Author Annahid Dashtgard spoke at The Walrus Talks Living Better, which took place on November 19 in Ottawa.
You can watch all The Walrus Talks speakers from this event here: The Walrus Talks Living Better on YouTube
My name is Annahid Dashtgard, Co-founder of Anima Leadership, author of memoir Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation.
To live well is to feel that we belong. It’s that feeling of walking into a room with a handful of our favourite people and the self that shows up in that environment. Our shoulders drop, we make more jokes without caring if anyone else is laughing, we allow ourselves to be quiet. We can touch our own soul selves and meet the need of the moment with the brilliance of our deepest knowing.
We often teach what need to learn. The search to belong has been the defining mission in my life, one that was damaged for me in the crossing of ocean to reach new shores. Nayyirah Waheed, an American poet, wrote
You broke the ocean in half to be here
Only to meet nothing that wants you
That’s what it felt like for me. We left our country of origin- Iran- like many immigrants, not because of choice but forced exile. A revolution, threat to my parents, curbed opportunities for us kids. We arrived in small town Canada when I was nine. My different ethnicity, my brown skin colour and immigration status meant early on we were excluded from the tribe. By the time I had been in Canada 3 years I was the kid who wasn’t just chosen last for teams, but was spat on, called ‘Paki,’ and various other forms of shunning. Of course, it wasn’t just confined to school, but also the community.
When I was 11 I went after the coveted girl guides camping badge. To get it I had to go on a camping trip. I don’t remember much about the trip except for one particular moment midway through, standing in the communal kitchen as we were preparing dinner. The girl guide leader, an older white woman, asked me to hand her the manual can opener. I didn’t know what a manual can opener looked like – like many immigrant Families my parent’s certifications did not hold water in Canada and so my mother worked part-time in the housewares department at the Bay. She had bought an electric Can opener on sale. What I do remember is standing there, rooted to the spot, shame coursing through every cell, already afraid, that I would somehow again get it wrong. The girl guide leader reached past me to open the drawer, toppling me over in the process. She brandished the can opener above her head exclaiming in a voice loud enough for everyone in the room to hear “you don’t know what a can opener looks like?!”, as if I was the stupidest creature on earth. Turns out that I was the only girl guide in the history of that district, as well as the province, that failed to receive a badge upon completion of the trip. Despite my mother writing a letter to both the girl guide leader and the regional director, we did not hear back from either woman.
The thing is, it wasn’t just that one moment… it was one of many such moments of being the outsider that happened such that I lost faith in others, and most importantly, I lost faith in myself. Feeling excluded was one of the driving forces that later would manifest in a number of physical and mental health struggles that started at a very young age, including an eating disorder as well as various obsessive-compulsive behaviours that would manifest through most of my adult life.
So many of us have these experiences where we know what it is to NOT belong, that feeling of no matter how hard we try we’re not going to measure up, not going to fit in. The impact- if you can recall- is not cerebral but primal. It is a jolt to the nervous system… a switch over from the parasympathetic to the sympathetic, in other words from “at ease” to “fight or flight.” For many people, the experience of rejection may be limited to a team, a club or a classroom. It is pasted over with new experiences. Yet for others, the exclusion can be on-going: Racism, homophobia and ableism… being born into the wrong colour of skin, loving the wrong gender, or having the wrong mental or physical capacity. Wrong, wrong, wrong… in such systems, the impacts are frequent, daily, oppressive. It’s easy to become hyper-vigilant, rarely at ease in one’s own skin. How does one live well in these systems that regularly discriminate against certain identity groups — Indigenous people and people of colour, women, those that identify as LGBTQ2S– keeping them in a position of feeling less than?How do you learn not to self-hate?
You see, in my experience, belonging is both a personal and a collective experience. It’s about working to self-love while also working for justice. In every institution I walk into as an educator, speaker, consultant I hear the stories. Of people who learn over time to cut off 20, 50… 80% of who they are because they learned they have to in order to survive. The black teacher who has to be so careful not to offend white parents. The people who learn to shorten their names because others can’t be bothered to learn or pronounce them correctly. The women who work twice as hard for half the recognition, whose ideas only get validated when they come out of the mouths of the men.
Belonging isn’t a random experience. Belonging is tied to how much we fit into the social norms, or what is considered ’normal’ in the historical moment we’re born into. Belonging is about social power. When I moved to Canada, the vast majority of all the teachers, community leaders, judges and police were white people. Although some of that has changed, a lot of it hasn’t, especially in key decision-making. That’s a problem. We can have good intentions and still unintentionally discriminate…although I am a content expert with over two decades of experience I can still walk into rooms with one of my white employees and watch people’s attention, questions, and compliments skew towards them. These unintentional exclusions or micro-inequities are as painful in a way as the more overt forms of discrimination I encountered when younger, more so in some ways because they are both ubiquitous and invisible. The bleeding is internal, the emotional labour determining whether to interrupt or to swallow. Either way, there is risk involved.
Our identity always shapes our experience of belonging. In closing, watch who YOU gravitate towards, become aware of what parts of your own identity make things easier, or more challenging, which parts give you more access to voice and power and which less so. Creating more diversity in our country and communities is easy. Creating equal access to belonging takes work. It is the noblest work, for people’s sense of belonging determines nothing less than how well they get to live. For doesn’t everyone deserve to feel safe in their own skin, to find their place on this mad human journey? To speak truth, to love fiercely and to cry belonging as our birthright… this is what a good life is about.