The First Step Towards Healing

Have you ever felt disenfranchised, bullied or marginalized? How about the feeling of simply not fitting in within your environment? For some, this describes their adolescent years. For too many others this experience repeats itself throughout life. Many experience such to the extent of feeling like outsiders daily. The first step towards healing is admitting to and addressing the issue.

My work speaks to the many who, like myself, have been presented the challenge of living in multicultural world which far too often does not function in manner valuing the diverse cultures and many other differences throughout the world population. This is what led me to my current research aiming to better understand how members of a school community navigate developing answers to the questions of both students and their parents in regards to how best to function with an appreciation and understanding of racial/ethnic differences.

From my own life experiences I developed questions wondering why I regularly felt as if I did not belong in my own neighborhood where others regularly picked on me and my siblings; in the public schools I attended where teachers would regularly and blatantly mispronounce my name regardless of how many times I corrected them; in my own extended family gatherings where I would be called out for getting seconds while others in my age range were disregarded no matter how many times they returned to the kitchen for more food; in malls and shopping centers where I would be followed and watched regardless of my witnessing others steal while I was being watched instead; in my car where I would be pulled over and questioned relentlessly for what would eventually conclude in being sent on with no valid reason for being delayed any longer; or throughout my teaching experiences in America where my students would see pictures of my family and comment in tones of surprise about how attractive they thought my brothers are (all of whom have a lighter skin color like our father), even following their comments with clarification that they did not mean to hurt my feelings (as I have a darker skin color likening our mother), thus confirming their implications.

Life History – My Inspiration

My experiences are those of a Black man maternally and paternally descending from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the U.S. which became a world power using the forced free labor provided by my ancestors with no reciprocation since. Unlike most descendants of immigrants in America, descendants of the slave trade are completely disconnected from who we are in that for the most part we carry the surnames of the family that last owned our ancestors. Our ancestral names are unknown. In addition to life experiences of being a Black male in a society and culture which continues to widely portray and view Black males as violent, deviant people to be feared, I was also born and raised as a religious minority. Being raised Muslim with an Arabic name in this Western culture of the United States of America has also directly affected my personal experiences, especially with the wide exposure of violent acts by those who have done so in the name of my religion over recent decades.

Within my own neighborhood as a child and amongst my own family, I regularly experienced being accused of “acting White” and otherwise not fitting in due to speaking proper English and having success in my efforts to achieve academically. Throughout my childhood and to this day I am also faced with the challenge of being overweight. All of these factors at various stages of my life were additionally compounded by negative treatment based on the false assumptions of many that I was homosexual due to my language proficiency, borderline obsessive neatness, daily professional attire and refusal to behave in ways I felt were/are unbecoming of a mature professional. Upon completion of a Bachelor’s Degree, I found an inner reward in the field of education once I came to the realization that I had a passion and natural propensity for teaching. Ironically enough, here too in this field of education, I find myself a minority with a very small percentage of males in this profession and an even smaller percentage of Black males.

Life History – Participant’s Dedication

In our efforts to understand one another as humans, we tend to use the biographical information we learn about others, then interweaving our own lives and experiences with theirs. This is where/how Critical Life History of Critical Family History guides this Critical Participatory Action Research (PAR) (Kemmis, McTaggart, & Nixon, 2014) study. My personal experiences have shaped and molded me into being one who has a strong interest in working with people on addressing racism, sexism, classism and the many other ways in which humans tend differentiate individuals and groups, minimizing some while empowering others. This inner-drive has motivated and inspired my desire to conduct the study described below, while it is the participants’ willingness and desire to share the stories of their lives that impact the other participants and thus have lasting impacts on how each participant interacts with others going forward.

I am studying ways in which members of a school community group engage in conversations about race. With the understanding that deflecting issues of race as an educator or a researcher can reproduce racialized disparities in schools, this study is informed by interpretivism frameworks through a Critical Race Theory (CRT) lens, as described by Ladson-Billings. I am facilitating discussions amongst the personnel, parents, and businesses in partnership with an elementary school that has a diverse racial/ethnic population. Data is generated during the group conversations, in which participants share personal stories from their family lives as children to adolescent experiences at home, at school, in the general public. From these monthly discussions over the past two years, I have learned much not only about the participants in this research project, but also about the inner-workings of diverse groups of people having conversations about race/ethnicity.

Stories parents told in our first group discussions revolved strongly around the questions, concerns and comments of their children in regards to the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown shooting deaths and the Eric Garner asphyxiation death each while unarmed at the hands of police officers or security guards. These conversations included the effect the incidents had on the interactions of their children with one another in regards to their recognition of race and ethnicity. Elementary students were expressing concern to their parents for their classmates’ well-being due to the racial identity of their classmates, causing parents to question exactly how to respond to their concerns. Conversations extended into the school with questions about the interactions of parents based on racial and cultural grouping they witnessed amongst one another during school functions / events / activities.

The participants felt so comfortable in our group discussions that many of them shared portions of their personal life history to support or explain their worldviews. Group participants each volunteer to join and participate at the levels they individually feel most comfortable. Some engage as listeners and observers only while others by verbally contributing at their own will, the amount they feel comfortable with. Many questions participants have are being answered without participants being placed in the uncomfortable position of asking, because they are receiving explanations about others’ experiences through the stories told. Asking questions not only provides the opportunity for hearing the answer, but the fact that certain questions are asked also exposes the lack of understanding many people have about those from backgrounds or experiences different from their own. During our group discussions, it is warming to hear about how participants act and react differently upon witnessing acts or hearing comments based on prejudice, bigotry or bias now, compared to prior to their participation in our monthly discussions based around facing and addressing issues of race/ethnicity.

A Healing Summary

Many people awaken daily in the United States of America without subconsciously wondering if they will face unfair or unjust treatment due at least partially to their own race/ethnicity. Unfortunately, many others do not and what occurs in society is reflected in what occurs in schools. I expect that this study will advance the understanding present within today’s field of research within school leadership, school/community involvement, Parent Teacher Organization activity and both interracial and intercultural relations in schools. Together, these elements contribute to possible solutions in schools related questions about and/or incidents of racism. Using Critical Race Theory, Critical Life History, Critical Family History and Critical Participatory Action Research to guide discussions on race within school communities, a deeper understanding of one another’s past experiences and views on local, national and international occurrences can be gained.

As many participants in my current study have shared, I too often feel as if our group discussions are a form of therapy. The opportunity to vent and share our experiences to an audience of others who care about our experiences and the effects of those experiences can be cathartic. My skin is the color it is, as it will always be, just as my facial features are as well. Knowing there are many willing to gather and learn to appreciate the differences we all have, regardless, has been and continues to be for me, healing.


Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (2000). Participatory action research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed.) (pp. 567-606). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kemmis, S., McTaggart, R., & Nixon, R. (2014). The action research planner: Doing critical participatory action research. Singapore: Springer Science & Business Media.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.

Omar J. Salaam, a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of South Florida (USF), Tampa, is aspiring to becoming an assistant professor at a university in the Middle East. His research interests include culturally responsive school leadership, leadership for families and community engagement, race and identity intersectionality and evaluation. Omar has more than 20 years of secondary school teaching and administration experience in the United States and Malaysia, educational consultancy experience in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand and university teaching experience at USF. He can be contacted at

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