Christmas, unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion.
Practical ways we can make Christmas inclusive for Muslim teachers.
I love Christmas time. Even as a Muslim, I am always in awe of the sense of community, the festivities and the togetherness. However, before anyone hands me a glass of mulled wine, which I have Googled countless times to ensure is halal for me to drink, I have some questions. In the Islamic faith we commemorate all the Prophets and their contributions. I hate to break it to those on the right but in my life I am yet to meet a Muslim who is offended by eggnog or Santa. I have yet to meet a Ebenezer Scrooge praying in Arabic or tearing down a Christmas tree as he chases down carol singers and condemns the Queen’s speech. Sorry, Laurence Fox. However, I do believe there are many tacit loaded assumptions or what are commonly known as “unconscious bias” about those who do not celebrate Christmas. This is certainly the case for Muslims too. We can sensitively and respectfully challenge these biases to enable us all to have a Merry Christmas however we may wish to celebrate it.
I have read a handful articles about celebrating Christmas, Xmas jumper days and much more but what about those who do not celebrate it? How about those who don’t attach the same level of importance or tradition to it as the host population? Surely they deserve recognition? In the era of inclusion, why are we excluding? Isn’t their battle worthy? Shouldn’t schools be promoting cultural and religious sensitivity? There appears to be a gap and as some voices remain rendered invisible, it was time to write about the British Muslim perspective on Christmas. What does Christmas look like through the lens of a British Muslim? May be it something you have never considered but together, let’s consider it. ‘Tis the season to hold difficult conversations.
This has been a year of self-pride and self-discovery. In September, I wrote about the underachievement of Pakistani-British Muslims and ways we can address this as educators. As we are holding conversations about inclusion, equality and diversity, what about Muslim staff during the Christmas break? Due to the global pandemic, our equivalent to Christmas – Eid, it was cancelled. Many Muslim families celebrated Eid alone for the very first time. Personally, I was unable to complete Eid prayer at my local mosque because of lockdown. Close relatives and neighbours chose not to gather and the traditional Eid brunch, well you could hear the echo in the rooms as the spoon kissed the rasmalai bowl. COVID-19 really did hit the community hard but as the Christmas holidays fall in line with national holidays, Muslims up and down the country will also be having a much deserved break. We must seek to confront unconscious biases, othering and micro-aggressions through our interactions with others. Let’s rest over Christmas but not rest on our laurels when it comes to inclusion and diversity.
Muslims love the Prophet Isa (Peace be Upon Him) who is commonly known as Jesus. Bridging this cultural and religious understanding is important at a time of such division. Image: BG Magazine
How can we support Muslims teachers during the festive period?
I believe there are many ways we can support our Muslim teachers and also just those who do not celebrate Christmas out of choice. Before we begin a rapturous chorus of the 12 Days of Christmas or deck the halls with boughs of holly, we must approach this dialogue with sensitivity. I have four non-exhaustive ideas that aim to provide opportunity for dialogue and bridge greater understanding. Also to challenge unconscious bias in a more holistic way.
For me, sensitivity is key. Not everyone celebrates Christmas but that does not mean they do not understand the meaning of the celebration, the significance and tradition of the day and national importance placed behind it. Sometimes we make loaded assumptions without realising and we are not corrected because those we have spoken about do not feel comfortable in doing so. Let’s take a snippet of a conversation I had at work last year.
N: “Shuaib, what do you do over Christmas? It is a void day, right?
Me: “I have family and friends who do celebrate it.”
N: “So, would you like a Christmas card?”
N is a lovely chap and don’t get me wrong, his intentions were never to upset me but this lack of sensitivity came from a lack of understanding. Being sensitive towards those who do not celebrate Christmas is about not assuming their position, stance or viewpoint. If anything, this sensitivity can be created by simply getting to know your colleagues and your students, and bridging the cultural or religious gap, all of which will help promote future dialogue in more sensitive way. You can ask questions, it really is ok.
If you are unsure…
Ask and ask respectfully. Please don’t assume. In one school I was excluded from Secret Santa and the end of year Christmas meal because in their word own words, “we were unsure if you would want to get involved because you are a Muslim.” Yes, my faith is Islam but does it prohibit me from attending staff gatherings or sharing gifts? Absolutely not. It can be so innocuous at times like offering someone a mince pie or inviting them to the staff Christmas party or simply wishing them a Merry Christmas. How will you know what is appropriate if you do not ask? I was once handed a bottle of Chardonnay as a secret Santa present. I am a Muslim, I don’t drink but was I offended? No. However, if this colleague was to have struck up the conversation with me, I would have signposted them. Most Muslims are kind and friendly people who will answer questions and want you to understand their faith. With Christmas too, if you are unsure, please just ask. It is either asking or handing me a bottle of Jack Daniels which I cannot consume anyway! If you are unsure about a present, or what is in festive food, please ask. The number of times I’ve had to ask colleagues, “Is this halal?” as I’m offered a mince pie, it will leave you astounded. Simply asking a Muslim member of staff what they are comfortable with and how you can approach the topic of Christmas sensitively would be so beneficial for all parties involved. Next time you ask a Muslim colleague about their decision not to participate in Christmas jumper day, just be considerate. Christmas can be an excellent opportunity for inter-faith dialogue which can only be done if we are prepared to be brave enough to ask. Ask; but respectfully.
This has become the buzzword for 2020. From personal experience, many Muslim teachers do want to feel included in every aspect of their working environment. Whether this is in the office or in the classroom. Inclusion in a non-tokenistic manner is something every institution should be striving for to form a diversity of viewpoints that everyone will be beneficiaries of. At the very core, although most Muslims do not celebrate Christmas, they still want to be included in the festivities. In my previous article about underachieving Pakistani-British Muslims, I referred to the notion of “over-assimilation.” There is a case for this here also. To the Muslim teachers who were born and raised in Britain, Christmas is engrained in their psyche. It is a banal and ordinary part of their life and calendar year. This means, although many of us don’t have Fairytale of New York or Last Christmas on our Spotify playlists (I do), Christmas is still a significant event for us. At one particular school, some Muslim staff asked not to attend the school Christmas nativity. The school assumed this was on religious grounds but when I caught up with two TAs, they openly told me they felt excluded from the production process. It was assumed they didn’t know enough about the Nativity story despite having performed in it themselves when they were at school. These two ladies grew up on the staple of watching Home Alone on repeat! If we etch out the blaring differences we uncover stark similarities with one another. Again, if you are unsure, ask. With Christmas, there come loaded tacit assumptions but including all staff could go a long way in creating more understanding about one another.
Your break is our break too
Christmas may be a non-Islamic festival but it is also a break for everyone. After seven long gruelling weeks, the assumption that Christmas does not mean anything to those who celebrate it does implicitly trivialise the hard work they have put in during the term. When I have been asked, “So, what do you do over Christmas?” Really, my Christmas is not too different from yours. Of course, I don’t have a tree or Christmas lunch with extra brussel sprouts, but I rest, relax and recover. The assumption that my break is somewhat radically different from your is so misleading. Just like you, I am tired and ready to switch off from work. Like you, I may binge watch an entire Netflix series, eat my body weight in chocolate (not me, as I hate chocolate – sorry), catch up on podcasts, enjoy my lie ins and really, just enjoy not being at work. It has been an unprecedented year and all of us just been to pause, reflect and have a break. For everyone not celebrating Christmas, they deserve this time too. Your break is our break too.
I wish everyone reading this piece a very Happy Christmas. So many of us are often left clenched up and anxious at the thought of approaching others about holidays because we are unsure of how they may react. Christmas is a special time of year and most Muslim staff and those who do not celebrate Christmas are looking forwards to the break. But please be sensitive, do not make assumptions, be inclusive and remember, your Christmas break is also a chance for others to take a breather after a truly exhausting term. The tacit and often value-laden assumptions can be dismantled through dialogue and learning more about one another. We must all keep working to challenged and unravel unconscious bias and although Christmas provide us with a much needed break, we cannot allow the festive period to stop us fighting the good fight.
Ultimately, as reflective practitioners, we should all be looking to ensure greater sensitivity and inclusion through our every interaction. Christmas is a unique opportunity to bridge misconceptions and gain more light about each other.
If you have not began work on making yourself more inclusive with your words and actions, I pray Christmas provides you with the time to reflect and reconsider. Here’s to 2021. A year of prosperity, inclusion and for us all to have conversations that matter.
Thank you for reading,