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#IStandWithAhmed lesson: Curiosity is for white kids

This week, brown children across America learned a lesson: If you try to be like Steve Jobs, you could get arrested.

By now, you’ve heard about 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a boy who brought a homemade clock to his high school in Irving, Texas. School officials and police called the engineering project a “hoax bomb.” Late Tuesday evening, a photo of Ahmed being led out of the school in handcuffs went viral. 

You may also have heard about the #IStandWithAhmed hashtag, and that the young man now has multiple invitations – to several college campuses, to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to a television show hosted by a Canadian astronaut, and even a personal invitation from Mark Zuckerberg to visit the Facebook campus.

He’s even gotten a ticket to the White House.

Hillary Clinton also tweeted her support, telling Ahmed to “stay curious and keep building.”

Her encouragement echoes another phrase – “stay hungry, stay foolish” – made famous by a more well-known tinkerer. That man’s name was Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple.

Steve Jobs was always open about the fact that his early tinkering with electronics led to his eventual career in technology. In a 1994 interview, he shared fond recollections of being a teenager and building “blue boxes” – devices that let users make free phone calls to anywhere in the world. He was 17 – only three years older than Ahmed is now. “That was magical,” he said of his early experiments. “Experiences like that taught us the power of ideas.”

His company went on to make another revolutionary phone device – the iPhone.

Those early “blue boxes” were illegal. Clocks, on the other hand, are not.

Another difference between the two tinkerers: though his father was Syrian, we think of Steve Jobs as white.

Many believe that Ahmed Mohamed’s name, race and religion caused him to be punished for something that is normally encouraged in white children.

That’s why it’s important that the #IStandWithAhmed hashtag is more than a post-racial saga with a fairy-tale ending. It has reignited a conversation about race and bias in the tech industry and related STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. In a climate where the lack of diversity in even the youngest tech start-ups is a constant point of scrutiny in Silicon Valley, the arrest of Ahmed is another telling example of the barriers that students of color face even before entering the job market.

Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd has said that Ahmed’s race was not a factor in how he was treated, and that the “reaction would have been the same” had a white student brought a clock to school.

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But to Freada Kapor Klein, founder of the Level Playing Field Institute, the high school’s response was a “shameful example of bias” that minority students can face.

“Young people like Ahmed are exactly the kinds of budding engineers that our schools need to be encouraging, not criminalizing,” she wrote in an emailed statement to The Times.

Several tech companies also took to Twitter to express frustration with the message that Ahmed’s arrest would send to budding engineers of color. Smartwatch maker Pebble fired off a sarcastic tweet to the Irving Police Department, asking if it would be arrested for making digital clocks as well. “Getting more minorities and girls interested in STEM fields would be a huge benefit to the tech industry,” Pebble Director of Community Joseph Kristoffer said via email. He described the image of the boy being taken away in handcuffs as a “gut punch.”

Among the college representatives who invited Ahmed for a tour is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical astrophysicist who was recently profiled for being only the 63rd black woman in America with a physics doctorate. She invited the young man to tour MIT. 

But in a phone interview, Prescod-Weinstein expressed concern that exhilaration over the “happy ending” of Ahmed being invited to the White House would obscure the underlying problems of racism and bias that led to suspicion of a 14-year-old boy who was just trying to explore the world of electronics.

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“I’m thankful that social media picked this up, but this was a lucky case,” Prescod-Weinstein said in a phone interview. “What scares me about this story is that for every story that makes the news, there are so many children whose stories we won’t hear.”

“For all we know, there’s a child out there who could have made a breakthrough in cancer research, but instead of nurturing their curiosity, we put them into the school-to-prison pipeline. And we may never find out about that child.”

Ahmed’s case also comes on the heels of another bias-related hashtag. Less than a week ago, #AfterSeptember11 trended, as people shared stories of being discriminated against for being Muslim, or simply for having brown skin. Many of the stories were from young people who were recalling discrimination at schools.

To 19-year-old Jessica Talwar, the creator of the hashtag, the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed sounds all too familiar. In a phone interview, she said that the story of Ahmed is “proof that we are still facing Islamophobia and racism, and that our schools are perpetuating this bias.”

“It made me feel like I wasn’t human, it made me feel like I was a criminal,” Ahmed said of his experience in a video interview with the Dallas Morning News.

Were it not for the vigilance and creativity of people on social media, that comment might not have been in a video from a major national news outlet, but in a short tweet: 140 characters with a sad hashtag, lost in a sea of other horrifying stories.

It could have ended worse for Ahmed. If all goes well, he’ll have internships waiting for him next summer, and plenty of interested recruiters in any tech field he chooses.

But for the other children across America who look like him, the message is clear: You’re not Steve Jobs. If you want to get an early start on a career in STEM, do so at your own peril.

Your hobby might get you arrested. 

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to include the fact that Jobs's father was Syrian.

Follow @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.

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