Visibly Other in the Classroom

I am brown. As the child of Indo-Canadian immigrants, I am visibly marked as Other. One of my ongoing personal debates has been how to navigate this reality, especially in the context of academia. Do I pretend to be a “raceless” scholar? Do I recognize my race, but only implicitly without ever calling attention to it? Or do I explicitly recognize it and weave it into my learning and writing processes? Underlying all these questions is the bigger issue of what I want my relationship to scholarship to be. Do I want to be accepted despite my racial identity, because of it, or something else?

I think it’s obvious that I can’t be a “raceless” scholar. Applying this sort of neutrality implicitly accepts the norm, which, in the case of race, is white. Moreover, it would be impossible to erase my lived experience as a racialized person. The difficulty really lies in finding a way to be able to have race acknowledged without it leading to tokenism or essentialism or being treated like a spokesperson.

To give you a recent example, I was in a seminar course discussing a case that went to the Supreme Court of Canada on the question of the right to wear a Sikh kirpan, a small ceremonial dagger (Multani v Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys). During the conversation, it struck me that I was the only brown person and quite possibly the only Sikh (making assumptions based on whether or not anyone else was wearing a kara, a metal bracelet that is a religious symbol for Sikhs). Obviously religion and ethnicity are separate issues – but in a conversation like this one, religion and ethnicity are also deeply interrelated. During the discussion, I kept feeling like other students were glancing in my direction. And then came the moment when someone pulled out the “my Sikh friends say” card.

I hope that I sincerely represented that while there are divergent views on whether people chose to wear a kirpan or not, it holds great significance to the faith. In this way, I felt like I was able to try to weave in my identity without falling into the traps mentioned above. But it was frustrating and alienating.

I’m still struggling to negotiate these sorts of dynamics and I assume some of you must face similar challenges. If anyone out there has suggestions, I’m all ears.

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