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Cultural awareness builds understanding between Americans

By Kristian Bekele 

Staff Writer 

Cultural identity is something that we all have either encountered or will encounter later on. It is a confusing mess of terms, cultures and ethnicities. Even through those basic identifiers, there is something more complex to a person besides the environments that they have been raised in that influence them greatly.

We had two members of the Summit community share with us their opinions of culture and how their identity shapes them.

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Rasmia Shuman, a junior at Summit Prepatory Charter High School

Rasmia Shuman (Mia to her friends), is a bright, fun-loving and outgoing person. She is a junior at Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City.

Shuman explained that her devout faith in Islam is a large part of her identity. Shuman is a young woman who is not afraid of showing and teaching others about her belief in the Qur’an and about how she follows its teachings. In an interview with her, she told us about how her culture of being a Muslim American has affected her.

She stated that culture was “not me, but it forms who I am.”  

Shuman also talked about how Arabs are often negatively portrayed in the media. She said that, often times, the media portrays Arabs as “not completely peaceful” and also said that her culture is “not the way people see on the news.” The media assumes “every Arab is angry, not peaceful, and wishes hate on everyone.”

She also shared how being a Muslim American has been for her and how she is able to balance the various aspects of her life.

Shuman said, “Being Muslim is a part of my culture.”

She also said, “Basically, I have been raised that not everyone knows what’s going on. Keep a smile on your face and not take anything offensive.”  This is in reference to whenever people tend to ask her a rude question concerning her identity as a Muslim, especially those around the hijab and women’s roles in society. For Shuman, the hijab is not something that inhibits her. Rather, she sees it as a way to be modest.

Shuman also shared about the conflict that can often time come with being a Muslim American. One of the struggles that she had was with her daily prayers. Specifically, she was talking about the Salah (the five daily prayers that Muslims perform every day according to the Quran) and juggling that with attending school. “I do keep up with my prayers, but there’s school and other things. But I don’t want to clash with being American and Muslim.” Shuman instead prays at home, scheduling her time to fit in her school work with her religious duties.

But overall, she is immensely grateful for living in the United States. “Being in America is probably the best place to be,” Shuman noted. She cited the incidents in Germany and France, with the recent ruling of Angela Merkel to ban burqas and  France’s ban on the burkini.

In the end, she sees herself as a representation of what it means to be Muslim. Shuman said, “I want people to have a good portrayal.”

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Lissa Thiele, Holocaust and Sociology of Law Expeditions teacher at Summit Public Schools

Lissa Thiele, an Expeditions teacher who specializes in Holocaust and Sociology of Law, also focuses on how to teach others tolerance toward other people’s identities.

Ms. Thiele achieves this goal by having lessons that are both exciting and informative. She highlights for her students that schools don’t always take an in-depth look into different cultures, even though that is an important part of what shapes our country.

“I think that culture is a set of human traditions that can have a relationship to race, ethnicity, gender, religion that is passed down from generation to generation.”

One of the things that Ms. Thiele mentioned was that, for her, a lot of people tend to forget that she also has Puerto Rican roots alongside with her Jewish heritage. “People think that the culture equals race, but it doesn’t.”

Ms. Thiele also told us about the differences that she tends to encounter within the understanding of the practice of Judaism as a religion versus the beliefs that are a part of the Jewish culture. She added that, for outsiders, this difference is hard to see, especially in the United States.

She explained that the Jewish experience in Israel can be very different than the Jewish experience in America: “Judaism is both a religion and a culture. There, it’s either you’re religious Jewish or cultural Jewish. In America, those lines are totally blurred, but in other parts it’s not as blurred.”

One of the things that Ms. Thiele emphasizes is that she believes in the things that she teaches. She said “what I teach is what I live.”

Of course, she has some concerns about how to pass her mix of customs and cultures to her four-year-old son, Skyler. Since he is half Jewish, she is concerned over how he will be able to understand the different aspects of his ancestry and not be ashamed about itsince her husband has German roots. Ms. Thiele said, “My son, I have a bit of concern over…One-half of him wanted the other half of him dead.”

At the culmination of everything, she wants the world to know that she is also human and that, while she might not practice the same things that others do, she can still feel pain.

Ms.Thiele said, “I always want to be for real with it, but I don’t want people to see me as less than human … If you punch me, I’m going to hurt just like you.” 

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Expeditions teacher Lissa Thiele and Summit Prep junior Rasmia Shuman share a moment.

Related:

Students learn to appreciate their culture in the Bay Area

Experts offer strategies to be more culturally aware

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