*Ahmed Mohamed is a teenager who is apparently highly intelligent and able to build complex machines at his early age. Ahmed brought a homemade clock to school last week. The problem came with the reaction to his clock.
After his clock beeped unexpectedly in class, Ahmed Mohamed was sent to an office and questioned about his device. Instead of the incident ending with an inquiry in which the administration discovered that his engineering teacher had seen and complimented the clock, events took a negative turn when the police were called. They arrested Ahmed Mohamed and questioned him without his parents.
This episode illustrates why stereotypes can be so damaging. All of the adults had a visceral reaction to Ahmed Mohamed. And without having lots of background knowledge of people of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, those visceral reactions reverted to negative stereotypes. Unfortunately none of the adults involved bothered to attempt to work past the stereotypes of a violent Muslim. Consequently Ahmed Mohamed repeated statements regarding his clock fell on deaf ears and only confirmed that he was dangerous and trying to throw the authorities off his trail.
It is important to note that many explosive devices employ timing mechanism, so a clock, specifically a crudely made homemade clock, can be suspicious. In fact a conservative think tank has stated that Ahmed Mohamed built “half a bomb”. And this is true. Furthermore in contemporary America where school violence is a serious concern, the people in charge need to be vigilant. However, adults should be able to work past their initial impressions to discover the truth. That did not happen because the fear of not preventing school violence subverted any information that Ahmed Mohamed simply brought a clock to school.
Above all, stereotyping is lazy; they are what people use to understand people when they don’t put in the effort to get to know them. Stereotypes are ignorant. A belief that all Muslims are terrorists ignores that that radical Islam groups make up only a fraction of Muslims worldwide. The mark of a mature person is a willingness and ability to learn new information.
I recently found myself at a camp with colleagues. Some of my unmarried, female colleagues wore bikinis to swim. I could have fallen back on the stereotype that they only dressed that way in an effort to attract a man. What I did instead was talk to them and learn that although they weren’t married that most had significant others.
I’m not saying we always have control over the thoughts that jump into our heads. But I am saying we can choose to run with them or question them.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.