographic. We are still working on American cultural products that grow out of our communities. Even our mosques and Sunday Schools are struggling with the issue of indigenization. This will shift enormously, of course, over the next ten to twenty years, as US-raised Muslims will take on the tasks of Muslim community programming.
Christmas has had long enough – apart from being a majority celebration – to become cultural. I hear some of my White non-religious friends say they celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday. What is lost in that rationalization is that many of these non-Christians were raised within Christian families and heritage, and over time, the religious associations with Christmas faded into culture. Muslims are still seen as a purely religious group, people who have religiosity in their DNA. Due to Huntingtonian notions of civilizational clash, both Muslims and non-Muslims fall prey to this essentializing of Muslims as a religious-and-not-cultural group. Christians and Jews are seen as having the capacity of secularity. As an immigrant from a Muslim-majority nation, I know we have secularity enow in our heritage, but we are always too busy playing Representatives of Islam.
Not to mention, we need secular-Muslim cultural products that will, like Santa’s on his way, Burn Little Candles, Oh Kwanzaa, easily slide through the church-state separation grille without clogging things up.
Also, I ask our district representatives the question, must the holidays in the Holiday Celebration be limited to December holidays? How about making it a truly inclusive Holiday Celebration?
The civil rights discourse I am using makes my kid a little nervous. She wonders if it’s about hostility, competitiveness, enmity. The discourse of inclusion can have that effect sometimes. So what do you do – overlook it all, swallow it meekly because you should be a loving and humble person of faith? What about the invisibility of your children in public discourse? It’s not healthy. Silence breeds the germs of hostility. I want to practice advocacy and inclusive discourse that is gracious, warm, and pluralistic to all.
“Of course I’m not angry,” I explain gently. “I do want them to reflect Eid too. I don’t want you to feel like you’re not reflected at school. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be mad about Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. They’re all our friends and we will sing songs about Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Some day, at school, they’ll sing songs that include all of us, and you.”
She seems relieved. I’m glad we got that out in the open. I’m waiting to hear from the school district. I’m really hoping I hear back from them. We need to get moving with this business.
Update: Here and here are a couple of songs in English. The district got back to me with the invitation to contact the school and discuss how to make it more inclusive.