For the synchroblog

When it comes to ‘othering’ my choice is inspired by Nelson Mandela’s  call and action to “cross all divides.” I choose to see you, no matter who you are, in the mirror image of myself. I constantly remind myself:

We are each other.

Ok, so, do I mean by ‘we are each other’ that we have no differences? That we must all be blind to the obvious distinctions that make me, me, and you, you? Not at all.

Here, please take a journey with me through a few snapshots from my life to see where I’ve come from to land on this outlook.

Circa May 1999.

I’d just arrived in Vancouver from war-torn Sierra Leone, via Conakry, Guinea where I’d taken refuge for about a year. I was relieved to be in a safe haven. A place where I no longer slept the fitful, restless, sleep of one uncertain and fearful of what waking may bring. I was thrilled to be in a place where I could return to university to complete my bachelor’s degree that had been rudely interrupted. In preparing for back to university, I took weekend computing courses. There was a South-Asian looking lady in my class and we had exchanged casual smiles. Third class in, we ran into each other in the ladies.

‘Hi,’ she said.

‘Hi,’ I responded.

‘Where are you from?’ she queried.

I was amused and taken aback all at once, simultaneously wondering why she’d asked while fumbling for an appropriate quick answer. It occurred to me that while I had been curious about her, I hadn’t thought it appropriate to ask, devoid of further connection with her about her background. Finally, assuming she wouldn’t know where Sierra Leone was anyway, I answered, ‘West Africa.’

She retorted ‘I know you are from West Africa, but where?!’

In the exchange that followed, I learnt she had met and married a Nigerian and lived there for decades. She introduced me to her daughter and I introduced her to my mother ad concurrent friendships began.

This, my first exchange in being questioned about my lineage in Canada has never left me. It will be the first of many times I’d be asked the question and variations of ‘Where are you from?’ My personal favorite is – ‘where were you born?’ Somehow, my response of ‘Germany’ never seems to satisfy. What I have learnt, is that the motivation, context and embedded assumptions in the questions of my lineage make all the difference to whether I experience the implied distance of being placed in some ‘other’ category. I’ve also realised there are many well-meaning and sometimes informed strangers who ask the question to further some connection they sense. So, I have stopped assuming ‘intent to other’ – I now inquire into that motivation and intent with a simple: ‘What are you curious about?’ And when I find myself moved to curiosity about someone else, I first build some rapport, then share my own motivation and intent for asking, even my own assumptions/ignorance and then listen to learn.

Circa early Fall 1999

I’ve started classes at SFU and I am freezing in my denim jacket. I call my new friend. The daughter of the south-asian looking lady, who I now know identifies as second-generation Canadian of Sri-Lankan and Nigerian lineage. We are at the mall. She’s laughing hysterically at the heavy parkers I’m insisting on trying and I’m dramatizing over and over again how cold I’d been that day. Suddenly, her laughter turns to a frown. I notice her pace has slowed. As I wonder what’s happening, she spins around and yells at the sales attendant behind us – “why are you following us!” She grabs the pile of jackets from me and throws them down, grabs my arm and marches me out of the store.

I have never quite known what to make of this incident. My friend and I had many a debate afterwards about whether the sales clerk was in fact following us because we were ‘black’ or just following us to strike up a sales conversation. My friend was convinced of the former. I was skeptical and leaned to the latter. She told me I was naïve, had grown up where the majority was black and just hadn’t lived here long enough to know what it’s like, in effect, to be constantly ‘othered.’ She implored me to be on alert and expect it to happen. Something in me resisted the warning.

Circa sometime in 2000/2001

It is early in the semester in a sociology undergrad class. This class is the class on race relations. Partway through the class, I realize I am sitting in the thickened heavy atmosphere that floats in when moods suddenly change. I look up, no one in my discussion group is looking straight at me. I realize that on the projected screen my so-called social identity fully classifies me as an ‘oppressed minority.’ Interestingly, my reaction is laughter. My immediate thought: “who says I am an oppressed minority?’

Since that class, I lost my virgin naiveté that had so gilled my friend from the mall incident. I gained awareness of how I am generally seen in North American society. I became aware also of all the boxes the label of ‘oppressed minority’ put me in – from the checkbox on forms to the statistically boxes of what I am likely to/not to achieve in my lifetime. At some point, I decided to continue to defy all the boxes. I decided not to let ‘others’ define who I am or will become.

Circa 2011

I am in a doctoral class in the United States with other international students. We study and debate social change and justice issues regularly. I hear the stories, the issues, the struggles of being black in America over and over again. I share and hold the dreams and drive for equality and for freedom from all the chains of injustice. I also hold the voice for defying the structural chains of social labels and name other examples, experiences and scenarios that even though may not be part of the dominant story of “othering and  being othered’ are real stories – stories that inspire hope. At the end of one such debate, my white Canadian friend and study partner says to me: “you know, I hate to say it, but I can relate to you, because you are different.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I did discuss at length with my friend the implications of what she had said. That her saying I was different implied every social stereotype attributed to the ‘other’ black students. It was an open, honest and robust conversation. At the end of the day I learnt that she thought I saw and understood her because of how I’d engaged issues in our class conversations. I’d named the fact that we all, at some point in our lives have had minority experiences and because of that, she felt connected to me, not distanced – because she too had many minority experiences – albeit different but real, hard minority experiences of hurt, pain and injustice, which she proceeded to share.  She said she’d felt seen and heard by me, rather than drowned out by the dominance of my own minority and injustice experiences.

My conclusion from these experiences (and others) is that to cross the divides that threaten to collapse us, we must see, understand and hear each other, even as we seek to be seen, heard and understood. So when I am blatantly ‘othered’ I shake it off and remember who I am and what defines me. I sleep easier now than in the war days when I stared injustice in the face, but sometimes I still sleep fitfully… because I worry about how long it will take us, humanity, to see each other as equally human – deserving of the same faith, hope and love that we each need, no matter who we are. Then I remember, that my part is to “do unto others, as I’d have them do unto me…” because you reflect me. Because we are each other, no matter how different we may look…and I sleep easy. And as if by divine intervention, I sat in a conference today where the keynote speaker quoted his favorite definition of love– “love is the act of allowing another to be a legitimate other.”I’m adopting this definition.