Faith · Politics

Islamaphobia reminded me I am not white

Canada has erupted with small and large acts of violence against its Muslim and Arab citizens (racists do not discriminate between race and religion, they need “the other” to be simple to identify).

A mother picking up her kids from school was assaulted in Toronto, a mosque in Peterborough was burned, two hijab-wearing women were verbally attacked and one was shoved on the TTC, a Mexican-Canadian who converted to Islam received a hate note in Ottawa. Ontario should be weeping.

And how many more incidents, aggressions that shake an entire community, have gone unreported?

When I saw the news of the Muslim woman doing her daily school run, I wrote these words on Facebook:

“My God, my God, how can this be our country?
It was always there, this sickness, the violent racism and xenophobia. And what was held back by our privileged indifference, by our not wanting to acknowledge the ugliness, has come spilling out.

You find out what people are made of when you shake them, it comes spilling out unchecked. And so Canada, we are violent and radical, homegrown terrorists. Lord, please don’t let us kill anyone…

I say us and we because it would be too easy to pretend it’s a far removed danger, this violent fear of the other. But it lives in our communities and we must admit that and then confront it. We must ask the horrible question, what darkness lurks inside of me?”

Perhaps someone reading this will want to correct me, want to tell me to have some perspective and not equate verbal abuse on the subway with masked gunmen on busy streets – real terrorists. I understand that instinct, and of course pain cannot be equated, measured and compared. But I suspect that if you are uncomfortable with calling mosque arsonists “domestic terrorists”, then you belong to a group not at risk of their threat.

A week ago, I felt like part of that group, the safe group of non-Muslims, non-Arabs. While sad and angry when I heard about incidents of Islamaphobia, it was not personal, I had several layers of being removed. Those layers, although I was unconscious of it, made me feel safe.

Then I read about a mom, going about her busy day, punched and abused for wearing her hijab. And I looked in the mirror and reflected back was a person of colour, and I was flooded with memories of how often people in Toronto spoke to me in Farsi first. I looked down at my arms covered in dark hair, and my thick black eyebrows and my shades-of-caramel skin, remembered my Iranian co-workers quizzing me about my heritage, not quite believing I was not from the Middle East. I thought about the pauses in every conversation when someone asks me where I’m from, not satisfied when I say, “from Toronto”. They kind of hesitate, trying to formulate a follow-up query to get the information they are after: an explanation for the colour of my skin.

As foolish as it feels to write these words, I looked in the mirror, and remembered I am not white. And a few layers of my safety were removed.

Part of me is white, half of me is a Campbell after all. Scottish descendants, “old stock” if you will. The other half is Peruvian, a Latina mom and family who gave me their dark hair and non-white skin. But my mixed-up ethnicities are visually confusing, many people see me and put me in a box labelled “not white of the Arab variety”. In fact I belong in a box labelled “not white of a mixed Latin variety”.

You can get all bothered by my talk of boxes and labels but let’s cut the crap for a second, because it’s how the world works. And even as I participate in the fight to explode stereotyping, I can acknowledge that we almost always initially assess people based on visual cues. I have felt boxed and labelled and I am guilty of doing it to others too.

– Here I would also like to add that racism of all strokes is, tragically, alive and well in Canada. Minorities, people of colour, experience micro-aggressions, systemic injustice and even violent racism on a daily basis in our country. Not everyone, not all the time. But it is there and if you didn’t know that, you are likely part of a privileged group that (whether you are conscious of it or not) protects itself from being aware of these realities. I too am often protected from racism because of other non-ethnic privileges, like socio-economic status, level of education and “acceptable” accent. Also, Latinos are not as targeted in Canada, as say, in the US. And because of the “lightness” of my brown skin, I am not as visible a minority as…my mom, for example. –

So I was reminded, in a way I have rarely if ever experienced before, that I am NOT white. And the safety of whiteness left me, I was suddenly nervous about…being so visibly different. But then I realized I still had two visible layers of protection, and I got extremely sad, thinking of my friends walking around with targets on their backs.

But for my uncovered head and the church, instead of mosque, that I walk into to worship,  I would have a target on my back too. 

I am safe in my brown skin, there are so many in Canada who are not. Who for years have lived with funny looks, hostile stares, muttered insults, and more. Who this week have been told that public places are actively unsafe for them.

This reminder of my colour made me so very mad.

“They don’t get to put a target on Muslim people’s backs and not put one on me!”, I shouted to my white husband in deep frustration. He looked at me with pain.

“They” look like him. Those racist (ALL THE SWEARWORDS) people who think that the current political climate is permissive of their acts of violence.

I concocted a plan, a small act of solidarity with hijab-wearing women, women who’s family pictures I could just about blend into. I, a Christian woman, would wear a hijab whenever I leave the house.

I told my husband the idea, told him that I knew it was a gesture at best, that in our rich and largely Jewish and Liberal neighbourhood I was probably safe. He still looked concerned. But he is my champion and told me to do it if I really felt like I should.

I talked it over with my sister, who expressed concern about the spiritual implications. Should a Christian wear hijab? What does it really mean to Muslim women who choose to do it? Valid questions, especially for someone who is hoping to be a pastor one day.

I also consulted with a Muslim friend who wears hijab, not expecting her to be the only and final authority on my questions, but needing some insider perspective on the appropriateness of the gesture.

In my conversation with her, she said something that broke my heart,

“I wouldn’t find it offensive at all. Nor would anyone else, I think. But I would also hate to see you put yourself in a risky situation.

It is risky in this world, in this Canada, to be a non-white woman covering your hair. This small expression of concern let me peep into a reality where personal safety is not assumed by citizens of a so-called “safe” country.

My friend graciously let me process my sadness and realizations with her. She proposed it would be safer and more effective if a group of like-mined women of colour where to participate in the gesture with me. But I don’t have that kind of group around me in this new city where I live. So then I decided to write about it instead, write about remembering I’m not white because Islamaphobes are attacking people…who look like me.





5 thoughts on “Islamaphobia reminded me I am not white

  1. I’m a father of two teens with mixed white and carribean black parents. I worry more and more that the racism I thought that didn’t really exist in Canada, is going to be more and more present in their lives as they grow up.

    They have a mixed heritage, but I’m afraid that the “old stock” Canadians are truly afraid of all the “other” and won’t see them for who they truly are, but only for the colour of their skin.

    I want to shield them from all his, but I don’t know how long I can.

    The mirage and facade of Canada’s multicultural legacy is beginning to crack and it scares me.

    1. Being the non-minority parent of children who are visible minorities must be a heartache. The balance of teaching kids the reality of the world and how to protect themselves while also giving them a sense of hope and the determination to fight the current system. Too look at the good while not sweeping the bad under the rug. May you have so much wisdom in this daily endeavour!

  2. Hey Ash,

    Way to cut through the crap! You rock!

    I live and work in Burundi, in the town of Muyinga, where there is a large Muslim population. This is the centre of Africa, and the entire local population is very dark skinned. I am about as white as they come. I’m also 6’4″, which is much taller than the average height for Burundians.

    In other words, I REALLY stick out!

    Today, when I read about the hostage taking in Mali, it suddenly occured to me that “I’m white!” And that makes me a minority, and a possible target for terrorists. We’re not far from Nairobi, Kenya, where radical Islamic terrorists blew up the US Embassy a few years back.

    In other words, I’m in a REALLY different context from the Canada I grew up in!

    Born in 1958, I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, in the 60s and 70s, It was a pretty homogeneous place racially, but what little experience I had with different races led me to believe that there was not very much racism. At the high school I attended, there was one family of African-Americans, and I never saw any racism against them. I was a pretty clueless kid, so it’s not likely I would have noticed if there were any subtle forms of racism going on, but at least there was nothing blatant. I remember thinking about and treating Ernie and his 2 brothers in exactly the same way as anybody else; just people. It never occurred to me that their dark skin colour or curly hair meant they were somehow different or less than me.

    After high school, I went to Austin, Texas, for a year of college, and racism came to live with me. My roommate was from a wealthy Texan oil family – his parents worked for Exxon. I was friends with anyone who was friendly to me, and that included the Latinos and African Americans in the dorm. My roommate made frequent racist statements about my behaviour, his favorite, which he delivered in varying degrees of feigned enthusiasm and sarcasm, was “Hey Dunc, everyone should have at least one N… for a friend!”. One night, when we were out driving in his car, he stopped in front of a restaurant, turned off the car lights, and pointed his nickle-plated 44 magnum pistol at a table of African Americans, sending them running. He drove off laughing his head off, shouting, “Did you see those N…..s run?!” (I didn’t go out driving with him anymore after that!)

    I like to walk a lot, and my meanderings through downtown Austin gave me a tiny glimpse of what racism feels like on the receiving end. On a number of occasions, I walked past groups of young African Americans – I was probably naively walking through the parts of town that white Texans avoided, and was scared, but deeply puzzled, by the angry looks and nasty words that came my way. “Why did they hate me? I didn’t do anything to them, and I didn’t hate them.”

    Back in Edmonton, I had to put up with some really stupid racial jokes about black people from a certain group of farm kids when I was studying Agriculture at the University of Alberta. I have to confess that I laughed at and repeated the jokes, and it makes me cringe now to remember it. But it was only a small minority who were openly racist.

    I still think it’s the case.

    I don’t live in Canada, but from what I read, and what I see when I’m visiting, it’s a small minority who are hateful and racist. But the problem with racism, and with Islamophobia, is that it’s like a lump of poop in a chocolate cake; even a really small lump ruins the whole thing. If someone is safe 99% of the time, but in danger of being randomly attacked 1% of the time, the 1% becomes a really big deal!

    In other words, I share your sadness and anger at what’s happening in our country.

    For my part, I’m going to keep loving my neighbour as myself, here where I am, each day. Burundians, including Burundian Muslims, are pretty friendly people, and I don’t feel like I’m in danger. But one nut-case is all it takes. But so what? I’m going to keep loving my neighbour as myself. One nut-case, or even a small handful of nutcases, is never a reason for hate or phobia. And I am determined to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

    I think you’ll look great in a hijab. And remember, God is not concerned with external things like the clothing you wear. The Lord is concerned about your heart. So go for it! Love your neighbour – including your Muslim neighbour, as yourself. How about wearing a hijab with a big heart on it! 🙂

    Love, Dad

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful response Dad, and for sharing your stories humility. And thank you for you encouragement! I am going to start wearing a scarf over my hair. It’s a small small gesture.

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