It’s 1996. I’m a 5th grader in an East San Diego School situated in the mostly white, mixed-income part of the city. My parents’ newly acquired Section 8 voucher allowed us to move closer to the edge of the city where there were more sidewalks and better schools.
Pork was on the menu that day and hooyo packed me two pieces, jabaati with lamb suqaar (stew) on the side. As I opened my lunch box, a strong aroma hit the cafeteria like a gust of wind permeating every crevice in the building. Trying to ignore the growing chatter (and sneers) about the contents of my mystery lunch, I dug in.
Suqaar with jabaati is the ultimate finger food in Somali cuisine. You break off a piece of the bread and use it to scoop up the bits of meat and veggies. It was delicious. This unassuming dish gave me my first lesson on white privilege: that white people eat with their hands (pizza, sandwiches, wings) without being considered a “savage.” Meanwhile, some of the kids gave me horrified glances while the others stared in fascination, like I was a hyena tearing apart its prey.
I suppressed the urge to show them I wasn’t really going to eat it. I even mentally mapped my walk to the trash can and imagined how I’d dump the stew and bread. Then I remembered my mom. She stayed up late to sauté, boil, and then simmer this stew. I loved its lingering smell in our apartment the next morning. It wasn’t the processed meals I saw sprinkled around the cafeteria. (Think ‘90s when “lunchables” were a popular food category.)
My meal was thoughtfully prepared, flavorfully spiced, and carefully cooked for nearly three hours. It was a feast befitting a special occasion, and I felt guilty for even thinking about throwing it away. But this stew also represented something else. For me, it was just another way that I didn’t belong. The rigidity of the K-12 school social structure in the United States is suffocating. Food isn’t supposed to have a smell. People aren’t supposed to be different. It was the kind of world where kids traded in their identities to fit in. Assimilation is the official word for it – and it didn’t just happen in the cafeteria – even though the cafeteria became home to many of the cultural assaults I experienced in my formative years. This was a place where consuming a simple meal could mean the difference between honoring one’s heritage versus shedding it –– between fitting in and standing out.
Years later, I heard activist Lee Mun Wah say, “the most segregated place in America is the school cafeteria.” For kids of color, the cafeteria was a minefield of microaggressions, cultural bias, and racism. The cafeteria prepared me for hate-fueled attacks on the city bus, Islamophobia in my college classroom, and ignorant comments from colleagues. The cafeteria was my initiation into American society as a person of color.
I didn’t recall some of these experiences until I was pregnant in 2013, and suddenly, I became fixated on how much racism shaped my K-12 experience. I couldn’t stop thinking about the different encounters I had in the cafeteria, playground, and even in the classroom. Like the time a group of white students drew a confederate flag on the board of my 8th grade geography class and the teacher failed to erase it despite my pleas. Or that I didn’t even read a piece of literature (for school) by a writer of color until my senior year of high school.
Pregnancy became an exciting, highly anticipated experience laced with anxiety and fear. I found out the gender of my baby a few days after George Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict for the murder of Trayvon Martin, and I breathed an uneasy sigh of relief when I heard “girl.” Still, the U.S. is hard enough to navigate as a person of color – period. I wondered “what if things don’t improve for her?” There are many moments where I feel like I barely made it – where I felt like the exception – and I so desperately wanted to bring my child into a world where her success was expected and not an anomaly.
Enter Marwa Khalif. By the time my daughter Marwa was born, the sleeplessness that comes with being a new parent left little room for my mind to wander. Still, several things made me stop hard in my tracks. First, just a few days after she was born, a pediatrician proceeded to tell my partner and I about the “submissiveness” of Muslim women in SE Asia. Meanwhile, he himself dismissed a female nurse in the room. Then, after bringing our daughter into a clinic about a health concern, another male pediatrician made judgments about our parenting and why our daughter wasn’t putting on weight without even hearing her symptoms. While he was busy judging us, he missed a critical diagnosis that ultimately needed immediate hospitalization and subsequent surgery. In both of these cases, bias crept its way into her life in a profound way. It made me realize that, no matter how busy we are or how young she is, racism has a firm footing in this country and thus in her life.
I worry things won’t change fast enough for Marwa and other children of color. I worry about black youth being killed in the hands of law enforcement and bigoted vigilantes. And for those who are fortunate enough to physically survive, I worry for their quality of life and sense of identity.
In 2025, my daughter Marwa will be a 5th grader. She and other children of color will be the majority in many pockets of a more diverse America. But we know that gaining power will take more than social capital – it will require dismantling the powerful institution of racism and privilege that prevents our communities from thriving. In 2025, I hope that Marwa will see teachers and administrators who look like her throughout her academic journey. I hope she learns about her faith, race, and cultural identity in a way that honors her communities. I hope she has opportunities to learn, succeed, and thrive in life. And I hope every glorious element of her existence is accepted without being appropriated, simply tolerated, or deemed exotic. In 2025, I hope the cafeteria becomes a place that inspires radical self-love for all our children, while also teaching them to appreciate, accept, and celebrate one another.