This First Person piece is by Aysha Yaqoob, a first-generation immigrant and a teacher in Regina.
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I was in kindergarten when I discovered that I was brown. I had always known about — and been proud of — my culture, but it took a white peer to take one look at me and utter “dirty skin” for me to understand the realities of living in Canada as a racialized person.
Even then, I didn’t completely understand the gravity of what was to come, despite my parents sitting me down for “the talk” — the one about racism.
My family immigrated to Canada when I was three-years-old. My parents, both well-settled in their careers and surrounded by loving family members, decided to start fresh in a new continent so their children would be able to access better education and opportunities.
While promises of “multiculturalism” and “inclusion” were sprinkled around them, they realized quickly these narratives were lies. Within days of arriving in their new country, my parents had to deal with their first bout of racism. It was followed by decades of torment: racial slurs, being “randomly” selected, thousands of “go back to your country” statements and even denial of services because my parents weren’t speaking English “correctly.”
For me, it was my school experience that stood out. I remember my parents pulling me out of school in Grade 3 because of the lack of support from my teacher and school administration after kids constantly bullied me for being too brown.
My family moved around quite a bit. Each year I would start with hopes that this time would be different. Each year was different — the racism got progressively worse. I began to hate school.
I remember begging my mom to let me wear the hijab when I was 12 years old. All of the strong, powerful women around me did and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. My mom made the conscious decision to prolong my desire, perhaps because she knew all too well the complex realities of being both brown and visibly Muslim.
When I started wearing the hijab in Grade 9, I immediately noticed a difference in how I was treated. Not only was I called “Paki” and my skin made fun of for being “too dirty,” but I was also questioned about terrorism from both my peers and my teachers, as if my hijab meant that I was responsible for condemning terrorist attacks that I and my religion had nothing to do with.
I chose to become a teacher with the hopes of reforming the education system. Throughout my experiences in the Canadian education system, I always searched for a familiar face — a reliable adult who would know what I was facing. My feelings of isolation at school were magnified by never feeling like any of my teachers could understand.
If I had a racialized teacher who knew what it felt like to be oppressed, perhaps my cultural clothing would be celebrated, not discouraged. If I had a South Asian teacher who also enjoyed the savoury mix of spicy food, perhaps the biryani my mom so carefully packed for my lunch would be appreciated, not made fun of. Perhaps a Muslim teacher would have stepped up to share the burden of confronting non-Muslim folks when they were spewing anti-Islamic hate.
All of my experiences in schools could have been less scary if I had someone who looked like me in my corner. So I became that person.
I realized the significance of what it meant to be visibly Muslim and brown within days of my first year of teaching, when a student I never ended up teaching approached my classroom in disbelief that someone like me could be in such a role.
I chose to take on the responsibility of sharing the burden of merely existing with racialized students. I took on the responsibility of fighting systems that were created to oppress racialized students, so that one day they wouldn’t have to be “celebrated” for being resilient and could instead just be.
My very existence as a brown teacher in a society that is predominantly white is a reminder to all students that our communities are made up of people from all corners of the world.
I push my students to challenge their preconceptions. I question and I nudge, and then we gently unlearn and learn together. I am reminded daily of how eager kids are to make the world a better place.
While this work should start at home, it is our responsibility as educators to ensure that all students feel safe, not only in our classrooms but our communities as well. While I know my work is important, I am still reminded daily that racism is ingrained into every fabric of Canadian society, because even as an adult, I am still having to deal with it.
The recent terrorist attack in London, Ont., is a stark reminder of the realities Muslim Canadians face. As we mourn the loss of more lives taken by the hands of white supremacy, I am reminded yet again that Canada is NOT home. As I watch the many statements by municipal, provincial and federal leadership roll in, I am reminded by their (lack of) actions that their words are performative.
We need leaders who are not only willing to condemn racism and anti-Islamic hate, but actually do something about it.
My family looks like the Afzaal family. My parents go on evening walks and my mom always wears her salwar kameez proudly. This could have been us. This has been us, but we’ve been very fortunate to survive the racist comments and slurs. Not everyone is as lucky.
Every day, I serve as a reminder of what it means to be brown and a hijabi in Canada. Every day, I am reminded that I do not belong here. While some think racism and anti-Islamic hate are problems specific to those affected by it, they are actually Canadian problems. It is now on the shoulders of every Canadian to condemn, question and advocate for change, starting with conversations right at home with their loved ones.
How long until we’re worthy of living a life free of violence? We cannot wait any longer. Our people are dying.
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