Ahmed Mohamed and the problem with the ‘model minority’ myth

Even the ‘perfect victim’ will never be perfect enough.

Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old Muslim student, was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to Macarthur High School in Irving, Texas. His teacher believed it to be a “hoax bomb” and he was handcuffed, fingerprinted, and questioned without his parents present. 

The public has been staunchly in support of Ahmed Mohamed and his wrongful arrest, with the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed trending on Twitter. In the wake of the controversy, both Obama and Hillary Clinton voiced their solidarity, and Mohamed even got an invite from Mark Zuckerberg to visit the Facebook campus.

Although it is utterly deplorable that a 14-year-old excited about robotics would be arrested due to a culture of rampant Islamophobia in his Texas town, Ahmed Mohamed is—in many ways—the perfect victim, what we commonly refer to as a “model minority.” Mohamed is not the only victim of racism and religious discrimination in America, yet he’s gotten the kind of universal support denied to too many others. We must ask ourselves about all the people we don’t stand behind and why.

What made him the perfect victim? Ahmed Mohamed is an excellent student and lacks a criminal record to cast “suspicion” on his motives. News reports have depicted him as a kid who was scared and confused, as he was hauled away in handcuffs while wearing a NASA t-shirt. After all, Mohamed just wanted to impress his teacher.

Contrast this to the media portrayal of Michael Brown. His recent troubles with the law got him branded as “no angel” in the New York Times. Or the murder of Trayvon Martin. He was referred to as “suspicious-looking” and “threatening” by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman after leaving 7-Eleven with Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea, and stories about Martin emphasized his recreational drug use. John Crawford was shot and killed while shopping in Walmart. His crime? Holding a toy BB gun.

News reports have depicted him as a kid who was scared and confused, as he was hauled away in handcuffs while wearing a NASA t-shirt. After all, Mohamed just wanted to impress his teacher.

Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and John Crawford’s lives were subject to public debate, with their school records and alleged misconduct used to justify their untimely deaths. In the case of Michael Brown, his very appearance proved lethal—Officer Darren Wilson described him as a “demon.” 

To gain public support after a racist attack, you can’t just be an innocent young kid—you also have to be spotless. Compared with Ahmed Mohamed’s story, the brutality against black youth complicates our message of solidarity for youth unfairly targeted by police.

If we were to change the factors of the story, we can see how fragile public sympathy is, as circumstances shapes whether we perceive people as deserving or undeserving of punishment. A teenager bringing a homemade clock to school and being arrested sounds ridiculous and irrational. If we changed the context and Ahmed Mohamed had been arrested at an airport for carrying his clock, then his profiling would have been seen as a byproduct of rational fear. 

Imagine if he weren’t just a 14-year-old kid, but a 32-year-old man who brought a clock he built to work? Or a Muslim woman wearing a hijab? What if he had worn baggy pants instead of a NASA shirt?

The outrage at Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest isn’t due to our sudden realization that post-9/11 surveillance, violence, and discrimination against Sikhs, South Asians, and Muslims in the name of safety is a racist extension of hate. The controversy is due to the fact that this took place in a school. If this happened on the streets or the airport, it would a different story altogether. 

This is why the tweets from Mark Zuckerberg and President Obama share a particular narrative: Intelligence should be supported and not punished. And in making it not about race, it completely sidesteps the real issues here.

The problem isn’t that a smart kid was arrested for building a robotic clock, it’s that minorities often have to prove they are the exception in order to avoid being the victim of racist attacks. This exceptionalism sends the message that racism can be overcome if the individuals facing it just try hard enough to be good—if they’re good students or innocent boy geniuses. This completely neglects the issues of structural racism—as it becomes about each individual’s ability to overcome the struggles they face.

To gain public support after a racist attack, you can’t just be an innocent young kid—you also have to be spotless.

As a Sudanese American, Ahmed Mohamed will continue to face particular challenges when it comes to policing and everyday discrimination— both in terms of race and religion. Black Muslims are one of the most heavily profiled populations in America and face widespread Islamophobia, especially in Mohamed’s home state of Texas. 

In May, a contest to draw Muhammad—considered an act of blasphemy by those of the Muslim faith—was organized by Pamela Geller, the co-founder of Stop Islamization of America. The town was described by AlterNet as a “hotbed of anti-Muslim bigotry.” Irving, Texas has similar issues. Irving’s mayor, Beth Van Duyne, has launched a personal crusade against Sharia Law, and this isn’t the first Islamophobic incident in the town’s schools.

While Ahmed Mohamed’s good grades might have shined a light on this particular incident, his town’s own history—as well as the police’s troubled past when it comes to people of color—shows that there’s no escaping the brutality of hate in the United States. It doesn’t matter if you’re a model student and a boy genius, like Ahmed Mohamed, or a recent graduate excited to start college and take the next step toward your future, like Michael Brown—you can never be perfect enough.

Ahmed Mohamed is just a kid, but what happens when he grows up?

Suey Park is a writer and activist based in Chicago.

Screengrab via Dallas Morning News/YouTube