By Nura Mohamed
I’ve only been in school for four semesters, so granted my experiences are not – and will never be – universal. But speaking as the only black woman from a visible religious minority (shout out to my hijab) in every single one of my classes but one since I began university, I can’t communicate how tiring it is to possess these ascribed qualities in a predominantly white educational setting. To know that you don’t fit in even if you’re attaining the same level of education and changing your mannerisms to blend in. Take one glance at all the students majoring in English, the 2020 graduating class at Ryerson, and I stick out like a sore thumb. The professors see it, the TAs see it and my peers see it. I don’t look like I fit and I certainly don’t feel like I do.
See, it doesn’t matter that I have an equal claim to identifying as a Canadian as the majority of my other peers. I’m just the black girl in the class, the girl with the headscarf, the girl who prays in dusty stairwells during the ten minute break during lecture. Subjected to the institutional sexism my female peers face and more. I’ve seen the weird and confused looks. I’ve spoken to my peers who assume that I wouldn’t know about a certain poem, because black people don’t know about Robert Frost right? Witnessed their reactions to me saying “Sorry guys I don’t drink,” when explaining that I couldn’t go out for birthday cocktails. And then watched as they shelved me off into the “different” category of peers, watched as they altered their words and attitudes to fit what they thought I’d be able to relate to.
Worst of all, I recognized myself changing who I am – from my body language and slang to my beliefs, convictions and opinions – in order to be socially accepted by my white peers, hoping I’d magically have the same recognitions and opportunities they were constantly presented with. But the reality is I’m not white. I don’t have the same privileges they do. Changing who I am won’t change that reality.
I can’t tell you every racist, sexist and Islamophobic situation I’ve witnessed and been subjected to since I started university, because there have been way too many for me to remember. But here’s a quick example that comes to mind: in my first sociology tutorial, a guy raised his hand to answer a question our TA posed. “How do you recognize ascribed qualities in relation to acquired ones?” This guy rambled on for a bit about what he witnessed in Canada in comparison to back home in the Philippines. I zoned out for a lot of it, I’m not going to lie, but then he gestures to me and says “I feel so bad for women who are forced to wear head coverings like that even if they don’t want to.”
There it was; the comment on my headscarf that I didn’t ask for or want to hear. So many of my peers jumped to my defense, which was nice, but I didn’t feel like I had to defend myself. I didn’t have to justify my hijab, and it certainly wasn’t my job to educate a sociology student about how the wearing the hijab works. I’m not getting paid for it, and if you’re going to assert your opinions, then I believe it’s your job to educate yourself.
Here’s the thing; it didn’t even faze me. How could it faze me when I already knew that that was a common assumption based off of all my experiences wearing a hijab since I was a kid? But what surprised me was how I began explaining why I wear my scarf to my peers whenever the chance of misunderstanding presented itself from that situation forward.
I also found myself explaining why I chose English as a major, and why I enjoy reading so much. I gave the answers my professors and TAs expected, even though those answers may have not taken into account the opinions and experiences of marginalized communities. I stopped myself from using as much slang as I could; shifting from “Metro-housing English” to the way my peers spoke. I changed my whole demeanor and personality while in school so not to stick out in comparison to my peers, and would shift back to my regular mannerisms when I was around lifelong friends and family.
I don’t mean to sound insincere, but from my understanding, to be successful in my educational goals I had to behave the way my successful peers did. And it was tiring to do so: to alter who I am to fit the social norm of successful English academic students just to have the same chance to succeed.
I have spent every month of my short 20 years but three in Canada. I was born here. It’s what I refer to as home when someone who doesn’t understand nationality asks me where I call home. But that comment by that guy who didn’t know me and all the other comments and odd looks proved what I came to know as a kid. No matter who I understand myself to be, I’ll always be confined to clichés and misunderstandings by the outside world.
Sure my grades and skills matter, but as I got older the truth suckerpunched me into reality. It doesn’t matter how I change myself to fit in; I am different. And although I used to celebrate my differences as something that was positively unique, I’m quickly realizing that may not be so true anymore. It’s not fair that differences are seen in a negative light and it’s tiring to work this hard to get the same opportunities in Canada, “land of the free.” I’ll have to break through more glass ceilings than average to have a shot at the same opportunities the white guy in class has.
But I intend to shatter those glass ceilings. You’ll hear the shards hit the floor, I promise you that.