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.