The Pine Bush Pledge Controversy Highlights How Hard Life Can Be For Arab American Teens
Following the apology issued by Pine Bush High School for a reading of The Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic on Wednesday, there were a lot of questions and feelings (on either side) about how the situation was handled.
Some people were adamant that the pledge should only be read in English, while others were convinced that the distinction was a reflection of bias, and not simply a mandate of the rules.
But another question remains.
What impact does this divide have on Arab American students?
The Policies At Play
After many people complained about the Pledge of Allegiance being read in Arabic, Pine Bush High School said that in the future, they would adhere to State Education Department regulations, which they said requires the Pledge be said in English.
However, Dennis Tompkins, New York State Education Department spokesman, released a statement when the controversy blew up, saying that, “State regulation specifies the wording of the Pledge, not the language.”
This means that the students can read the Pledge of Allegiance in any language they want, they just can't change the ending to be "with liberty and spaghetti for all."
So Why Not Arabic?
Linda Sarsour, the Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York says that incidents such as the one at Pine Bush aren’t rare, and are indicative of a larger trend in the United States. While working on a national campaign called "Take on Hate" with the Arab American Association, Sarsour has found that cases like this occur across the country every day.
“It’s part of a growing anti-Arab sentiment and it’s not an isolated incident,” Sarsour told MTV News. “Unfortunately it’s happening in more places in this country.”
Referring to the school district’s superintendent saying that the apology was issued after the school received complaints from students and residents who lost family members in Afghanistan, Sarsour notes that the criticism cited by most publications perpetuated incorrect information and demonstrated “a deep level of misunderstanding when it comes to Arabic countries.”
Arabic is not really spoken in Afghanistan — the official languages are Pashto and Dari — and while some people may speak Arabic there, Sarsour says these kinds of comments wrongfully equate vastly different cultures and nations, not to mention stereotypes and biases.
Sarsour says she is disappointed that the school — as an educational institution— did not correct the inaccurate information, and instead apologized.
"When [the school] apologized, they told the community ‘you’re right.'" says Sarsour. "The school didn’t take the leadership to say there is some misinformation.”
As studies conducted by The American Arab Institute on the "American Attitudes Toward Arabs and Muslims" show, racism against these groups remains prevalent in the United States.
The study says that the media plays a huge part in this problem through poor representation of Arab individuals, playing up stereotypes and allowing similarly biased anti-Arab blanket statements to go unchecked.
"It’s bigotry that is acceptable in this country. You don’t see pundits getting fired, elected officials being removed [for making racist comments toward Arabs.] It's not the same type of response," says Sarsour.
Embracing Individual Identities
Back at Pine Bush, Senior Class President Andrew Zink, who has been vocal in the support of the reading, has received backlash on social media and in school.
Facing a possible impeachment from his student leader position, he told MTV News that he still has no regrets and will continue to pursue opportunities for conversation and education.
“There are many students who feel I don’t represent them anymore, and if they believe in closed-mindedness and intolerance then they’re right — I don’t,” says Zink.
Sarsour says that the fear and chaos surrounding ISIS, paired with comments from individuals who think that all Arabs are Muslims and all Muslims are terrorists, leaves many young people struggling to make sense of it all. “They have no connection or relationship [to ISIS], but this simple connection makes them feel responsible,” she says. “And, when the school apologized, how is a child supposed to feel now?"
“We live in a time where young people who are Arab American are struggling with their identity," says Sarsour. "I hope kids don’t allow this experience to make them feel less-than, as they too are just as American as any other kids in their school."
MTV News has reached out to the Pine Bush High School administration and school district for comment.