Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ahmed, innocence, and how brown kids get "read"

I am completely captivated by the story of Ahmed, which tore up social media and then regular news yesterday. I'm sure you know it but here's a recap. A fourteen year old kid makes a clock, takes it to school to show his teachers, and gets arrested for making a "hoax bomb." 

Also, the kid's name is Ahmed Mohamed, and he is Muslim. 

Ahmed's story has a pretty happy ending - invitations from all over the place to visit with his clock, the White House, Facebook, MIT, etc. He's an obviously bright, loveable, typical geeky teenager and while nothing anyone does at this point can change the fact that he was betrayed by his teachers, school, and local law enforcement I'm sure all this helps. In his interviews he seems giddy, triumphant, and above all child-like. Which is appropriate, because he is a child. 

Right? Fourteen, Ninth grade, these are still descriptors for children. And it seems like Ahmed is the sort of teen who is still in his childhood in great ways - given room to geek out over tech stuff and concerned with showing off what he's made to the adult authority figures in his life. 

So why did his teachers and school see him as a threat first? Why did they fail to see the child that all of America is so taken with?

I think about this a lot, for obvious reasons. There is a lot of evidence that our society encourages adults to over-estimate the age and maturity of brown children. This means that white children benefit from the societal assumption that children are innocent and deserving of protection longer than black children do. An article in the Atlantic a couple years back, covering a study on this topic, explains it this way: "black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent." 

I wonder if this is what happened to Ahmed, that because of his skin color and ethnic group he was read as a threat, losing the benefit of the baseline assumption that he would be innocent and deserving of protection first, before entertaining ideas about him being a potential threat.

I also wonder when it will happen to my kids.

This summer I watched the video of the "Texas Teen Pool Party" with tears streaming down my face. The whole thing is a mess, of course, but what disturbed me the most was the teenage girl - 14 or 15 years old, screaming for her mama while a white police officer kneeled on her back, holding her by her braids. I saw a scared child being mistreated, but the officer of the law obviously did not perceive the same thing. He saw a threat. And I cannot imagine that he would have treated a white 14 year old the same way. Even worse, his fellow officers and the other adults present allowed him to continue to abuse and humiliate a child. I don't know if it was solidarity or fear, but no one stood up for her, even those who are sworn to serve and protect.

My girls are tall, and already it is clear to me that adults who do not know my oldest assume that my not-yet-six year old is at least eight or nine. Some of this is due to her height, but I suspect that some of it is due to racial undercurrents in our culture, undercurrents that push all of us to forget to see some children, and whisper to us that they are dangerous adults instead.