A few weeks ago, I was approached by an elderly Somali man who asked about my ethnicity. I responded that I was Somali. He then began to ask for help in Somali. As he described what he needed, I stood there blank-faced, staring at this man and trying to figure out how to explain to him that I could not understand Somali. I mean, yes I am Somali. But I do not speak the language.
When I finally mustered up the courage to tell him, a wave of frustration appeared on his face. He was dumbfounded. “You do not understand,” he said. “Your language is your passport. Without it, you are just a Somali by appearance and nothing else,” he protested rather poetically. I realised he made a very valid point. I truly had nothing that separated me from my fellow Canadian peers besides my skin complexion. I could not speak my language and the older I became the more I realised I had picked the ‘westernised’ card over the ‘embracing my ethnicity’ card. It was time I found my roots.
Growing up, I was always the token black kid in most of my classes. I had the darkest skin, the roughest hair. To put it simply, I was always the “sore thumb” in all my class photos. Despite being born and raised in Toronto, I was still subjected to societal segregation due to my appearance. It was nothing drastic, but I was still bullied or stereotyped by my peers and teachers. However, over time, I learned to adapt. Like a turtle, I mastered the ability to live both in water and on land. Or, I should say, I learned to survive at home and outside of my home.
I was taught at school that unlike the United States and their forceful melting pot, Canada embraced all of our various ethnic descendants. Usually, when a teacher would discuss Canada and our ‘tossed salad’ analogy, he/she would make it a fact to point at my direction while enthusiastically claiming I was an example of this wonderful multicultural nation, then ignorantly ascribing me to a random African country of his/her choosing to prove their point. During moments like those I wished that I was not a case study for my social studies class; that I could fit in with the Rebeccas and Ashleys sitting around me. To me, fitting in was entirely different from belonging. I did not feel as though I wanted to belong as I understood that I could never truly belong in this society. Instead, I felt I needed to learn how to adapt mannerisms, so that I would avoid such situations in the future. Being westernised seemed ideal.
My parents made it a point to make sure I acknowledged that I was both Somali and Muslim, as these descriptors became almost entirely interchangeable. However, at school I was just the black kid so these descriptors truly meant nothing to my classmates. As Christian beliefs dominated throughout my schooling life, trying to explain an Islamic holiday or fasting during Ramadan became irritating as my classmates could not fathom why I was not eating during lunchtime. They would ignorantly assume I forgot my lunch – every day for a month. This explanation appeared to be more logical for them to believe, rather than to care to understand that I was fasting for God. The reality was that westernised values collided with my traditional Somali values.
A “double identity” was not easy to achieve. My parents were traditional Somalis living in Toronto; my peers were all Canadians. I spent most of the day with my peers rather than my parents, so as time passed I slowly began leaning towards my Canadian identity rather than my parents’ traditional Somali one. The task of forging an ethnic identity is compounded by opposing demands from the two worlds. At school and with my peers, the more “westernised” I was the easier and more relatable I became. I wouldn’t call my parents ‘hoyo’ (mother) or ‘abo’ (father) in public, I would address them as mom and dad. I would not carry any Somali food in my lunch bag, I’d take a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with suitable snacks that I could be able to trade with the other kids during lunchtime.
I highly doubt my parents or parents of other second-generation children would imagine that their kids would be put in a situation where they would have to deal with the clashing of values. As I grew older, I began to witness the extremes: some second generation children began rejecting their culture or even effectively removing themselves from interaction with members of that culture just to avoid the stigmatisation of being associated with their nationality. Others began to develop a heightened sense of ethnic pride, often in reaction to discrimination or hostility from the host society. Either way, both seemed extremely drastic to me.
The manner in which Somali youths, or even second generation African youths, understand their identity is complex. The majority of second generation Somalis struggle with the notion of identity simply because identity and culture are deeply intertwined – as religion is an identity, and nationality is an identity, and so on. It seems as though rather than incorporating various aspects of both the western culture and our traditional culture, the majority of Somalis seems to have lost the overall Somali culture in their process of attempting to assimilate into society. There are more of us, who are unable to speak the language, or who do not generally uphold our cultural values.
We tend to forget that we are the future of our cultures. We are the ones who will carry forward our language, and our traditions. However, if we are too busy attempting to assimilate into a society that essentially rejects us, who will continue to keep our traditions alive? I would like to think there is hope. We have a chance to change our situation. Rather than suppressing one’s identity, I feel as though it is time we began embracing the variety of identities.
If not now, when will we?
Iman Hassan is a specialised political science student at York University in Toronto, Ontario.