Commentary  Not Your Oriental Fantasy

Navigating racial exotification on campus

As a person of colour on campus, you sometimes run into strange situations. At times, my identity has been reduced to my ethnicity, as people perceive me as either an example of the “oppressed Middle Eastern woman,” or as an exotic fantasy, rather than a peer. I believe that this phenomenon is part of the racialization of people of colour, which is characterized by a process of “othering” and by having internalized preconceptions forced upon me, instead of being valued as an entire individual with diverse identities and interests.

A striking example took place during my first year at McGill; I was walking on campus when another student I had never spoken to before called me over. She asked: “Are you Egyptian?” and was visibly confused and in disbelief when I contradicted her, proceeding to say “Really? Are you sure? I could’ve sworn you’re this Egyptian girl I met.” After I said no again, she turned to her friends while I was still standing there and commented “I could’ve sworn it was her.” I’m American — my father is Iranian and my mother is white. Still, I take a lot after my father, resulting in people often asking if my mom was a babysitter when I was younger. Usually I can laugh off these situations. However, this pervasive racism that women of colour like me face also results in unpleasant encounters, where people have assumed that I am not from around here (I live a ten hour drive away from Montreal). They believe that because my name sounds foreign, it could never belong to a Canadian or an American. Conversations like these sting because they reinforce the presumption I was taught growing up — that there is no space in society for someone like me.

I’m American — my father is Iranian and my mother is white. Still, I take a lot after my father, resulting in people often asking if my mom was a babysitter when I was younger.

This lack of understanding in Western society causes many students to see me as a representative of my whole ethnic group, and as an embodiment of all the racist stereotypes that surround it. This also leads to exhausting streams of questions solely centered around my ethnicity, as if it was the only thing that defines me. I do not mind when people have genuine curiosity and a kind intent to learn more about my culture, but when it is the only thing ever asked of me, alongside “Are you sure English is your first language?” it strikes a chord.

McGill has attempted to create a more inclusive space in recent years, but there has not been a significant impact on students yet. Rez Project’s workshops on Race and Colonialism contains lots of essential information on the effects of racism, and the people who lead the project are so passionate and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, the way the topics are approached does not leave students with lasting impressions. The event usually occurs later in the evening, and the long duration of the meeting results in many students not absorbing information and simply sitting there. This is because they are required to listen, as if in class, instead of actively participating in discussions. The questions stemming from the videos we watched and conversations we had were oftentimes met with hesitancy or disinterest, and did not lead to strong engagement.

McGill has attempted to create a more inclusive space in recent years, but there has not been a significant impact on students yet.

Additionally, the choice of identity of people of colour are often limited, because we are forced to exclude everything else that encompasses how we identify ourselves. I love being Middle Eastern, and I love that part of me; still, it is only one part of me — not my whole identity. I want to be allowed to exist as more than my ethnicity. However, it is difficult to do so when people seem uninterested in hearing more than an explanation of the colour of your skin. Even while trying to educate themselves about racism, they can unintentionally assume your experiences are solely limited to your identity as a person of colour.

This ignorance and racialization denies us the right to exist as multidimensional beings with many facets and interests. While a white person only has to bear the weight of their actions on a personal level, a person of colour is seen as a representative of their race or ethnicity every day. This phenomenon does not disappear when we attend university; the racialization of people of colour on campus is still far too widespread. It even happens in some activist circles and can create an extremely alienating university experience.

This ignorance and racialization denies us the right to exist as multidimensional beings with many facets and interests.

My personal experiences on campus are also a result of sexism and orientalism. More specifically, the stereotypical depictions of “the Orient” — North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia — created by the Western world, which are themselves a consequence of colonialism. I visited the Orientalism exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris this summer, and seeing the paintings that helped shape much of the Western world’s view of “the Orient” was astonishing. The women in these paintings existed purely as exotic sexual objects whose purpose was to pleasure men. The diversity of religion and ethnicity in the Middle East is reduced to a generalization of it being a homogeneous culture. A culture in which the women appear exotic and submissive in harems, eager to be dominated by Western men, while “the Orient” as a whole is portrayed as backwards and uncivilized. In the context of orientalism, when engaging with Middle Eastern women, Western men assert their own dominance through a sense of cultural and racial superiority. This stereotypical perception of Middle Eastern women translates into the fetishization we face today. I have been approached by white men who saw me as a foreign object, and it is an additional dehumanizing aspect of racialization. All of us at this school were admitted on the same criteria, and have come to study as equal peers. However, it is exhausting trying to learn how to navigate university for the first time while your identity and space on campus are continuously questioned or denied.

However, it is exhausting trying to learn how to navigate university for the first time while your identity and space on campus are continuously questioned or denied.

I feel very lucky to attend a university where I am able to connect with people from around the world. I have felt much more welcome in Canada, while studying at McGill, than during my whole life in the United States. But I still have to defend myself and my identity against racialization, which is the reality for so many other students of colour. Actions of the past are never separated from the reality of the present. We cannot go back in time and prevent injustice, but we can work now to make sure our experiences are no longer shaped by the legacy of colonialism. I believe this starts with the people with privilege in our system listening and promoting stories like mine.