In light of Calgary Flames ex-head coach Bill Peters resigning due to the recently surfaced incident of former NHL player Akim Aliu mentioning Peters using a racial slur towards him, I would like to share some of my experiences growing up as a Muslim American. My South Asian parents immigrated to the United States in 1984 and settled in Long Island, New York. The grades 7–12 high school had very little diversity and a small class size for a public school. My graduating class consisted of 175 students. I attended this school from 2003 until my graduation in 2009.
In 7th and 8th grade (Autumn 2003 to Spring 2005), I played on the school soccer and baseball teams. I wasn’t any good at either and certainly didn’t try very hard at either sport. I was a naive 12–13 year old trying to find a way to fit in.
I hated it.
I played 2–3 years after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Due to my ethnicity and religion, I was subject to constant bullying and comments. People would ask me if my father had oil money or if my family was hiding Osama bin Laden at home. One teammate told me I should “go back to India and play cricket since baseball is an American sport.” I reassured him that I never had played cricket and was born and raised in the US. He didn’t care. During soccer games, teammates wouldn’t pass to me. I was left out of social gatherings. I kept telling myself it would get better but it never did. I decided to stop playing after the end of the 8th grade baseball season.
The locker room culture was vehemently toxic, even at that age. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, given it was a room of teenage boys with hormones running rampant. Frequently they would fantasize into great detail about the girls at our school. There was a time a soccer teammate pantsed me and commented on my rear end. I never felt comfortable changing in the locker room after that, even during gym glass. Often I would just change and shower at home after school or practice. There was an incident where a childhood friend of mine was getting punched repeatedly by a fellow student. Not sure why he started flinging punches but I was appalled other students were just standing there laughing as he was getting his face pummeled an MMA fighter. I told the puncher to stop and my friend ended up going to the hospital. He ended up with a bruised orbital.
In the school hallways, it didn’t stop. I watched South Park (even though I wasn’t supposed to) during high school. Recall the episode where Cartman finds Osama. I knew the episode was a parody and didn’t find it offensive. It was actually pretty funny with all the Looney Toons references. But when a classmate referencing the episode said “durka durka” to me, it felt more similar to a gut punch than laughter. I was called names like “terrorist” or “sand n_____” on a daily basis. There was one student who every time we passed in the hallways, he would spread his arms and pretend to be an airplane. Then he’d go “crashing” into the lockers and walls. Incidents like this went on for the rest of my high school tenure. I learned to ignore it and show it didn’t bother me anymore.
I would have great conversations about video games, hockey, and football with classmates in school and even online via AOL Instant Messenger (AIM, anyone?). But when I tried to make plans to watch football or hockey, they disappeared. It sucked but I understood that barrier was nearly impenetrable.
When I was in 9th grade world history class, my teacher was discussing Islam. “In Islam, there are 2 ways to go to heaven. One is by following the Five Pillars…” He explains each Pillar and its significance. “… and the second way is by blowing yourself up.” I immediately raised my hand and told him that was not appropriate. He apologized and told me to see him after class, when he apologized profusely. He was a good teacher and I felt he was being sincere so I didn’t tell anyone. He never made any jokes in regards to Islam the rest of the year. Despite this, I liked most of my teachers and often felt closer to them than my classmates.
My closest classmate and friend growing up came from a loving, humble, and classy Hindu family. He had endured much of the same harassment as I did. I met up with a Jewish classmate for dinner a couple years ago. After a number of years since graduating from high school, we spent most of the night reflecting on our time there. He stated due to his name and religion, he also was subject to discrimination. It was not unheard of to hear classmates tell holocaust jokes. There was one black student in my entire grade. Let’s call him Mike. One day I was playing suicide (the classic wall ball game) outside during lunch with him and a few classmates. One of them called Mike the n word. The rest of us immediately lectured him about his usage of the slur. A few weeks later, Mike had transferred out of the school. I don’t know the exact reason but I do think that incident had a role in it.
I was glad to graduate high school, get out of there, and start college. In my adult life I am fortunate I have not had to deal with the racial discrimination I had to face in high school. The point of these stories is to portray the abundance of these incidents and encourage others to speak about their experiences. If this happened to me, it happened to thousands of other kids. These anecdotes are certainly not unique to me and many others have their own stories to tell.
I urge anyone who has faced any level of abuse or discrimination, regardless if it was based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, to speak up. Do not be shy. Do not keep it all bottled up to yourself. Current and former students who may not be sure how to relay their experiences, talk to someone you can confide in about them. It could be a parent, sibling, relative, teacher, friend, or whoever you trust. Please share your experiences. Social media is also a good way to share them. There are plenty of ways to share anonymously if you wish to remain anonymous. By sharing and discussing your experiences with abuse, discrimination, hazing, or anything relating to toxic environments we can work together to remove these barriers and promote diverse, healthy cultures in schools, sports, workplaces, and everywhere else. For far too long, there have been toxic environments in many school-sports environments. Let’s put an end to that.