We welcome guest blogger Narjes Hashemi back for her second BILD post (her first can be found here). Narjes is a PhD candidate in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. Her research interests encompass social justice education, educational equity, education in diverse societies, development education, and the integration of immigrants and refugees in Canada. In addition to her academic pursuits, Narjes is a dedicated mother to a 2.5-year-old daughter. Currently, she is immersed in a doctoral project investigating the Educational Trajectories of Afghan Refugee Youth in Montreal and Vancouver.
Canada is often seen as a beautiful mosaic of different cultures and languages, a place where everyone can come together in harmony. But, as with any society, the reality is much more complex than that. John Porter’s ground-breaking work on the “vertical mosaic” showed that there are layers and hierarchies in Canadian society that reveal unequal distribution of power, privilege, and socio-economic status among different groups (Porter, 1960). This means that there are intricate social hierarchies that exist in Canada, which can be hard to see at first glance. Drawing from my own experiences, I want to shed some light on just one aspect of this complex reality.
As a member of a community enriched by a significant Iranian presence, I have the privilege of experiencing the richness of our diverse mosaic firsthand. Here, daily encounters with individuals of Iranian descent are as commonplace as saying hello. What’s particularly remarkable is that about 26% of our local population converses in Persian (Farsi), a testament to the rich cultural tapestry that is a backdrop to our city.
However, beneath this seemingly harmonious cultural blend lies a subtle issue—microaggressions. These are small, often unnoticed actions or comments that convey bias or insensitivity toward individuals from diverse backgrounds (Sue, 2010). In this blog, I aim to delve deeper into the world of microaggressions, exploring their profound impact on our sense of belonging and identity, and the critical importance of fostering respectful interactions within our communities.
The Persistent Question: “Are you Iranian?”
Language is an essential component of cultural heritage. My partner and I have implemented a family language policy to ensure our daughter’s proficiency in Farsi, our native language. This linguistic connection allows her to explore her family’s history, traditions, and values, which are deeply embedded in the language (Paat & Pellebon, 2012). As immigrants, we have relatives who are proficient in Farsi but not in English/French. Teaching our daughter Farsi guarantees her ability to communicate effectively with grandparents, and other relatives who may not possess fluency in English/French. Moreover, proficiency in the native language serves as a vital anchor for the sense of self of children from immigrant backgrounds. Children of immigrants frequently encounter identity-related challenges, and proficiency in the native language plays a vital role in shaping a positive identity (Paat & Pellebon, 2012).
By conversing in Farsi with our daughter, we aspire to endow her with a profound linguistic and cultural foundation, an asset we believe will significantly enrich her life. However, my preference for conversing in Farsi with my daughter has led to a recurring question: “Are you Iranian?” While this question is distinct from the ubiquitous “Where are you from?” inquiry, it carries a subtle implication that all Farsi speakers must naturally hail from Iran.
During one such encounter, I had the pleasure of meeting a gracious Iranian gentleman whose daughter was playing with mine. His response to our linguistic choice was both heartwarming and enlightening: “We are Farsi speakers; if you want, you can communicate in Farsi with each other instead of English.” This interaction exemplifies the kind of exchanges we should aspire to have – respectful, inclusive, and appreciative of linguistic diversity.
Understanding Microaggressions: The Unintended Harm
Microaggressions are subtle actions or comments, often unintentional, that show bias or insensitivity toward people who are minoritized due to their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or other characteristics. These actions can be hurtful and dismissive (Sue, 2010). When it comes to linguistic microaggressions related to the question “Are you Iranian?” these actions appear in two distinct yet interconnected ways:
- Assumption of Nationality: The question often presumes that anyone speaking Farsi must undoubtedly be of Iranian origin. However, this assumption is far from the reality. Farsi, as a language, transcends national borders and is spoken in various countries, including Afghanistan and Tajikistan. To assume someone’s nationality based solely on their language is both inaccurate and overly simplistic.
- Stereotyping: The inquiry inadvertently perpetuates stereotypes by broadly categorizing all Farsi speakers as Iranian. This generalization not only oversimplifies the rich diversity within Farsi-speaking communities but also disregards the myriad reasons individuals may choose to speak the language.
To inquire about someone’s cultural background or language in a non-micro aggressive manner, it’s essential to consider your motivations and express genuine interest in their culture or language. A respectful way to approach this question is for example by saying, “I’m interested in languages and cultures. Can you tell me about your cultural or linguistic background?” This approach is polite, demonstrating your sincere curiosity while respecting the other person’s boundaries. Another effective and courteous question to pose is, “What is your cultural heritage?” This open-ended inquiry allows the person to share as much or as little as they’re comfortable with.
Identity and heritage are deeply personal and emotional topics that can be challenging to navigate, particularly when posed with the question, “Where are you from?” This article, published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, explores the complexities of this inquiry and its impact on individuals from diverse backgrounds. In this article, Sydney resident Soumia Bella is questioned about her origin multiple times each week, emphasizing the intrusive nature of the query and how it prioritizes curiosity over the recipient’s feelings. As a child, she experienced embarrassment and now often feels frustrated, perceiving it as a demand to explain her existence. Writer and art curator Sabina McKenna shares a similar challenge, especially in professional settings, where she feels compelled to address questions about her family’s cultural roots.
These experiences highlight the emotional complexity tied to the “Where are you from?” question, emphasizing the importance of empathy and mindfulness when discussing identity and heritage. It’s crucial to approach each interaction with an open mind and a willingness to learn, recognizing that identity is multifaceted and deeply personal.
We all play a role in creating a welcoming and inclusive community where diverse backgrounds are celebrated. Microaggressions, although seemingly harmless, can deeply impact individuals from different backgrounds by conveying bias and insensitivity. By addressing and rectifying microaggressions, we take a significant step towards building a more inclusive Canada where everyone feels valued and at home. Embracing our differences and fostering mutual respect is key to creating a truly inclusive society
Paat, Y. F., & Pellebon, D. (2012). Ethnic identity formation of immigrant children and implications for practice. Child & Youth Services, 33(2), 127-145.
Pierce, C., Carew, J., Pierce-Gonzalez, D., & Willis, D. (1978). An experiment in racism: Television. Television and education. Sage, Beverly Hills, CA.
Porter, J. (1965). The vertical mosaic: An analysis of social class and power in Canada. University of Toronto Press.
Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons.