“What have you grieved — but also gained — in your journey to be more racially conscious?”

Almost a year ago I participated in The Institute for Racial Equity in Literacy (IREL). In the opening podcast, Tricia and Sonja asked participants to consider the following question: What have you grieved — but also gained — in your journey to be more racially conscious? While the point of the conference was to learn about and reflect on racial equity and literacy, the verb grieve and its concept of loss struck me. So did the juxtaposition of gaining something along the way. It’s this duality that continues to linger in my heart and mind.  

“What have you grieved?”

At the time of IREL, I had just lost my grand-mother. My Nani. She had been my source of love and strength since the death of my parents when I was a young girl. Nani had left her alcoholic husband, scraped by raising her five children only to watch one die too young, and then, took in my brother and I. She had so much room in her heart. She learned to say I love you, blew me kisses from the crosswalk, squeezed me tight when we hugged, bought me my first bra and took me to my first waxing appointment. She was everything I needed so I would long for less.

After my parents died, Nani came from Canada to Congo where my brother and I were living with my dad’s family. A short time later, the three of us moved to Kenya to stay with my mom’s side. As soon as the immigration papers were finalized, Nani brought us to Toronto to live with my aunt, her husband and their two children.

My parents’ deaths and the consequent move resulted in many losses: family and country yes, but also security, innocence and a lightheartedness. That childlike, carefree spirit is reflected back at me anytime I pour over the childhood photos my parents left behind. There’s me at two dressed up in a saree showing off the pallu and beaming up at the camera. There I am at four riding a pony around Lake Navasha my arms outstretched ready to take on the next adventure. And then my favorite: it’s my fifth birthday and the four of us are around my Donald Duck birthday cake. My mom is clearly trying to get the three of us to stand straight for the photo but I’m giggling hysterically because my dad won’t stop making silly faces.

These memories are bittersweet. I’m thankful for those times, of-course, but I also envy that little girl and how confidently she navigated her world. I’ve never quite managed to gain back that sense of ease or security. Instead, I internalized my parents’ deaths so deeply that it has woven itself through all my experiences. To me, back then, anything that happened–good or bad–was because I was an orphan. 

So, during third grade recess, when a classmate, DK, called me a ‘black monster’ and told me my mehndi was a disease, I cried for mummy to come back and make me pretty. And when it was my 7th birthday party, and the kids wouldn’t go near the samosas or kebabs that my aunt had so lovingly baked, I blamed her for not knowing how to throw cool parties. Even when I failed my first English Literature class years later in university, I attributed it to the loss of parental support.

Still, I found ways to thrive. I was elected to student council and earned valedictorian honor. Even when I was praised, though, never did I think it was because maybe, finally, I was good enough; instead, I thought it was the pity everyone felt for me, that poor, brown, orphan girl. 

“What have you gained?”

It wasn’t until I was well into my teaching career that I shed some of that grief.

My first year of teaching was in Kuwait at an international school that included both local and expat families. I have this vision from that year: my beautiful-brown-skinned-female students looking up at me, heads tilted, and hearts in their almond eyes for the teacher that looked like them. It was the first time I realized what I — just standing there, in front of them — represented. In many ways, I was a mirror. 

This got me wondering about my own experiences in school. What did it mean that I never saw myself in the texts or the content or the people around me? Certainly this impacted not only how others saw me, but also how I saw myself. 

I try to protect my students from facing the same erasure, not in a savior kind-of way, but in a way I perhaps never experienced. Everything I fight for as an educator is in hopes that my students can be shown what I never was: You, showing up exactly as you are, isn’t just good enough – it’s inspiring, and brave, and powerful.

“What have you grieved — but also gained — in your journey to be more racially conscious?”

Of course, this journey to be more racially conscious is not always easy. 

Why else did it take me years before I shared details of my social identity with my students — including the fact that I’m Indian? Why else did I feel sucker punched when a previous white department head told me she was color blind to my Indianness and that I should take that as a compliment? Why else did the male-centered curriculum that dominated my teaching instantly cause me to doubt my place as a teacher?

I always suspected what Tricia and Sonja’s question suggests: the journey of racial consciousness must come with grief.  Living one’s racial consciousness out loud means greater losses, and unjust repercussions and realities. I have left certain schools. I have faced conflict with colleagues I care deeply about. I have lost the security and likeability that is awarded to those who are easy-going and carefree. 

And yet, there have been gains. I’ve learned to identify racist acts and I’ve acquired the language to respond to them as such. I’ve found a school that makes space at the table for a voice like mine. I have colleagues who know that I’ll be critical – and come to me for my curious questions, gentle prodding and nudges to do better. I have friends who are so much more than friends – they’ve become co-conspirators and a new form of protection in this work. I’ve gained the trust from my students who know that in me they’ve found an advocate. And while I can not deny that I’m still constantly battling insecurities, they no longer paralyse me into inaction. This writing piece is my case in point.

I’m picturing my parents and Nani looking down at me and all the snapshots that make up my life today. Here I am, on our classroom carpet, my students surrounding me as we lose ourselves in yet another book together. Here’s my brother and Nani walking me down the aisle — my soon-to-be husband waiting with a love in his eyes that takes my breath away. And then my favorite: here I am at a family reunion in Kenya posing in front of my childhood home — my whole set of aunts and uncles beaming behind the camera at their sister’s daughter, all grown up.

I hope my parents and Nani look at these snapshots and realize what I too now know: Despite the losses and despite the grief, their daughter is carving out a life of purpose and joy — collecting gains along the way.



*This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Betina Hsieh (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).

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