Reporter’s Notebook: Seeking Diversity and Tolerance

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Lack of understanding from classmates, instructors

I was in third grade when, come December, my teacher distributed a large packet to the class called something like “Holidays Around the World.” Naively, I thought the packet would be as described — that I would learn about new customs and holidays from around the world.

But as my classmates and I started flipping through the pages, learning about the customs of various countries, my hopes were dashed. This 30-some page packet contained information about how Christmas is celebrated around the world, rather than the multitude of other holidays that its name implied. There were two measly pages about holidays other than Christmas — Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. I remember sitting in a circle on the blue rug of my classroom, scowling at my packet as the teacher rambled on to us about putting coal in children’s shoes.

Six years later, there continues to be a lack of recognition of religious diversity in our public schools.

 “Muslim holidays don’t get celebrated in school,” said Sarah Jafar, a Beacon High School ninth grader. “People don’t get educated about them. They aren’t on the school calendar, so we don’t get days off for them.”

Jafar said that she has reached out to Superintendent Matt Landahl and the Beacon school board to discuss giving students days off for Eid-al-Ftr, the end of Ramadan, and Eid-al-Ahda, the second of two official holidays in the Muslim year. This year, Eid-al-Ftr begins in the evening of May 1, a Sunday, and ends 24 hours later. Eid-al-Ahda begins on July 9 and ends on July 13.

Landahl said this week that it would be challenging, given the snow days already built into the calendar, to add more days off, “as New York has student time requirements that have to fit between Labor Day and the Regents exams in June.” But he pointed to the “long overdue and incredibly important” declaration of Juneteenth, to mark the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, as a national and state holiday as a sign that change can happen.

 Still, “we have a day off for Columbus Day, to celebrate someone who walked into a country and committed mass genocide,” Jafar said.

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Dutchess County scores 0.8 out of 1 when it comes to religious diversity. A score of 1 would mean that every religious group is equally represented within the county’s population. Dutchess has higher than average diversity, but we still see issues of intolerance frequently.

Thomas Burns, a global studies teacher at Beacon High School, told me that “bullying based on religion is kind of a non-issue now.” But after asking 21 high school students in the Highlands, 14 said that they believe it is still an issue, six said they were unsure and one felt it is not an issue. Not everyone sees the issue and how prevalent it is, which is why I feel it’s important to shed light on what’s happening — or what isn’t.

All too often, people make ignorant or hateful comments directed at those from cultures different than their own, and it’s especially common within the public schools. For example, Sikhs don’t cut their hair, which includes shaving. Avneet Kaur, another Beacon ninth grader, said that she often feels self-conscious when wearing shorts because of the weird looks and comments she hears.

“Someone once asked me if I shaved my legs. I told them no, but it was a weird question to ask someone you don’t know,” she said. “They then added, ‘No offense, but you’re really hairy.’ Even without the looks, I feel self-conscious about it because I feel so different, and not in a good way.” Kaur said that she wishes there was more education and awareness about religions such as Sikhism, so people would be less ignorant when it comes to minority students.

I believe that a lack of education is how hate and ignorance begins. Before taking Mr. Burns’ global studies class this year, I don’t recall learning about other religions in school. The lack of diversity in our curriculum breeds ignorance and fuels a sense of “otherness” from a young age. By the time we reach high school and learn about different cultures and faiths, the habits bred from ignorance have become just that — habits. And habits can be hard to break.

Just three months ago, we left for winter break with a “Merry Christmas” and that was that. But on Jan. 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day came and went, without so much as a hint that anyone remembered. We still have no days off for the Muslim holidays, and they are unmarked on the school calendar. Walking through the hallways of Beacon High School, I hear a kid in front of me make predictable, but hurtful, Nazi “jokes,” while Sarah Jafar must tolerate myriad Muslim terrorist “jokes.”

One thought on “Reporter’s Notebook: Seeking Diversity and Tolerance

  1. Good for you, Nix. Most people don’t have the guts to speak up, especially in provincial areas where most people look alike. Keep shedding light on the obvious. There are billions of people in this world and no two are exactly alike. Intolerance is no longer tolerated!