by Leila Sidi
Growing up the only Muslim kid in a Catholic elementary school in Edmonton, Alberta taught me that this country was one of opportunities but some would work harder than others to access them. I learned I wouldn’t be accommodated. My birthdays would not be announced despite showing up with cupcakes for everyone. At pizza parties there would be pork on every single pie. When my mum would sneak out of work to bring me a mini cheese pizza so I could in some way feel included, the teacher would take most of it away from me. I would never win the “sharing/generosity” award despite the popular class vote in my favour. This is where I learned that racism could be disguised as accident, negligence, coincidence. I learned that racism in Canada, like many things, is very much alive but so “polite” that it is almost impossible not to internally invalidate your own feelings and convince yourself it is all unintentional.
I spent my schooling never mentioning anything to my family. Maybe I didn’t want to burden them. Maybe I didn’t even know what to complain about because I didn’t know any different.
Almost 20 years later, I was with my dad and we saw my grade 4 teacher with the school secretary. I vaguely recognized them but my dad could name them, first and last. Shy still to mention my experiences to him, I said, “I don’t think they were very nice.” A lifetime of validation graced me when my dad, the gentlest person I know, scoffed under his breath and then said “Not at all, they were so racist to you, they all were.”
It hit me that though I never spoke to my family as a kid about my experiences, they observed it all. I not only felt validated but also heartbroken at the thought of my family watching it. Despite all the hope of immigrating here for a better future, watching their experiences with employers and landlords mirrored in a new generation, they learned that this cycle was going to continue. Having my dad explicitly call out this cycle in my own life not only helped me to begin to understand and process my experiences but also gave me the confidence to trust my gut feelings and explicitly identify racism in my day-to-day life.
Elementary School was originally published in “Islamophobia: A Bitchin’ Zine” by Totally Radical Muslims. Totally Radical Muslims is a group of Oakland-based Muslims who have started a zine to confront, share, name and re-imagine experiences of islamophobia. For more info, and to get a copy of the zine for $5.00 and up sliding scale, go here.
Leila Sidi a rad queer Muslim who fixes bicycles year round in a city with 8 months of winter. On the side, she also has a flair for palliative care, loves building everything and tries whenever possible to make friends with kittens in the back alleys.
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