SIPA alumna Zaina Arafat, MIA ’09, shares an op-ed on, “What I Should Have Said to My Students as Their Muslim American Teacher.” Here are the first two paragraphs:

You don’t look Muslim. You hardly even look Arab. You pass for nearly everything and anything else. People ask if you’re Italian or Spanish or Greek. Israeli. Sometimes Mexican, occasionally Argentine.

For four years, you taught a class in the Midwest, in a swing state. You loved and respected your students, and they loved and respected you—they worked hard for you and for one another, they valued your feedback, they hugged you before Thanksgiving and Christmas, they came to you after breakups and family deaths and roommate quarrels. On the third to last class each semester—far enough in so they couldn’t drop, but still two classes away from course evaluations—you’d tell them that you’re Muslim. Many of them were surprised. You don’t look Muslim. What does a Muslim look like? you’d ask. They weren’t exactly sure, they’d say, but not like you. They’d admit that when they first saw your name in the course directory, they weren’t sure what to expect. They thought you’d have an indecipherable accent (they imply that they’re happy you don’t). They thought you’d be wearing a headscarf. You’d smile, you’d laugh a little. You wouldn’t mention that while you may not look like a Muslim, you are one. You carry your Qur’an from city to city, for years you fasted during Ramadan, you love your religion, you’re heartbroken over the way its been hijacked by extremists. You travel to predominately Muslim countries once or twice a year to see your family. You wouldn’t mention these things. Instead you’d ask if they had ever met another Muslim. We had one in our town, an earnest, young, male student offered.

Read the rest of Arafat’s powerful letter on

[Photo by Hernán Piñera/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)]