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Here’s What Happened When an Atheist Couple Taught Their Kids About Muhammad Ali

For two years I have been a nanny for a couple of tech executives in one of the wealthiest areas of San Jose. I won’t tell you which tech company they work for, I’ll just tell you it rhymes with “Snapple.” The couple have three young girls, all under age 10, who can sometimes be little hornets in my hijab, but generally make coming to work an absolute joy. I call these luminous little blonde-haired beauties my “Littles.”
Friday morning I walked into work to see the whole family gathered in front of the television, the girls still in their pajamas as the parents get ready for work.  They weren’t watching cartoons–they were watching the funeral procession of Muhammad Ali.
True story:  Their parents called the girls into the living room and MADE them watch the procession.
I asked the girls “What are you watching?” I wanted to know if they understood they were witnessing an incredible moment in history.
The Middle Little lifted her head off the couch cushion, and in the most adorable way ever, declared that they were watching “the most boring-est thing in the world.”
Before I could say anything to educate the child about the event unfolding in front of her, both parents turned to their daughter, and what they said did not surprise me, but it did bring a little glow to my morning.
Since I have known them, these parents have proven themselves time and again to be the kindest and most thoughtful people I know. They constantly provide me with new learning experiences that contribute to my own personal growth. Both of them are devout (white) atheists from Texas. While it’s not remarkable to find allies among Caucasians, Atheists, or people from the South, these two take educating their daughters on universal acceptance and inclusion to another level.
Due to their demographics, one may assume they have absolutely no cultural or societal obligation to teach their kids about Muhammad Ali. I mean, take a look at what the media portrays as our typical anti-Muslim voter–aren’t they similar in demographics? But those people are riding the hateful bandwagons of demagogues like Trump. Not this couple, though. This couple has a different agenda in raising their children; one that we could all learn from.
Muhammad Ali doesn’t represent to their daughters what he represents to African-American kids, or to Muslim kids, and they know this.

They know their daughters will not face the type of discrimination and slander Ali faced; the type of mistreatment African-Americans, Muslims, and other minorities still face every day.

Though Muhammad Ali may never be a personal hero to their daughters as he was to generations of Black Muslims, these incredible parents took a moment in their busy Friday morning to teach their undoubtedly lucky–and privileged–daughters about an incredible hero, and what we can all learn from Muhammad Ali.
They did not have to do this; they did not feel the necessity to preach about Ali to their children to remind them of their worth and the strength they can possess like African-American parents or Muslim parents do with their children.

They did this because educating a generation of white kids about racism is how you bring an end to privilege-blindness, and how you teach kids to really judge people only on the content of their character.

Here’s what they had to say to their daughter, who in her childish innocence said that watching the hearse’s journey through the streets of Louisville was “the most boring-est thing ever”:

“Be respectful. This is a funeral for a great man, a man who did a lot of things for a lot of people. He stood up for Black people, and he stood up for Muslims, when Black people and Muslims were being treated unfairly in this country. He was Muslim like Amani, and people now are saying a lot of things about Muslims that are mean and untrue–and this man stood up against those people. And now, look how many people are lined up, throwing flowers at the hearse and chanting the name of a Black man, a Muslim man? We’ve lost a great person. Remember this moment. Someday, you will tell your children you watched the funeral procession of Muhammad Ali.”

These parents, with no ethnic or religious connection to Muhammad Ali, used a few simple sentences to remind a five-year-old how important it is to recognize a person who stood up for himself and for others against systemic racism and personal attacks.
Later, the girls had a million questions about Muhammad Ali, and I told them about his decision to risk everything in becoming a conscientious objector; how he gave African-American youth a towering role-model to aspire to; how he rose to the top despite the chains around his ankles, and was truly able to call himself “The Greatest,” because he was ultimately humble, and lived in the service of others.

Three little girls understood an incredible moment in history because their parents decided to embrace a radical concept: Responsibility.

While these two could have easily let their daughters grow up never knowing really who Ali was, they decided, consciously and passionately, to make sure their daughters open their eyes to things like segregation, imperial war, Islamophobia, and how to appreciate everyone for the unique gifts they bring to the world.
This is not something all parents do, but it is something this set of parents do EVERY DAY. Whether they are educating their kids about how to treat a person with a disability with respect and dignity, or why we should help people with mental illness rather than being afraid of them, or why we say “Shana Tova” to our Jewish friends on Rosh Hashanah, or how to recognize and celebrate aspects of their own culture, these parents are always opening their kids’ eyes to the world in ways that make them kinder, while still remaining age-appropriate for their learning.

These parents and their wonderful kids make me love my job.  I see daily–over and over again–moments that illustrate that children are always learning, and that every moment is a teachable moment.
You don’t have to be Black, or a Muslim to understand the struggle, to be a good person, and be an ally.
Learning empathy is a developed skill that starts early in life.  It starts at home, by educating your children about racism, discrimination, and great people who did amazing things to change the world and the people in it; people like Muhammad Ali.