I was originally scheduled to start a new column, Freestyling Feminism, on topics related to intersectional feminism this week. My second blog for this column was going to be a light, introductory primer on “what is intersectional feminism?” However, it would be inappropriate to bypass for a later time as the outcomes of last night’s American election, and exit poll results suggest that the topic of intersectionality is more urgently relevant now.


58% of female voters voted for a candidate other than Trump. 47% of male voters voted for Clinton or a third party candidate. Only 37% of white voters voted for Clinton, plus 5% who voted third party.

53% of white women voters voted for Trump. 49% of college educated white voters voted for Trump, compared to 45% who vote for Clinton. White feminism did not bring about a female president and education did not stop white voters from electing Trump.

This election is obviously complex and it is impossible to find a definitive reason why America elected Trump. It is pretty clear, though, that racism was a strong driving factor. I certainly suspect that misogyny played a role, but more passively – it probably biased and intensified the way some people saw Hillary Clinton, and it allowed many people, including women, to overlook Trump’s misogynistic statements and history of sexual assault – but I don’t think that on the whole people voted for Trump in order to vote against a woman president. They voted for Trump because they were voting for racism and white supremacy. Perhaps we can charitably agree that this may have been unconscious in some cases, but at some point unconsciously responding to dog-whistle racism turned into intentional denial and self-delusion. The man has been openly and enthusiastically supported by the KKK, after all.

Liberals and progressives, especially white liberals and progressives, who are looking at this verdict[1] in horror, wondering what went wrong, what could have been done differently, and what can be done now, need to look at the magnitude and depth of the racism and xenophobia in their society and culture. Many of us still had faith that enough of America would be sensible that Trump’s seemingly insane rhetoric couldn’t win, and this has been an eye opener.

 [1] A weird slip into judicial language reflecting the feeling that America has been handed a sentence, not a government.

The next thing to do is to look at the movements already at work fighting these bigoted attitudes and systemic problems. Black Lives Matter, the land defenders at Standing Rock, the LGBTQ communities who fought for decades to win marriage equality, Planned Parenthood and activists who have been struggling to maintain basic reproductive rights. Groups like these are fighting for a better future every day, not just in the presidential race. There is turbulence but they are making change that matters and they know how.

It is time for white progressives to get in line and stand behind people of colour, queer people, Muslims, and other marginalized activists. White people don’t have the solutions for this, but we do have numbers and influence. Intersectionality now (always, but very critically right now) means white activists and allies putting POC’s voices, ideas, and solutions to the forefront. Listen and follow. Remember that your experiences of misogyny matter, but they don’t discount your white privilege and security; your experiences of homophobia matter, but don’t discount your white privilege; your class struggle and economic inequality matter but they do not discount white privilege.

Now is not the time for white people to search for new solutions or to lead movements. Now is the time for white people to throw their weight behind existing solutions and movements.

This is not just a Canadian scolding from across the border. Canadians should not be watching this election with smugness or relief. Canadian culture absorbs much of the influences and trends that American culture generates. More seriously, we need to recognize that white supremacy is equally as native to Canadian settler culture as it is to American settler culture built on slave ownership. The monster is under our bed too. The same xenophobic fears and attitudes that Trump exploited with his suggested ban on Muslim immigration, Harper grasped at when he introduced the idea of a niqab ban in the last election. Thankfully Canadians largely rejected that attempt – this time. The idea was there and it resonated, though. Similarly, the same rage and hostility we see in Trump’s core supporters is present in sections of Alberta politics. Most fundamentally though, the colonial white supremacy that the American nation was built on, is just a particular variety of the same colonial white supremacy that the Canadian nation was built on. We’re seeing the legacy of the former playing out dramatically in the United States right now, but we cannot ignore that there are similar things present in the foundation of our own society. We must not lapse into complacency in Canada just because the United Sates is more explosive in its dysfunction.

And finally, since I imagine many people woke up feeling shocked, helpless, and isolated after election day, wondering who their country really was – remember that Clinton won the popular vote. You are not alone.


lizElisabeth came to Edmonton to do a Masters degree in History at the University of Alberta after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include medieval and early modern social and cultural history, especially issues around medical history and persecution. In the first year of her Masters degree, Elisabeth received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage division. In addition to her work as a writer and researcher, Elisabeth works with the Art Gallery of Alberta and Latitude 53 Contemporary Visual Culture.

Last week, I spoke about Reconciliation to a room full of white people. I was invited by a local holistic health clinic to come speak before their keynote lecturer because a friend of mine that works there had let them know I am raising money in support of the Young Indigenous Women’s Circle of Leadership Cree cultural camp at the University of Alberta. I have done many talks for a variety of different audiences before, but this was the first time, in a very long time, that I was only one of four people in the room who belong to a visible minority. And I was certainly the only apparent Muslim in the room.

You can imagine my trepidation at suddenly realizing what I was about to do: I was about to stand in front of these people from a dominant socio-economic and racial strata of society, and I was going to talk to them about being on Treaty 6 territory, about our responsibility as settlers and refugees on Indigenous and First Nations land, about why adopting the language of reconciliation is important but why putting that language into action is even more critical to moving forward. About why this was their responsibility. About why someone like me –an ally – should not be ignored. This is difficult enough for anyone to do, never mind me as a Muslim.

I think the latter point is where my nerves kicked in: would this group of people see me – a veiled, Muslim woman – as an ally of the process of reconciliation and Indigenous peoples? Would I be harming the cause by appearing in front of such a group when so many view me and my Islam as a social adversary already?

Of course, I am not speaking to anxieties about this group of people in particular, but systemic uncertainties that made me think twice before talking to them – anxieties I hadn’t really had in over a year as a public speaker. The actual people in the room were friendly and inviting, and when I started speaking, I could see heads nodding as I acknowledged Treaty 6 and touched on points about our duties as people sharing this space with regards to how we could support the creation of safe spaces for young Cree women “to just be free to be Cree.”

After I spoke, the keynote was introduced and the main lecture began. I had to take off but I left an envelope on the side that people could put donations in, reminding myself not to be too disappointed if it came back empty. Yes, heads had been nodding, but no one clapped when I was done talking. And maybe my veil was just too much of a barrier for people to get past, even if they agreed with the words coming out of my mouth.

In the end, people did donate – enough, in fact, to cover all of the costs of food and crafting supplies for one young girl attending the camp for its two-week duration. But even if they hadn’t, I came to realize how powerful the whole experience was socially, if not monetarily. Rather than being anxious about talking to white people about reconciliation as a Muslim woman, I should have viewed it as an incredible opportunity to challenge what it means to stand in solidarity with one another.

I stood there as a Muslim woman calling for sisterhood, regardless of where our sisters come from, how they look and the culture they practice – a sisterhood that celebrates those origins and appearances and cultural elements. I stood there as a Muslim woman, enjoining people to what is just and compassionate behaviour – to contemplate their social position and what responsibilities it entails to others around them. I stood there as a Muslim woman imploring people to learn about one another and help create spaces for Indigenous people to learn about themselves. I didn’t do this in spite of my Islam, as I belatedly realized: I did this because of my Islam. Because respect, protecting the freedom to worship, enjoining what is just and kind, and seeking knowledge are all cornerstones of my way of life. In standing before a group of white people, talking to them about reconciliation, I was unintentionally dispelling misconceptions about my own people. And any chance we have to share with one another and explore intersections of knowledge to come to greater mutual understanding should never be taken lightly.

For some, what happened last week may have only been a ten minute fundraising speech to garner funds for social change. To me, it was the change itself that we are all looking for.

In solidarity,

Nakita

To donate to my campaign in support of the YIWCL’s Cree Women’s Cultural Camp, please visit: www.gofundme.com/creewomenscamp. Our next group run is on December 4th – pledge a runner today.

Image Credit: “Over Time We Come Together 2015″ by Cassie Leatham”


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.

 

This one is going to be uncomfortable, folks. Cultural appropriation is an ever-present hot topic these days and nowhere is this truer than on The Drawing Board blog where our posts on the subject have continuously garnered more traffic than most others in the archive. It is especially something to be talking about with Halloween being yesterday as brutally offensive costumes will have been worn all over North America (and they were). Something happened on social media recently that gave me some time and space to think about this still-emerging phenomenon (particularly among yogi New Age communities in the West) and even though it has raised hell on my emotions about the subject (there is still bitterness in my words that I cannot expunge), I want to take you through my thought process so we can all work it out together. At this point, I am inviting conversation about this issue. So here’s what happened:

A white girl started posting pictures of herself in religious head-gear* on her social media accounts.

*This is me being purposefully cryptic.

The first time I saw her picture, I thought: that is a nice colour. But I was unsettled by the whole thing so I tried to process how I was feeling for myself. What bothered me about this picture of a white woman wearing what can be described as a turban? Do I have a right to be bothered by this picture as a veiled convert to Islam myself? Maybe this person became a Sikh as their style of turban would suggest. Do I have a right to ask? Do I really just want to know her story or do I want to know if her head wrapping is “authentic”? Does the authenticity of her conviction behind the turban make a difference to her right to wear it? Do I have a right, as a feminist, to question what this woman is choosing to wear?

Then, I forgot about it. Or, more aptly, I chose to ignore it because I couldn’t properly process the answers to those questions and didn’t know how to venture a few questions of my own to ask.

But these things never go away for long. And soon enough, she had posted another picture of herself in a turban with friends “Oohing and Awwing” over it (something I am sure POC who wear them are not accustomed to, especially during their formative years when they get bullied for being alive, never mind wearing something on their heads). One person, however, decided to take a courageous step that I hadn’t and asked this woman’s thoughts on recent articles about the turban and cultural appropriations by white women by simply asking if she had thought about it before donning the turbans. It was a way of starting a conversation by asking a pretty straightforward question.

I added my two cents that I wanted to know if she had had a “conversion” experience – knowing full well that conversion is a very complicated topic and usually involves acculturation rather than solely the adoption of inner beliefs. The idea that accepting “inner beliefs” of a “religion” hinges on an orthodox Christiano-form secular definition of religion about private beliefs being more important than outward practices – a definition that doesn’t apply to most of the rest of the world’s so-called religions, or as I call them cultural systems/ways of life. It’s complicated. If she had converted, I would be very much interested to hear that story as a convert myself, even though – at the end of the day – I could live without hearing it.

I felt alright about my follow-up question. I thought this person would be open to conversation, to sharing their experiences for the rest of us who were curious about the new-found knowledge that led to such a drastic change in appearances. (As I have been open upon being asked about my conversion to Islam and donning of the hijab countless times).

Instead, we were met with a defensive response that was so quintessentially typical of the white, colonial, privileged mentality, I found that I could barely articulate a response and kept writing and deleting again and again.

At first, she started by mentioning that she had just finished a Kundalini yoga teacher training in the Sikh community and mentioned that you don’t need to be Sikh to wear a turban. Fair enough. This is actually true: Sikhs do not own the turban, and –for that matter- neither does the Indian subcontinent, where most people think of it as originating. That we didn’t know that at the time isn’t great, but it also goes to show what happens when you reverse the typical white-POC positions: normally turbaned people are being asked by ignorant white people about stuff they wear on their heads. This time it was a white person….and boy, did she not *like* being asked.

She could have acknowledged that some people have an issue with white women wearing it, but that is not true in the circles she had adopted it from. She could have disagreed with them. In that sense, she could have left it at that, having educated us that this was, indeed, an appropriate expression, and moved on. The turban, after all, doesn’t have the same connotations as the hijab does (being a commandment from Allah), nor is it made into a caricature as often as the hijab is (see: Halloween costume niqabis that crop up every October).

But then the response turned into something quite different: she actually tried to shut down the conversation by stopping us from either judging or “questioning” her. She asked why everything has to turn into a socially appropriate question. She asked “What if I follow my own religion called the (HER NAME) religion?” like an island unto herself?

*ahem*

I have had to let this sit for a number of weeks before responding via blog and I have had to cut out a hell of a lot of profanities at this point because: Come. tf. on.

I recently read an article on how toxic Call Out culture has become with activists shitting on people left and right in an effort to just be right. They do this publicly and in humiliating ways that shut down conversation, instead of opening it up**, but sometimes (like in this situation) calling-in is not possible and it is usually because white people are shutting down the conversation. Or trying to. Enter: the internet.

So, here is my contribution to the above-described discussion. I am keeping it broader than this single incident in an effort to not be a total, calling-out douche-bag and because this is the kind of distorted logic many people who engage in cultural appropriation use. And I think a broader discussion provides some serious food for thought for any white person choosing to wear things that have been typically, culturally, and religiously worn by POC:

Dear White People (even with the best of intentions and even when you are right),

Here is the thing about listening to people of colour about their religio-cultural traditions more than one listens to other white people: you just might learn something. I know I have and that’s why I am being an ally and talking to you about it today. You don’t exist as an island and you never will. Social meaning is shared at the most basic level of language and spatial orientation. Society not only flows through your memories and your reality, it shapes it. You might consider yourself part of an ascetic tradition that tries to negate the social to the point that some pure “human essence” remains (you might even call that “divine” as many New Agers have been wont to) but here’s the point that most modern New Age Yogis miss: that process is continuous, forever, until the grave. You don’t ever actually achieve a state of human essence-ness. Society cannot be negated away forever. It flows back into every moment. Or, more aptly, it never leaves just because we achieve “being present.” The concept of being present is, in itself, a deeply temporal, human and (therefore) social experience.

I know a lot of people will argue with me on the epistemology of that statement, but I am hard-pressed to find a convincing argument otherwise. Further, it makes my next point ever more crucial: if everything is socially shared, then everything is a socially appropriate question.

Yes, everything. Some things are less of an issue than others, but since this person is white and white people have been wearing people of colour as costumes for centuries without any regard for the deep social meanings found and shared in these items, then turban-wearing white yogis are just going to have to suck it up when people ask them about the authenticity of their conviction to wear them. Shutting down the conversation is what white people have done for centuries.

And if you are going to get all flustered and start telling me that I am judging you on the colour of your skin: my response is, quite simply – now you know how it feels. I had to feel that too and I felt it when a black friend of mine kindly reminded me that I can remove my hijab but she cannot remove her skin. That doesn’t negate my experience of daily Islamophobia, but it sure as hell made me think a lot about my privilege.

I am not judging you on the colour of your skin, by the way, but trying to help you see the historical privilege you have inherited by virtue of it. Part of becoming self-aware is recognizing these historical and genealogical inheritances and the socio-economic spheres we subsequently inhabit because of them. The road to self-actualization is a lot easier when you are at the top of the social food chain. Let that sink in for a second. You aren’t entitled to anything, except by virtue of the fact that you are part of a neo-colonial system of white supremacy that happens to privilege what you were born into.

As for the comment that turbans just look “pretty”- that’s fair, but one friend put it best when they said that that’s like coming across a white guy in an Indigenous headdress at Coachella who just “likes feathers”.

Well… to put it bluntly: who says we need to care about white preferences?

People of colour have been made to tiptoe around white preferences for centuries: preferences that orientalise their men, exoticise their women, make their style into child-labour-made-home-décor-shit you can buy at HomeSense and make their clothing choices into Halloween outfits. You might have every right to wear a turban or whatever you want on your head, as we have established, but the duty to question what unreflective white people are doing in the public sphere is – at this particular point in time – #stillrelevant.

**My argument against the claim that call-out culture is always toxic can be found here.

Image Credit: AZ Mag


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.

Host Emily Mattingsley unpacks some of the typical reactions she gets when she says she lives in Morocco and shows why they are problematic with reference to being a white woman. She shows how important it is to recognize privilege and how it constructs the types of choices we are able to make while balancing that with honouring the life someone is then able to build for themselves as something more than chance. She also takes a look at the bigger picture of what really constitutes “bravery” these days and asks you to ask some hard questions of what being a woman is like all over the world.

Dear Non-Muslim Allies,

We are living in a time of great unrest. While there are many causes worthy of our attention, today I need to talk to you about something very important: Islamophobia.

You might think this subject does not have much to do with you other than outraging you every time you hear about xenophobes spinning gravel at me with their pick-up truck wheels or some intolerant old man at the mall telling me to go back where I came from. You might think that your outrage is enough.

It is critical to realize that Islamophobia is not just about hijabi women being called out in the street or even violently attacked. It is not just about people calling us sand n*ggers. It is not just about the implicit bias we are up against daily, every time we apply for schools, for jobs, for positions we are overqualified for and rejected from because we are named after our beloved Prophets (peace be upon them) or their companions. Islamophobia is also about mass Muslim death going unnoticed and uncared for. About unspoken genocides, about massacres of Muslim children, about destroying our right to self-determination and life, about artificial famines that starve our people, about 1.2 million Iraqis dead without an apology, without the world batting an eyelash never mind shedding a tear.

In The Other America, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “This is the tragedy of racism because its ultimate logic is genocide. If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him; if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.”

Islamophobia might not be the “new” racism to some but it follows a similar distorted logic. It is not only about the micro and macroaggressions Muslims face daily. It is about the end logic of what those aggressions mean– that the people who hate us ultimately believe we do not deserve to exist. That we are collateral damage on their way to homogenizing the world as they see fit. Can you imagine this being your daily reality? That someone hates you enough to think you don’t deserve another breath of air on this earth?

I, for one, try not to live in fear, but at the same time, I cannot dismiss what I know to be truer than most: Islamophobia exists in its most subtle and most violent forms. It is pervasive and it is far more common than people realize (or want to realize). Dear ally, step one is to recognize this. Don’t dismiss this. Don’t tell me it is all in my head. Don’t tell me I am being overly cautious. Or dramatic.

Step two is to reject Islamophobia with all your heart. Recognize that, despite your best efforts at acceptance and understanding, you are immersed in a culture that creates negative associations with me and my religion at every possible opportunity. Even Muslims suffer from the internalization of these oft-repeated and relentless messages. Many of us have come to stereotype ourselves and even reject our religion for the lies told about it. Recognize that you likely have implicit bias. Recognize it when it rears its ugly head: when something I do “pleasantly” surprises you, when you have to overcome your shock at seeing my hair for the first time, when you find yourself wondering just what I keep under that headscarf, when you think of our men and women as over-sexualized, when you think of Islam as a monolith and fail to see our incredible diversity, when you don’t think of me as a capable resource first, or second, or ever. De-bias yourself consciously, daily, feverishly.

Step three is action. No, dear ally, outrage is not enough. Returning to your life after glimpsing our reality is simply not enough. Waiting for Muslims to liberate themselves, to demand their freedom, to take their rightful space back is not enough. Waiting for us to explain ourselves, to educate the ignorant masses, to change the minds of non-Muslim non-allies is not enough. We are doing everything we can but we need your cooperation. You occupy a unique space of privilege. You exist in a space where audiences will listen to what you have to say about Islam because they perceive you as having no vested interests in the outcome of your teaching. You exist in a space where people will listen. I know, because I used to exist there too, before I converted.

Some of the greatest allies have not been those people who occupy the highest levels of privilege. The greatest non-Muslim allies have typically been those who too experience prejudice: people of colour, Sikhs, Jews, LGBTQ people and women. The minorities who also get spit on, who get discriminated against, who are abused, who are killed are often the first to stand with us. And it does not go unnoticed. We see you standing there with us. We thank you.

But if you occupy a socio-economic space of dominance, your outrage is not enough. Your introspection is not enough. Your personal de-biasing is not enough. You need to create spaces to centralize our voices. You need to #makeitawkward wherever you can. You need to speak out against injustice and celebrate our difference. You need to check out all the things you can do right now to combat Islamophobia. You need to initiate projects and plans that do these things. You need to be at the forefront of education on these subjects, engaging as stakeholders. You have something at stake here, in all of this: how you choose to stand up for a people marginalized, your integrity.

Does this seem like too much of a burden to bear? Am I asking too much from you? Are other marginalized peoples calling on you too? Are you tired? I understand your concern. I feel it when I am called on to stand up for others too. I feel exhausted by the weight of my own circumstance combined with the need to alleviate the suffering of others.

But I take solace in the collective. Take solace in knowing that you might not be able to save the world but you can join forces with other people who are trying to repair it, in their corners of this crazy place with the tools and talents they have their disposal. No small effort in the way of compassion is ever wasted.

Anas Ibn Malik narrated that the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said “If the Hour (of the End of Time) were established upon one of you while he had in his hand a tree sapling, then let him plant it.”*

In solidarity,

Nakita

*(Musnad Imam Ahmad 12491)


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.

 

This opinion editorial was written by Rita Neyer, guest writer for The Drawing Board. The opinions expressed are hers alone. Her bio follows the story below.

First pains.

There are these occasions where life surprises me with a first. Over the years, they have been less frequent, but yesterday was one of these days. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to criticism based on my race and body-shape, and these lines are my attempt to make sense of it.

Maybe this only happened at the age of 27 because I grew up in a rural European area. Maybe it is because I did my first degree in a mid-sized city in the same country where a body in all its manifestations is considered a natural component of a person, and racism is not based on skin-color, but rather on for how many generations your family has been living in that village. However, this incident yesterday made me think about stereotypes and the narratives—i.e. a standardized and mostly unquestioned discourse patterns—we produce around them.

Here is my account of what happened:

In order to celebrate the end of term, my friends and I had decided to see a comedy show at a local pub. My being late was rewarded with having to sit on that one first-row seat at my friends’ table that nobody wants to because the comedians would eventually make fun of the person sitting there. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Soon enough—I assume that is what comedians do when they interact with the audience?—I was chosen to represent the skinny, white, privileged girl, and the obvious implication was that I knew nothing about life nor about my privilege, nor about the history of those who did not  and do not experience such privilege.

Before attending the show, we had no idea what would await us—after all, that is part of the fun. After the show, I was totally distraught and perplexed. The comedian had made jokes about me being white and having small boobs. She had commented on my face that admittedly must have looked stressed from trying to keep up with her Southern accent and numerous references to American pop culture that are unknown to most Europeans. She had pitied me for looking as if I would break into tears over her story of having her nipple shot off. Thinking about it, she was right. Stories like these, all these events in somebody else’s life, and the narratives they represent are not really part of my world.

In fact, my world is a protected one of highly self-aware academic conversation that revolves around human interaction in all its facets. It fights gender binaries and religious antagonism. In its ideal form, it provokes constructive discussion while allowing different opinions to co-exist. It juxtaposes narratives with critical analysis of historical ‘facts.’ Some might call this leftist, but I tend to disagree: The form of intellectual interaction I describe here does not care about points on an arbitrary two-dimensional political line. It cares about understanding.

I migrated to Canada last year on the grounds of a four-year-scholarship from the University of Alberta, which gave me the good feeling that people here wanted me to contribute with my work and opinion. Canada was my first choice because of the country’s reputation as being anti-racist, egalitarian and open-minded. Ever since coming here, I have received an incredibly warm welcome. I have made many great friends; I found an amazing boyfriend; and I got the opportunity to do some serious work. Apart from some institutional issues, e.g. with the bank system or on the job market (I cannot lose the feeling that people do not like to employ foreigners), I feel very well accepted and even integrated to the extent that my interaction with people here changes both our vantage points for the better.
However, as a recently ‘converted’ historian (my first degree was in Classics) doing a Ph.D. on early modern suicide, my personal experience with modern-day racism and the various facets of body-shaming have been based mostly on hearsay and what I read in newspapers or blogs, and thus yesterday’s incident was all the more irritating. This personal first feels like an awakening from a nice dream to a slightly unpleasant reality. As an academic, I embrace this while recognizing its unpleasantness. I found that just because I spend most of my life in a privileged academic environment, the concepts I try to deconstruct do not cease to persist in a reality other than my own. Calling out privilege and the division that comes with it will not stop as long as there are those who deny it exists, those who deny that the system continues to be broken. Navigating my privilege and honouring the less privileged experiences of others while figuring out how to move forward together is the challenge at hand.

At the same time, this also made me more aware of the way our society, especially in North America, deals with these problems: taking the bad things in life and turning them into something we can laugh about, to paraphrase that same comedian. By making fun of a random white woman, she had found the perfect means to make her point. However, this is a double-edged sword, since it exposes existing narratives of discrimination by replacing it with new ones.

In the post-colonial narrative,  the one who throws off the shackles first is understandably lauded; however, the colonizer cannot be universally demonized based on the colour of their skin either. To do so is less a criticism of the system that perpetuates social violence and more so the creation of new victims within it, another “us vs. them” mentality, when all our world needs is a “we.” This is not to gloss over the historical experience of different groups, nor to ignore a position of privilege occupied by others. However, it does mean adopting an attitude of cooperation rather than antagonism, particularly for individuals who consider themselves allies.

What I appreciate about this experience is that it gave me the (admittedly unwanted) opportunity to experience such a situation first-hand. I got, in a very small way, to feel the reality of other people daily: the reality of being discriminated against for the colour of their skin or the shape of their body, regardless of the contents of their mind.  I thought I knew how it would feel, but no empathy can ever prepare you for how it hurts. And I am so very sorry that this is reality for so many women daily.

I could have been outraged but this would have just fed the narrative of a privileged white girl finally seeing what it feels like – a narrative that does as much violence to those who perpetuate it as to those it is perpetuated about. In this way, I don’t blame those who push the story of white privilege onto those who are allies. As the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic said, “People have so much pain inside them that they are not even aware of” and I have realized that the best chance to understand other peoples’ pain is to experience a similar pain of your own.

rita neyer.jpgAfter growing up in Western Austria, Rita Neyer first came to the University of Alberta through an exchange program in 2014. According to her friends, she liked Edmonton more than most Canadians do—she successfully reapplied and returned in 2015. She holds a Master’s degree in Classics (Latin) from the University of Innsbruck, and is currently working on her Ph.D. in History. During her first degree, Rita worked as a Student’s Representative, Latin instructor, teaching assistant, and reader for various newspapers. In 2012, she was named winner of the first Neo-Latin poetry slam hosted by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies, and was awarded the Richard and Emmy Bahr scholarship one year later. After finishing her degree, Rita gained work experience as a cataloger for medieval books, and published an edition of an early modern German manuscript.

In her opinion, the most important principle for all academic work is interdisciplinarity. Rita’s research interests hence include a broad and growing variety of areas such as jurisprudence, linguistics, literature, natural sciences, environmental studies, philosophy, and—most recently—history of suicide. In 2016, she presented at the University of Alberta’s HCGSA Conference. Outside of her academic work, Rita is trained in conflict management, and speaks over ten languages. For retirement, she wants to study physics and learn how to play the drums (depending on the neighbors).