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January 2012

2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards

Prose: High School

Third Place

Rosalie Daniels
11th grade, Winchester Thurston

As a second grader, I kept most of my thinking squarely within the metaphysical “box.” Submitting, “Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you,” as a piece of original poetry, basing my year-end creative composition less-than-loosely around the plot of Shrek, and asking a mime the question “Why don’t you talk?”—I liked to play it safe. The same thing held true for my introductions. “Hello, this is Rosalie D. speaking,” began every single phone conversation I had for three years. Meeting new people comprised of a name exchange followed by a series of standard questions: What’s your favorite color? How old are you? Do you have any brothers or sisters? Are you Christian or Jewish? For a long time, these questions meant nothing to me. I doubt I even listened to the answers. I began to listen when they stopped making sense.

A new person entering the second grade is a big deal. A subject of interest and wonder, their first few weeks are miserable for them and fascinating to everyone else. In second grade, I’m assigned to “buddy” with a new person, helping her adjust to the unfamiliar environment. I’ve been a buddy before, but this case is particularly interesting: the girl is from Kuwait. What? Kuwait. With the help of Google, I find it on the map. At home, we venture guesses at her name, with my brother’s “Cheeseball” taking the cake. Finally, I meet her at the welcome-to-school picnic, excited and interested (and disappointed at finding my brother’s prediction false). Putting out feelers for a new friend, I approach her, armed with my question set. The first few go okay. She’s my age, with a brother my brother’s age: best friend potential. “Are you Christian or Jewish?” No answer. “Do you celebrate Christmas?” Her head shakes. “Then you’re Jewish,” I conclude, pleased that I can sort her. Wait—no. Her head shakes again. “Do you celebrate Easter?” She nods—sort of. “Then you’re Christian,” I pronounce, tone verging on condescending. She shakes her head again. I give up. We tire swing.

Second and third grade pass as we make friendship bracelets, watch Disney Channel, and share books. Our families eat dinner together, and my mother hastily stows the wine she brought without thinking (they don’t even have a corkscrew). I forget about the ambiguity surrounding her religion until our music teacher decides to do songs from every holiday for the winter concert. Third grade does Ramadan. An elementary music teacher somewhere figured out how to write a song about Ramadan without describing the holiday itself; what it specified instead were the names of “our friends” who celebrated Ramadan. A line of the song left blanks for choral groups to insert names, and I soon understand why the third graders are doing Ramadan. Our music teacher pauses the class to ask two Middle Eastern girls if they celebrate Ramadan. It’s awkward. My friend does not want her name in the song but is guilted into it, because the music teacher is counting on her. This is Mrs. K’s “diverse” class, and we alone can fill the blanks of the Ramadan song. The diversity of our holiday programming did not necessarily broaden my cultural perspective, but it did answer my long-forgotten, unanswered question. My buddy was Muslim—Christian and Jewish were not the only two religions that third graders could be. Weird.

Six years later, the roles are reversed. I stick out like a sore thumb in Kuwait with my blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. I follow my buddy as her driver chauffeurs us between her multiple houses and around Kuwait City. I hear about the land mines her family paid to have detonated so that they could build on their beach property. The kids speak about it nonchalantly; the parents are graver. They remember Desert Storm.

I’m introduced to friends, family, and servants, and taken to parties, museums, and restaurants. Everyone I meet speaks impeccable English, and I begin to wonder why I am not bilingual. We’re driving from the beach house to the go-kart track: my buddy, myself, a driver, a handful of babbling girls. We converse easily as I field questions about my life and my country—“Is high school really like Mean Girls? How do you like Obama?” We laugh and gossip, and I reflect on our casual rapport, the universal nature of girl talk. The conversation switches to Arabic, and I gaze out the window at passing condos. English diverts my attention back: “Do people in America think we’re terrorists?”

My mouth is frozen. I study their faces in my slow-motion world of panic. I wish Obama was here. What would Obama do? What is the politically correct, culturally sensitive, nuanced answer containing just enough truth to answer the question without making all Americans sound like bigots; what is the diplomatic answer? I am representing my country by myself, and I am suddenly aware of how alone I am. How many Americans make the trek to Kuwait? Mine is the only answer these girls will probably hear for a while—it needs to be good. I have no one to turn to: my well-spoken parents and brother are on the other side of the city. My friends are left with a stumbling, politically unaware, flustered fourteen-year-old’s take on American racism. I perspire and my cheeks flush. These girls know their answer already—they would not have asked the question otherwise. My buddy is consistently subjected to random airport security checks. There are many Americans that would defend this practice, and I know that my answer must account for their perspective, too. I settle for a stuttered, apologetic, disconnected, rambling response, reiterating, “I don’t think you’re terrorists” an absurd number of times.

Ever since that car ride, I have tried to construct a clearer response in my head. If the Census asked every American if they thought Middle Eastern people were terrorists, I doubt a large proportion would respond in the affirmative. Ask them if the Bush, Jr. administration’s invasion of Iraq was justified, despite the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and the proportion will be larger, with people defending their position with citations of lives lost in the Twin Towers. What I tried to express in my ineloquent, clumsy reply was that America was a nation in shock. 9/11 left us shattered, shaken, mourning. Fear, loss, and tragedy blurred our vision, and sometimes made us blind. We struck wildly at the hazy enemy, and in some cases Americans still find it hard to pinpoint blame, to differentiate between the people who murdered their loved ones and the part of the world that produced them.

Does that mean that this racism is justified? Is it still racism? Forget Obama—what would Martin Luther King, Jr. think? My Kuwaiti friends don’t want the presidential answer—they can hear that on the news. Dr. King was never interested in protecting people’s feelings—he knew we had politicians for that. How would Dr. King view the war on terror? He would condemn the actions of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, I am sure. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he once preached to his followers in the Civil Rights Movement. Violence was never a practice Dr. King advocated or defended. In response to this threat, however, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have called for unity. Middle Easterners he would have seen as our brothers and sisters. “Their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom,” he declared to supporters, “We cannot walk alone.” I believe that he would have reiterated this sentiment today. Terrorists are not products of a Middle Eastern heritage—they are products of hate, ill spirit, and asperity. Americans fear terrorist attacks; Afghanis live in the presence of the Taliban. We cannot fight terrorism by alienating our allies and fellow victims. We must “work together, pray together, and struggle together” to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” united against evil instead of proliferating it.

The threat of terrorism changed America. It made us both more aware and more fearful of the rest of the world. In second grade, no one made an effort to educate me about Islam. As third graders we sang about Ramadan, without actually understanding its meaning. America today must remember the words of Dr. King, so that racism isn’t planted and cultivated in children, tainting minds born free from prejudice. To combat a force as powerful as terrorism we must put aside this prejudice, which weakens and divides us. Do people in America think Middle Easterners are terrorists? They shouldn’t, which a growing number of people are beginning to comprehend. America is changing once again; universities open campuses in the Middle East, high school history classes differentiate between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism, the Andy Warhol Museum shows an exhibit on the Qur’an—and protests are minimal. We as a nation are beginning to view Middle Easterners as fellow victims of terrorism, not proponents of it. Terrorism is growing to be understood as a global, not a national problem. Instead of feeding the growth of hate, the fight against terrorism should be breaking down boundaries and fostering greater cooperation among the world’s nations. Ending terrorism worldwide is in everyone’s best interest; could you really say the same for patting down a Kuwaiti girl at airport security?

View the complete list of the 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Award winners.

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