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Waqar: Representation Fatigue

Marseda Halilaj
Kiran Waqar is seen modeling a T-shirt from her Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars program at American University.

Like it or not, I’m a Vermonter, born and raised. But despite considering Vermont my home, when I meet people for the first time, their most typical reaction is the quintessential question “where are you really from?”, a surprised comment about my English, or stares that have become a discomforting norm – all of which means that I navigate Vermont in a way my peers don’t. For as a long as I’ve lived here, I’ve attended public schools, and looking back, it’s clear that being a student of color in hijab shaped my experience. Though I crammed for the same tests, sat in the same classes, and ate the same cafeteria food, the way others interacted with me often felt different. And when that person was a teacher, someone I respected and who had authority over me, it always made a larger impact.

And whether that was because of an expectation to represent a larger group or the ignorance of staff, I was exhausted. I was tired of feeling obligated to articulate larger social structures and issues when my classmates didn’t. I was frustrated that my teachers didn’t speak up themselves. And I was reluctant to share having tried and failed to connect with too many white staff. I was isolated.

But my experiences aren’t unique. Finding other students of color who had similar ordeals – and adult allies - was an invaluable solace. Through them I realized that my experiences were valid, relevant, and real. They weren’t just singular events, but were symptomatic of system-wide issues of educational inequality.

If we, as a state, wish to claim progressive values of equity and fairness, we must make spaces that are comfortable for all students. This means anti-bias training for staff; course content that represents more than white history and narratives; and a much greater representation of administrators, faculty, and teachers of color.

Strides are already being made by teachers like Christie Nold and educators like Rebecca Haslam, but we need to amplify their efforts. From a former Vermont public school student to all teachers, parents, and taxpayers funding school districts, I urge you to reflect on how you can be part of the solution.

Kiran Waqar is a freshman and Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar at American University studying International Studies. She is also a member of the poetry quartet Muslim Girls Making Change.
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