September 11th, 2001 evokes memories for anyone who was in the United States on that date and is today, 18 years or older. We all remember where we were and what we were doing. The date marks the first time since Pearl Harbor that our country had been attacked, and it was a definite blow to the false sense of safety that our nation had felt for nearly 60 years.
Many people often also think of September 11th as the last time our country came together when facing crises. When the pandemic hit, many people evoked 9-11 to lament how much our country has changed. Rather than a country united against a common enemy, divisions revealed themselves as the country crumbled into factions in the face of crises.
Nevertheless, when I reflect back 22 years ago, I don’t remember a country that came together. And while in these blog posts, I try to stay academic and away from my own experiences, this time, I would like to share my memories of September 11th.
I was a young, beginning 5th grade teacher. I taught in what was then called a maintenance bilingual program (One-Way Dual Language) at a school where most staff members were African American with a minority of teachers being Hispanic. There were a handful of white teachers and two of us identified as Asian. The students largely reflected the staff members. Most were African American, with a large minority of Hispanic students, most of whom were in the bilingual program. We also had at the school a small minority of students who were Indian and Pakistani, mostly of Islamic background.
The day the pandemic hit, I understood very little about what was going on. When a colleague whispered in my ear that the World Trade Center had been attacked, I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t even know what the World Trade Center was. Young and confused, I joined my 10 year olds in knowing that something was wrong as one by one, students were picked up, and my class shrunk in size. When the ones who were still with me asked what was going on, and I, as we were instructed, told them that I didn’t know, I wasn’t lying. But I felt the same sense of doom they did.
That afternoon, I took my remaining kids to the library where I mentioned to an African American colleague that I needed to go to the grocery store before going home. She warned me not to go, that someone who looked like me would not be safe. She offered to go herself and get me what I needed. I turned her down. I couldn’t imagine not being welcome at a grocery store in my hometown. That afternoon, still not knowing what was going on, when I went to the grocery store. I could feel the stares. Eyes followed me down the aisles. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I understood that I was not welcome.
That evening, I watched the news and learned what had happened. I, like most Americans, was devastated to witness the terrorism our country had just faced. The next day, my students and I talked about the events of the day. Many of my students talked about how they believed all Muslims were bad, and how upset they were that children in other countries had celebrated. A little girl, who was usually fairly quiet, responded in Spanish, “My parents told me that the kids in those countries aren’t at fault because on their televisions, they see lies that all Americans are bad just like we see lies on our televisions that all Muslims are bad.” I’m not sure what my students thought of this explanation. I verbally agreed with the student, but my students did not respond.
Soon after, I returned to shopping at the grocery store without enduring stares, but I was denied service at a local Denny’s. Far worse, when I spoke to our Indian and Pakistani students, 10 and 11 years old, who although not in my class, often came to visit me, they expressed that they were scared. A local tire shop owned by an Islamic family had been burned down in an act of local terrorism. Our kids didn’t know if they or their families would be the next targets of the brewing anger.
Throughout the country, those who were Muslim and those who looked like what people stereotyped as Muslim (since many Muslims are blonde and blue eyed) were targeted. This was our country’s response to 9/11. Middle Eastern and South Asian taxi drivers in New York put signs on their taxis identifying themselves as Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians to avoid the backlash that Muslims were experiencing. Zeroing back to the school where I worked, a teacher, who also identified as a racial minority, asked me if Indians were Middle Eastern. When I told her that those of Indian descent are South Asian, not Middle Eastern, I could see her breathe a sigh of relief as she said, “That’s good.” Me not identifying as Middle Eastern seemed to give her permission to continue being my friend. Or maybe it gave her permission to love our Pakistani and Indian students. I don’t know.
The year progressed. Our focus changed to having the kids pass the TAAS. That May, for Asian American month, I put on a production of plays, fashion shows, and Bollywood dancing to highlight Asian cultures. My Hispanic students participated in the production. During the weeks of practice required for the show, the Hispanic students in my classroom had to work intimately with the Indian and Pakistani-descent students who took the lead. After the production, one of my students said, “Sakina is my friend, and I don’t care if she’s Muslim.” And it was at that moment that she taught me the importance of teaching sociocultural competence.
The devastation that was 9-11 will forever be etched in our memories. How unfair that the lives of those on the planes, those in the buildings, and those first responders who answered the call of duty were cut short by an act of terrorism. We can never forget what happened. We should never forget what happened.
But we didn’t fully come together as a nation after 9-11. Instead, we targeted Middle Eastern Americans and South Asian Americans. Our country has a history of scapegoating minority groups after tragedies. In the 1940s, we targeted Japanese Americans. Similarly, after 2020, we scapegoated East Asian Americans. This is behavior that has to stop and since our students are the future, they can be the ones who can change this practice. Therefore, we have to teach all of our students to not engage in such behavior. We can do this by focusing on sociocultural competence. We need to teach all of our students, even if they belong to protected classes, to respect all other ethnic and racial groups. And we need to teach them that the behaviors of a few do not represent the behaviors of all members of any identity group.
And so as we remember 9-11, let’s remember the lessons it taught us and vow to do better the next time we face tragedy.
Thank you for sharing such an insightful story, for helping us understand the experiences of different minoritized populations during crises, and for being part of the solution against hurtful and unjust behaviors.