When I was fourteen, I got my first computer — an Apple IIe. Actually, it was my family’s computer, and my dad used it pretty much all day doing his work. However, at night, I was allowed to play on the computer. I remember one time when I stayed up all night writing a simple program in BASIC. The next day, I proudly showed off what the computer could do, as it went through it’s paces of answering questions based on the users “Yes” or “No” inputs. I thought about that Apple IIe this week when I heard the story of Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest for building a clock and bringing it to school.
You see, when I was a geeky teenager, no one thought anything of it. Kids like me — white boys — were allowed to be geeks, and were allowed to dream of building robots like R. Daneel Olivaw, who captured my imagination when I was sixteen. My parents joked with their friends about my silly BASIC program, and everyone thought it was funny and cute and a sign of great things to come. I was on my way to becoming the smart, successful man I was expected to be.
If I had been a girl doing the same thing in 1984, people might have thought me strange. There might have been a worry that I was too masculine. (Believe me, that was never a worry with me, but that’s another story for another time.) I sometimes wonder what my sister could have done with our Apply IIe, if it hadn’t been hogged by her brother who figured she should be doing girly stuff anyway.
Or what if I’d been born a person of color? We now have the rise of the Blerds, but in 1984 — five years before Geordi La Forge — black nerds were unheard of. Even today, we feel the need to give them a special category and their own term, because we find them so exotic. What message does that send to a young black man who loves to goof around with technology?
And then we have Ahmed Mohamed. Like me, at fourteen, he spent the night creating a fun project that he wanted to show off. However, unlike me whose white skin is a blank slate onto which I’m allowed to paint any future I want, all people could see in young Ahmed was a potential terrorist. He kept saying, “It’s a clock,” and everyone around him kept looking at those wires and those digital numbers and thinking, “It looks like a bomb.”
I also remember my first digital watch. My Grandma gave it to me for Christmas, and it made me feel like James Bond. It never occurred to me that someone might think of me as the villain in the story, because I didn’t have a deformity, or an accent, or brown skin, or boobs. That’s what happens when you grow up in our society as a white boy.
I pray for a day when the same is true for every little Ahmed or Levar playing in his room with wires and digital clocks or reading books into the wee hours of the morning.
Rev. Tyler Connoley is the pastor of Silver City United Church of Christ, a new church start in Silver City, New Mexico. Tyler has a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Divinity, both from Earlham School of Religion, and is the co-author of The Children Are Free: Re-examining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships, which has been translated into multiple languages including Spanish (Dios Nos Ha Hecho Libres). In 2014 and 2015, Tyler worked as the Immigrant Care Coordinator for the Southwest Conference. He lives in Silver City with his spouse, Rob Connoley, who is Chef at the Curious Kumquat, a restaurant they own together.