In Conversation With Youth: A Panel On Race, Careers & More

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!

Me: Yes.

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?”

Student: Exactly!

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?

Me: Yeah.

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.

All: [laughter]

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?

Students: No.

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?

Student: Yeah.

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!”

Students: [chuckles]

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?

All: Yeah!

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?

AS: Yes!

Me: If you go onto that, she has actually sat down with Yara Shahidi, and she’s a brilliant young lady!

AS: Amazing!

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.

All: [laughter]

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!


– End –

Oral History as Cultural Resistance: Examining the Question on Palestinian Identity

For Mama and Baba

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.

The Relationship Between Muslim Identity, Space, and the Female Body

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).

Navigating the Lines Between Self-Hate, Identity Formation, & Self-Love

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.  

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