As in, God is Great.
But is that what they were trying to say?
I sat down at my desk in the computer lab of my rural Kentucky middle school as the end of the line filed in.
Through laughter, a group of my classmates yelled
But surely my ears deceived me.
I couldn’t believe eighth-graders, too, were nonchalantly chanting the pernicious Muslim-American rhetoric that had soared to popular acceptance by 2016.
I was wrong to disbelieve.
When they walked past me, they imitated the sounds of planes crashing and buildings exploding — because they attached me to that imagery. As I heard their mockery, my heart sank. Empty, I questioned what place I had left in Murray, Kentucky, the only American community I then could call home.
Growing up in western Kentucky, I was never the trademark “Sunday School Superstar” most of my classmates were. To compensate for this inherent dissimilarity, I exhausted my efforts to achieve conformity — starting at the very core of my identity.
My community is as hospitable as any southern small college town. However, similar to other small towns in the south, exposure to diversity is limited. So, in fourth grade, I went so far as to cast aside my birth name, Fatemeh Zahra, for an American name, Erica, in hopes of making it easier for everyone around to receive me as one of their own.
Erica sufficed me well throughout middle school. It’s a big deal to” fit in” at that age, and formerly being the opus of many of my classmates’ elementary-school potty humor provided me with little incentive to revert.
By April of my eighth-grade year — when I heard their Allah’u Akbar taunts — the peers I still desperately sought acceptance from demonstrated to me that my faith and my identity as an Iranian-American Muslimah was, to them, worth only a casual snicker.
As much as I longed for their approval, something told me it was no longer worth the price I paid.
As much as I wanted them to see past what I believed made me “visibly un-American”, I had grown weary of living in a constant state of suppression that, at the end of the day, did not change their lack of acceptance.
Before this incident, I had internalized that my individuality would always prevent me from feeling at home in a country I am not originally from.
I now know that to be untrue.
I realized conformity and coexistence are two separate paths to approaching ignorance. Only the latter of these results in lasting resolution.
By the time I entered Murray High School, I developed my voice as a student activist. Because of that day in my middle school’s computer lab, I’ve maintained a zero-tolerance policy to bigotry. I began developing and discussing progressive opinions on issues that, just months earlier, I knew nothing about and cared very little for. I began initiating thoughtful political debates with dissenting peers, and in doing so, I developed a newfound love for rhetorical speaking and writing.
As high school progressed, I began reclaiming a valuable part of my identity that I had lost to conformity years before: my name, Zahra. In Islamic tradition, my given name describes a female as “bright, brilliant, shining; like a flower.” With this in mind, I feel as though being Zahra completes me, consoles me, and still propels me to live as true to my name as possible.
Now, I strive for equity. I strive to prove that ethnically, religiously, socio-economically and demographically diverse individuals are not the enemy. We deserve a place in this country, in our states, in even our smallest towns. We deserve to be listened to, to be accepted and to be understood.
I make purposeful efforts to foster inclusive environments everywhere I go, for everyone I meet — because a community is made whole only when it is multifaceted.
For as long as it is in my capacity to effect change, I will continue to fight so that no child feels trapped in seclusion within their schools and communities — and I have full faith in reaching this standard of progress within my community.
I adamantly believe that more people here are willing to listen and engage in inclusivity than what the experience I had with a few individuals depicts. That is why, in my past and in my ongoing pursuit of developing these inclusive communities in my school, my town and my country, I have — like a flower — blossomed. As much as a few of my classmates may have fueled my passion for social equality, my friends in this community have been some of my greatest supporters throughout this era of personal growth. I am more outgoing and assertive in my causes than ever before. I make it my job to fact check. I show how easy it is for anyone to stay as knowledgeable as needed.
Slowly but surely, focusing on encouraging a receptivity of different individuals and new backgrounds in students across our nation will improve school climates everywhere and succeed at providing inclusivity wherever it may currently be missing.