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Did you see any Muslims there? A classroom conversation on identity

Off-white and Olive is a column on my experiences as a minority and Muslim journalist.

Last November, I headed to Hunter Huss High School in Gastonia to write a story about Michelle Ellis’s N.C. Wildlife class. The article would be part of my Tuesday stories highlighting STEM education across the state. I had already met Ellis before, knew what to expect about the class, and took all my regular equipment — my camera, a voice recorder, and a tiny notebook. It was set to be a pretty routine day as a journalist.

I signed into the school and walked to Ellis’s classroom, where I was briefly introduced. The students were already expecting me and went on with their classroom activity, a wildlife board game, while I wandered around the room to grab photos and learn more about what they were learning: private properties and public properties, hunting licenses, and consumptive uses and non-consumptive uses of wildlife.

I walked over to one table where Ellis was talking to her students, who were asking her questions about a different topic. They were interested in seeing photos from her work trip to India.

A freshman named Tariq asked, “Did you see any Muslims there?”

Of all the questions to ask about a trip to India, I wasn’t expecting a student to ask that one, and neither was Ellis. She said something along the lines of, “I guess so. There are Muslims there. There are so many people there.”

Even I was wondering, in a country of over a billion people, how you figure out who’s Muslim and who isn’t among all the different traditions and styles of dress. And did Tariq think India was where all the Muslim people are?

“I’m Muslim,” I offered, realizing he wouldn’t know otherwise, since I don’t wear a hijab. I had no clue what his reaction was going to be, or why he had asked Ellis the question. But when he turned around to face me, he had the biggest, brightest smile on his face.

“Salam alaykom,” he said, his enormous smile staying in place. “Wa alaykom salaam,” I responded.

“What did they just say to each other?” one student at the table asked Ellis.

“It’s a greeting,” she said. (The Arabic greeting is, “Peace be unto you” and the response is “And unto you, peace.”)

Tariq and I continued chatting. I learned he had recently moved to Gastonia from Michigan, after his parents separated. He told me his dad was Muslim, and he was just starting to learn things about Islam.

I realized there were probably less Muslims in Gastonia than wherever he was from in Michigan. (Dearborn, Michigan has the largest Muslim population in the United States.) 

The three girls at the table tuned into our conversation, curious to hear what Tariq had to say. A sophomore named Jailyn, seated next to him, seemed surprised to learn this new information about her friend. And I saw the wheels turning in her head, trying to piece it all together. 

Tariq working on a group assignment. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

“But your mom’s not Muslim?” she asked him. 

“No,” he said.

“So she’s just black?”

I silently watched this conversation about identity unfold, and I saw Tariq decide this was a safe space to explain his.

A minute later, the group had gone right back to working together on their short answer questions. I wrapped up my interviews with students and headed back to the office at the end of class to find my way out.

Normally, on my drive home, I’d think through the information I’d gathered for the story I was working on. That afternoon, though, my mind stayed stuck on the conversation about identity that Ellis’s students had and how Tariq so clearly wanted to be able to talk about a piece of who he was.

I noticed that Tariq’s discussion about Islam wasn’t rooted in fear like mine had been as a freshman in high school, less than a handful of years after 9/11 when I thought no one would think anything good about me if they knew I was a Muslim. Instead, I just heard his curiosity.

And after that day, I’m not sure what Tariq walked away with when I put my camera down and joined his classroom discussion. But I knew that the most meaningful interactions that had happened weren’t because I was working on a story about the importance of science electives in high school. They happened because I told a student who was asking about Muslims that I was a Muslim, too.

I was there as a journalist, but I was also there as myself.

My hope was that Tariq realized he wasn’t alone. That it’s okay if he’s the only maybe-Muslim kid in his class, or even at his new school. It’s okay to be black AND Muslim, even if other people don’t get that yet. It’s okay to spill out of the boxes people try to put you in. It’s okay to be different, and it’s okay to be figuring out how those differences make you who you are.

And who you want to be.

Keep up with my column, Off-white and Olive, for more on my journey as a minority and Muslim journalist. I’ll be heading to Chicago today for the Muslim Women and the Media Training Institute this weekend, and I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned there here.

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.