Recently, I was present at the creation of the Edmonton Chapter of Black Lives Matter and, in my personal process of learning about racism and the daily grievances of POC from POC, I have consistently found two activist narratives at play. On the one hand, there are activists who argue that we need to educate people and offer programming and workshops for non-POC people to become allies. On the other hand, while not detracting from the efforts of those working in education, other activists fiercely defend their right to live in peace, to not be asked, to not have to educate the ignorant.

The latter group bases their reasoning on the existence of the internet (where learning can easily be done) and by how damn tired the whole issue of racism is. In other words, if you don’t know that discriminating against someone by the colour of their skin is a sin by now, then you are never going to know. You are a lost cause.

I can’t necessarily argue one way or another for the correct course of action. I do think there is a point to be made by the latter group, if only because there is no discriminatory equivalent to melanin in one’s skin. As a visible Muslim, I simply do not experience the same type of discrimination as POC do daily. I can remove my hijab and step into privilege once more. They can’t remove their skin. Nor should they have to. And for the POC sisters who wear hijab, their discrimination is intersectional and therefore, exponential.

Dismantling the system that marginalizes a person based on the amount of or hue of the pigment in their skin is a must but should not have to rely on the actions of those who are marginalized. Those who benefit from and are privileged by the system should also be responsible for its dismantling. People of colour are traumatized and continue to be traumatized every time they see their kin gunned down by police in the street, every time a microaggression can’t be #madeawkward for fear of violent repercussions or stereotyping, every time white supremacists get the nation’s attention by being permitted to hold a media megaphone. They are exhausted from making and taking space they are owed.

Any efforts POC make are excellent and valid; however, non-POC allies need to step up to the plate, calling out racists in their midst, and developing their own education initiatives that, while centering POC voices and their cause, do not rely on them to be present for explanations in spaces that can quickly become unsafe. #makeitawkward is the responsibility of every ally.

That being said, what about cases of discrimination that are not centered on discourses around race or ethnicity? What about Islamo- and Judeophobia?  I am still working through my thoughts on this, but generally speaking, in my experience while working against Islamo and Judeophobia, I have found that education by individuals from those communities is one of the single most powerful instigators of change. Having conversations with diverse groups of people, lecturing to audiences that may, in fact, hate you, is exhausting and unending but it is also exhilarating. Every single time I have lectured, I have come away with stories of change, of growth, of increased understanding from people who simply lacked knowledge, from people who even feared me and thus hated me. By being available to answer questions (no matter how ignorant those questions might seem), I am providing the theatre for change to happen. I humanize myself to people and, in turn, they come to see me as a person. These conversations are challenging and difficult, but the outcomes are worth the effort. Change does not always come immediately. Sometimes it is months, even years after something has touched the life of someone before they come to me and let me know how a talk changed their perspective, how a list of resources shaped their learning, how a safe space to be ignorant led them to seek knowledge.

Ultimately, whichever area of activism you are working in, and whichever course of activism you choose to take, make sure you are taking care of yourself in the process. Sometimes, the most powerful revolution takes place by simply remaining present, owning your space and refusing to give in to hateful rhetoric around you. Loving yourself and staying healthy in the face of a deeply imperfect world is powerful too.

In solidarity,

Nakita


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

If you haven’t heard the news by now, you’ve been sleeping under a rock: Britain has voted to leave the European Union, provoking the shock, astonishment and ridicule of netizens and media pundits the world over. In 24 hours, Britain has left the European Union, has had their Prime Minister resign and has dropped the value of the Pound to its lowest level since 1985.

And yet, like all historic events, the internet is divided on what to say about this. You have the brilliant satirical reactions, such as those from The Beaverton, which point out that a nation that conquered the world (and helped enslave millions of people) was suddenly sick of being controlled by external power.

Or Twitter activists who expressed India’s astonishment that one need only to vote in order to get Britain to leave.

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Other individuals tried to poke fun at something everyone is having a difficult time processing by lamenting the sudden loss of “culture” experienced by the UK as it leaves Europe (and its better food) behind.

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Others – mainly in the social justice and humanitarian circles – rightfully mourned the means by which this decision was made, pointing out that not only had the elder generations made a major decision that would affect youth far longer than themselves, but also that it had been accomplished as a by-product of fear-mongering campaigns, that Britain has to “protect its borders” and keep out those nasty immigrants (who now form, you know, about 12 % of the UK population).

There is, however, two somewhat unexpected segments of the internet that seem to be celebrating this rupture for two very different reasons. There are those in the social justice circles with major socialist leanings that have said that while the means by which Britain has exited are unfortunate, the exit is still, as one amazing activist friend put it: “a black eye on the face of neo-liberalism”.

Enrico Tortolano feverishly argues the following:

“Voting to leave the EU is a no-brainer for the Left. The European Union is remote, racist, imperialist, anti-worker and anti-democratic: It is run by, of, and for the super-rich and their corporations. A future outside austerity and other economic blunders rests on winning the struggle to exit the EU, removing us from its neoliberal politics and institutions. Corporate bureaucrats in Brussels working as agents of the big banks and transnationals’ now exert control over every aspect of our lives. Neoliberal policies and practices dominate the European Commission, European Parliament, European Central Bank, European Court of Justice and a compliant media legitimises the whole conquest. This has left the EU constitution as the only one in the world that enshrines neoliberal economics into its text. Therefore the EU is not—and never can be—either socialist or a democracy.”

Tell us how you really feel Enrico.

While it might seem to be a happy outcome to an ugly battle, the reality is that the means cannot justify the ends. The EU might be “racist and imperialist” to socialists, but quite frankly, it was largely racism, imperialism and misinformation that got the exit vote to begin with. Just because hyper-nationalism and attempts to “Make Britain Great Again” result in something that *might* (see: are unlikely to) benefit the socialist cause, does not mean it will – especially if we got there by xenophobia and intolerance.

Interestingly, this puts these guys in the same camp with unlikely bedfellows: far-right anti-government, anti-bureaucracy, anti-New-World-Order “truthers”. A cursory glance at some of the most virulent (and xenophobic) “freedom” websites shows the vote to be breaking, celebratory news because the Brits have thrown off the shackles of their oppressors! And, like I said, from a socialist perspective that’s great (that’s my inherent bias) but this was not a socialist revolution and the rhetoric which initiated a deluge of misinformed exit votes is more in line with the racist views of these people than anyone else. And let’s be clear, these are the same people who view the EU as the Rothschild-ian arm of a complex Jewish world conspiracy, or view Islam and “Shania” law as the greatest threat to Western civilization (who’s cave have your boots been under?), or won’t ever let the US congress take away their guns, or are in the habit of forming militias to keep the gov’t out of their “bizness”, no matter where they come from.

In the end, it’s alright to mourn the UK’s exit from the European Union without necessarily endorsing the EU because you might be mourning the fact that the exit happened on racist and intolerant grounds. It is not alright to celebrate #brexit without recognizing those deeply problematic premises which will, unfortunately, likely serve as the foundation of a newly independent Britain.

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October has been an exceptionally busy month for The Drawing Board owner and head writer, Nakita Valerio – especially after being appointed as the Director of Marketing for the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC). Given the highly central role that Muslims are embodying in the current Canadian election campaign, Nakita opted to speak out (along with other academics and other citizens across the country) against the enticement to hate being perpetuated by the current federal administration. The first publication was an Op-ed printed in the Edmonton Journal on October 8, 2015, entitled “Veil That Divides My Canada” (Online version). Nakita was also interviewed for CBC Radio for her opinion on the niqab issue being raised by the Conservative government and, finally, published a Question and Answer article in the Edmonton Sun on October 10, 2015 to answer questions about why women wear Islamic veils and how the country can move forward from this forced division.

As a direct result of these publications, Nakita has had the honour of being asked to deliver the following lectures:

  • to Native Studies students at the University of Alberta regarding the commonalities between Muslim and Indigenous communities, particularly as it regards their treatment by different forms of political and social authority
  • to Edmontonian High School students as part of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research’s Community Outreach initiative, regarding subjects on the Middle East in transition

Finally, Nakita was invited by a downtown Edmonton synagogue to start a womens’ dialogue group in their community for the purposes of starting conversations to learn and dispel Islamophobia.

Keep up to date on all of our activities here!

This past summer, a lot of music festivals chose to ban the wearing of Native American and First Nations headdresses because of their use by people who were neither qualified to wear them, nor were they aware of the cultural meaning of that particular article of clothing. Most recently, Miley Cyrus’ wearing of dreadlocks at the VMAs, sparked outrage online at her poor practice of taking from cultures without giving credit where it is due– something Cyrus is not unfamiliar with. According to one source, “cultural appropriation is when white media [or people] trivialize and adopt aspects of other cultures without proper recognition, representation and respect.” As one of the latest buzzwords in the current deluge of social media advocacy, netizens everywhere are calling out cultural appropriation as they see it. However, there are a few points about cultural appropriation that are worth talking about and make this well-meaning category more problematic then it would first seem.

hijab artFirstly, cultural appropriation is disproportionately applied to white women. While cultural micro-aggressions by way of adopted cultural practices without reference to their source are never appropriate, regardless of the gender propagating them, it seems that these days, accusations of cultural appropriation not-so-subtlely act as a front for patriarchal tendencies. It seems like almost every cultural appropriation story from headdresses to cornrows and twerking is focused on the women that appropriate these practices inappropriately. However, with only the occasional mention of a horribly stereotypical tribal tattoo, men rarely make the cut as those criticized by cultural appropriation watchdogs. If you’re going to call people out for these acts, you better make your call-out gender-neutral and fluid.

Secondly, how can people display the correct level of cultural recognition and respect to certain practices while still enjoying their aesthetic and practical appeal? This is an honest question. Is Miley supposed to have a billboard on her head that says “Dreadlocks have long been associated with rasta culture and while I recognize that, I also recognize that for many people –white or otherwise – dreads have become a legitimate hairstyle and I just like the way it looks right now so I hope that is alright with everyone”? I should probably stay away from the Cyrus issue but this point is important for something I want to discuss below: is abstinence from cultural appreciation the best option, lest you be accused of appropriation? How can one be respectful without pissing anyone off?

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Thirdly, the notion of cultural appropriation marginalizes people who embody liminal positions between cultures. This is directly related to point number two. For people who straddle cultures socially (and especially those who do not appear to physically), the wearing of cultural garments or doing cultural practices to which one does not appear to belong can lead to harsh, external criticism that leads to social isolation and self-esteem issues.

One such group that I want to discuss with regards to this point are white converts to Islam who choose to adopt the hijab. In these cases, I am not distinguishing among typical –cis genders of male and female, as both men and women have specific parameters for maintaining modesty in Islam. These things can include the wearing of a head veil, the wearing of loose clothing, the wearing of a beard and other such stipulations. Historically, the various manifestations of hijab have evolved to mean different things in different cultures across the world. Even within the same society, one version of hijab (such as a longer veil) carries social currency that varies from other versions of it. In the case of a longer hijab in most Arab countries, the implication is that the wearer of that veil is more pious and engages in the practice of the rituals of Islam more rigorously. Further, the showing of hair and provocative clothing sends a message that is the opposite (an excuse to perpetuate rape culture, in my opinion). Ultimately, however, these definitions are part of intracultural communication – the nuances of which can be lost on outsiders. If we are to continue with the example of the head veil, there is really only one binding stipulation scripturally speaking, which is that the hair, neck and bosom must be covered. However that is achieved is usually acceptable, and given the widespread nature of Islam, cultural variations were/are bound to arise.

So what happens when you convert to Islam, accepting the tenets of a religious faith, but having little to no knowledge of the various cultural morphologies and historical evolutions of the practice of those tenets?* You tend to be accused of cultural appropriation from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

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Non-Muslims often question your adoption of visible religious practices like the head scarf or even prayer rituals as mere “interest in Arab culture” or “likely because you married a born-Muslim”. These microaggressions tell the convert two things: you couldn’t possibly believe in Islam (demonstrating a pervasive xenophobia evident in much of Western society) and you only make aesthetic decisions based on the whims of your spouse (demonstrating a lack of faith in your intelligence and level of feminism). This is not even to mention the poor conflation of Islamic practices with Arabness – which, to be honest, might be understandable if the non-Muslim lacks adequate knowledge of the Islamic world and its history.

Perhaps more surprising are accusations of cultural appropriation that emerge from within the Muslim community and are directed towards converts. One area this happens is with language. Whether converts translate common Islamic terms from Arabic into their mother tongue, or they opt to use the Arabic instead, there is always an aunty or an uncle waiting to criticize you for using or not using the appropriate terminology. Perhaps more often converts are the subject of seemingly endless scrutiny from their Muslim brothers and sisters mainly with regard to dress. If a new sister chooses to wear abaya one day, and jeans with ballerina slippers and a boyfriend sweater the next, her modesty is called into question and she is accused of giving “mixed signals”. If I had to count amount of times I have been told that if I wear abaya or a long hijab, I have to wear it for forever, I’d be counting for awhile. Same goes for the length and tightness of skirts, the colour of headscarves and the age-old question of whether or not to wear make-up. Even further, the same goes for brothers who adopt the Sunnah beard and waffle between various styles and lengths, not realizing the various cultural signals they are giving off in the meantime. I am not even going to get into the amount of times that so-called Muslim progressive-reformist “feminists” have accused me of being culturally backward without realizing I’m not Arab, or culturally appropriative (see: lack of faith in my intelligence above). Finally, if we do create inventive hijab styles, we are accused of cultural contamination, or worse, biddah (innovation), even though it is likely that at some point, most hijab fashions were inventive in the first place – riffing off each other like battling saxophones at a jazz improv session. The point is this: are converts culturally appropriating because they lack the understanding of what their interpretation of Islamic practices mean to other cultures in which they might be found? Or are they forging their own traditions based on a shared religious past? Where is the line between appropriation and adoption or adaptation?

I don’t have exact answers to those questions but I will say this. The consequences of appearing to appropriate Islamic culture in the eyes of non-Muslims and born-Muslims alike are highly disturbing. Converts are the most likely to feel alienated and isolated in every community they inhabit – whether amongst their pre-conversion friends and family, or heavily-criticized by the Muslim groups they find themselves in now. Unsure of where they fit in, if at all, converts tend to have a heightened sense of “feeling strange” which (positively) can contribute to awareness of the temporary nature of this life but, (negatively) can lead to poor lifestyle choices in order to fit in (including comprising their interpretations of Islamic texts, seeking solace in forbidden activities and, at the very worst, leaving Islam completely).

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This article raises more questions than it answers but what remains to be said is this: cultural appropriation, while a noble cause, threatens to contrast the nuances of society too heavily, and in doing so, leaves the grey areas silenced for fear of harsh criticism and isolation. Far more appropriate would be to communicate with a person who appears to be appropriating cultural practices “not their own” to discover their reasons for doing so, rather than making rash, misogynistic and even xenophobic assumptions.

 

*Please note that I am not referring to religious tenets as anything more than cultural manifestations in the end anyway; however, for lay purposes only, I have made a distinction here between superficial, “anthropologically-visible” culture and religion.