Last month, Ahmed Mohamed, a talented, Muslim, Sudanese-American student, brought a clock that he made to school and his life changed forever on that day. Within hours, he was reported by one of his teachers, detained and arrested by the police, and suspended from school for building an alleged hoax bomb. The entire world shared its reaction to all of the decisions and actions that resulted in the humiliation of this young man and his family. Ahmed’s suspension and arrest led to the creation of a hashtag that went viral- #IStandWithAhmed.
After having multiple weeks to reflect, I am still troubled by what happened to Ahmed. I like the hashtag, #IStandWithAhmed. I love the awareness that came from it- the personal narratives, the voices in allyship, the call to action for change. I also sit in discomfort because if I am being really vulnerable, another hashtag comes to mind- #IAmTheAdministration. Doing my work seemed a lot less complicated when I spent my early career in student affairs critiquing “the administration” for not doing enough to serve and honor students in their wholeness. As my career has progressed, it is humbling to receive that critique from today’s students, sit with them when they share this critique, and stay in it with them as they share their individual and collective truths.
I can’t ignore what happened to Ahmed Mohamed, because I can’t stop thinking about all of the systems that led to his arrest. When you look at every step of the decision making process, each party did what they thought was the right thing to do: the teacher who reported the clock; the principal who suspended the student and called law enforcement; and the law enforcement officers that responded to a perceived threat. Much like them, we in student affairs are the containers of most processes on our campuses. How often have we had an incident occur on our own campuses that results in the activation of one of our processes, and how often have we examined how our individual and institutional privileged identities inform these processes? I can’t ignore what happened to Ahmed, because I wonder how often the systems I develop or uphold as an administrator and educator fail students- particularly students from under-represented groups- just as the systems in Ahmed’s case failed him.
I chose this profession because I was confident I could change the system. But, there was nothing that emotionally prepared me to reconcile what it would mean to be a participant and architect of the very system I critiqued. With every student conduct case, every appeal, every grievance, comes a reminder of the privileged identities that I have, and how that perspective shapes the decisions I make daily. How does the convergence of the decisions we make as student affairs educators differentially impact our students?
In Ahmed’s case, the moment he was found not responsible for bringing a bomb to school, the school and law enforcement had a great opportunity to review its processes and engage in thoughtful dialogue with the community. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. MacArthur High School further justified its processes, affirmed its right to act based on its conduct code, and focused on the community being upset by the negative reputation being placed on the school. The Chief of Police, Larry Boyd, articulated that Ahmed “should have been more forthcoming,” without acknowledging that Ahmed was as forthcoming as he could possibly be, since he was telling the police the truth. Instead of moving towards healing, each of the dominant groups focused on its rights, its justifications of its decisions, and blaming the victim.
I worry about the declining empathy and cultural humility in our society. It is really easy to dehumanize people to justify our own decisions. When we dehumanize people, we absolve ourselves of our responsibilities as human beings. By dehumanizing Ahmed, the school community, the police department and others failed in their responsibility to take ownership of causing pain to a member of their community. They failed in recognizing how their dominant identities informed their perceptions of a Muslim man of color.
When we find ourselves at moments like this we have two paths. The first path takes us down the road to resolution of right vs. wrong. Along that path, we strip one another of our humanity, and work to invalidate the experiences and each others’ narratives as we try to discern who is right and who is wrong. The alternate path takes us down the road of reconciliation. This practice liberates us to focus with intentionality on our relationships with one another. Along this path, because the focus is on relationships, even with disagreement of protocols, practices, and decisions, we all take responsibility for staying in relationship, which means taking responsibility for when we cause pain to others and when dynamics of privilege and power situate us differently.
A path to reconciliation only be paved with empathy and cultural humility. In student affairs this means recognizing that without owning and critiquing our own privileged identities, we cannot be the most authentic stewards of the student experience. It means being honest about our role in a system. It means holding the optimism intended by #IStandWithAhmed, while also holding ourselves accountable by remembering the impact of #IAmTheAdministration, and all of the complexities that come with our profession. This means recognizing how our privileged identities situate others’ realities, staying in the most difficult conversations, and seeing where we can elevate the humanity of our communities and campuses.
This post is part of our #CSAM15 series, in partnership with NASPA. Through these posts, we hope to highlight what it means to have a career in Student Affairs with a diverse group of contributors. With a focus on the students, defining Student Affairs, hot topics, and Striving Towards Betterment, there will be a lot to learn about this month! For more information, check out the intro post by John Weng at NASPA. Be sure to read the other posts in this series too!