map my story on my back orient the sails to the east disembark halfway between the origin points of here and there lest i drown in the void of never enough
we are the children born from olives trees into exile we swim to stay afloat along streams and empires
daughters of palestine’s diaspora combust to ignite the path of a road less travelled leave a trail between checkpoints dig graves with our searchign fingertips only to find bodies colonized by broken promises
i repatch the earth with hopes and memories of my ancestors collect their bones and bury them into the flaming soil of an undying legacy
my mother tongue is my mother’s tongue she is a song of stars her name, lost in translation
to a language that doesn’t know how to pronounce her correctly blunts the soft and sacred arabic spirit into the straight edges of their pleases and thank you’s
to a language that paints a mockery of accents and broken english on a canvas absent of sorry’s
i spit tongues foreign between lips master lyrics in the vernacular sing prophecies into dark grounds that brew storms at the bottom of coffee cups
sometimes, the words stumble out of my mouth like wilted flowers made of glass jagged edges cut the insides of my cheeks as we talk blood, fire, and men
my mother tongue is my mother’s tongue she is a song of stars her humanity, lost in translation
to a nation that demands that her children at once confess their birthplace “here” is not an answer they are willing to stomach would rather dance this tired charade with you
beat the colour out of your melanin interrogate the genesis of your god than to accept
are a migratory bird who got lost along the way, wounded and can’t find its way back but this nest is all you have
leaving the womb i did not seize any land but the inheritance of courage with trembling lips the weapon of his smile the elixir of her love
i wear it like a family heirloom across my collarbone i was a time between time, birthed into the twilight
i learned that when a man cries the shore meets the sand with every tide and the sea returns to me
the contours of my spine are the tops of hills and valleys they tell stories of sleepwalkers who awaken from night terrors before dawn to catch a glimpse of mountaintops
i visit all of the places my father’s dreams have been sequels in transit from generation to generation across raging oceans
that weather questions that taunt and scratch and wither: when do we get to shed our skins of second class? look, we worked hard drilled degrees and diplomas on our walls
have we done enough? sacrificed enough? assimilated enough? are we enough? for you
i visit all of the places my father’s fears have been in pent up masts and spars of fury ashen stormed ruins of grief and sullen faces occupy the insides of glass bottles
the day the ships came his hands holding a map of ashes set in motion heartbeats of war drums and friday prayer sermons
compass needles morphed into swords pointing me towards jerusalem running, i gave up searching for home
stuffed zaatar and almonds and sage into my front pockets to not forget where i come from and moved to the beat of my own drum
kept dancing until the air was drunk with the sweet smells of rose water and saffron and truth dribbled like honey from the mouths of babes
fell out love with belonging settled nowhere and for no one detached my backbone and tethered it to velvet wings
daughters of palestine’s diaspora take flight amidst battle cries forgotten by tomorrows, survive in the telling of story of warriors and intifada martyrs protests and acts of political warfare
we are the children born from olive trees into resistance the pulses of our beating hearts, is too, a revolution.
After taking a *long* hiatus from writing in pursuit of furthering my education and career, I’ve decided that it’s about due time that I resume writing again. And so, we’re back! Two and half years in, and I’ve since had the privilege of studying, working, and living abroad in two major capital cities; gained a diverse group of friends and allies from varying walks of life around the world; took a deep dive into self-discovery; and explored and traveled to various parts of Europe. But as the saying goes, “all good things must come to end” (at least for now). Since the ‘official’ outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve personally found myself having to suddenly upend my life (literally overnight), returning home nearly broke with no real prospects in sight. Moving back into my parent’s house certainly wasn’t an option I thought I’d need to exercise any time soon (or at all for that matter). Not to mention, in a lockdown of all possible arrangements. But alas, here we are…more than a year later. This time has given me the opportunity to reflect, tune in, and redirect. To grieve and to heal. To grow and to rest. So, in hopes of making sense of the current global state of affairs – be it the international public health crisis and economic austerity measures to police brutality and state violence (and beyond) – and finding meaning in our own lives, I believe now, more than ever, is a timely moment to turn back to writing. To transform our collective grief, joy, rage, pain, and outrage into intentional purpose. To experiment. With words. With poetry. With art. After all, art imitates life doesn’t it? Either way, the point is I’m back, with a lot to say about many, many things. And chances are, these words, no matter how hard I try, will fail me. They almost always do. They are never enough. But at least I can say I tried. STAY TUNED!
This year, I had the amazing opportunity to lead a new pilot program with racialized youth in HDSB schools. The HAL YES! Program – Halton Youth for Equity & Student Voice – is envisioned for high school students belonging to groups who have been historically marginalized, based on their racial, cultural or religious identity. The goal of the program is to enhance youth participants’ confidence and foster critical self-reflection on all aspects of their unique identity, while building their leadership skills to create a climate of inclusion and respect for all members of their school community and beyond. During this time, I had the honour and privilege of engaging and empowering these youth for a period of 14-weeks. One of my favourite sessions to-date is when I organized and moderated a panel discussion on race and anti-Black racism with invited guest speakers. Panelists were asked to share how they’ve come to understand their identity, lived experiences, and the impact it’s had on various aspects of their lives, namely their careers. By inviting Black professionals from varying fields of work to the panel, my objective as a facilitator was to show youth the possibilities of who they could become and what they could aspire to do in life, not in spite of their identity (talents, passions, etc.), but because of it. Together, we explored themes of overcoming obstacles, personal growth, identity formation, living one’s truth, and the importance of self-love and self-care.
I also believe that it was a great opportunity to model allyship and solidarity. Naming my privilege, giving space, and listening and learning from the experiences and stories of others are all examples of what it truly means to be an ally and stand in solidarity with fellow community members. It’s understanding that our liberation is bound one another. I will never know freedom, if another is unfree – even if the shackles of their oppression are different than my own. It is our collective responsibility to struggle, to resist, and to exist as we are together. So, my hope has been to impart this very wisdom and perspective onto our youth. It is not enough for them to see it and hear from me alone. I see the value in our youth seeing it and hearing it from people who look like them, and who reflect their own experiences and feelings. These are adults who’ve not only embarked on life’s journey with a great deal of grace and determination, but who have overcome, tried, and conquered great heights in exceptional and extraordinary ways. In the same way, I wish to relay some of their stories and insights back to you here – in hopes of evoking connection, deepening understanding, and broadening a greater outlook on life. That is my job as a writer, and if I can inspire even the slightest change of heart or mind, then it becomes all the more possible for us to reimagine a world that’s kinder, softer, and fuller than ever before.
Alexiis Stephen (AS): My name is Alexiis Stephen. I’m a teacher here in the Halton region…I actually moved down the street from you at the Welcome Centre now. I work with any newcomer families that come in…newcomer students in the schools…as well as I’m part of the equity team. I grew up in Oakville back when…now people say, “oh Oakville is so diverse”…but I grew up in Oakville when Oakville really was very white. And so, there was very little colour. The school that I went to…from K-12, there were literally 5 families who were Black in all of the school. So, you can imagine how ‘unique’ I was, and how much I would have stood out, and how much I might have experienced…what it’s like being Black, especially living in a place like Oakville. In my high school years, I moved to Stoney Creek, and I moved to a public school. So that was unique in and of itself. It was good because I got a little more variety. So, I had a little more opportunity to have Black friends…and South Asian friends. So, I would say that that was the majority of my friend group. And then I moved into going to University…and now I’m here.
Courtney Stephen (CS): What’s up, everyone. My name is Courtney Stephen. I’m from Brampton. Really, I don’t know if my story is 100% completely about my race, and I think that’s kind of by choice…because in my line of work…I’m a professional athlete (with the Hamilton Wildcats). So, everywhere I go, people generally put me in a box right away…and they think that they already know certain things about me. So, I studied psychology. Before that, I spent two years at another school. And those two student populations were extremely different. One was in Chicago…in the US…around the time that Barack Obama got elected. So, it was extremely racially charged…and people were very segregated. People would really separate themselves from each other…like you had the Hispanics, the Blacks, and the Whites. You know, everybody just kind of stuck to the people who looked like them…to the point where I noticed that people who were from the city had different accents than people who were from the suburbs…in the same place. So, that kind of led me to think about my identity differently…being Canadian in America. I say all that to say I’m a young Black man, but I like to think of myself as so much more…because it’s not just necessarily what you look like or what you do…it’s about what value you bring to the world. So, I’m here to share my perspective today…and let you know about some of my experiences.
Juanita Stephen (JS): Hey y’all. My name is Juanita Stephen. I am a child and youth worker, and a student. I’m a grad student right now. Yeah, I think my identity has influenced the line of work I’ve gone into. Another part that’s important to my story is that I was a young mother. I grew up in Brampton. I went to Elementary and High School there…and my schools were fairly racially diverse. The high school that I went to was probably 40-50% South Asian…also a lot of Black kids…there were a lot of racialized students there. And then I went to University, got pregnant, and had my son. So, my academic journey has taken a bit of a winding road. I went to school. I got my Child and Youth Work diploma, and then I’ve been working in the field. And now I’m back in school. I’m doing my Masters in Child and Youth Care. And I’m going to be starting my PhD in the fall. So, I’ve had lots of different experiences, and especially in educational institutions where I’ve encountered people who don’t necessarily know how to interact with someone who lives in a body that looks like mine…who has hair that looks like mine…who looks like this, and sounds like this…they don’t really know what do with all that. So, there have been a lot of intersecting question marks for people, and navigating that has been interesting, to say the least. It’s really influenced the work that I’m doing now…working with young people. I also teach at Humber College. So, I’ve been teaching people how to work with young people in a respectful way. So, I’ll have a chance to talk about that at your school.
Me: Thank you, and again, welcome! So, my first question is what did you learn about yourself in the process of building your career?
CS: Oh, can I take this!
CS: Alright, when people talked about careers growing up, the number one question you would get is, “Okay, so what do you want to do with your life?” And, I would always tell people that I wanted to be a professional athlete. And then the number one follow-up question is, “So, what’s your plan B?”
CS: And so, in the pursuit of my goal or in the pursuit of my career (which I’m currently in)…I understand that I’m the slim minority of people who’ve made it, but in order to get there, you have to have a mindset that the hard work is not the barrier to entry. It’s the thing that will hold everyone else back because you’re willing to the do the work. So, if you do it, it’s going to eliminate your competition for you. You know what I mean? So, that allows you to focus on yourself. Achieving anything that’s extremely substantial…reaching any kind of height…you know, the stuff you dream about…not the stuff that falls into your lap…the stuff that you sit down at night before you go to bed and you’re thinking about…and like you’re meditating on. To reach those kind of things, you really have to turn in and focus on yourself because no one will ever give it to you, and no one will ever help you get there. And if they do, once they’re gone and they leave, you’re just going to crumble under your own weight, right. So, in my career, I’ve learned that there’s extreme power in internalizing your deepest convictions and just not really listening to the noise.
AS: For me, I think growing up in Oakville, there’s this expectation that you have to get a really good job and you have to do really, really well, financially…that you have to have a certain standard of living. So, when I first graduated, I think I was looking for a job that would pay me the most amount of money and I was lucky enough to get into a job as a pension analyst working in downtown Toronto. It gave me a lot of money, and I was able to do well. But the sacrifice that I had to make to get to that place was that, at the time, I had a young daughter. I had a growing family. I really had to sacrifice my time with my family, and I had to really sacrifice my time in general. I was in there on weekends, I was there late nights to perform and to do what everybody expected. And I wasn’t the only one, everybody was doing that. And there were times where…there were moments where I really had to sit back and say, “Do I really want to do this for the next four years? Do I really want to be in this position where I’m working like crazy?” Yeah, I’m making lots of money but I can’t even really enjoy it because I’m working like crazy. So, I think what I learned for myself and the best advice I ever got was somebody once told me – when I was beginning to think about whether or not this is what I really want to do – they said think about when you were in high school or in university, and what was the one thing that you did that you enjoyed. You did it just because you didn’t do it for money, you didn’t do it for any personal gain, you did it because you just really liked to do it. And for me, weirdly enough, what I like to do is I’d like to start clubs. So, I started a step club at my school…I started a mentor club at my school…I ran a fashion show at my school and I loved being in a school environment. And that told me that maybe teaching is something I’d like to do. So, that was really how I made the shift over to teaching. And then somebody else told me afterwards as I was on my journey towards teaching, they said, “You know what, do what you love and the money will follow.” And I won’t say that I’m rolling in the dough, because I am a teacher, but I’m happy and I’m comfortable and I love my job and I love going and doing what I do every day. And so, I’d say the trade-off is I don’t make as much as I used to make, but definitely the trade-off has been more than worth it. So that would be my advice.
JS: I think the greatest thing that I learned about my identity coming into my career is that not to try and change it essentially. So, there are a lot of things about me that people love, and there are things that people don’t really get. The fact that I had a son when I was 20 years old…that made people think about me in a particular way. They aligned me with certain statistics and stereotypes that people have about young Black women. Right, so some of those things that made people think that I was a certain person. Then when I started my career, people who taught me about working with young people, they wanted me to come to the table, come to that career in a particular way. And so, I would try to change the way that I talked, or I would sit a certain way to talk to young people. You know, something that I thought was going to be engaging. And so, I was really trying to make myself fit into the career or wherever I was trying to go, and then I came to realize that the best thing that I can do in working with children, working with young people, even working with the parents of young people is to really come to the table as my authentic self. Just kind of get comfortable in my own skin and in who I am because there are families who need to work with someone like me. And there are going to be young people who really need someone who’s kind of loud sometimes, and kind of a geek because I really settled into my geekiness. And I’ve just accepted that I’m a little bit kind of ‘Awkward Black Girl’, and that’s okay. And the less that I tried to resist that, the more success I had in doing what I do…which is essentially building relationships with people, and getting to know them and supporting them, in a longer journey, even in the classroom. I don’t just dress like this to go to class, right. Sometimes, I might wear a skirt or whatever, but I just come authentically as myself into that space, and I offer what I have to offer. And I found more opportunities open up when I’m my authentic self…than when I’m trying to fit a particular image…and I bring that to the table.
Me: What advice would you give your high-school self today?
JS: Okay, can I start that?
JS: Just try it, is what I would say. I was so shy in high school. The one thing that I knew I could do well was be smart. Right, I come from a family of athletes and artists. People who can draw really well, and write really dope poetry, and who could play sports. My mom was an Olympic calibre sprinter. I have a sibling who plays professional sports, right. You know I have people in my family who do things really well and I knew I can do academics well. I expected that if I wrote this test, I was going to get an A. So, that’s all I did. I just really did classroom stuff. I did my homework, and I went to class and that was it. and I would have tried more things that were outside of my comfort zone. I would have tried out for sports. I would have joined the club – even though I didn’t really know anyone in that particular club – because it’s interesting to me. I really would go back and I would take the auto body repair class that I wanted to take. I wanted to learn about cars, but I would have been the only girl in the class, and so I didn’t take it. So, I would have just tried more things that were maybe, a little bit scary to me, because now I play on the volleyball team. I’m like, “Man, I would have been great at volleyball in high school if I had taken the chance!”, but I didn’t. So, I would have told high school me, like if you’re interested in it, just give it a try.
CS: So, I never read a book cover-to-cover until I was almost a graduate of university. And like, since January, I’ve read maybe 6 books, and listened to like 15 audiobooks. So, I think the main thing that I would tell myself is “Go learn something.” With the most respect, people think that schools are going to give you what you need to become what you want to be in life. It’s going to give you a framework. You need to learn a discipline of study, you need to learn how to communicate. Knowing the gravity of an atom is not going to benefit everybody, but if you want to learn how to make money off of standing up in front of people and speaking the way that I’m speaking to you right now…do you know that people get paid for this? So, watch a YouTube video or read a book or listen to an audiobook or go find something else and learn it and master a craft because you don’t find your life’s passion, you create it. Wherever your curiosity takes you, just dive all the way down that rabbit hole and then you’re going to find what you want to do with your life.
AS: So, okay, you guys have to remember, I’m a teacher. So, I was probably your goody two-shoe of the high school. I was Vice President in student council. I was very involved in different things. In the midst of all of that, I think that the advice that I would have given myself is that I was so busy being part of all these different clubs and doing all of these different things that I don’t know if I really took time to build relationships with my friends. Of course, I had my really close friends, but I just think about this one guy on my track team. And I remember, there was a day that stuck out at me…we were sitting on the bus, and he was sitting by himself. He was the kid, who at the time, he was a little bit awkward, he had a lot of acne, and he kind of physically stood out a little bit. And nobody really talked to him. And I remember walking with my friends and looking over, and I can actually see his face…today, I can see his face. And I remember thinking to myself, “I should probably go over and just talk to him.” But, I just think I was just caught up in the midst of being so busy and so involved with everything, and having so many friends of my own that I didn’t really have to take a moment and stop and think…and maybe talked to somebody. So, that would be what I would tell myself is, you know what, I had the privilege of being in this situation where I was very well known in my school. I had that privilege, and I could have taken that moment to just meet somebody, and just say “hi” and check in with somebody…so that’s what I would tell myself.
Me: Can you think back to a time, or a moment, or an experience that you believe was pivotal in shaping who you are or how you’ve come to be in your career?
AS: I’ll never to forget Grade five. Grade five was my year. Grade five was the year…remember, I grew up in Oakville…where I really realized that I’m Black. And I realized, “Oh my gosh, this is what it means to be Black.” So, I don’t know what happened, but I just remember looking around me and thinking, “I’m the only one in this room…I’m the only one that looks like me in this room.” And that was the moment that I had to really spend some time really doing some research about what it means to Black… the Black history experience…because as I’m sure you guys know, I don’t know how much is changed, but I know when I went to school, Black History wasn’t taught.
Students (in unison): It’s still the same!
AS: So, I had to teach myself my own history. So, I really became curious about what does it mean to be Black? What is the history of the people who look like me? And I had to do that work for myself. But I remember that being a very pivotal time in my life, and ever since then I’ve been very aware, and reading a lot, and learning a lot, and trying to connect with other people that looked like me, which you can imagine there weren’t very many of us, right. So, it was really just trying to make those connections from there.
Student: I just want to say that I lived in Oakville too when I was in the fifth grade. Yeah, and I remember the fifth grade for me was kind of the same, because I remember realizing that when I was in the fifth grade living in Oakville, everyone around me was white and there was one other girl who was Black, but she was like, pale, pale, pale Black. So, I really had nobody else that looked just like me. I remember kids would just like make fun of my hair. And if you were to stick a pencil in it, it would get stuck, it wouldn’t just fall out. So, like yeah, I remember fifth grade. I never had a black history lesson. I hadn’t known about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, or anyone like that, until I was in the seventh grade. She was like my first black friend, and that wasn’t until Grade 9.
AS: Yeah, my first black friend was also in Grade 9. And I remember, also, the first black history lesson was in Grade 10 for me. So yeah, I totally can connect with that.
JS: I think I had two pivotal moments. One that changed me, and one that propelled me, I guess. And I guess the first moment was a conversation that I actually had with this guy right here. So, we’ve had the opportunity to work for the same organization working in high school…running groups with young people…with students after school at different locations. But we were at a training one time, and one of the things that we were doing was practicing telling our stories, because that’s one of the ways that you engage with people. You kind of let them know who you are and some of the things you’ve been through. So, I’m sitting in this room, and all of the other people that were there were professional athletes. And so, they were telling these stories about getting cut from teams and breaking legs, and limbs falling off. They’re telling all these stories of <<we’ve climbed mountains and we’ve overcome>>. And at the end of it, I was like, “Oh I don’t know if I have a story to share with anyone.” Like I don’t know that I have something to bring to the table. Like I’ve never been cut from anything, and I never had to overcome this. And Courtney here was like, “Remember the story that you just told in there about being a young mother, and raising your son, and about where you are now, and things that you’ve done? That’s a story, that’s your story to tell.” And it made me really realize that piece of coming to the table and recognizing what it is that you have to offer. That it’s not going to be the same thing as someone else, but that you bring something unique to the table that you can use in pursuit of the success that you’re looking for. So, it kind of got me to get a little bit more traction in feeling like what I was bringing to the table was valuable and starting to find ways to use that in my career. And kind of similarly to your story about kind of recognizing Blackness was…So, I found many opportunities. I’m teaching at Humber College, and running groups and things like this. And I have this activity that I do with my students who are in their third year of their Child and Youth Worker program. So, it’s the last semester of academics before they go into the field, and become CYCs. And so, I stand at the front of the room and I ask everyone to give me all of their assumptions that they’ve made about me…things that you assume based on how I look, how I speak, things that you’ve heard about me, my name, my gender identity, my sexual orientation, anything you could guess. Nothing’s off the table. There are some common things I hear all the time, but I had one student who said, “Well I assume that you’re really, really smart because you’re my first Black teacher ever.” And so that person had made it through elementary school, high school, and three years of college without ever having another teacher in front of them who looked like that. And for me, that was like “Woah.” And then I thought and I was like, “Man, I only had like two Black teachers myself.”
Student: I only had one.
Student: I had none.
Student: I had none, too.
JS: And that landed for me in a really powerful way. A really powerful way. A lot of the research or the work that I’m doing in grad school…that’s why I went to grad school…so, I could be able to contribute to that program in different ways, and kind of make more space for more Black professors. So, two kinds of pivotal things.
Student: So, about hearing about other people’s stories and all. I’m an athlete too, and I read a lot of athlete memoirs and stories, and how they became who they are today. And so, because of that, I can be hard on myself because I don’t play at the highest level. So, I really identify with what you said.
JS: Yeah, and it’s tough. Finding your own story is part of the journey, you know what I mean. And it doesn’t have to be that you’ve got cut, or it’s the last chance you had to make it big…that doesn’t have to be your story. You have a story, right? And it’s kind of finding out what that is, and recognizing what that is from.
CS: Just to piggyback off of that. You’d be surprised how many people will relate to you more, right…because she just said it, now you’re saying it, and there’s probably at least two other people in this room thinking it. So often, we don’t think that what we’ve gone through is that big because you know what you know, and you take it for granted, but somebody else hasn’t been through it. I say that to say share your story regardless with who wants to listen because when you spread yourself out, people just take what’s important for them, and get their own guidance from it. I was going to say that my moment, I’m kind of realizing now in retrospect, that I didn’t understand and I was actually fighting it because I was so against this moment from playing out, but I was in this program called “Enhanced Learning Program”. So, in the sixth grade, they offered it at my school, and then in the seventh grade at a different location. And I was so tied to my friends that I stayed behind at the school that was close to my house because I wanted to be with my friends. I didn’t want to go off to the school and ride a bus every day and all that kind of stuff. I’m like, “I’m in the seventh grade. Let me just be a seventh grader, right? I just want to be with my friends, and play basketball.” Then Grade 7 and 8 comes, and I’m about to go to high school, and the school that I would have been going to, they didn’t have a football team. But I knew at this point that I wanted to play football. It’s something that I had to do. And so, the only way for me to get into a school that had football was to get back in that “Enhanced Learning Program”, which was way down the road, a bus ride from my house. So, long story short, I realized that if you value your friendships more than you value your goals, you’re going to be tied to somebody who eventually is going to start chasing their own goals, and they’re going to leave you right where you stand, right. So, when people are talking about “Hey, let’s fill out these university applications together, and let’s be friends forever.” Don’t do that. Go where you want to go. Do what you want to do. Don’t try to live in this moment forever. Be in this moment right now, and look forward to your own goals. Don’t live for somebody else’s goals, live for your goals. Right, sometimes you have to go off on your own.
Me: We’ve definitely explored many themes, like overcoming adversity and coming to terms with who we are and how the world perceives us, and how we’ve come to understand that journey…and really digging into self-awareness. So, a lot of amazing themes are coming out of this, but I’m thinking as a segway to what was just shared…knowing what you know about yourself today, as adults, considering the journey that you’ve been on so far, would you do anything different? Why or why not?
CS: I would definitely be more empathetic because I know in high school, I didn’t realize how much influence I had. I kind of had that perspective, “I’m only here for myself. I’m going take care of myself, and that’s it.” But that’s how the social world works. As you start to have success in one realm, it trickles over to another. So, as I started getting better at football, people started to know my name. So, I started to have a little influence in my social group, and I could’ve used it way better. I had so many friends who were doing dumb stuff, for no reason…throwing their potential away. and I remember my gym teacher saying to me, “Why do you hang out with these guys?” And I told him it was because everybody else gave up on them, except me. But, what was I actually doing? I could have done a lot more to be a good influence on those people who were around me because I had a clearer perspective than they had at that time, even though we were in a similar circumstance, right. So, if I could go back, I would definitely be more empathetic to the people who I was hanging out with, and care about trying to give them a good influence instead of just letting them do their thing.
JS: I think when I look back, I see opportunities to have done things differently that may have led to a different path…but I’m grateful for even the decisions that maybe, in retrospect, weren’t in my best interest because I found the lessons in them. Right, I learned from it. I learned how to adapt, I learned who was really in my corner, I learned how to make space for myself…you know, there’s lots of learning that came from it. The one thing that I would say that I might do differently was to make a conscious decision that I made a little bit earlier. I remember in high school, I had a reputation for not being the nicest person, but it was just because I didn’t smile a lot. People would come up to me after years of being in the school, and say “I thought you were like such-and-such…because you just always looked so mean.” And I was like, “Really? I’m just living my life. I’m not angry, this is just how my face looks.” And now, years later, I’m a CYW in a high school in Malton, and I met a co-worker of mine who was just laughing all the time. She’s just happy all the time, and I decided I want to be like that. I just want to be happy. I’m going to choose to be happy. Not that I was unhappy before, but I just chose to have an intentionality of approaching situations with a positive attitude, and just like seeing what a smile felt like. And since then, it’s just opened up opportunities for to me to connect with people in a different way. And that’s been really helpful in my career. My whole career is about building relationships with people. So, even though I had the best of intentions the whole time, and I had lots of friends, and I was happy…the way that I carried myself didn’t always translate. So, once I made that conscious decision to be aware of what I was communicating in my body language, it opened up a lot of doors for relationships that I have now that have been really, really helpful. So, if I had the opportunity to access that decision a little bit earlier, then maybe that would have been the one thing I would have changed.
Student: Can I just say something? Yeah, I totally relate to that because a lot of my friends that I have now, like even them, I find that a lot of people tell me that, “Oh, I see you in the halls, and I was too scared to come up to you because you’re around all your friends, or you looked really mean, or I thought that if I messed with you, you’d be mad” or something like that. And I remember that I never really understood why because I’m a really nice person. But now I try to be more approachable so people aren’t afraid to come up to me because then I miss opportunities of making friends with other people. So, I try to be more approachable…It takes time.
Me: Can I just ask a question? Because I think that’s a really important point. Sometimes, we are perceived by the world in a certain way, and that’s not in our control. And at times, especially when people have inappropriate or even blatantly racist stereotypes about us, that’s also not in our control. And we need to understand that it’s not our fault…it’s on them. So, I’m wondering, how do you navigate those lines and how do you, in turn, stand in your truth? How do you live your truth?
CS: I feel like if you walk in a room and you don’t know who you are, you’re going to leave it up to other people to decide who you are. So, I think a lot of it comes down to understanding what is the value that you bring, because then you can put that on display. So, initially if I walk in the room, I’m 6 feet, 200 pounds, and I got a tight shirt on, people will be like, “do you play sports?” Right. You know? But if I come in the room and I know that that’s my persona, and they ask me that and I do play sports, but I’m well-spoken, then it’ll automatically trigger something else in their mind…”But what else can you do? Because I’ve met another athlete who doesn’t quite speak that same way”. So, it’s a matter of know your value. And like Juanita said, you don’t have to put on a mask, but put what you do best on display because then we can talk about something else. You might be the only Black person that somebody’s ever met. And then now that’s a great opportunity because, think about it, now you get to set the standard for the whole race.
Me & Juanita (in unison): No pressure!
CS: Think about it though! Do you want to be that one person who is exactly what they expected?
CS: So then why would we act the way that they expect us to act? So, you have to be aware of what is your actual value. Put it on display, and then give them something else to talk about.
AS: To Courtney’s point, I think, for me, I agree. I like breaking stereotypes. So, when I meet somebody who has assumptions like…that I’m going to give an attitude, right. Like I’ve had situations where I was with my manager, back in the day, as a pension analyst, and I’m just speaking my opinion. I was speaking my opinion, and she’s like, “Okay, but don’t give me an attitude about it.” And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an attitude. But I do like to consistently break stereotypes. So, I do like when people meet me…they’re not going to get what they had assumed that they’d get with me, and I think that that’s part of it. It’s part of creating your own identity. So, I would say it’s just finding out who you are, but at the same time, preparing yourself for the fact that at any given time, there’s potential for microaggressions. So, there’s a potential that because somebody is in their space and in their way of thinking about what their opinion of you is, there’s still going to be those microaggressions that you’re going to experience and just handling those as they come.
CS: And can I say one more thing too? I think also we got to understand that no two people have lived the exact same life with the exact same environment and influences. So, when somebody does something that is completely out of left field, I try and stop and think, “If I was this person, and I grew up to this moment in life right now, the exact same way that they did, I would do the same thing.” So, I have to be able to remove myself from my emotions and think logically. People just want to feel important. This person right now, the way that they’re going to derive that importance is by putting me down or building themselves up over me, so I’m not mad at them. I just understand what’s going on. I didn’t quite understand that when I was younger. I might have clashed with some of my teachers, because of it, but now I understand better that you’re just a product of your environment. So, when people put you in those boxes it’s because of their past experiences. It’s not because of you.
JS: I agree. It isn’t because of you. I like to hold people a little bit accountable for the stereotypes that they have about me, and I’ve learned how to do it in a less combative way…because before I used to be quite angry about it. And the thing that was challenging is because one of the stereotypes about people who live in bodies that look like mine is the “angry Black woman” stereotype. And if something goes wrong, or there’s an issue and even if anger is a legitimate response to it, it’s a problem if I become angry. For example, if there’s an issue with the cheque…the cheque was wrong. The response is “Woah, whoa! Calm down please!” Right, that’s the response that you get, even if you’re as cool as a cucumber. But what I found is I found ways to constructively encourage people to see things from a different perspective. That’s why I teach. That’s why I initially wanted to be an English teacher. Now I work at the college level, because I have an opportunity to use my classroom as a space to encourage people to think about things differently. We get to have conversations in that classroom. The reason I do that activity that I explained to you earlier is because at the end of it, after I’ve used my actual physical body as a teaching tool, and people have said, “Well, to be honest, when I came in, I assumed that you were a student and not a teacher.” So, what is it about me that doesn’t look like a teacher? What is it that we expect teachers to look like? Where does that come from? Right, we get to ask those questions, with the understanding that people come to the table with the way that they’ve been socialized. Right, the way that they’ve learned things in their life up to that point from their families, from the media, from all the crap that’s on TV. From music and all these other places where we get our information. We start to think about the world in a particular way. And sometimes we think about people that look a certain way or speak a certain way, who live in a certain community, we think about them in a particular way. And I use my classroom as a space to try and change the way that people think about things. I’ve hear things like, “Well, I assumed that you smoke weed, and your house smells like incense.” I’ve heard that too. So, we unpack that. Why is that? Does it have anything to do with my hair, perhaps? Right, and so there’s opportunities to…What I’ve done is I’ve taken the feelings that I have about people making assumptions about the way that I move through the world, and use that as kind of my fuel. I try to make space. I started a community organization. I teach. I’ve just tried to turn it into constructive energy.
Student: I just want to say that what you just shared right now, I can relate to because literally today, me and these two other Black girls were taking a selfie, and then some kid was like, “Can I get in it? Or is it coloured people only?” I don’t like being called coloured. White’s a colour too, so technically we’re all “coloured.” So, I turned around and said, “Can you like not say that? I don’t like being called that.” And then he was like, “Woah, calm down. Why are you screaming?” And I wasn’t, I’m just naturally loud. I’m not screaming at you.
Student: Someone really said that?
JS: So, can I ask a question? How do you manage that in a way that doesn’t…because it’s really easy for you to have that interaction and then just be angry for the day because that feels like you attacked me for no reason. I’m over here with my friends, trying to take a picture. You came over and decided to make an assumption about me or to have a microaggression against me…that we didn’t even have to have that interaction. So, it’s easy to walk away from that, and just be angry about it. So, what can we do with that? Any of us. What can we do with it when we have interactions with our peers, that’s going to be constructive, that’s going to leave us feeling better than we were at that moment? When all of a sudden, you get angry, or you get upset, or you’re like, “Why did we have this interaction?” What’s going to help us to get to a better place, how do we respond to it?
Student: I think just opening a conversation to be like, “Oh, why did you say something like that? What was your thought process before you said that?” And just making them think about what they said in that moment. I think that can help set the conversation about breaking down stereotypes. And maybe for that one person, it could make the difference.
Student: Or you could just say, “Oh, I’m just taking a picture with my friends.” And then that will just shut them down. Taking the time to calmly explain what we’re doing, it might just show them that we’re the same. Just teenagers taking pictures with their friends.
JS: And I find sometimes humour works. You could say, “Yeah man, white’s a colour too, jump on in here!”
JS: Right, you almost use that opportunity to teach a little bit of something without creating a conflict. It diffuses the situation, and it might even do exactly what you said…Help that person to look at the situation a little bit differently. And it doesn’t build, because it’s easy to carry that stuff around with us.
Student: But it’s hard to do that, because if you’re mad in that moment, then it’s hard not to just lash out.
Student: Especially with the person, because knowing him, he’s just ignorant. He’s the type of person to make fun of Jewish people and Black people.
Me: I think there are just some people out there that exist just to elicit a reaction from us, and I think that it takes a certain level of self-awareness and emotional literacy for us to take a breath…take our time in responding…using humour…putting people in their place in a way where it really gets them to start thinking about they said. And if it doesn’t, at the end of the day, we are living with ourselves. We go to bed every single night with ourselves and our thoughts, and we can’t allow that to have a negative impact on us. We need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves. That self-care is a really important practice. Because what was just shared here definitely resonates with me…as a visible Muslim woman of colour. It’s one thing for people to spew microaggressions my way, just by simply how I look. A very common microaggression I get is, “Oh! You speak perfect English.” So, the assumption is that I’m not educated, that I’m not from here. All of these assumptions are already there, just by them looking at me. As soon as I open my mouth, even then the assumptions are still there, and I feel like I have to say something. But, I feel like my best weapon is to just, in terms of living my truth, I think it’s existing. And just owning who I am, being unapologetic and bold about who I am and where I come from. And you need to understand that how people respond is not in your control, but you could control how you feel about yourself and how you see the world around you. If you choose to be positive, if you choose to have a different outlook where you’re treating people with love and kindness and empathy and understanding, it’s easier to live with that.
AS: I think Leena touched on a really important point. I think self-care is important. It’s unfortunately, but we can’t control other people’s reactions to us, right. And that’s going to be a thing. I mean, as a fully-grown adult, it still happens. My partner and I were going into a store. It happened within the last six months in a furniture store in Georgetown…as adults, and we can afford things. It was a positive experience, but as we’re leaving, my partner walked out with something, and they asked us, “Did you pay for that?” And we were like, “Of course, we paid for it!” But you can’t control that, and that could have wrecked our day. And I think that self-care is really important. So, surrounding yourself with positive people who can bring you up, and you can chat about these things, and you can have these conversations, and they’ll understand. And also filling your world with positive experiences and examples of people of your race. So, I try to follow Instagram feeds of really positive Black women that I can look up to, and are doing amazing things. Feeds that will provide me with information with positive things that Black people are doing in the world today because it helps me to just see things not from the lens of ‘everybody’s attacking me and making me feel bad’, but ‘we’re an awesome people to celebrate’, right. So, I think that self-care is a big part of it.
Student: We all did this Black History Month assembly on February 28. And there was a lot of backlash after it, which kind of like…I don’t know, I feel like for me, my self-care went down. I was obviously really upset about what people were saying, and some of the stuff that happened during it. But then I remember thinking, I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do it again next year because of what happened.” But then, I follow this girl on Instagram, do you know who Yara Shahidi is?
Student: That’s my girl!
Student: She did this poem thingy on her Instagram. And I was reading it, and I was like “damn!” If I’m doing this next year, I don’t even care. Looking up to people who do the same thing. But she’s like saying this out to millions of people, and I just said it to a couple hundred at my school, and got a little bit of backlash. So, it’s like, “Wow, I’m going to try and do that!”
Me: Yeah, yeah. She’s great! Have any of you all heard of “Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday” podcast?
Me: If you go onto that, she has actually sat down with Yara Shahidi, and she’s a brilliant young lady!
Me: Highly recommend that episode. Any episode, really, on that podcast!
AS: Yeah, for sure.
Me: I guess my question, from your answer, Alexiis, to the both of you is what are your own self-care practices, and what sources of inspiration do you look to to keep you going and doing what you do every day?
JS: I’m inspired by other people who are doing similar work to me, or who are finding ways to exist unapologetically in the world. I have a friend who’s a Sikh woman who teaches with me at Humber College as well. We spend a lot of time just gassing each other up, just empowering each other, and that’s a motivating space. It takes me away from – even within the institution that I’m in, where I’ve talked about some of the microaggressions and things happening – it’s kind of a creation of a virtual safe space where I know that someone is supportive, and I know that someone will believe me if I say that I’ve had this experience. I won’t be gaslighted. I spend time talking to people who are doing other cool things, awesome things and who are supportive, and just like tapping into their energy. I listen to a lot of podcasts. People who are making spaces for themselves. So, I try to just stay forward-focused. So, here’s where I want to get to, who’s done that or who’s doing that that I can look to. Creating networks of other PhD students, because that’s going to be a really big thing that I’m going to be doing, and challenging but I’m also really excited about it. So, just looking for the opportunities in the midst of challenging situations, and connecting with other people who are already doing that helps me to recognize the possibilities in it. So, I may not have had a lot of black professors, but there are black professors in my program now. Which makes me see that maybe things are changing, maybe there are spaces and possibilities in what I’m working for that are positive. Even professors who are not Black, who are supportive of me, who are giving me opportunities. I went to Florence this year because I had a white professor who was like, “Hey, you’re doing really great things, and I’d like for you to be part of this project.” So, you know, trying to balance my mindset is really important too, and not getting stuck in the negative things because that’s not helpful. Right, and it can keep you from moving forward.
CS: So, self-care and motivation. I have so many rituals that I can’t name them all. I think part of that is my being an athlete, and having to do certain things…you get used to routine. Routines, habits are kind of like fundamental building blocks of success. Anybody can hit a half court jumper, you know, and they have them at half-time. But that same person can’t be Steph Curry and just hit 100 3-pointers. You have to practice a lot. So, for me, I like waking up really early because my main motivation – and I hope you take this the right way – but, I am absolutely afraid of dying with all my potential. I’m scared, I’m scared to die with my potential because then what? You know what I mean? The only thing we’re alive for is to build something great, that lives on past us, and somebody else can experience that and continue to build off of it. So, for me, I feel like every day I feel like the sand is running out, and it’s like, if that doesn’t make you do something, then what else? So, I wake up early. I try to do something constructive every day. And so, in order to make sure I get that feeling of satisfaction, one of my routines is to write down goals. So, when I write down a goal, the most satisfying feeling is crossing it out. So instead of just having a bunch of humongous goals, I have tiny goals. Like read for 15 minutes three times a day. Cool. I read for 15 minutes. I get to cross something out. I feel good. Boom! Okay, now that’s becoming a habit. Right, so if I want to read for an hour a day, I don’t just go and sit down and start reading an hour block. It’s like working out. You want to do 100 pushups? Somebody can do 100 pushups. I can’t. So, I’ll do 10 sets of 10. So, if I want to read for an hour, maybe I do six sets of ten minutes, right. But I have goals. Written, concrete, long lists. Some goals for today, some goals for this month, some goals for this year. Some goals for this decade. But I write down what I’m going to accomplish, and I always remember that it’s not even about hitting the goal as much as it’s about keeping myself on a path to somewhere where I could reach my potential.
AS: I just wanted to add to that. As a teacher who now works with teachers and staff around equity… So, I’m always working with teachers and telling them how important it is to have different visualizations in your classroom of like different representations of people who look differently. And some teachers are really great at it, and some teachers are still working towards it. But from a self-care perspective, definitely looking at how you can create those visualizations within your personal world. So, whatever interests you…So, for example, yoga interests me, but can you guys tell me if I were to look up yoga, who am I going to likely see?
Student: A white person.
AS: Yeah, a white woman who looks really nice and slim, and has a yoga body, right. But, I’m a Black woman, and love yoga. So, I follow a feed called “Black Yoga.” And so, I get to see all these beautiful Black women who are also doing yoga. So, I get to see those positive representations because I can’t control who outside is going to show me those representations. The world’s not great about that. So definitely breaking those stereotypes and seeing them for myself is always a good thing, right. So, as much as we’re working with staff, it may not happen while you’re still in high school where every single teacher does a great job of making sure that their classroom shows that. So, you may have to create that for yourself as well.
JS: One other thing that I did, for self-care…and I’m not lying, this improved my mental health significantly. When I wake up in the morning, I give myself one hour before I’m allowed to look on any social media. I promise you, because what was happening was I would wake up in the morning and I would immediately either check my email, go on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever. And I would be inundated with negativity, first thing in the morning. It was the first thing I was consuming, before breakfast. My breath still smells like nighttime. I haven’t even had a chance to get out of bed yet, and I was just inundated with negativity. So, now I wake up in the morning. I practice gratitude. So, I try to find at least five things that I’m grateful for. I set my intention for the day. So, I’m grateful that I woke up. I’m grateful for this person in my life, I’m grateful for this opportunity, whatever. Here’s what I want to accomplish today. And it might just be like, “I’m going to speak positive words about myself today. That’s my intention. That’s my focus.” And then I get up, put on my soca music, brush my teeth, whatever. For at least an hour, I don’t get on social media at all. And I promise you, it allowed me to start my day in a much better head space. It allowed me to set the tone for a positive day. And then I’m better prepared. I’m healthier. I’m in a better space to be able to address any negativity that I might encounter because I started from positive instead of starting from negative, and trying to dig myself out of that hole.
CS: And very quickly, if you want a book that can help you to do that – and it’s like only maybe 15 pages of reading, and the rest is just one quote per day – the “Five-Minute Journal”. Somebody gave it to me, and I promise you, I went from having the most negative self-talk, because I’m so competitive. I used to talk down to myself. If my friend spoke to me the way I speak to myself, I would be so mad.
CS: Like I used to just beat myself up all the time, right. But once I started using this book, I promise you, it was nothing but positivity being reinforced.
Me: You could get it from Indigo, I believe. They sell it.
CS: Yeah, it’s a great book.
Me: Amazing. Okay, so just being mindful of time, one of our students has a few words to share with you.
*Word of thanks*
Me: We also have a little something for you. It’s a small token of appreciation from us, for volunteering your time and being with us today. Thank you!
Ramadan is a time often cited as being a month of unity, routine, and elevated spirituality. Muslims all around the world structure their days around the sunrise and sunset of their geographies. Within those geographies, millions move in similar rhythms. In fact, Muslim homes are likely to be seen operating at similar wavelengths. Ramadan calls for a more structured day than any other month of the year because one of the primary leaseholders of our time is temporarily absent, opening up a large slot of hours that ideally should be spent bettering oneself. For the fasting individual, humbled by their hunger, seeking avenues through which they may become closer to God often becomes a primary focus. However, with this elevated spirituality, and the acute emphasis on piety, comes the danger of regressing into old, damaging habits. I know this firsthand. Every year, feelings of anxiety and shame creep up on me; making an invasive and unsettling re-entry into my life. The truth is, for me, this holy month tends to be much more nuanced than I wish for it to be. A double-edged sword of sorts, I suppose. It’s an issue that our community absolutely refuses to acknowledge: eating disorders.
For those of us who have lived experiences with an eating disorder, Ramadan can pose a whole set of difficulties and internal battles. It becomes a constant question of: am I fasting for my eating disorder or for God? Lines are blurred, intentions are unclear, and one’s purpose is lost somewhere along the way. It is during this month that so many eating disorders go under the radar. It’s completely swept under the rug. It’s a problem that’s best remedied with denial. A typical “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. As if to deny that it exists somehow makes it go away. But, I completely get it. It makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps the discomfort we feel is a reflection of the most vulnerable, damaged, and ugly parts of ourselves. Deep down, we know that if we take the time to carefully examine the roots, we’d find the sick, pervasively judgmental culture we live in staring right back at us. In its brokenness, our response is to, ironically, shame and blame others for the very problems we help to perpetuate in the first place. So, I think it’s about time we talk about it. I share my story here with you not to evoke your pity; but rather, to break the silence and generate a space for us to engage in honest and healthy conversations with each other. To normalize and give ourselves permission. To shift and unfold into our becoming. And to remove the debilitating shame and stigma attached to our common struggles. These experiences are my own, and they solely belong to me. While the ubiquity of this issue may very well resonate with you, I recognize my limitations in not being able to speak to the experiences of others. And it is neither my desire nor my objective to do so in whichever case anyway. This is my story.
I recall becoming very self-aware of my body at an early age. I vividly remember standing in front of the mirror, examining every inch of my 10-year old self. I would pinch at the flab of skin on my stomach, my arms, and thighs mercilessly. I soon became obsessed, which caused my self-esteem to plummet significantly. Despite the positive reinforcement I was receiving at home, I eventually caved into societal pressures all around me. I was getting bullied at school and ever since then, food (or its lack thereof) became the very source of my struggle. It was my coping mechanism. I began to deprive myself of the very things I needed to survive. I genuinely believed that I did not deserve to eat because I did not deserve to feel good. I subconsciously began to equate my weight and size to my self-worth. I saw not-eating as a way to lose weight. By the time I was 12, I had hit puberty, and things only got worse from there. It’s when I started to actively engage with my body and food in extremely unhealthy ways, cyclically starving and then bingeing. I did this for years, getting away with it, unscathed. Middle school meant that bullying got worse, and so did my self-image. As a teenager, I would intermittently starve myself and vigorously work out. By lunch time, I was only ever focused on getting myself to the school gym. As I changed into my workout clothes, I’d scarf down just enough food only to run on the treadmill for the entire hour before my period 4 class. I limited myself to only 500 calories a day; and I religiously counted every ounce and measured every gram. It would be too unsustainable to keep up for long, so I’d go right back to consuming and exercising (and not exercising) like a normal person. Masking my toxic habits with normalcy every now and again was key to going unnoticed. I became a master of my own illness, and I was proud of it. It felt something like an achievement, and it always gave me something to look forward to.
Now, there’s a common myth about eating disorders out there, and it’s this idea that full recovery is possible. According to professionals, no one ever fully recovers from an eating disorder. The nature of chronic neurobiological conditions is that they cannot be cured. Eating disorders are either active or in remission. Remission can be permanent, but there can certainly be flares of the condition in times of stress (also known as relapse). More than a decade has passed, and I am most grateful to say that I am now in remission. Although I still have issues with maintaining a healthy body image at times; overall, I am well and feel more in control of my eating habits than ever before. That is until Ramadan comes around each year. Hunger pangs (from fasting), for example, place a tremendous amount of stress on my body (and mind). But more than the physical, the struggle for me is rooted in the emotional turmoil. Being bombarded with questions like, “How much weight do you lose?”, “That’s a great diet, I bet you get so skinny by the end of the month”, and “How’s fasting going?” is cringe-worthy at best. Notice how the questions tend to solely center the conversation around the not-eating part of the practice. Ramadan isn’t about weight loss or dieting. It’s about so much more than that. Questions and comments like this can inhibit someone’s progress towards recovery – even to the point of falling into relapse once again. This has happened to me countless of times. I lose focus during Ramadan, and the experience becomes quite frustrating and discouraging, especially when one’s intention is to attempt rekindling their spiritual connection to a higher purpose.
By shedding light on some of the hurdles that some of us must overcome, the hope is that it will help to empower and support us back into recovery, good health, and some peace of mind. If only we put more effort into better understanding the impact that our words have on others, I’m sure that we’ll begin to gain some insight into the varying nuances behind conversations that may be (unintentionally) pushing some members of our community to the margins; a darkened pit of isolation, guilt, and indignity. If someone you know and love is struggling, here are some tips on how to be more mindful, inclusive, and compassion with them this Ramadan:
Do your research. Look into various perspectives on the issue from credible and reliable sources. By approaching the topic with knowledge and alternatives, it can lead to a more supportive and recovery-minded discussion.
Culture and religion are integral parts of the human framework. So, don’t make any assumptions based on your research alone. Context is just as important to consider here as well. Talk to them.
The nature of these conversations can be difficult, and will require some courage. Take some time to assess your relationship with this person, and evaluate the steps you are willing to take. Build up slowly, and take it one step at a time. The care and effort you put into it will likely be noticed, and greatly appreciated.
If they’re willing to engage in conversation with you, that’s good news. But don’t feel obligated to speak to the issue or their challenges. The best thing for you to do is to listen, learn, and show them that you care. Sometimes, that’s all that is needed.
Encourage them to seek professional help if possible.
If they’re not ready or willing to talk, that’s okay too. Don’t put any pressure or expectations on them to do so. That’s not fair to them either. They may just come to you eventually. In the meantime, don’t be hard on yourself.
Food should not be an end-all, be-all during Ramadan. Avoid centering the conversation around potential triggers, and instead focus on gaining a better understanding of what the holiday means to themand what you could possibly do to support them along their journey.
And finally, remember to always treat it with sensitivity, respect, and compassion.
This, of course, applies all the same to watching what we say and do regardless of where we are and who might be in our surroundings. Be it the mosque, our friend’s house, or in public; with our family, colleagues, and fellow (perhaps even unfamiliar) community members. You don’t necessarily have to know the person to engage in more inclusive and meaningful interactions. The reality is that, most of the time, we simply don’t know what someone else might be going through. And that’s exactly the point. We don’t know, and recognizing this is only half the battle. The rest depends on our willingness to embrace our call to action: to listen and learn together, and keep the conversation going. I can say with almost absolute certainty that being more mindful of what we say can lead to more inclusive community spaces, which can ultimately make for more gratifying experiences for us all. So, this Ramadan, let’s make it a point to be better to one another. The impact you have on others is much greater than your intent. Nevertheless, when your intent and impact don’t quite match up, that’s okay. Learn from your mistakes, and commit to doing better. Doing this hinges on the very radical notion that we can all play our part in making this world, and our communities, a better place to be. And there’s certainly no better time to start than now. Ramaḍān Mubarak.
In “Men Explain Things to Me”, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story…(T)he ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” A declaration meant to illuminate the struggle of women at large, this statement also resonates in a very particular way for many Muslim women. We too are the nameless victims in a saviour story whereby the saviour – a hero or heroine – is more important and consequential than the supposed victim. Muslim women are made to be caricatures shaped and molded to fit an image already constructed. Other times, we are simply reduced to academic subjects examined within a theory designed to justify conclusions already reached about Islam and the lived experiences of Muslim women everywhere. Rarely, if ever, are we considered as living breathing beings, with real voices of our own. Voices that are often raised but completely ignored, let alone listened to. To be the understudy of your own story, to be relegated to the wings of life’s stage while others say your lines for you, is the reality of many Muslim women out there, including myself. Time and tired time again, we have seen how the claim of standing up for Muslim women has served as a pretext for singling out Islam and Muslim men for misogynistic domination and control of their own. This has been the case in the ongoing furor over providing space for Muslim students to pray (in which girls and boys are separated) at many schools across Southern Ontario, and in the previous Conservative federal government’s efforts to prohibit niqab-wearing women from becoming Canadian citizens. Nearly two years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on the receiving end of some rather harsh criticisms for attending an Ottawa mosque on Eid Al-Adha, whereby men and women pray in separate areas (but are mixed during other events). This makes for a good example in a string of fabricated controversies seen in this country. To condemn Trudeau’s visit to the mosque as a betrayal of “feminism” and collusion with patriarchy is hypocritical at best. Never mind that some of Canada’s most elite educational institutions also practice the apparently cardinal sin of gender separation, in the form of single-sex schools. And never mind that former prime minister Stephen Harper also visited religious spaces whereby gender segregation is the norm, including the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2014.
It is high time that we begin to see through the pretense that these campaigns against Muslim “misogyny” have anything to do with the wellbeing of Muslim women. If they did, one would expect them to be more concerned with accuracy than with sensationalism – to the benefit of cultural hysteria in supporting the media’s propagandist, Islamophobic agenda, I might add. Now, let me make myself very clear. I am by no means interested in defending the misogynistic behaviour of some Muslim men – or any man for that matter. I personally believe that some Islamic traditions and practices are long overdue for reform. But that’s not the point. While undoubtedly an issue, it’s completely absurd – even outright racist and xenophobic – to accuse Muslim men of being the only beneficiaries of male privilege, and perpetrators of gendered violence. And what’s worse is that in effort to save face, it’s all being done under the guise of “saving” Muslim women from themselves. From my experience, Westerners seem to like the idea of a brown Muslim girl finding “liberation” and “freedom” through “Western” values. Mainstream media usually depicts Muslim women as docile victims forced to wear the “oppressive” hijab and obey the men in their lives. While I cannot deny that this is the experience of some, it is ridiculous to think that all Muslim women are subjugated and in need of rescue. In this debate on whether Muslim women need saving, the voices that are most often ignored are the ones that are most important – those of Muslim women. To even call it a debate is dishonest and unequivocally biased. The media does not care to focus on what Muslim women happen to think about wearing the hijab or even what Muslim women find empowering. The truth is many Muslim women are empowered by their faith – finding both strength and freedom from it. But the media – including the very people who consume and give into the problematic narratives that illustrate Muslim women as “submissive” and “oppressed” – are not concerned with understanding and acknowledging the very wants of Muslim women whatsoever. Even when Muslim women tirelessly argue that they are not oppressed by Islam, people like to believe otherwise. Some are even quick to dismiss their claims altogether by stating that these women are brainwashed and don’t know what’s best for them. A patronizing pity of sorts. So, it would be a fairly reasonable thing to expect them to pay more attention to the actual voices, experiences and perspectives of the women whose rights and interests are at stake. Rather than to completely ignore most – expect for the few – who supposedly represent Islam as the entire cause of Muslim women’s suffering. This is not solidarity with Muslim women, but racism thinly veiled in the language of “feminism.” While the demonization of Islam and Muslims as exclusively oppressive certainly advances the cause of racist stereotyping, it does little to benefit the women in whose interests these so-called champions for equality claim to speak. On the contrary, Muslim women bear a heavy part of the burden of violence and hatred generated by these stereotypes. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, from 2010 to 2013, hate crimes against Muslims in Canada has increased by a staggering 253%, with the highest percentage of hate crime victims being female (47 per cent). During the aftermath of 9/11 (and the decade ensuing), we have seen women wearing the hijab and niqab being physically attacked in cities across Canada and the United States. This has increasingly been the case, especially with our current political climate ruled by the Trumps, neo-Nazis, and fascists of the world. The critics who are so incensed by the subjugation of Muslim women tend to be conspicuously silent when the agents of violence are non-Muslims, motivated by the Islamophobic narratives that they have helped perpetuate. So much for a principled stand against gendered violence and inequality.
Misogyny and sexism are universal issues rooted in the deep-seated belief that men are in many ways superior to women – including socially, politically, ideologically, and morally. Ultimately, it all comes down to power and control. Any other assertion would otherwise be inaccurate and completely out of place. So, we must do away with the double standards that continue to muddle with the advancement of gender equity and women’s rights both locally and abroad. Islam is not synonymous with misogyny, just as much as Christianity is not synonymous with racism. And so, I refuse to have my faith incriminated by others in an attempt to distance us from the other. In our own way, we are just as complicit in allowing gender inequities to happen right under our noses here at home. Masking this gendered Islamophobia in a cloak of so-called “feminism” and “gender equality” is a tasteless sham, and it certainly hasn’t fooled me. Many Muslim women are reclaiming their story and talking about their experiences. The media and civic community just need to hear them out and take them seriously. My story is not that of a victim, and I choose to define my narrative on my own terms. The right to claim one’s narrative is something that everyone should have. Muslim women are no different, and definitely don’t need others to tell their story or speak for them. They are more than capable to speak for themselves. In Canada, Muslim women have been at the forefront of fundamental struggles for justice, equality, and freedom: Monia Mazigh, who advocated for the release of her husband, Maher Arar, when he was secretly imprisoned and tortured in Syria with Canadian complicity; Zunera Ishaq, who successfully challenged the government’s discriminatory ban on face veils at citizenship ceremonies; and, Yusra Khogali, who is an organizer with Black Lives Matter Toronto. Of course, there are far too many to name here, but you get the idea. We are fighting the struggles that need to be fought on several fronts: against sexism, against racism, against Islamophobia. We do not need to be told what to wear on our faces and on our heads and on our bodies, or where to sit when we pray. And we definitely do not need to be “saved” by ideologues who are only interested in Islam to prove its supposed inferiority, or as a proxy for attacking a political party. It is an insult to Muslim women’s agency and intelligence to be rendered silent puppets in a stale supremacist script.
I have often been described by others as a beacon of positivity and inspiration. But it doesn’t always feel that way. The truth is, in the midst of it all, I have battled depression since the age of 17. A lonely pit that often swallows all of the light in my life, depression is an emotionally isolating mindset to be in. Six years to this day, I had chalked it all down to just being lazy; it was always either my love for sleeping or the same old excuse of merely being a “homebody.” Other times, it was the complete opposite reaction altogether. Throwing myself into my work – be it school or my career – always made for a great escape, a coping mechanism rooted in survival mode. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered being an introvert had nothing to do with my depression, but it did make it more difficult to acknowledge my condition. I say, my depression, because I feel there is nothing more personal than one’s own state of mind and how that shapes the rest of your body, who you are, and the constant inner dialogue as a result of which, what others know of you. Depression feels like it’s progressively eating away at your whole being from the inside out. It’s with you when you wake up in the morning, telling you there’s nothing to get up for. It’s with you when you look into the eyes of those you love, and your eyes prick with tears as you try, and fail, to remember how to love them. It’s with you as you search for those now eroded things that once made you who you were: your passions, your interests, your creativity, your inquisitiveness, your humour, your warmth. And it’s with you as you think frantically of how to escape the embrace of the demons eating away your mind like a slow drip of acid. Some days, merely talking seems like the most difficult thing to do. I’ve had days where simply getting out of bed felt next to impossible. The fatigue that comes with depression can be rather overwhelming – it’s the physical aches and pains that offer no obvious rhyme or reason. Fear has kept me from being able to share my struggle. The fear of admitting that I battle depression absolutely grips me. My heart wants to share the real, raw truth, but that is not an easy task. Bearing my heart for the world to see is terrifying. No one wants to admit that they struggle with depression. There is a definite stigma that comes with it. In reality, admitting that you are struggling is the most freeing thing that you can do for yourself. Admitting that you are scared, lonely, hopeless, lost…that takes a mountain of courage. Admitting those things is definitely the first step to conquering the darkness of depression and finding the light again. Yet, almost always, the biggest stigma seems to come from within. You tend to blame and shame yourself for the illness that you can only dimly see. I usually struggle to explain the cause of my depression to others, including my loved ones. Most of the time, I don’t always know. There is no single factor or trigger that plunges me into it. I’ve turned over the many possibilities in my mind. It seems to be everything and nothing all at once. Regardless, over the years, I have come to understand that depression can happen to anyone. I thought myself immune to it; that I was strong enough to resist it. But, boy, was I wrong. I have resisted seeking help, even to the point when it was nearly too late. On reflection, I realize I have spent the past few years dipping in and out of minor bouts of depression – each one slightly worse than the last.
Today, I find myself in the stranglehold of depression once again. As someone who smiles a lot, and presents as a happy person all the time, this may come as a surprise to many people. Another myth-busting reality is that you don’t have to look like the stereotypical “sad person” to have depression. After all, many really successful people – including comedians, who always seem to be the antithesis of what people imagine depression to look like – have had depression. Some of them beat it, some of them cope with it, and some of them unfortunately don’t. You never know what kind of battle someone is facing. Sometimes, even putting that much more effort into how you look or how you present yourself can keep your demons at bay, if only for a little while. If that is all you need to get through another moment in the here and now, then that will serve as enough. Beautiful things often come from the most tortured places after all, and making art and laughter and culture from a place of depression is no different. The truth is, a typical day in my life may look a little something like this. Getting myself to work can be a daily struggle. I get irrationally irritable with the slightest things, and often take it out on the people I love the most. I feel a tremendous amount of guilt and shame, and my sense of self-worth is constantly being placed into question. My thoughts on what the future holds looms over me like a dark cloud, and feelings of optimism and hope dissipate into absolute nothingness. And I often retreat to the safety of my bed – using sleep to escape myself and my exhausted and joyless existence. Depression, in short, is sadness for times gone and chances never taken. It is missed opportunities and a missed future. It’s missed friends. It invades and leaves you right on the edge of the cliff of sanity. And eventually the ridge gives way. Depression may start for no definable reason, but it leaves a growing trail of problems in its wake. Fortunately, I can tell you from experience that there’s always an end in sight. While there are days when it feels like winter is endless and everything is just overwhelmingly heavy, there are also entire days where I feel like a completely normal human being – whatever that is. Talking about those days feels like dwelling. You have to sift through them, of course, but sometimes it helps to just enjoy the good days for what they are. Understanding why they’re good sort of defeats the point – sometimes you just have to revel in the fact that you feel good. Analyzing it would only put stress on it, and I imagine that sometimes people who don’t have depression aren’t all that consumed with breaking down the concepts as to why they’re happy – they just are, in that moment. So, I often need to cling that much more tightly to the good days, and enjoy them for what they are.
In an attempt to liberate myself, and break the silence, I made the very difficult choice to write (and even worse, publish) this piece. More than anything, my hope is that my words too will resonate with others who may be facing a similar struggle. If openly sharing my experience here allows others to seek refuge in my words – if it makes someone somewhere out there feel a little less alone – then the risk has totally been worth my while. If you or someone you love is battling with depression, here are a few things to remember.
1. Depression can happen to anyone.
2. No one stigmatizes their illness more than the people who suffer from it. Reach out to them.
3. You are more than your mental illness. You are a whole person. Depression is something that we experience – it does not define who we are. It takes incredible strength to weather the ups and downs of these emotions. Personally, I have kept silent about my struggle because I do not want people falsely attaching that stigma to me. I am a whole person that struggles at times with depression because of tremendous physical pain. That is all. Remember that you are whole and you are strong.
I often wonder if it’s possible to live joyously when all one feels is empty and broken. It’s something I think about quite a lot. In my opinion, the answer is quite simply: yes – even when it feels unbearable at times. How? You just live. Day by day and moment by moment – you can make the choice to acknowledge the good and the joy around you. It’s a choice that can empower us to ignite the fighter instinct we all are capable of carrying within ourselves. Depression can make us feel like we’re sitting alone in a dark pit, unable to see or feel anything good. It’s a constant battle back and forth between your head and your heart. But the good is still there even when you cannot see it or feel it, and you are definitely not alone. Acknowledging the presence of all that is good helps lift the burden of hopelessness. It is the light at the end of the tunnel – reminding you that there is relief. For me, relief – although temporary – washes over me when I remind myself of my worth. I have to consciously remind myself each and every day that I am enough – with or without my depression. It’s simply a part of me – a partial truth to the way in which I have come to experience the world around me. And it’s only that – nothing more, nothing less. It’s okay to not be okay. Read about therapy, look for ways you can help yourself but most of all, do not let your relationship with yourself be defined by what others might think. Despite what everyone says, we are fighters – warriors, in fact. The fight we fight is very much alone, quietly in our own minds and hearts, and the battle wounds are buried deep within. But we’ll survive. I know we will. After all, we have until now.
Recently, I had the great privilege of attending the Tina Fontaine Rally in downtown Toronto. In the spirit of solidarity, I showed up to honour the life of Tina Fontaine – a teenaged First Nations girl who was made missing and murdered in August 2014. People in major cities across Canada gathered to protest the jury’s decision to acquit Raymond Cormier, the 56 year-old-year man from Winnipeg responsible for her death. The verdict came less than two weeks after Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley was found not guilty in the murder of another Indigenous youth, Colten Boushie. Considered among the high number of Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ2S people made missing and murdered in this country – a national crisis that’s been unresolved for decades – her death renewed calls by activists for the government to conduct a national inquiry into the issue. On that Saturday afternoon, I was pleased to see a large show of support and solidarity by allies from all over the city. The square soon became enamoured with so much love and unity. As thousands joined hands, strangers quickly became friends. The exchange of smiles and greetings were both familiar and comforting. It reminded me that community spaces like this give us the permission to mourn, cry, and heal – together. But more than anything, it left me feeling a great sense of pride and inspiration. The event was organized by Madyson Arscott, a 16-year-old Ojibwe student. Madyson, one year Tina’s senior, was the primary organizer of Saturday’s rally, and used her voice and platform to remind other young Indigenous people that their lives are valued even when faced with discrimination and violence.
“You show more courage walking out the door in the morning than the ones who are trying to silence you their whole lives…there’s resistance in your simple existence…if all you do today is breathe, that is enough.”
– Madyson Arscott
She continued on by saying that the death of Fontaine hit very close to home, which inspired her to action. As her words rang in my ears, hope swelled in my chest. She reaffirmed my belief once again that youth are the true champions of change. Madyson, to me, exemplifies the many youth activists and change makers who are politically and socially engaged in ways well beyond their years. But the truth is, youth are embracing activism across borders, and have been for a long, long time. In the weeks since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that took seventeen lives, a remarkable movement has gathered momentum. Students who survived the shooting are raising their voices to demand greater safety in schools. Conventional wisdom says grown-ups spark social change and the kids merely follow. But if you read between the lines of history books, the opposite is often true. Our youth are the ones organizing, and it’s the adults who are simply following their lead. In fact, young people have been key actors in nearly every major social movement in modern history. At the forefront of these movements, youth have played a central role in influencing their widespread mobilization and success. 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, for example, was the first to pave the way for many during the civil rights movement era. She had refused to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, nine months before Rosa Parks had. Young activists helped raise awareness of inequality during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Young people drove the Arab Spring protests that toppled dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. And young people were the ones to take to social media spawning the Black Lives Matter movement. Madyson made me think of the many young people in Parkland and across the U.S. presently speaking out and doing the work: writing op-eds, planning walk-outs and teach-ins, talking with journalists and lobbying elected officials, and organizing a nationwide demonstration pressing for American gun law reform. It’s no coincidence that students are leading this outpouring of activism: as young people who have grown up with the fear of mass shootings and regular school lockdown drills, they are at an age of dawning political awareness but not yet cynical about the possibilities for change. As an added bonus, they also understand how tools of mass communication like Twitter can amplify an individual voice. Students are the ones making the bold and brave choice to participate as upstanders and civic agents.
Madyson also made me reflection on my own experience with the youth I work with each and every day in schools. The connection I have with youth is always a refreshing and energizing experience. They openly and generously share their lived experiences, often with so much vigor and emotion. Their stories resonate with me. They are enriching, insightful and profound. Their pain is my pain. Their anger, my anger. Their trauma and brokenness, my own. Their incredible liveliness to bring about change is promising. They thirst for knowledge, and hunger for change. The energy they exude could very well power an entire city. Youth truly are a faithful testament to the powerhouse of resilience in which they wield within. Charged with so much optimism and passion, they make me feel alive. When my energy supply runs low, they refuel my fire. As someone who’s been working with adults within the taxing industrial complex of non-profit organization for some time now, I can honestly say that it dims your light. Luckily for us, youth have the power to give us a much-needed spit-shine from time to time. Youth, unknowingly, guide and motivate me to fight the good fight, and keep on striving. They nourish my will to keep going. Crossing paths with these young individuals is a God-sent. I always look forward to joining them on their journey of embracing their truths, and being true catalysts for change in their schools and communities. Doing this work has taught me the value in supporting our youth. Despite having to face the fact that society continues to fail them (e.g. continuously being wronged by the adults responsible for their wellbeing), I’ve learned that youth also have an unwavering ability to forgive and move forward. They are so forgiving. So, I believe that we owe it to these kids (our future) and to ourselves to do better, and to do right by them. We need to continue investing our time and energy in uplifting their voices. Think about it this way: if we can uplift youth activists like the Parkland teens and praise them for their vision and courage (as we should), then there’s certainly no reason for us not to uplift Indigenous and racialized teens as well, like Madyson Arscott, and so many others just like her.
Palestinian collective resistance against Israel is nothing new of a phenomenon. In fact, since Britain’s attempt in governing a colonial administration in Palestine in the 1920s, Palestinians have engaged in a diverse variety of resistance practices, including but not limited to cultural resistance. This form of engagement is dominant both within Palestine as well as by Palestinians living in exile in the West and elsewhere (Desai, 2015, 113). In particular, oral history has played a vital role in Palestinian resistance and cultural production at large. Oral history involves the transmission and re-creation of memories, stories, and narratives of resistance, and as such, summons our attention to examine the ways in which this form of cultural resistance serves to shape the identity of Palestinians living in exile. In turn, this form of cultural resistance underscores how much the experience of living outside of Palestine has become integral to the Palestinian national character. With the purpose of this paper in mind, I use a critical race and anti-colonial lens to argue that Palestinians, in particular those living in exile, engage in oral history as a way to reconfigure place, space, identity, and violence in their everyday lives (Razack, 2003).
Namely, this particular analysis of oral history seeks to not only highlight its political and personal nature, but also acts as a means to illustrate the impact it can have on resistance culture and identity formation. The politicization of oral history together with the historical struggles against colonialism and imperialism within broader liberation struggles and movements will be considered to further explain the importance of resistance culture and the formation of Palestinian identity. By drawing on Desai’s (2015) redefined concept of participatory politics, I explore how the politics of refusal and cultural resistance, both necessary for politics and political engagement, emerge through the exchange of oral history. In light of this, I will discuss how Palestinians in exile activate the politics of refusal as a method of delegitimizing the occupying power of Israel and better understand themselves in relation to the world around them. In keeping with Desai’s (2015) conception of anti-colonial participatory politics and by mention of Giroux’s (2004) notion of culture and pedagogy, oral history is also theorized as an important site for education. With this, I will explore how oral history can be a learning opportunity for both Palestinians when making sense of their identity, as well as for the general public, whose consciousness, awareness, and knowledge about Palestine and the Palestinian people may shift, change, or be revived as a result. More importantly, I emphasize how it could be a site for building solidarity and forging alliances between the Palestinian community and others. Moreover, I will acutely critique the racist, Orientalist, and Islamaphobic representations of Palestinians depicted by Western media outlets. With this in mind, I will show how Palestinians provide counter-narratives to contest and disrupt these dominant representations, while also preserving authentic narratives of identity in accordance with their experiences surrounding violence, occupation, and exile. Finally, I will look at how oral history plays a role in both resistance culture and the everyday lives of exiled Palestinians by drawing on the symbolic and material representations of what Dionne Brand (2001) cites as “the Door of No Return.” As such, this will further orient my analysis to discover how Palestinians conceptualize their own ideas of “home” in juxtaposing the realities of occupation and exile.
To further strengthen my analysis, I draw on specific passages narrating the personal stories and lived experiences of two displaced Palestinian immigrants originally hailing from Gaza. In Collecting Stories of Exile, a media project documenting family oral history through the multiple mediums of visual video clips, audio recordings, voiceovers, and photography, the discourse centers on the question of what it means to be Palestinian facing exile in the West. Using the art of storytelling and the power of oral history respectively, this piece also addresses their past and present lived experiences, identities, memories, upbringings, family relations, and their conceptualized ideas of homeland and occupation. With this in mind, as a Palestinian woman born and raised in Canada, I write this paper to make sense of my own reality. That is, the purpose of this analysis is to further the breadth and depth of the question on Palestinian identity in context of cultural production and resistance. I hope that this paper not only provides meaning to those who may be going through a similar ontological journey of their own, but that it also assists others in developing a greater understanding on the importance of solidarity work and the building of alliances across a number of common causes and movements within local and global paradigms.
Moreover, settler colonialism must be unpacked here to acquire a deeper understanding of what drives Palestinian resistance, and in turn, how it materializes accordingly. It is important to recognize that settler colonialism is the control over land and domination of space and place (e.g. who “belongs” and who does not). That is, within settler colonialism, the most important concern is land. Hence, for settler colonial states to gain authority and power over the people and resources in which they occupy, control over land is crucial. Above all, land is extremely contested because settlers claim permanent occupancy of the land and exploit its resources as a primary source of capital for themselves. As such, the interference of Indigenous relationships to land represent a deeply concentrated epistemic, ontological, and cosmological violence (Tuck, 2012, 5). Since settler colonialism involves an ongoing genocidal process that gives control to foreign power, the displacement and exile of Indigenous people becomes an inevitable consequence of occupation. Bearing this in mind, understanding the historical conditions that allow settler colonialism to exist is key to theorizing the significance of occupation and exile in relation to the production of cultural resistance. This is especially true given how settler colonialism, as a dynamic and profoundly complex power structure, is complicit and directly implicated in the symbolic and material conditions of occupation and exile. For that reason, one must acknowledge the incredibly nuanced and multi-faceted relationship that settler colonialism and the production of cultural resistance have with one another. Given the scope of this paper however, this framework will only be employed as an entry point in hopes that it will move and challenge us to think more critically about the broader structures and systems that greatly influence our day-to-day lives and our societies at large.
The Significance of Oral History and Cultural Resistance
In Context of Exile, Occupation, and Identity Formation
By considering Ghassan Kanafani’s insights on Palestinian literature, one is better able to conceptualize how oral history is engaged, interpreted, and studied accordingly. In defining Palestinian literature, Kanafani centers resistance as its key, defining element. In this sense, resistance literature presumes a people’s collective relationship to a common land, identity, or cause, whereby a historical and political existence between occupation and exile becomes possible (Harlow, 1987, 2). In the same way, for Palestinians living in exile, oral history is a form of cultural production that embodies resistance; one that constructs a collective Palestinian identity or a common national character based on a shared history. It not only documents the historical and material conditions of exile and occupation, but it aims to make sense of it as well. That is, oral history gives cultural meaning to the everyday lives of Palestinians living in exile, both personally and politically. Just like resistance literature, oral history conceives of an “occupying power” (i.e. Israel) to make sense of occupation and exile. That is, Israel is a settler colonial occupying power guilty of dispossessing Palestinians of their land and rights whilst waging oppressive and violent governmental laws and policies. By virtue of this, Israel has consequently interfered with the cultural development of Palestinian people. Oral history then presents an arena of struggle (Harlow, 1987, 2-3). In this way, oral history is a cultural production that symbolizes Palestinian resistance in the face of Israeli occupation, particularly in what Kanafani refers to as a “cultural siege” (Harlow, 1987, 2-3).
The Politics of Oral History
In Context of Historical Struggles Against Colonialism and Imperialism
To put things into perspective, just as resistance literature is written within a specific historical context, oral history too is shared, interpreted, and studied within a specific historical context. This context is often situated within the larger scope of contemporary national liberation struggles and resistance movements against Western imperialist domination within Palestine and elsewhere (Harlow, 1987, 4). For instance, resistance movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the National Liberation Front (FLN, Algeria), the ANC (South Africa), the Mau Mau (Kenya), and the FMLN (El Salvador) must resist systemic forces emerging from colonial and imperialist structures of power. This historical struggle against colonialism and imperialism is nevertheless fought alongside the struggle over the historical and cultural record (Harlow, 1987, 7). For example, upon first entering Beirut, the capital of Lebanon in the fall of 1982, the Israeli Defense Forces made a deliberate effort to target the PLO Research Center and destroy its archives containing the documentary and cultural history of the Palestinian people (Harlow, 1987, 7). In the context of organized resistance movements, the role of culture and cultural resistance for oral history then is part of a larger struggle for liberation and freedom (Harlow, 1987, 10). Therefore, it is important to understand that colonialism not only rejects Indigenous knowledges of the people and land of which it occupies, but it also seeks to completely distort, disfigure, and destroy the history of an entire people. Like this, cultural production, specifically oral history, plays a determining and critical role in what Edward Said refers to as “repressed or resistant history” (Harlow, 1987, 28). It follows then that oral history, and resistance in general, is positioned as political and politicized encounters. Oral history recognizes itself furthermore as directly concerned with a struggle against dominant forms of ideological and cultural production, and as such, works to resist these hegemonic discourses accordingly (Harlow, 1987, 28-29). Whereas the social and the personal have tended to displace the political, the emphasis in oral history in context of cultural production and resistance is on the political. In short, the theory of resistance and the role of oral history is intricately situated in its very politics (Harlow, 1987, 30).
Oral History as a Politics of Refusal
This politicization of oral history further illuminates the influence it carries on resistance culture, especially with how Palestinians, particularly those living in exile, come to understand themselves, others, and the world around them. This is better exemplified in Desai’s (2015) redefined notion of anti-colonial participatory politics. She borrows from Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, and Danielle Allen’s (2014) concept of “participatory politics”, whereby it is initially introduced to frame their analysis on youth political participation. By definition, the concept of “participatory politics” are “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern” (Desai, 2015, 112). In other words, it is the warranted desire for greater citizen control that sanction efforts to be carried out in challenging common issues of public concern. This is the basis for what constitutes participatory politics, and they are often practiced in some of the following ways: electoral activities (e.g. voting), activism (e.g. protest), civic activities (e.g. community service), and lifestyle politics (e.g. boycotting) (Desai, 2015, 112). Desai (2015) argues that while the concept of participatory politics is applicable to the Palestinian context, it is nevertheless limiting for a number of reasons. For one, under Israel’s military presence and occupation, there is an explicit ban and criminalization against these forms of participatory politics practices. Furthermore, it is limiting in its assumption that “all people have achieved their political, economic, and social self-determination and sovereignty”; which Palestinians have not. The concept of participatory politics also focuses on the notion of “citizens,” whereby “citizens” are the major actors in demanding that issues of public concern be addressed accordingly within a nation-state (Desai, 2015, 114). For Palestinians however, this is simply not the case. Namely, Palestinians, especially those loving in the Occupied Territories, are a stateless people, meaning that they cannot be considered “citizens” since Palestinian citizenship ceased to exist after the Nakba of 1948. Instead, under Israel’s military rule, Palestinians are solely branded as “residents” to the territory that is originally theirs to begin with (Desai, 2015, 114). Therefore, in the context of occupation and settler colonialism, Desai (2015) points out that Palestinians are not only barred from partaking in any form of citizen political engagement, but are too often subjected to severe punishment if they do (114).
With this in mind, Desai (2015) formulates a redefined concept of participatory politics using an anti-colonial framework; one that considers the politics of refusal and cultural resistance as central to politics and political participation. Audra Simpson, an Indigenous scholar, argues that refusal, “comes with the requirement of having one’s political sovereignty acknowledged and upheld, and raises the question of legitimacy for those who are usually in the position of recognizing” (Desai, 2015, 114). Simpson further accentuates the centrality of refusal in the context of Mohawk struggles over sovereignty here:
“Like many other Iroquois people, the Mohawks of Kahnawa:ke refuse to walk on some beams, and through this gesture they refuse to be Canadian or American. They refuse the gifts of American and Canadian citizenship, they insist upon the integrity of the Haudenosaunee governance” (Desai, 2015, 114).
Similarly, for Palestinians living in exile, memories, stories, and personal narratives of oral history shared among themselves and others necessitates that their political sovereignty be acknowledged, thereby articulating a kind of refusal that demands their personhood. In turn, oral history is informed by the politics of collective refusal whereby refusal and resistance to a colonial power (Israel) is believed to be the only way for the colonized (Palestinians) to truly achieve liberation, self-determination, justice, sovereignty and decolonization (Desai, 2015, 116). In Collecting Stories of Exile (2016), these very sentiments are expressed by a 49-year-old Palestinian immigrant father. In what follows, he offers an account of what life was like for him growing up under Israeli occupation, and in general, what it continues to be to this day.
“We have greater problems than life itself. We are under an Israeli occupation. The Jews who came to Palestine and who occupied our country and stole our land, we have our issues with them as well. So to live a simple life like the rest of the world, no, of course it is different because Palestine is an exceptional case in and of itself. And it will continue to be that way, that is, until it is resolved.”
“Of course, when we were young, we had always hoped to be freed from the Israeli occupation. And it continues to be my hope. But, it makes us strong because it is a just cause. The land is ours. The land is ours.” – Anwar Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016)
Here, oral history explicitly challenges Zionist beliefs (Kanafani, 1968/2009, 15). To be exact, Anwar problematizes Israel as a settler colonial, occupying power that has no legitimacy or right in his homeland, Palestine to begin with. While well aware of the conditions that Israel creates for Palestinians living under its occupation and military rule, Anwar continues to have hope that Palestine will one day be liberated. From the outset, this narrative articulates that the possibility of freedom from occupation is contingent on the refusal of Israel as a legitimate state. Moreover, in doing so, Anwar further restores his personal sovereignty by refusing Israel altogether. Seeing how the politics of refusal works in conjunction of the role of oral history, Palestinians like Anwar come to understand themselves in relation to occupation and exile by way of sharing their lived experiences and narratives vis-à-vis Israel as a settler colonial and oppressive state. Additionally, oral history further allows exiled Palestinians to formulate a strong identity for themselves, both individually and collectively, to make sense of their everyday lives and to resist the denial of their humanity.
Oral History as a Site for Education and Building Solidarity
According to Desai’s (2015) conception of an anti-colonial participatory politics, the politics of refusal must take into account the role of cultural resistance as a course for political and public engagement as well (117). That is, cultural resistance is an essential aspect of the Palestinian struggle; hence, oral history must be theorized as an important site for education (Desai, 2015, 117). Thus, oral history represents a cultural and public space that works to challenge oppressive formations of reality (Desai, 2015, 117). Culture itself is cited by Giroux (2004) as a political and pedagogical site whereby hegemonic ideologies, practices, and norms are resisted and challenged (Desai, 2015, 117). Specifically, Giroux (2004) argues that inquiring into culture can be effective in locating political agency within structures of power (Desai, 2015, 117). This is primarily premised on the idea that resistance can materialize through culture and that learning is not exclusively restricted to formal educational settings alone. Together, it becomes possible for others to realize that culture and resistance can co-exist within the organized social relations of their everyday lives (Desai, 2015, 117). With this in mind, Palestinians currently living in exile exchange personal narratives to underline their past memories and lived experiences. This is outlined in the passages below, as Anwar recalls why he tried to move back to Gaza with his family in 2001. This is followed by a retelling of what it was like for him to live under Israel’s intensified militarization and increasingly oppressive living conditions.
“Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike had hoped for Palestinians to be liberated, and in turn, to have their basic human rights met, for public infrastructure and institutions to be rebuilt, and for them to move freely and as they please. But unfortunately, this never happened. In fact, after the Oslo accords of 1993, Palestinians were further oppressed and placed under worse living conditions. Israel stole more land, built a wall between the West Bank and historic Palestine (Israel), and segregated Palestinians even more than ever before.”
“I was living in Gaza, and Gaza is a small city…I felt I was always suffocating, as though there was a large boulder on my chest. Gaza for me was like surviving in a huge prison cell. Palestine’s circumstances, particularly in Gaza and the West Bank, are extremely difficult. With the presence of the Israeli occupation and an oppressive military regime, these are the circumstances that complicate the lives of Palestinians everywhere.” – Anwar Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016; audio unedited)
Oral history here invokes the possibility for the recreation of knowledge production that aims to revive a new social consciousness about the plight of the Palestinian people. Put differently, the exchanges of oral history have the potential to act as a site for educating those who are either unaware or misinformed about the situation in Palestine. This is especially significant given the potential it has in forming new alliances and strengthening solidarity between Palestinian people and others who are enduring unified struggles, violence, and similar forms of oppressions. In addition, the passages above reveal that when Palestinians share and exchange personal stories and narratives about their lives through the remembrance of past memories with others, not only do they comprehend how the circumstances resulting from occupation exiles them from their homeland, but they also discover who they are in relation to Israel as an occupying and oppressive power. This allows the exiled to construct a collective Palestinian identity, by virtue of the shared common struggle and oppression that all Palestinians undergo, both in Palestine and abroad. Education through the transmission and re-creation of memories, stories, and narratives then provides two possibilities for resistance. The first is that oral history is a powerful tool within the sphere of resistance culture, for it has the potential to call on the mind of public consciousness everywhere. The other possibility is that oral history offers a space whereby Palestinians engaging and sharing their narratives of resistance can make sense of who they are, both personally and collectively.
Oral History as a Counter-Narrative of Violence and Representation
Settler colonial and occupying states regularly enact violence on the people they are occupying and oppressing as a way to secure their sovereignty and power. In turn, those occupied and oppressed by this violence often resort to cultural production as a means to subvert and document their lived experiences accordingly (Desai, 2015, 117). Mainstream media, particularly in the West, portray racist, Orientalist, and Islamaphobic images of Palestinians, rendering them as inherently “violent,” “backwards,” and “uncivilized” (Desai, 2015, 119). Likewise, given that the politics of refusal are severed from the racist ideology of Zionism and the history of the creation of a settler colonial state, Israel is continuously fixated on the power that Palestinian resistance has. Therefore, in an effort to delegitimize the momentum that resistance can often generate, Israel tries to dehumanize Palestinians by rendering them as a violent people, to justify their illegal military occupation and settlement (Desai, 2015, 119). Oral history then upholds authentic narratives, knowledge and perspectives that act to counter these hegemonic narratives, while simultaneously making sense of occupation and violence, specifically for those Palestinians living in exile. Collecting Stories of Exile (2016) exposes how a mother of four experiences and makes sense of violence enacted upon her and her family. She recollects feelings of terror and despair during her time in Gaza shortly after the second Intifada.
“We never felt safe getting there, but upon our arrival in Gaza, we would forget all our troubles. We still worried about our travels back and forth nonetheless. We would think, oh now we have to go through security check, in a solitary room, where they would force us to take off our clothes.”
“I can’t possible describe the terror, and the lack of stability, the fear, the question of whether or not we’ll see a new day…I remember many times, for example, we were living in an apartment. They would come and knock on the door warning us of bombings, or we’d hear the sounds of fighter jets in the area. They’d tell us to leave the building. But I preferred to be with my children, that if we were to die, we’d die all together.” – Nahed Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016)
Here, Nahed is flipping the dominant, Western narrative right on its head. In contrast to the prevailing representations of Palestinians as “terrorists”, “anti-Semites”, or the narrative that claims “Israel’s right to defend itself”, Nahed voices a candid and honest account of her lived experiences of the violence enacted on her and her children under the imposed sanctions enforced by Israeli occupation. In doing so, Nahed uses oral history as a means of resisting the very accounts that aim to dehumanize and other her existence. For those engaging and listening to Nahed’s narratives of her lived experiences with violence, it offers a perspective whereby they can recognize the material conditions of occupation and the way violence manifests in the everyday lives of people subjected to this form of oppression. Similarly, by conveying the realities of occupation and violence, Palestinians like Nahed can also make sense of their lived experiences as they come to know themselves in relation to their oppressor. Nevertheless, oral history allows them to exercise a kind of agency that resists and disrupts narratives and realities of oppression, violence, and occupation all together. Just as oral history can contextualize occupation and violence, oral history too can make sense of exile and violence. In the following passages, Anwar explains why he was forced to leave his hometown and family in Palestine behind.
“I noticed this every day on my way to school…when I was young. The Israeli Occupation Forces, in the streets, armed with weapons. Their tanks would pass every day in the streets. The soldiers were always present on the ground, whether in Gaza or elsewhere.”
“I didn’t like the situation in Palestine. Every day, we witnessed killings, the oppression of innocent people, the demolition of homes over their heads. I couldn’t handle it. So, I had to seek freedom, where human dignity is guaranteed…where human dignity is guaranteed. So, thank God, I came to Canada. But, Palestine…I will never forget. It remains in my heart forever.” – Anwar Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016, emphasis my own)
Anwar remembers the daily observations and experiences of violence he fell witness to growing up as a child in Gaza. The presence of Israeli occupation and the daily occurrences of extremely violent conditions prove to be the driving forces behind Anwar’s exile and displacement. Exile then can be understood as a material consequence of violence and occupation. Again, oral history in this context can result in two of the following outcomes. For one, those who engage and listen to these narratives of exile learn of the systemic forces that drive Palestinians and others into exile to begin with. The second is that Palestinians like Anwar employ oral history as a way to exercise their own agency in resisting violence and in making sense of their identity as a people who are forced into exile. Therefore, by sharing and exchanging their narratives and lived experiences, Palestinians engage in this form of cultural resistance to formulate a sense of who they are, but also as a way to inform others of how violence, occupation, and exile affect their everyday lives.
Oral History in Space and Place
Oral history suggests that identities are understood in relation to their specific temporal and spatial locations, meaning that identities cannot stand outside of given historical and geographic contexts (Desai, 2015, 124). Accordingly, for Palestinians living in exile, since leaving is neither a voluntary or desired act, oral history provides an opportunity whereby reconciling questions of place, space, and identity becomes possible (Brand, 2001, 2). In what Dionne Brand (2001) refers to as “the Door of No Return”, I look at how oral history plays a role in both resistance culture and the everyday lives of exiled Palestinians by drawing on its symbolic and material representations. First of all, it is important to understand that “the Door of No Return” constitutes a metaphor for place – a place signifying a site of belonging or unbelonging and a place made up of a collection of places all at once (Brand, 2001, 5-6, 18). Therefore, in the case of Palestinians living in exile, “the Door of No Return” insinuates the homeland (Palestine). It may also characterize the Diaspora whereby exiled Palestinians live as a result of occupation. In any case, “the Door of No Return” allows Palestinians to form their own conceptualized ideas about what and where home is to them. It is a complicated reality for many Palestinians living in exile, for “home” may be neither only here nor there. In fact, for these two Palestinians, “home” embodies Palestine (homeland) and the Diaspora (place of exile) in which they live at the same time.
“After that, your father decided that we’d return to Canada. It was not safe nor was there a sense of stability. You couldn’t go to school anymore. We were too scared and worried to send you. So it was no longer safe and there was no schooling…And we considered Canada to be our second home.” – Nahed Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016)
“I love Canada – it’s my second home after Palestine. It’s the country that made me feel my sense of dignity, my pride, my freedom, my humanity, and my rights as an individual.” – Anwar Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016; audio unedited)
Nahed and Anwar share how the occupation (and its intangible conditions, e.g. lack of freedom) forced them and their family to leave Palestine. They both embrace Canada as their second home, yet they still maintain that home to them is Palestine first and foremost. In this way, these narratives of oral history historicize the current realities of Palestinians facing exile (occupation), thereby situating them in a particular geographic context (i.e. exile). This cultural form of resistance then allows Palestinians to cultivate their personal and collective identity through their connections with and understandings of the following: (a) their conceptualized ideas of home, (b) the historic circumstances that forced their exile from their homeland (occupation), and (c) their specific geographic location or place of exile. More importantly, by claiming home as both Palestine and the Diaspora in which they live, Palestinians engage resistance by refusing to give up Palestine as their homeland, while conceptualizing their place of exile as home as well. Overall, oral history epitomizes a way for Palestinians to reconfigure place, space, and identity, and in turn, to conceptualize their own ideas of where they belong and what home means to them.
All things considered, oral history serves a number of purposes for Palestinian cultural resistance. It not only underscores how Palestinians living in exile come to shape their sense of identity, but it also enables them to reconfigure and make sense of place, space, and violence in their everyday lives. In essence, this paper demonstrates how oral history is utilized for advancing theoretical understandings of occupation, exile, and in turn, the significance it has in mobilizing and fostering cultural resistance. By employing the politics of refusal as a general entry point into the discourse, I argue that oral history can generate sites for education, solidarity, counter-narratives of violence and representation, and finally, for making sense of space and place in view of conceptualized ideas of home and belonging. In due course, I offer a richly nuanced account of Palestinian exile in hopes that it will present new possibilities for the greater global community, namely for Palestinians and their allies. This is especially important when one considers how the significance of oral history is often overlooked in resistance culture, particularly in the production of art, literature, and scholarly discourses. It follows then that art-based, culture-based, and oral-based knowledge production is foundational to Palestinian resistance. Therefore, we must root resistance-based knowledge in Indigenous epistemologies. This is central to cultural resistance practices such as oral history because they re-imagine solidarity and resistance in a way that does not reconcile, dismiss, nor excuse complicity in settler colonial projects. Instead, it works from the vantage point of knowledge sharing rooted in Indigenous practices. Ultimately, it is this very vantage point that makes oral history an especially powerful tool for Palestinian resistance, and as such, must be embraced if we seek to establish a meaningful and complete understanding of resistance culture in our everyday lives.
Understanding settler colonialism and so-called ‘Indigenous issues’ (which are only ‘issues’ because of settler colonialism, so it’s more accurately a settler colonial issue) are necessary to understanding justice in this place currently known as Canada. Being Canadian also allows us to better understand our sense of belonging, our rights and responsibilities, and how we come to define ourselves, both individually and as a nation. It is an integral part of who we are. But the truth is, this part of who we are, is founded on genocidal violence against Indigenous people. Canada was built on unapologetic colonialism. The centuries-long expansion of European imperial powers like England and France directed the coercion, domination and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous communities to make room for newcomers. Today, Canada only really exists because European colonizers seized Indigenous peoples’ land, killed Indigenous people who lived on that land (so that they could have it), and, then, when that didn’t entirely work, efforts to ‘kill the Indian, to save the man’ resulted in the complete destruction of Indigenous cultures and ways of life. European colonizers resorted to every last means possible to remove Indigenous people from their land so that they could own and exploit it for their very own benefit. This, in short, is Canada’s shameful history – and learning of its legacy helps us to recognize just how colonization has and continues to affect us today. So, if I am interested in contributing to a place that is safe and inclusive for all, then this fundamentally involves the need to grapple with and fight for a way to end the ongoing colonialism that is Canada. That is, if there is a settler colonial problem that is hindering peace, I am interested in ending the settler colonial problem. This process, however, is not only the mere grappling with reconciliation, but is one that recognizes that the problem of settler colonialism, and the terrible violence it inherently brings on Indigenous people, is ongoing. Settler colonial violence underpins the very way in which Canada operates as a nation today. The objective of removing Indigenous people from the land so that settlers may exploit it is still very much part of our national fabric.
We see this in the ways in which Indigenous women, girls, Two Spirit and Trans people are made missing and murdered. More land is being seized by large corporations in Alberta and British Colombia for the creation of pipelines, like Kinder Morgan, resulting in worsening health and environmental conditions. Large bodies of water are being polluted with oil and harsh chemicals, poisoning vital sources for clean drinking water and food. Harsh living conditions on reserves are a driver behind chronic illness and poor health, under a health care system that is largely inaccessible and underfunded. Unemployment rates are the highest they’ve ever been. The education system fails to support Indigenous youth, as more and more are being pushed out each year. Indigenous youth suffer tremendously with mental health issues, leading to alarmingly high suicide rates. Indigenous men and boys are overrepresented in Canada’s prison system and detention centres. The legacy of residential schools has ensued in a vicious cycle of intergenerational trauma, whereby problems of domestic abuse, addiction, homelessness, and alcoholism are pervasive. Indigenous children are forcibly being ‘scooped’ up and placed into the ‘care’ of the government. Most recently, verdicts in the murder trials of Colten Boushie (22) and Tina Fontaine (15) have failed the Indigenous community once again. In the past month, both case have acquitted their murderers, claiming innocence to their crimes. In the aftermath of such injustices, many will often say that the criminal justice system and other major institutions are broken. But the fact is that they were designed to carry out the very outcomes we see today. While these current events are often invisible points of colonial neglect and violence in the Canadian political imaginary, settler colonial violence is a normalized, daily part of Indigenous peoples’ lives in Canada. Especially as Canadians gathered this past summer to celebrate 150 years of the nation, with a central theme of ‘reconciliation’, we must be able to disrupt the national myth-making of Canada as a peaceful, multicultural nation for all. For many, the celebration of Canada 150 was nothing more than a moment to mourn the ongoing years of colonial violence and to recommit supporting Indigenous sovereignty as central to resisting colonial violence. This colonial violence, and our complicity within it, is something that all Canadians need to understand. You do not need to be Indigenous to do this work, and doing this necessary work doesn’t make you Indigenous. Everyone has a role to play in ending the violence that has marked 150 years since Canada’s formation.
But to completely honour our commitment to embracing a spirit of truth and reconciliation in this country, this process of negotiation further calls on us to assess our own complicity in upholding and perpetuating colonialism, and to examine whether our ideals truly help or hinder Indigenous movements. The term “settler” refers to anyone who is not Indigenous living on Indigenous lands. It means not just long-dead ancestors, but any non-Indigenous person who continues to benefit from the colonial seizure of land from its original inhabitants. I too am interested in invoking an anti-colonial conceptualization of the term “settler”; one that not only recognizes non-Indigenous complicity in Canada’s ongoing colonial project, but that also stands in solidarity with the decolonization projects of Indigenous people. There’s an identity binary that exists in which I believe further limits our scope in effectively contesting the question of settlement: that is, the binary of white settlers vs. the Indigenous peoples of Canada. As a person of colour, who was born and raised in Canada, I often wonder, where do I and other people of colour fit into this equation? Are we innocent just because we are people of colour and do not have a relationship of conquest to this land? Is our relationship to First Peoples colonial? Well, the truth is, whether you are white or a person of colour is irrelevant. Neither identity negates your status as a settler. Unless you are First Nations, Métis, or Inuit, you are a settler, and so am I. We are all settlers. This may be difficult to accept, but it’s necessary nevertheless. Especially as a Palestinian woman, I cannot deny my settler identity. My people too have a history with settler colonialism; one rooted in a Zionist movement claiming birthright to our land. Palestine today is still under illegal occupation and apartheid by the state of Israel, and has been since 1948. As a young boy, my father had to face the daily presence of tanks and heavily armed soldiers on his way to school. The constant imagery of force, acts of violence, and genocide was very much the norm. He witnessed the destruction and shelling of homes, schools, and hospitals and tragically lost friends, neighbours, and classmates to bombings and sniper attacks. Tight border controls restrict the free flow of goods, and the movement of bodies anywhere. My mother, also hailing from the same reality, lived in exile all her life. To this day, they still speak of the injustices they faced, noting great emphasis on being denied the basic right to living a safe and dignified life, free of violence and discrimination. Both my parents originally hail from Gaza. In 1987, my father, still a teenager at the time, left home to seek refuge someplace else. He ended up coming to Canada, my mother joining him shortly thereafter. This is the entry point to my family’s origin story. This is how I come to understand myself and the relationship I have with the land. Denial is not the way forward. Love and solidarity with my Indigenous sisters and brothers is a choice I make every day because it’s the only way. This is our collective struggle, and I honour it by doing my part to challenge colonial oppression and state-sanctioned violence imposed on Indigenous people here and abroad. If I, as a Palestinian, can do that, then there’s absolutely no reason why the rest of us cannot.
I often hear people of colour with leftist political views claim that “our relation to this land is different.” How is this difference lived differently by communities of colour? On the one hand, many of us are fighting for justice in the name of being Canadians. We stand in various anti-racist events claiming our rights as Canadians. On the other hand, we also attempt to distance ourselves from white settlers, claiming innocence. We say that we are coming from other post-colonies that have also fallen victim to the direct contact of European colonization and American imperialism. Even when we do identify that we are settlers here, there is no sense of urgency for us to organize with Indigenous people and nations. I call on us then to not only question where we are coming from, but also to consider the place we have come to. What does citizenship mean for racialized people in a white-settler-colony? What does it mean when we demand our citizenship rights, which are rights entrenched in white supremacy, dispossession, and the genocide of Aboriginal people? For example, when Muslims today (including myself) protest and organize against legislation like the Anti-Terrorism Act, do we also draw parallels to how the Indian Act still works to subjugate Indigenous people? Do we even consider the long history that Indigenous activists and community organizers have had with being labelled as terrorists? Do we ask ourselves why Indigeneity and urbanity are mutually exclusive? If we think that we people of colour have a right to be here, then where do we think people of native nations belong? To clarify: this is not to imply that we share the same power as white settlers, or that race, class, gender, and citizenship do not define where and how bodies are organized in Canada. Yet a conversation still needs to be had about the ways we come to organize against racism and colonialism. We need to discuss what it looks like, which means that we must be able to carefully map out strategies for doing this work. People like me who have the privilege of mobility, and have the resources and platform, and whose status is not as tenuous as that of refugees, should definitely engage in serious political action. Whether we first came to this land as freed slaves, refugees, or under the racist policies of the Immigration Act, we are all here now, and we benefit from the settlement process. We need to reimagine and rework our anti-racist efforts in ways that do not continue the erasure of Indigenous communities. We need to stop paying mere lip service to Indigenous sovereignty and recognize that the forces that dehumanize us as racialized people are the same forces that continue the genocide of Indigenous peoples. We need to stop being defensive when we are told that we need to be more critical of how we are working for Indigenous sovereignty in our organizing. If these important negotiations and discussions do not happen in the organizing of all settlers, then there can be no real fight against the racial and colonial violence that this country was built on. To self-identity as a settler rather than as a Canadian does not necessarily negate the rights and benefits of citizenship that settlers have come to accrue as a result of settler colonialism. But mobilizing all settlers to become aware of the ways in which their settler privileges are anything but natural and well deserved can constitute a first step in supporting Indigenous activism against settler domination.
Photo: Nicole Brumley Rally for Tina Fountaine, Toronto
Growing up, seeing people who looked like me – especially in mainstream media – certainly wasn’t the norm. Today, not much has changed. Muslim and Arab representations still depict us as a savage, barbaric people driven by terrorist motives to ruthlessly kill. We have been treated to film after film in which we are reduced to playing the part of terrorist, evil villain, sinister billionaire and, of course, silenced women. Think about how such images would impact your sense of self-worth. And, worse, think about how that makes others see you and your community. If you are reading this and you are white, seeing people who look like you isn’t something you think about often. Every day, the culture reflects not only you but nearly infinite versions of you. The world shows you that your possibilities are boundless. Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mainstream media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. If you are a minority, it’s challenging to not be angry with Hollywood for the irresponsibly negative ways it has depicted Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Arabs and other minority groups – all in the pursuit of making millions, if not billions, of dollars.
So, a movie like Black Panther comes along – taking in nearly $200 million dollars across North American theatres its opening weekend – and I’m left feeling more inspired and hopeful than ever before. What seems like just another entry in an endless parade of superhero movies is actually something much bigger. It is an authentic and honest delivery on imagining a world of alternative possibilities. Representations are both complex and nuanced. It illuminates the vast diversity of African cultures and histories. It honours the significant ties to ancestral struggle and sacrifice. And for the first time in Hollywood’s history, Black people, particularly Black women, embody a powerful spirit of agency. A story is finally being told on the big screen without care or concern to appease a white audience. For far too long, Hollywood has set a low standard for incredibly talented Black actors and artists in the industry. Limited by stereotypical roles – the slave, the criminal thug, the poor ghetto kid – Black people have been expected to play characters only serving to support the leading role of white actors – the saviour, the hero, the saint. That, or they are instantly killed off, usually within the first few minutes of the opening credits. Black Panther is a film that refuses to settle, and pushes back with a great force of tenacity and ambition nevertheless. Played by a mostly Black cast, Black people here are unapologetically their own agents of change. They’re heroes leading their own destinies with a great sense of triumph and inner strength. It is also incredibly entertaining, filled with timely humour, sharply choreographed action and gorgeously lit people of all colours.
Above all else, it’s a movie about what it means to be Black in both America and Africa – and, more broadly, in the world. Rather than dodge complicated themes about race and identity, the film grapples head-on with the issues affecting modern-day Black life. It challenges racist, colonial ideologies by dispelling myths of current-day political and social realities. The U.S. loses its credibility as an imperial power, and Africa is no longer depicted as a starving, barren land dependent upon foreign aid for survival. Instead, these alternative representations serve to interrupt stereotypical ways of thinking of Africa and its people in relation to the rest of the world. It provides an uncontested space to speak truths by completely reimagining the possibilities. It asks of us to consider African states as sovereign, wealthy, and technologically advanced, with an unyielding will for self-determination. This too is coming from an assumed connection to the historical implications that colonialism – the theft of land, resources, and human capital by European colonizers – and racism – the history of slavery in the Americas and the Jim Crow era – has had and continues to have on African states and Black people everywhere. Essentially, Black Panther makes us contemplate the what ifs if you will. After the Obama era, perhaps none of this should feel groundbreaking. But it does. In the midst of a regressive cultural and political moment fueled in part by the white-nativist movement, the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance. Its themes challenge systemic racism (e.g. police brutality and mass incarceration), its characters take unsubtle digs at oppressors, and its narrative includes prismatic perspectives on Black life and tradition.
Throughout the entirety of the film, Black Panther offers counter narratives of cultural resistance to impartial, untrue, and problematic representations of Black people and other communities of colour. It’s a reclamation of stories – a movement towards reinventing the public perception of who we are and where we come from. It’s a retelling of lived experiences from the eyes of those of us who have historically been marginalized and shunned from the dominant sphere. Black Panther also places a striking emphasis on the nuances of home. It doesn’t shy away from the painful realities of exile and diaspora most commonly experienced by many living in the West. While it focused primarily on the experiences of African Americans, this is something that deeply resonates with me. As a child of immigrants, self-discovery and identity formation in context of the question of home has always been a struggle. Coming to terms with my identity and my place in the world has resulted in a difficult, and ongoing process of reconciling the void between here and there. That is, the relationship between my birthplace and place of origin is complicated. Here, never Canadian enough to belong – there, never considered Arab or Muslim enough to fit in. Deemed an outsider within, my Canadian, Arab, and Muslim identities are at once rejected. Seen as one or the another, but never all together. They are at odds with one another, wrestling the notorious battle that aspires to cultivate a sense of purpose, belonging, and inner peace. I’ve learned that acceptance of this beautifully agonizing predicament is necessary. It’s a way of being and becoming, but also vital to my very existence. In the same way, Black Panther is telling of a similar account rooted in longing for someplace else.
Black Panther is a history-in-the-making kind of film. It’s a milestone worthy of celebration for many reasons. But for me, Black Panther is a big deal particularly because it gives me – and people of other minority groups – the freedom to dream of one day seeing our own superheroes. I look forward to the day when my community can be this excited to see a movie that showcases one of us as a superhero. What a contrast it would be to how cruelly Hollywood has depicted Muslims and Arabs in both television and films for decades. Black Panther has already broken box-office records, which means that we’ll hopefully continue to see dynamically complex Black characters and captivatingly compelling stories of communities of colour both on and off screen. And here’s hoping that Black Panther’s popularity translates into other minority groups finally getting a chance to see someone who looks like them save the world.
Between the Lines of Hyper-Visibility and Invisibility
“The other is the ‘stranger neighbour’: she is distant in the sense that I cannot assume community or commonality with her, and yet she is close by, so that she will haunt me, stay with me, as a reminder of the unassimilable in my life…” – Sara Ahmed (2000)
Thomas King (2003) tells us that “the truth about stories is that [they’re] all we are.” I tell my story here, not to play on your sympathies, but to suggest how stories have the potential to influence our lives. There is a part of me that has never been able to move past these stories, a part of me that will be bound to these stories for as long as I live (King, 9). Through photography, I tell only part of my story, for my story is never truly whole – incomplete, fragmented, and beautiful. As a veiled Muslim woman of colour, born and raised in Canada, the relationship I have with my identity and my body is complicated – just like the photograph above. Notice how the shades of black and grey clothing serve to highlight the bold red hijab in a way that locates meaning from the body. In both its redness and its boldness, the hijab symbolizes the body’s visibility clearly and unapologetically. Yet, the face is divorced from the body in such a way as to distance the body from its surroundings and its possible encounters with others in the background. It is telling of a kind of faceless embodiment, possessed by an aura of otherness existing from within. It reveals a type of humanness without the human, robbed of its very personhood: an other or alien being. In this way, the understanding of who I am and what I am, both in being and becoming, is very much contingent on how I am perceived by others. That is, my hijab accentuates my visibility in the public scene, yet my body – on account of its muslimness – is marginalized and rendered invisible nevertheless. In a strange and paradoxical way, I am seen and unseen at the same time. Therefore, it is in this very context that I begin to explore how managing visibility becomes critical and challenging when attempting to navigate one’s body between the lines of hyper-visibility and invisibility. In particular, I consider the way in which hyper-visibility threatens overexposure and harsh scrutiny, while invisibility enforces the silencing and erasure of marginalized bodies – including my own. Visibility, in this sense, becomes a double-edged sword that seems dangerous to wield at times. Being cognizant of how my body is read then elicits my desire to further examine the way in which my body is surveilled, governed, restricted, and seen in the watchful eye of the dominant gaze. From this, I also consider how the very essence of my “being-in-the-world” is dependent on my constant need to contest and negotiate my identity in accordance to my positionality at particular moments in time and place. By citing the works of Razack (2003), Ahmed (2000) and Butler (2006), my aim is to draw theory from the photograph in hopes of bringing meaning to my body – as a site of agency and resistance above all else. This process is by no means fixed and linear. In fact, it would be misleading and unauthentic to deny its messy and complex nature. In the same way, I do not wish to make conclusive arguments for my subjectivity is fluid and ever-changing. Instead, I intend to bring clarity to some questions raised in the scope of my writing.
Nonetheless, I try to better conceptualize this phenomenon by first borrowing from what Sherene Razack (2003) refers to as “unmapping.” In unmapping, there is an important relationship between identity and space. Not only does it denaturalize geography by asking how spaces come to be, but it also challenges worldviews that rest upon it, in relation to our bodies (Razack, 5). I pay particular attention to the material and symbolic constitution of actual spaces by exploring the way in which racialization processes become directly experienced as spatial (Razack, 6). By engaging with this idea of spatiality, the hope is that it will yield insight into the multiple ways in which a racial social order is produced and sustained (Razack, 6). With this in mind, when I speak of coming to know myself in and through space, I must emphasize that I can only really come to know myself in relation to others, and vice versa. In other words, I can consider the question of being, of what it means to be in the world, only when I think of myself in relation to the white dominant body first (Ahmed, 139). This relationship explicitly refers to the dominant racial imaginary, whereby the dominant white body comes to know themselves through the spaces in which they occupy. This imaginary then is only ever possible when it is in relation to the racial other (Razack, 13). That is, the dominant white body effortlessly comes to occupy their space with a sense of entitlement, privilege, and superiority. The racial other, on the other hand, inevitably is imagined embodying spaces that are deemed inferior, deviant, and subordinate. In this respect, Ahmed (2000) also suggests that we need to complicate the very notion of coming to know the other by discussing the temporal and spatial dislocations that are implicated in the very possibility of being faced by this other. Certainly, this is partly about locating the encounter in time and space (Ahmed, 144).
The hijab in this sense must then be contextualized according to its specific locality and spatiality. For instance, the hijab in the West is often viewed as a symbol of oppression by the dominant white gaze. Yet it is almost never equated with representations of liberty and freedom, as it sometimes is by women who choose to wear the hijab as part of their religious dress. Focusing on the perceived lack of agency signified by the hijab not only misunderstands the various cultural, religious, and spiritual meanings that the hijab might carry for women who wear it, but also denies the very idioms of agency that are relevant for such women (Butler, 47). In particular, the hijab gives meaning to my body in that the hijab itself makes me vulnerable to an acute kind of visibility. Its symbolic meaning (e.g. oppressive, barbaric), on the other hand, renders my body an other, lesser, alien being – unimportant and invisible. This symbolic constitution of space becomes gendered as well, especially as the hijab imparts specific implications on the bodies of veiled Muslim women exclusively. This is not to say that Muslim men are not vulnerable to this kind of subjugation, but veiled Muslim women face a very distinct and different experience altogether. In consequence, the gendering of the hijab constitutes more symbolic meanings to my body, in that I am further marginalized by my perceived passivity and docility as a result of both my womanness and my muslimness. Therefore, understanding the concept of the dominant racial imaginary in relation to its symbolic constitution of space is essential, for it illustrates the way in which my body is conceived as a veiled Muslim woman living in the West.
Likewise, the material constitution of space in relation to my body is best exemplified in the way that Muslims have experienced an arguably unique brand of body terrorism based on the perception that they pose a hypervisible “threat” to the dominant society. That is, in the wake of the war on terror, there has been a radical desire for security, a rush to ‘secure,’ abuse and detain the bodies of Muslims, and a heightened surveillance of anyone who looks vaguely Muslim in the dominant racial imaginary (Butler, 39). The media, for instance, authorizes various terror alerts, whereby others are solicited to be on guard but not told explicitly what to be on guard against; thereby heightening racial hysteria in which fear is directed anywhere and nowhere all at once (Butler, 39). Accordingly, as a racialized body that reads “threat” or “terror” in the eyes of the dominant gaze, there are real and material consequences to my body. My hijab deems me a threat, and this perceived deviance falls under the watchful eye of those who do not see me for me, but rather a monolithic risk or inferior group of which I am apart. In this way, the hijab then justifies any (perceived) risk or vulnerability to violence or hostility that I may experience. Recognizing the social and political implications imposed onto my body in this violent manner compel me to be especially vigilant in how I navigate my body in accordance to particular social contexts. For example, I find that I have to conduct myself differently when I am walking in the streets of Toronto, as opposed to when I am riding the TTC. Similarly, my experience during the day is certainly unlike my experience after dark. This constant need to negotiate my identity in accordance to my positionality at particular moments in time and place serve two purposes. For one, my survival of “being-in-the-world” depend on this very contestation. More importantly, my understanding of how I am perceived in the dominant racial imaginary (and the way in which symbolic and material constitutions of space materialize) equally influence this need to negotiate my identity within the broader social context, both in being and becoming me.
The concept of visibility – particularly in the void between hypervisibility and invisibility – then is just another way to deny individuals recognition and the right to truly be seen. The ability to be recognized is often constructed as a type of privileging reserved for the dominant white body, commonly accepted by default. As such, it is the processes of recognition and expulsion that produce the very figure of the other in the first place (Ahmed, 140). The national racial imaginary further emphasizes how such processes of incorporation and expulsion involve the figuring of the other as the ‘outsider within’ (Ahmed, 140). In turn, the figure of the other is an effect of the processes that come to imagine it as either welcomed or expelled to begin with (Ahmed, 141). This is to say that to name some-body as other is already to recognize them (Ahmed, 156). In this process of recognition, my body is made visible and vulnerable, but it contains a kind of agency nonetheless. In being exposed to the gaze of others, my body is an instrument for agency and resistance against this violent marking of the other (Butler, 26). Striving for recognition as a form of resistance is to solicit a becoming, to instigate a transformation, to exist – here, not there, present, and never absent, still human. My story paints my body scarred and my psyche bruised, but my existence with and without my hijab, in all its corporal meanings and inscriptions, is how I come into being, again and again. For, yes, my story is broken, permeating with pain and lost words that will never be able to completely formulate any sense of who I am. As I navigate my body and identity between the lines of hypervisibility and invisibility, I am constantly reminded of that which I have yet to know. But, in the same breath, I am also reminded that my story has been told, forever loose in the world, never to be reclaimed again (King, 2003).
As a community organizer and activist, I am sometimes asked to engage teachers and administrators in equity education training as part of their PD days. In recent years, there has been a substantial growth in racial and ethnic diversity of students in our schools. The vast majority of teachers, on the other hand, are made up of white females – with racialized teachers representing only a token few. Given this disproportional composition, issues of race and racism are likely topics to come up in conversation. Personally, I think it’s great that we’re finally more accepting of the fact that these conversations need to be had – even if they make us feel incredibly uncomfortable. What I’ve quickly learned, however, is that they really can go either way. Some outcomes lead to meaningful conversations rooted in respect and understanding. But more often than not, it’s utter chaos. A few months ago, I was attending a workshop session on race and racism – with a lens on how power and privilege dynamics adversely affect the wellbeing of racialized students. It was led by the only Black male teacher, at a school made up of a predominately white staff. Somehow, this gave some teachers a pass to openly discuss how some youth, especially Black youth, use the “n” word in their everyday language. It was quite alarming to witness just how quick teachers were to place blame and shame on Black students for using the word. What’s more is the use of the “n” word itself. For whatever reason, some white folks have an inexplicable confidence in actually saying the word – without the slightest hesitation. And every time that happened, I experienced, what quite literally felt like visceral jolts packed with an electrifyingly violent force so powerful, it completely and utterly overtook my body. I suddenly found myself coming face to face with a violent wave of rage and resistance. It was hostile, and I didn’t feel safe. It’s a spiritual wound. It’s incredibly painful, and the impact that this language has on our bodies, minds, and psyches warrants further dialogue.
So, what’s at issue here? Well first of all, the use of the “n” word is incredibly contested, especially given its rooted historical context and pejorative meaning. The “n” word originates from the Spanish and French languages to describe people of African descent because of their dark skin. Over time, it became a derogatory term – historically used by slave masters and colonialists (and then eventually regular white folk) to assert their power and superiority over Black people. Today, the word is inextricably tied to horrific events in our past and recent history – the brutal 400 years history of the forced enslavement of Africans in the Americas, racial segregation in the deep South, and Jim Crow, as well as the 18th century colonization of Africa (which included physical and cultural genocides), and the systemic racism that continues to exist in contemporary times at the hands of the state and the police. The word is symbolic of the violence and brutality cast on Black psyches and Black bodies, and has been used to oppress Black people for centuries. This is reason enough to understand that no degree of appropriating can rid it of its blood-soaked history. In simple terms, the “n” word double standard is a myth. It’s not the place of white and non-Black folks to decide whether or not the word should be reclaimed or not. The moral judgement on how Black people reclaim the term is not relevant to the discussion of why it is never okay for non-Black people to use the term. And it’s especially not the place of non-Black folks to chime in on what they think. Your opinion is misplaced and misinformed. It’s inherently problematic to trivialize the lived experiences of Black folks. And it’s especially problematic to downplay the traumatic effect it has on Black identity and the psyche of racialized communities. The discourse is cause for many microaggressions that make workplaces, campuses, and relationships hostile environments for Black people. Non-Black people who feel the need to police Black people on the moral repercussions of the term often misuse their non-Black privilege in forcing the issue.
The truth is language is not ahistorical, and cannot be used without context. Claiming ownership or undermining the word itself, in essence, contributes to the erasure of history – which in effect removes any measure of accountability – and this simply cannot be tolerated. The response that these teachers had was a very typical one. It was a knee-jerk reaction to fear, discomfort, and confusion. Difficulty in navigating conversations like this arise when people lack the knowledge on race relations from a sociohistorical perspective. But it’s also a common deflection tactic. Living in a neoliberal era whereby individualism is highly valued has made it easier for some to pathologize those who have historically been marginalized for the problems that they encounter, than to acknowledge the systemic oppressions that continue to exist for certain communities. In this context, non-Black folks feel entitled so much so that they would rather focus on how the individual is to blame for their own circumstances, and remove themselves entirely from the slightest possibility of being complicit in a system that thrives off the backs of Black and other marginalized folks. The entry point then becomes a deficit model of understanding – a “blame the victim” mindset, if you will. Policing Black people in this way has to stop, because the reality is, we all have a responsibility to focus on uprooting racism within ourselves and our communities. We need to do a better job in guiding meaningful conversations that are intent on supporting those of us who continue to face racism and other forms of discrimination on a daily basis. We cannot continue to centre these conversations around how we feel or think – it has nothing to do with us. We need to invest our time and resources in educating ourselves. This starts with challenging our own personal biases, and acknowledging the power and privilege we bring with us. It’s about time we listen intently, and really commit ourselves to critically engaging the questions, emotions, and energies that surface in these spaces. Language has meaning, and cannot forgo context. We cannot afford to continue this way. The solution? It’s quite simply really. Don’t say the word – not now, and not ever.
Over the past year, we have seen how the global mass movement of the Women’s March has rapidly gained momentum in harnessing the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change. The public outcry came immediately after Trump’s inauguration in January last year. It sent a clear and direct message to the administration and those in power that we were not going to take their abuse lying down. It symbolized an intersectional solidarity between women and their allies* – the first of its kind. It was certainly empowering to watch a historic moment like this unfold before me nonetheless. People from all over the world took to the streets. Women mobilized together, and used their collective power to voice resistance. It was women who weaponized against a system that is so openly willing to exploit and sanction violence against its own people. It’s inspired and even given leverage to movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp. We’ve made some tremendous strides, and our struggles, our stories, and our demands are being broadcasted loud and clear across industries everywhere. My reflections here are not intended to trivialize the tireless work and courage of our sisters – this should never be taken for granted. However, I believe this to be an especially critical time to beg the question: can we, as women, honestly say that the same is being done in our own relationships with other women? I believe it’s important because unfortunately I still meet women who quite genuinely enjoy bringing other women down. They take pleasure in bringing them to their demise. So, this very question needs to be taken seriously, and I pose it here to really challenge ourselves to reflect on it with great intention and purpose. We need to look within, and be as honest and as open with ourselves as possible. Ask yourself: am I bringing other women up with me along my journey? If you are, ask yourself: in what ways am I supporting their success? If you’re not, ask yourself: why, and what can I do to change?
* Although very problematic at times, but I won’t get into that right now. Maybe stay tuned for a future post?
We need to do a better job in raising each other up. We need to hold the one thing we all share in common to a higher esteem – our sisterhood. We need to show it more respect, and handle it with the care and dignity it deserves. Our sisterhood is a sacred entity, and it’s about time we wake up and treat it as such. We need to commit ourselves to being better to one another by unlearning this internalized behaviour. For far too long, we’ve been conditioned from a young age to see other females as competition. It’s internalized through the process of socialization, and this form of socialization in turn can produce outcomes that nurture systemically-rooted issues for us women. These subliminal messages are reinforced over and over again. It’s an age-old narrative that’s normalized in the media we consume, in the schools and workplaces we attend, and by the very adults we grow up to love and trust. It’s implicit as much as it’s explicit in nature, which seems to suggest that the thoughts influencing this behavior are sub-conscious. We sometimes don’t even realize when we do it or why it’s even happening. But when we actively participate, we are in essence feeding into the hands of a patriarchal system that’s meant to keep women in their place. We internalize the misogynic ideologies that underpin the second-class citizenry of women. The ways in which this operates on a systemic level needs to be acknowledged, but it’s no excuse. We still need to hold ourselves accountable nevertheless. Accountability in this case means bringing awareness to one’s own individual behaviours and interactions with women. But it also means checking your privilege. Yes, even as a woman. The reality is that some women have more privilege than other women. You see, who we are directly informs the power and privilege we have. For example, although white women are marginalized because of their gender, they still benefit in many ways because of their racial identity – which may also include other privileges based on their class, sexuality, and/or ability (although this isn’t necessarily always the case). So, we can see how this is further complicated by the varying contexts and realities that exist when gender intersects with other identities that may either work to marginalize or privilege us. Now it’s easy for us to get warped into an “oppression Olympics” mindset. And I urge us to resist this way of thinking altogether. It’s counterproductive, and will only make us feel helpless, petty, and vindictive towards one another. It’s no one’s fault for having privilege. And you shouldn’t feel guilty for having it either. I refuse to participate in shaming and blaming women for it. What I will not tolerate however is the refusal to name oppression, especially when it does not implicate us directly. The truth is, even if we are not directly affected by it, we are.
My point is that if we are really serious about being committed to achieving gender equity, we must develop a critical understanding of how race, class, sexuality and other differences contribute to further oppressing women who may be different from us. Use your privilege for good. Use it to give other women a voice and space to liberate themselves from the shackles of oppression. Otherwise, what you’re doing is actively being complicit in further marginalizing women who don’t share the same identity-based privilege you have. So, if our personal and collective objective is to successfully liberate ourselves as women, we need to be inclusive of all women – including and especially Black women, Indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, rural women, Muslim women, disabled women, lesbian queer and trans women, as well as any intersecting identities of the like. It’s either all of us, or none of us. We need to recognize that our liberation is bond to one another. True liberation can only ever be realized through the stronghold of sister solidarity and allyship. So long as another woman is unfree, I will never myself truly be free, even when her shackles are very different from my own. It’s up to us to break the vicious cycle. We cannot let them pit us against each other. We cannot afford to see each other’s wins as losses. Men certainly have a role to play here too. But it’s up to us women to lead our own liberation. Let us embrace being and becoming our own heroes. The power we have when we come together is astronomical. It’s an incredibly powerful force – one not to be reckoned with. Together, we can defy all possibilities. We can, and will, overcome. We wield the strength of steel, and carry the courage and resilience of all women who came before us, and those who presently ground us. They fought tirelessly for us, and their spirits continue to live within us. We must have the critical consciousness to realize this if we are ever going to unleash our greatest and most powerful potential. So, let’s all take a step back and reflect. Let’s be honest and critical with ourselves, starting with the way we treat other women in our lives. So, I invite you, my dear sisters, to let this knowledge and awareness empower you. Let it empower you, and together let’s empower each other. Because whether you realize it or not, we’re all in this together, and I want us to envision a future that’s kinder, more compassionate, and more loving than ever before. Women have always been at the forefront of revolutionary change, and women will continue to be the ones coming together to fight for a better world for many, many generations to come.
I think vulnerability can be a beautiful thing. It sparks a real and unadulterated connection between people. At best, it inspires a spiritual bond rooted in empathy and understanding. But maybe vulnerability is more than that. Some situations inevitably place us in this untimely circumstance of vulnerability. We’ve all been unexpectedly caught off-guard at some point at the hands of others. We react, often times, with an automatic response to our insecurities. We tirelessly try to hid what we (think we) lack, and then overcompensate to make up for it. Whatever it is. We overthink our words, and replay our interactions with others on repeat. It’s almost as though we are falling into a cycle of mourning. It feels as though we are losing parts of ourselves that we were never really ready to give up or reveal to the world just yet. In an age largely dominated by our online presence, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. Our social media brands entirely depend on our ability to present ourselves as these perfect, always put-together individuals. It’s unrealistic, unattainable, and simply unfair. We are inherently imperfect and flawed. Yet we are willing to do whatever it takes to mask our imperfections. We filter, edit, and caption ourselves in a maddening craze for perfection. We give off an illusion of a life filled with serenity, peace, and happiness. In reality, our online presence is miles away from who we are in real time. Many of us are empty and unfulfilled. We are victims of our own self-inflicted pity and loneliness. The new age demands that we filter our thoughts and opinions, suppress our emotions, watermark our self-image, and do away with mediocrity all together. We are, in essence, overextending ourselves. We desire perfection, and aspire to greatness all the time. We do this all in an attempt to appear smarter, healthier, kinder, more sophisticated, more generous, more beautiful, etc. than we really are. It’s exhausting.
Perhaps vulnerability is more nuanced than we think. Maybe our understanding of vulnerability is really just an illusion, a hoax. Perhaps our past experiences with vulnerability are really just filtered versions of the truth. This is not to suggest that they are fake or untrue by any means. They are partial truths – limited and calculated by nature. They are pieces of ourselves that we’ve already accepted. We think them over before sharing, and if we’ve decided it okay to share with others, we let it go unabashedly. So maybe this suggests that when I do feel unsettled, it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the parts of myself that I’ve revealed to others – even my loved ones. I haven’t accepted those parts of myself. These moments reveal a lot more about ourselves than we think. At times, I find myself turning over every little thing in my head. Did I say too much? Did I say too little? Did I say the right thing? This very battle in our heads is a symptom of fear, fueled by insecurity. It’s a fear of vulnerability. Deep down, we resist being vulnerable for fear of having to face our deepest and darkest insecurities. It’s a vicious cycle. Personally, I struggle at times to accept that I might not be as smart or as thoughtful or as critical or as important or as kind as I actually think myself to be. I say something that makes me sound stupid, or ignorant, or I’m caught off-guard. Then I’m unprepared with a refined enough response or reaction, so I scramble to recovery – of which there is no avail. I panic, and all I can think of is what others are thinking about me. What are they thinking about me right now in this very moment? The reality is that there’s a really good chance they’re not. Most of the time, no one has the energy to do that. And our loved ones – those closest to us – most definitely are not. They love us unconditionally. Unconditional love is a love that embraces the good, bad, and ugly parts of ourselves. We are loved, yet this struggle is pulling us in all sorts of directions because we are partially wired to be self-centered. We think that the world revolves around us. We think that every word uttered, that every look made in our direction, and that every whisper muttered under someone else’s breath has something (or even everything) to do with us. In essence, we are our Egos. Luckily for us, we have the power to control it. In moments of acute vulnerability, remember to breathe. Breathe in – reassurance, comfort, and ease. Breathe out – your Ego and insecurities. Deflate, get rid of, and release. Your fears do not define you. Your insecurities do not have power over you. So, let it go. We all need to be reminded every once in a while that we are enough. You are enough as you are in the here and now. And you will always be enough. You deserve to focus your energy on more important things. You are worthy of love and non-judgement. Tell your story. Share your narratives and lived experiences by embracing vulnerability. The world wants to hear from you. After all, you are a product of that which you give to the world. So, give generously.
She cried, and I saw it coming. Openly sharing painful lived experiences does that to a person. It breaks you. But it also connects you to others. It has a healing power. It allows you to create a space for yourself – for liberation. To let go of your demons. It’s probably the single most selfless act one could possibly engage in. Vulnerability is an act of courage. That is, to be vulnerable in the face of struggle and pain is to have the absolute conviction that what you choose to reveal about yourself to others is real. It’s important, and worth sharing. In essence, this realness reflects your deepest, and most authentic self. You are living your Truth – boldly and unapologetically. It’s honest, it’s raw, it’s heart wrenching. It has the power to stir emotions. Tears are bound to flow. We grit our teeth. We curl our fists. Our voices rise with anger and quiver with agony. The tension in the room is palpable. And so are the energies we bring with it. Vulnerability does not come with a distinct taste or sound. But we can certainly name it when we see it. Vulnerability is human connection, and vice versa. You cannot have one without the other. To be vulnerable necessitates a bond or an exchange of sorts between two or more people. I believe that most of the time, vulnerability is a choice. It’s a brave choice we make when we feel comfortable enough (yet just barely) with who’s receiving us and our stories.
I was recently reminded of the power that vulnerability truly has in our daily interactions with one another. In my capacity at work, I engage youth in conversations around issues of equity, and together we reflect on how diversity and inclusion are practiced (or not) in their community. I notice the shift of energy in the room almost instantly. The air vibrates with excitement and anxiety all at once. Their faces become heavy with emotion. One look is all I need to know where these youth are at. The glisten in their eyes twinkle with a hopeful anticipation. Their accounts are both striking and honest. One 16-year-old recalls the several encounters she’s had with Islamophobia as a newcomer Muslim youth to Canada. She speaks of how she has to constantly negotiate her identity. She expresses feeling as though she has had to erase her culture, and relives what it felt like to have rocks thrown at her hijab-wearing mother. This very act of negotiation serves as an automatic response mechanism – for survival, a way to reassert one’s innate right to simply exist, to make sense of their place in the world. The tone of her voice intensified, her emotions heightened, and so began the unchoreographed flow of emotion dancing around the room. She expressed her shame for having to compromise parts of herself. Guilt filled her lungs. Her eyes filled with tears. And anger sharply pierced the air. The beauty of all this is that she gracefully reclaimed ownership of her own narrative. She did not once think, nor care for that matter, to recompose herself. This was her moment. It was real, and authentic. It was a moment of unadulterated truths inspiring a type of collective surrender.
Her vulnerability in sharing her pain brought to light the darkened parts of ourselves we were so afraid to touch. In one winding breath, as we inhaled, guards were let down, followed by an exhaled relief soon permeating all around us. We were letting go. She reminded us all that we’re never really alone – even when we think we are. We share in struggle, pain, and sacrifice. We long for healing, love, and understanding. Masks of hiding reveal the bare face of vulnerability and connection, embraced all together by compassion and empathy. And yet we cry. It’s a release from our tormented selves. Eventually you reach your breaking point. Spaces like this offer an escape route. A door opens itself up to a venturing journey into the unknown. It’s exhilaratingly terrifying, but it’s necessary all the same. This time, there is no harrowing saviour coming to our rescue. Nothing to fight off but our own insecurities, fears, and lowly inhibitions. The fantastical tales of the glitz and glam in our minds no longer exist here. We are armed and ready to save ourselves.
My work gives me the opportunity to connect with racialized youth in schools. Many recount their lived experience with racism, namely anti-Black racism and Islamophobia. I can see their struggle in trying to make sense of who they are in relation to the world around them. They are constantly negotiating their identity in context of societal expectations, biases, and stereotypes. I hear comments ranging from “I’m numb to it” to “I hated my skin” to “I had to erase my culture.” This evidently highlights the impact that racism and bigotry have on the mental well-being and psyche of our youth. It’s disheartening to hear. Your stomach drops, heavy as stone. A sickly lethargic feeling overtakes your senses. It robs you of hope, hijacking the possibility of maintaining even the slightest peace of mind. Your dreams of liberation evaporate into absolute nothingness.
This is what reliving trauma of pain is like for those of us who experience the stranglehold of oppression. This event of recurring traumatic episodes is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a state of being. Your past self – the scarred, the afflicted, and the tormented parts of you – forcibly find themselves back into your present self at any given moment in time, without warning or consent. It’s a painful burden that many of us have to deal with on a daily basis. I’ve come to realize however that perhaps it’s a necessary, and almost inevitable part of the process. Harmful as it might be, it reminds me of the very cause of our work as community organizers, activists, and changemakers. It personally gives me all the more reason to fight harder – to just keep on going. We are constantly folding and unfolding unto ourselves. Our rhythm is in tune with the weakened pulses of a beating heart. We are beating, slowly. We are beating, barely. We are beating, to stay alive.
This very process is also a state of becoming. We are in desperate need of healing. The universe – in her soft and subtle ways – acknowledges us. She sees us, and presents us with the beautiful gift of healing. So, as we morph into our future self, we let go. We cleanse the broken parts of ourselves. We heal the pain of our pasts. And we transform into a lightness that reflects our higher self. This is ultimately what it’s like to navigate the lines between self-hate and self-love. I do this for the sake of our children. They are our future. Our black and brown babies deserve to live a dignified life with equal opportunities, and without ever having their very existence called into question. We deserve better.
Luckily, some of our youth already know this. From the 12-year-old South Asian Muslim girl who “want[s] to wear Hijab so that people know who [she] truly [is] to the 16-year-old Arab boy who’s “learned that [he] is more than that…[that] [his] value is bigger than that.” My fear is that not enough of our kids know this. They grow up hating their skin, and resenting their parents. They don’t feel safe in their schools. They fear the repercussions of being who they are, and are ashamed of where they come from. They work hard to hide their culture, and erase their history. Their loss of language, tradition, and heritage are absolutely devastating. This reality is utterly tragic. We must stop this madness. We have to. Enough is enough. It begins and ends with us. Nothing for us without us. We need our kids to know that they are loved, that they are capable and worthy, and that they are simply enough. I can only hope to touch the lives of these youth in the same way they touch mine. They leave such a lasting impression on my heart and mind – every time, without fail. And I could only pray to do the same in return. With the best of intentions, here’s to the beating pulses of our heart. We pulse on.