How I (sort of) learned to be okay with not belonging

Alisha Samnani // Editor-in-Chief
Valeriya Kim // Design Director

Sometimes people don’t see you — and you can’t make them see you. Some people will say you don’t belong — and no matter what you do, that doesn’t change. I used to wonder what was wrong with me. It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t the problem.

I respectfully and gratefully acknowledge that I — a cis-gendered woman of East African and South Asian decent — grew up and live on the unceded, stolen, core traditional territory of the kʷikʷəƛ̓əm, which lies within the shared territories of the səl̓ilwətaɁɬ təməxʷ, sq̓əc̓iy̓aɁɬ təməxʷ, šxʷməθkʷəy̓əmaɁɬ təməxʷ, qiqéyt, Skwxwú7mesh-ulh Temíx̱w and S’ólh Téméxw. I am eternally grateful to be cared for by these lands. While I have my own lived experience with racism and colonialism — one of the earliest encounters I remember was around 4 years old — I know that I am also in a position of privilege. As a child, this was something I found myself struggling with on occasion. I was often told that my mixed identity was invalid; that I had to ‘pick a side’; that I couldn’t possibly understand the struggles of racism because I wasn’t “fully” one race — even though my lived experience would say otherwise. 

Without getting too graphic, I can summarize my background, sensibilities or experiences as wrapped up in a ribbon of estrangement. In the middle of the word estrangement is strange; I find an odd comfort in that. I feel strange, because I have been made to feel strange. The violence of the world causes me to feel strange in both a literal and figurative sense. I have had a feeling of not belonging for as long as I can remember — not from everywhere, and not always overt. The feeling lurks around corners, and seeps in through cracks in my mental foundation. I have conflicting emotions about my positionality. Relief, shame — numbness, even. In her book Living A Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed says that “feminism can begin with a body, a body in touch with the world, a body that is not at ease in a world; a body that fidgets and moves around. Things don’t seem right.” I can safely say that things have never felt quite right, if not only because I was told they weren’t. Was I born anxious before this, or did the estrangement cause my anxiety?

The issues I tend to focus on in my work, my research, and my studies are shaped by my personal lived experiences. I am excited by scholarship rooted in theoretical, intersectional and feminist discourse. I find myself drawn towards research and theories that respectfully honour the experiences of people and communities that are marginalized and minoritized. In other words, I want to see myself in the work I consume and produce — something I didn’t have growing up in a predominantly white settler society. I aim to contribute to the growing fields of research that explore the experiences of people of colour, while simultaneously reclaiming my own marginalized and minoritized identity.

As I am attuned to the complex feelings of estrangement — from society, from spaces, and even from my own body — I find myself trying to build a home within the topic of belonging. Audre Lorde’s essay The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House can be crudely summarized as an exploration of identity, including race, gender and sexuality. Lorde’s original use of the title phrase was to illustrate a cautionary tale: that differences must be celebrated and acknowledged in order to achieve social justice. What does the idea that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house mean for my own estranged body in the world?

From my first year at university, it was evident that I was unwelcome in the Master’s House. For starters, I am a first-generation university student — something that comes with its own set of pressures. While grateful for this, I felt deprived of courses that discussed people of colour. When I would question why there was a lack of representation, I was told that it’s easier for students to learn with examples in which they could see themselves; areas with similar traditions and customs. “It’s just easier” was a phrase I grew accustomed to hearing. Easier than what, exactly?

I quickly grew depressed — I foolishly thought university would be different. What happened to the idea that I could learn whatever I wanted? That I would finally be freed from the confines of the grade-school system? Instead, I was chastised for my criticisms.

Surviving in post-secondary as a person of colour means that sometimes, I must stand alone. I have to fight against microaggressions, ignorance and racism.  I often have to dig outside the breadth of the syllabus — and often, outside the confines of academia — to find knowledge that is reflective of my lived experience. I must (and this I am still working on) be unapologetic in this effort. Even after all the violence of the world I have witnessed and experienced, it pains me to stop believing that explaining my point of view to those who uphold these oppressive structures would make everything okay — that I would be heard, and more than that, believed.

I continue to witness these oppressive structures and systems in various aspects of my life, including in my work as a journalist. Too often, in both academia and journalism, I have been told to remain ‘objective’ — that I’m too close to an issue to study or explore an area that has been blatantly ignored. I have simultaneously been told to educate white individuals about our existence, and our differences.  Like with academia, it’s tempting to feed into what Lorde calls the “old and primary tool of all oppressors” — but the rare moment I do, it feels like talking to a wall. Instead of improving, my experiences worsen. I become a shell of myself; so occupied with the Master’s concerns that I have gone numb in an attempt to survive.

Perhaps estrangement is in itself, a unique tool to break apart the Master’s house.

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