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You Can't Be Interested in STEM if You're Brown in America

Photograph by David Woo/Dallas Morning News/Corbis

When I saw that a 14-year-old brown-skinned Muslim boy had been arrested this week for bringing a homemade clock to school, my heart sank. I was once enrolled as a student at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas — 18 years ago — the same school where Ahmed Mohamed attends classes.

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I only spent a year at MacArthur, but had many fond memories of friends and personal academic achievements while there. It was a school that was clear on the rules and expectations for the kids who attended, but also a place where minds were encouraged to bloom — which is why I just cannot understand the way in which school staff reacted to a student proudly bringing his invention to school to show his teachers.

On my first day at MacArthur, I walked into Mr. Wyatt's biology class and was immediately given after-school detention for chewing gum. When I arrived for detention later that day, Mr. Wyatt welcomed me, and began explaining the biological wonders of the cockroach. At the time, I was a softcore chola with a "don't give a damn" attitude, yet I couldn't help but be fascinated with the discussion. I learned two important things that day: never chew gum in Mr. Wyatt's class, and that I had a love for biology.

I was proud to have been a student at MacArthur High before today. But that pride disappeared when I read about Ahmed Mohamed, a bright student at my alma mater (reportedly known for tinkering with electronics and even fixing his own go-kart) who instead of being praised for his ingenuity and interest in science and engineering, was handcuffed and arrested for bringing a self-designed digital clock to school to share with his engineering teacher — which was later described by the school administration as a "possible homemade bomb." It wasn't a bomb; far from it. Rather it was early evidence of one child's genius that was not admired, but feared, simply because he's a brown-skinned Muslim kid.

After the police found no evidence that Ahmed's clock was anything resembling a bomb, nor had Ahmed ever referred to it as a bomb, the school — instead of issuing an apology — opted to suspend him for three days and sent out a letter to parents and students in the district reminding them to "not bring items to school that are prohibited."

Brown and black kids should never have to feel the shame and embarrassment like Ahmed just because he was interested in science and engineering and his interest was misperceived by those with less tolerant minds.

As the mother of two boys in high school, I could only imagine the horror his parents felt upon hearing that their child was taken away by police on suspicion of a bomb-threat and later prevented from attending school because of his innocent interest in science. The look on Ahmed's face, shown in a photograph taken by one of his peers as he was led out of the building, says it all. The world is not a fair place for ethnic minorities. This is the American experience for non-white children.

We have to ask ourselves: would Ahmed have been arrested for "making a bomb" if his name were more recognizable and "American," like Sam, or Joe, or maybe even John? Does the fact that Ahmed is brown, or identifies as a Muslim have anything to do with the ridiculous amount of fear and stupidity that was shown by administrators at MacArthur High School? My guess? Yes.

A year ago, my youngest son was also targeted and mistreated by authorities, possibly because he is a Mexican-American with dark skin and a Spanish name. In the evening in late August of 2014, an officer arrived at my door, demanded my son come outside, where he was thrust up against our garage, patted down, searched for weapons and held on the suspicion that he had "shoved someone."

The accusations turned out to be false; the officer, an older white male, didn't care at the time, though. He screamed at me, screamed at my son, denied us the opportunity to ask questions or even defend ourselves. After a harrowing hour trying to understand what was happening, the officer left. No charges were ever filed against my son, no report was ever made, and I was left feeling completely helpless. It was then that I realized how little power we truly have to protect our children when they are targeted by people in positions of power.

Months later, the infamous podcast "Serial" hit the airwaves and once again, our country was forced to grapple with the story of another non-white child, Adnan Syed, who at just 17-years-old was imprisoned with a life sentence, with little evidence linking him to the murder for which he was accused.

In our juvenile justice system, we know that ethnic minorities have higher arrest and detention rates than their white counterparts. While it may be a hard truth to face, the reality is that being a person of color in the United States is dangerous.

Stories like Ahmed's should be different. Headlines should read "Gifted Freshman Awarded for Engineering Feat" rather than a detailed account of his arrest and later suspension. Instead, children like him — like my son, like Adnan — are treated as others, as criminals, before they have ever even committed any crime. The lesson it teaches them — and all of us — is that the rules aren't the same for kids of color. There's a much finer line they have to walk, and while our country prides itself on tolerance, inclusion and freedom for all, we don't always practice those lofty ideals.

Thankfully, we have great minds that recognize the disparities and are actively working to change them.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook invited Ahmed to visit their Palo Alto office, saying, "Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest. The future belongs to people like Ahmed."

President Barack Obama issued a similar statement, where he called Ahmed's clock "cool," and invited him to bring it to the White House.

Ahmed's story is a teachable lesson for us all, regardless of our ethnic affiliation. We have to do more to ensure that students like him are never discouraged from their potential, never thwarted from innovation, and always treated as equals.

Our country's constitution requires this for all, from all, and always. We must do more to uphold these values.

In the meantime, MacArthur High School owes Ahmed Mohamed and his family a sincere apology. I'm disappointed that the school I once loved so much did something so unthinkable to such an astounding, intelligent child. We can't let situations like this continue to happen. Brown and black kids should never have to feel the shame and embarrassment like Ahmed just because he was interested in science and engineering and his interest was misperceived by those with less tolerant minds.

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