Well, by now, President Obama has invited Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year old Sudanese-American boy, to visit the White House. This is of course after the boy was treated like a criminal for bringing a home-made clock to school. It boggles the mind that the teachers this boy learns from everyday could collaborate in the project of demonizing him and having him led off in handcuffs for all his fellow students to see.
There has been an outpouring of support for Ahmed, with the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed, but this does not erase Ahmed’s experience. While some are celebrating this as a teachable moment, the impact on this boy’s young life cannot be imagined.
I am frustrated, also, by how Ahmed has now become a representative of a cause, an activist, and a symbol. At merely 14 years old, Ahmed’s twitter profile picture captured him confused, staring at the camera, his hands bound in cuffs. Now he must respond to his supporters and detractors (oh yes, there are plenty of the latter too). A normal youthful creative kid, at 14 years old, he does not now have the luxury to figure life and self out at his leisure. Now he must become That Kid who was stigmatized, feared, and physically restrained and now has been rounded up into another box, that of Cause and Issue.
In my research with Muslim American college students, I keep finding the same blasted thing: when Muslim youth keep encountering themselves framed with stigma, they learn to perpetually respond to that stigma, whether by internalizing it, apologizing for it, responding to it, explaining it, etc. I grieved for Malala too, when as a teenager, she became framed as a symbol of civilizational conflict, and paid an enormous price for this. I find myself pleading that we allow other people’s children (as Lisa Delpit put it) a normal childhood and a normal journey to becoming.