When I came to Egypt, I thought I will forever get away from racism. Living in Singapore as a minority race has its downside, although, technically, my race was the original inhabitants of Singapore. Nevertheless, the Chinese were often given priority and considered as the better race. The minority races like Malay, Indian and Arab are looked down and not given better privileges compared to the Chinese. Though I personally do not face many problems, I’ve seen other minority races being bullied, laughed at and mocked at, ever since my primary school days. I sympathize especially with my Indian friends, who, because of their color and the way they speak, they often become the objects of jokes and mockery and sinister remarks.
When I got married to my husband, an Arab, an African, an Egyptian, all in one, I felt the real pangs of racism. He faced it in his work, when he went shopping or when he went to government offices for some official procedures. People treat him differently, negatively different. I feel for him but he braced it all for fifteen years.
My son too, faced racism when he was in primary school and later on when he went to Secondary school. My children took up Chinese as a second language, to help them blend in the Singaporean society. But he was often ridiculed because of his mixed race and the way he looks. See, he doesn’t look like any of the Singaporean’s races nor does he look like an Arab. (I’m mixed myself – a little bit of Chinese, Malay and Indian – from both my paternal and maternal grandparents). So he hung out with the minorities because his Chinese friends do not accept him in their circle of friends.
In Secondary School, it was much better for my son. The students are more accepting but because of prior perceptions from their parents and society, at times, my son became the brunt of their jokes and silly remarks. He would come home sometimes, frustrated and solemn. I have to repeatedly tell him to ignore silly remarks and talks from immatured people.
Surprisingly though, my daughter didn’t face any problem at all. She mixed around with anybody and everybody. Maybe it’s because of her personality that she is easily liked by the people around her.
When we came to Egypt, I thought all these thoughts and ideas of racism will go away like the wind. But I was wrong. Dead wrong. On the first day of their high school in an international school in my town, they came home depressed. My daughter cried, saying she had no friend and nobody came to talk to her or wanted to sit with her. I cried in my heart but I told her to give it sometime for people to warm up. Maybe they thought she couldn’t speak Arabic and their English is not very good, that’s why they shied away from her. I told her if she had nobody to be with during break, she could always come to my staffroom and sit with me (I am a teacher at the same school) or she could go to the library.
Few days later, things got better for my children. My son hung out with the boys in the class during break just like they were old friends. Maybe because his Arabic was more fluent than my daughter’s but he definitely blended in very well. My daughter found comfort in a few friends whom she got to know while sitting at the library – the book lovers. I was really glad for both of them.
But one day she came home to tell me about an incident in the class. It was an English lesson and the teacher, a Brit man, divided the class into groups and they were supposed to discuss an issue. My daughter, being the one who is better in English, led the discussion and suggested an answer. The others, being not so proficient in English, discussed in Arabic but accepted her answer. When the teacher asked for an answer from each group, none gave the answer expected by the teacher, including my daughter’s group. And because of that, one of the girls in her group called her a loser. The thing is that the teacher didn’t say it was a wrong answer. It was just not the answer he expected. But her comment of the word ‘loser’ hurt my daughter and me so much that I had wanted to see the girl the next day to ask her what exactly she meant by that, when during the discussion itself, she and the rest never really discussed, but mostly kept quiet because they couldn’t understand the question. And during all the English lessons, the only ones participating in the class discussion with the English teacher were my son and my daughter (they were in the same class – not twins – but a result of a transfer-in case for non-Arab speaking student). Why the hell did she call my daughter a loser when at least, she racked her brain to answer the question or participated in class discussions while the rest didn’t. Just because she is not a pure Egyptian, but of mixed race, and she can’t really speak Arabic fluently, that she is a loser and unworthy of their friendship?
As they progressed to Grade 11 and 12, my children proved the pure Egyptians their worth. The other girls realized my daughter’s ‘real value’ and started making friends with her. The proud girl who called my daughter a loser left the school at the end of Grade 10 to be homeschooled. At the end of Grade 12, my daughter came out as the school’s valedictorian. She is definitely not a loser to me, neither to her friends, nor to her teachers.
This wasn’t an isolated case. I’ve seen a Chinese boy, in this same school, being bullied and interrogated by the boys in his class during break time. I had to break the crowd and reprimanded the students for ‘terrorizing’ the Chinese boy, who, by the way, was the highest achiever in the class. But because he doesn’t have sharp nose, or big eyes with curly eyelashes or curly hair like typical Egyptians, he was looked down upon by his classmates and being derided.
In another class, an Indian boy was also isolated and ignored by his classmates. They refused to allow him in their groups, they refused to share books with him, they ignored him and spoke rudely to him. And truth be told, this boy fared better in his exams than the rest of them and was the champion in the Spelling Bee Competition for Grade 7.
So the winds of racism blow in all directions of the world, not just in the West and it’s not just restricted to adults, religion or Africans. Children too, face racism and it’s more hurting to them than to us, because, unlike us, they are more fragile and may not be able to cope well. We, as educators, have to try to educate our students that there is no one single superior race. All of us are equal and we shouldn’t treat other people badly or lowly just because they are different from us. At the school levels, we have to initiate the winds of change. Through stories, through activities like the racial harmony day, international day, through performances and songs and food, we can all bring a paradigm of shift in the minds of the present and future generations. Bigotry is one of the biggest crimes of humanity and we have to stop it.