As an individual whose family had immigrated to North America from Africa, my identity has been closely associated with trying to fit in. Being a woman of color, particular challenges come into play, shaping not only personal experiences and interactions with the world but also my self-perception and self-identity. For African women, racial and ethnic identities are potentially viewed as their sources of discrimination, which have had a detrimental influence on how I approach the world and the social interactions embedded into them. The identity of a Black woman from an immigrant family has encouraged me to navigate through the context of oppression that has followed me since childhood. Even as a child, I encountered many difficulties with finding an identity and fitting in with the world around me. Attending mainly white schools and living in white neighborhoods, it was clear that I was different. Even when there were no overt attempts of discriminatory targeting against me, I felt different. Categories associated with race historically have been used as a method of enabling oppressive figures or groups to discriminate against other groups that have characteristics that differ from that of an oppressor.
My identity as a woman of color in a predominantly white society contributed to significant marginalization. Such a social identity has stripped me of some opportunities and experiences while also enabling me to witness the privilege that others are awarded. Growing up in Canada, I was often asked the question of where I was from as if the color of my skin automatically meant that I was foreign. When I replied that I was from Canada, my response was immediately countered by the question of where I was “really” from. The assumption that I did not belong and that I could not have possibly grown up in Canada paints the canvas for the environment of marginalization and the lack of understanding of the experiences that individuals of color encounter in a white-dominated context (Razack 10). The degrading experiences, such as being called the N-word or being compared to an animal, signify the systematic marginalization that limits not only life experiences but also the opportunities that I could not have.
The opportunities presented to the Nigerian immigrants’ children all stemmed from the high expectations of attaining proper education that should have given a solid framework for becoming successful in life. With my mother an educator and my father a businessman, education came at the forefront as they have always stressed the importance of having to work twice as hard to achieve the same things that my white counterparts would have. From the very beginning, the difference in experience was associated with my supposed inferiority in the eyes of society. To have the same opportunities as others, I would have to show that I earned them while the others did not have to do anything. My worldview has been directly associated with such a predicament – there was nothing that was ‘given’ to me because of the marginalized position in society, instead, I would have to give something to ensure that my life experiences would be valuable and rewarding.
Like many other women of color, I had to embrace the dominant culture and make myself available to others while also acknowledging my inferior position in society. Ironically, acknowledging this provides me with a sense of superiority as an individual because I am aware of the limitations imposed by my environment, having no illusions regarding what I can and cannot accomplish. My white counterparts, however, are used to being handed opportunities and experiences, and failure becomes a shock to them. As a Black woman in a predominantly white society, I do not expect to be handed opportunities, especially in a male-dominated educational and professional context that favors white men in leadership positions. My oppression shaped the understanding of social issues by helping me recognize that both racism and sexism are the interconnected systems of oppression that are at work around the clock, and their overlap to create a setting within which marginalized people struggle with not only fitting it but also being acknowledged as important societal contributors.
Despite being a woman of color, I am complicit in upholding the systematic barriers linked to race, class, gender, sexuality, and others because I have mainly focused on the issues that I experience, looking over the problems that others have, which creates a conflict. As a Black woman, I need to understand that I am also indirectly involved in the experiences of other women who are in a similar position as me. I have been ineffective in contributing to change in the system of systemic marginalization, nor did I address the hierarchal relationships that limit our opportunities as a group (Razack and Fellows 337). In many ways, I have been complicit with the oppressive barriers, and it is essential to recognize this problem to participate in the transformation of an unjust system of domination. For instance, the attitude toward Islam has been overall negative in Canada for the past decades, with marginalization turning into fear and prejudice against the religion. Those people who do not discriminate against Muslims but fail to raise alarms of the problem are complicit in the oppression. The religious privilege of Christianity, for example, inevitably ends in Islamophobia or Antisemitism.
To further the discussion about the impact of privilege on the perceptions of Islam as a religion, I am in no place of authority to suggest that any religion is superior to others. However, as I pointed out earlier, it is the complacency with the general lack of acceptance that makes the problem more severe. Similar to Christianity or Judaism, Islam is a monotheistic religion that includes the teachings about a deity and its messenger; however, the radicalization of some of the ideas has caused an overtly negative effect in public perception (Mamdani 18). The events of 9/11 were detrimental in shaping the Anti-Islamic sentiment in Western society, as evidenced by the ‘West and the Rest’ binary, with the lack of the understanding of how Islam differs from Islamic extremism causes the discrimination and fear of individuals who identify with the religion (Hall 57). My identity as a woman of color allows me to see the problem more clearly. The lack of understanding and knowledge of the history and the background of the marginalized group lead to the generalization of public thought. In the same way, in which the majority of Black women are depicted as angry and “sassy” in the modern media, the majority of Muslims are depicted as radical and threatening to the security of the Western world.
Hall, Stuart. “The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power.” Race and Racialization: Essential Readings, edited by Tania Das Gupta et al. Canadian Scholar’s Press Inc., 2007, pp. 56-60.
Mamdani, Mahmood. (2004). Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror. Pantheon Books, 2004.
Razack, Sherene H. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. University of Toronto Press, 1998.
Razack, Sherene, and Mary Louise Fellows. “The Race to Innocence: Confronting Hierarchical Relations Among Women.” Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, vol. 1, no. 2, 1998, pp. 335-352.