Shawna Ayoub Ainslie, 35, from Indiana in the USA is a returning ASLI artist who we adore and are very grateful to feature again with her amazing writing and voice which creates change for trauma survivors and marginalised people within the artistry of writing. Shawna has joined us for Issue 4 – Discrimination, Privilege and Stigmatisation to submit a creative non-fiction piece on gender, race and religious privilege, here is what Shawna had to say in her own words:
What motivated you to deal with your chosen submission subject?
Growing up a Muslim, Arab woman in America, I experienced (and continue to experience) daily discrimination from those who have white, male and/or Christian privilege. It comes from friends, family, neighbours and strangers on the street. Most notably right now, it comes from religious leaders worldwide and those who sought to place them in power.
Other Point of View
by Shawna Ayoub Ainslie
You thought to have ego, until you exited the conﬁnes of the womb world. The learning of how and why to discard the story of self-importance was necessary and immediate. You could not revel in fragility. Such was not your privilege.
Perhaps if you existed in another body. One endowed with fairer skin and the external markings of masculinity. But you arrived brown and female, the combination of color and vagina the gateway to a hellscape existing earthside. A vagina is a wound. Darkened skin is a sign of impurity. On top of it all was the mountain of your father’s faith. The wrong faith as it was not heavily ornamented with crosses and the white kind of forgiveness.
Harsh dealings convinced you to roll yourself in humility. You sought ways to offset your natural sin. Attending churches afforded you a peer group by creating an external competition among your new friends over which would save your soul by teaching you to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. It was an imperfect, impermanent solution. You never believed and their parents never believed you would. Faith ended where you physically began. You found yourself banned from youth groups and slumber parties. There was the idea of guilt by association, and although it was America and you were never given a trial, you were most certainly guilty.
There were other methods of cloaking you employed. Wardrobe changes and ultraviolet evasions. Razors and waxes and ﬂat irons. There was nothing to be done about the setting of your eyes so you donned glasses. These methods were also imperfect and impermanent. Older white men always saw through them, reducing you to your ethnic roots and cornering you in even your sacred spaces, like the home you bought to raise a family unmolested. Like the yard where all you wanted was to cultivate beauty but now you dare not tread because the man next door has forfeited his own hopes of saving you in favor of side eye and the physical assault of your children when they leave the house so he can make sure they are afforded the most important of knowledge when it comes to faith, love and politics: his.
You can not deal with this directly, face to face, so you write it in second person.
You employ a narrative device to separate you from the pain. How false is the safety? No more false than the threat; It separates your fear from your body if only for the span of the essay in which you sort your truths. Triumph often lies in point of view.
The neighbor who grabs your son’s shoulder too hard believes this absolutely. He believes faith can be force-fed and wisdom is born of penises. He tells you Blacks are gangsters and Arabs are terrorists and white men can ﬁx the world. He shakes a blade in your face while he assigns violence to people of every other color. He squeezes your frightened child, commands him to hold still because he needs to hear that his mother is wrong. That, with respect to her Arab, Muslim heritage and immigrant father, Arabs and Muslims and immigrants are a threat and should be barred from entry. Unless they are already here. Then they should be forced to leave.
Your son stands stock-still while you calmly tell this man he is out of line. Calmly because you have separated from yourself just as you must in order to write this. You send your child back inside before the man can grab him again. When you are able to extricate yourself from the neighbor’s hate-based rhetoric, you ﬁnd your son shivering and crying. He is afraid for his grandfather. He is scared of the neighbor. You open your arms to him and dry his tears with your shirt, your tears with his hair.
You have navigated a lifetime of righteous folk’s judgments. They arrived packaged with redeemable codes for forgiveness, if only you repent for being born brown and not-Christian and female. Don’t you understand? These judgments are gifts. They will save you.
You turn them over in your mind and consider how tremendously unsafe your neighbor must feel if he is willing to accost a child in his quest to protect the expectations he inherited about what is good and right and his job in ensuring the future of humanity. You wonder if this self-styled wellbred gentleman has ever taken a look at the world from some other point of view. If he has ever snuffed out his ego to conquer his own fragility, or if he goes about fracturing the trust of children in their mothers and their sense of safety in the world in order to avoid the magniﬁcent ﬂaws he bears that make him just like every other human.
It does not matter. The world will not be changed through silence. You reenter your body, adjust your point of view and scribe a story. One that brings struggle into the light. There is work to do.
What are your present and future goals for your art?
I enjoy using writing to explore themes of social justice and survivorship with the goal of encouraging understanding and compassion. Stories are a gateway for empathy. We can safely step into an alternate experience via the written word. I will continue writing fiction, nonfiction and poetry based on personal experience with hope that it will reach individuals who are otherwise indoctrinated by a single cultural experience.
Here are Shawna’s other articles and work in ASLI Magazine:
Have you experienced any form of discrimination; and if so what was it based on and how did you deal with this?
I have faced racial, religious and gender discrimination throughout my life. A more recent example was a neighbour who sought to “educate” my children for me because he felt it was acceptable that he, a man, talk over me and that he, a Christian, offer more “accurate” information on Muslims worldwide. His information came from Fox news, not from personal experience. Basically, he stated that all Muslims are likely to be terrorists (even saying “with respect to your history” meaning my immigrant, Muslim father), who we should not allow in the United States, and that anyone intelligent will vote for Trump to keep America safe.
What are your opinions on what causes discrimination?
Using my neighbour as an example, I believe ignorance is the number one cause of discrimination. Had he done any research, he could have discovered there have historically been more terrorist attacks on American soil (and in the last 10 years) by white Christian men than any other group of humans. There have been no attacks by immigrant Muslims. If we are going to discriminate against a group because they are the most likely to be violent, we should be Big Brothering white men rather than refusing refugees.
What do you do to actively stand against discrimination and have you ever had to intervene as a witness to it?
I have had to intervene. With my neighbour, I told him he was out of line and ultimately moved. I no longer felt safe in my own front yard. On behalf of others in public, I have questioned individuals making racist statements gently and created distance. Privately, if my children bring home racist ideas or statements, we disassemble them, assess their origins and have an honest discussion about truth versus the perpetuation of cultural intolerance against specific groups of people including people of colour and women.
What are your opinions on labels and stereotypes?
Labels and stereotypes can be educational in two ways. The first is that they offer a framework for understanding differences between individuals. Unfortunately, it is a rigid framework established through and us vs. them dichotomy. So, second, they allow us the opportunity to asses why we are relying on them, where we picked up those ideas, and to begin dismantling assumptions that ultimately perpetuate discrimination and stigmatisation.
What are your opinions on national identity and in your opinion does nationalism create or deter discrimination?
I think it’s wonderful to identify with where you came from. Every home has a culture informed by its location. We can assimilate the beautiful, compassionate piece of our culture without accepting the negative bits. Committing to a national origin can be a cultural celebration. However, nationalism is also the celebration or raising of one’s origin over another’s. In this way, it is divisive and inciting.
What social privileges do you have? For example: are you white, able bodied/minded, a man, rich, heterosexual, thin… etc.
I have white passing privilege in many situations. While my hair tends to identify me as “other,” I can simply change it to look more like my white peers. I am also able bodied and attractive by traditional standards which affects the way I am immediately perceived and responded to. While I am not thin, I am fit. At this weight, I receive far more positive attention in public such as preferred seating and serving in restaurants.
What social privileges of others around you have you experienced and how did this privilege of others affect you?
My husband is a heterosexual white male. He was raised in an upper middle class family. I was raised in or near poverty. Marrying him increased my privilege by giving me access to areas I was unable to previously attend. For a long time, he was unaware that his world was not simply new to me, it was previously forbidden. Poor people of colour cannot simply go anywhere safely. My husband was a shield or a cloak, raising my privilege so previously locked doors (such as being listened to when I spoke or treated as a person rather than an exotic pastry) swung open.
How does social privilege affect our world in your opinion?
Social privilege is a cultural construct that determines who is allowed where, when and why. It serves to keep the powerful in power and dehumanise the rest to prevent us from being taken seriously.
Have you ever denied your own privilege due to feelings of guilt or misunderstanding?
Absolutely! A key aspect of privilege is it is just there. It exists and we don’t have to work for it so we don’t always notice it. For a long time, I actively passed as white to the point that I lost sight of my own colour. In the process, I lost touch with trials other people of colour who do not have the privilege of passing face daily. I stepped into a conversation asking why an act of cultural appropriation in a music video was a big deal. Fortunately, a peer pointed out my indoctrination and I was able to make amends and begin working to be a better ally instead of hiding (from) myself as I’d been doing.
Do you feel social privilege should be taught at school and if so why and how young?
Yes! I believe we have to teach our children about this from the time they can speak. We need to point it out, call it out, challenge it and dismantle it. In fact, my children’s elementary school does this in their classroom. They are a project based environment that pursues issues of social justice at the community level in order to educate and create a more loving, compassionate, inclusive community beginning with our world’s future leaders.
Have you ever experienced social stigmatisation and if so what was it based on and how did you deal with this?
I just had/am having an experience with this now. I challenged a group of preschool educators when they failed to address racist language in the classroom. There was a marked response from parents who were aware of my concerns as well as some of the educators. The result was hearing myself talked about as I approached corners in the building and having conversations hush as I passed. The consensus was that I made a big deal out of nothing and my suggestions were pushed aside. This is not the project-based school my children attend.
While the push-back has calmed down some, I am still regarded with concern by parents and educators. Perhaps most notable was that when I was invited in for a conference, they chose to have a male teacher conduct it in place of the female director who was present. I don’t know that they intended to trump female with male, but I could see from the outset they had already made their minds up about being happy with internal handling of the situation and nothing I would say would change it.
I expressed my thanks for them taking the time to meet with one another, meet with me, and for the proactive choices the did make in the moment. This was a case of the adults in the situation being fearful of adding to harm, but that fear was a result of the challenge directly engaging this situation posed to their privilege. I understand that it is a complicated position and a delicate topic, but it still should have been addressed to parents by the school once they were aware of what was happening. Instead, it was redirected, gently forgiven and let go.
Have you ever contributed to the stigmatisation of any individual or group, and if so were you aware you did this and how did you deal with this aftermath?
I hope my choice in the above situation didn’t contribute to continued ignorance and stigmatisation. I chose not to pursue it because it had the potential to harm my child. In fact, I do believe it scared some of the other parents whose children were involved and has resulted in omitted invitations. People with privilege fear having it challenged. There is an “I don’t want to deal with that. She’s so serious” mentality I’ve faced again and again because I do choose to challenge.
And why shouldn’t I? I have lived my life either hiding where I come from or being afraid of people who know where I come from. I have experience physical and psychological violence at the hands of privilege.
In fact, it is frightening to write about the preschool disagreement, because when I share this, some of those parents and teachers involved are on my Facebook friends list. I am biding my time until the school term ends and my daughter moves to elementary school. I don’t want to talk to the school again.
On the plus side, I was contacted by two individuals at the school who passionately agreed with me and wanted to know how to do better. That gives me hope.
What are your opinions on political powers and world leaders using stigmatisation against certain groups to further their own agendas, such as with Muslims, Black people, LGBTQ individuals, mentally ill and disabled people?
I think the choice is a diversion to cover other moves they are making to increase their own power. Demonising/dehumanising minorities is a classic diversion tactic. It has been used against Muslims since 9/11 even though, again, you are far more likely to be shot or bombed by a white man in a terrorist act than by any other individual. In fact, the only time it’s acceptable to be mentally ill is if you are a white man who committed a terrorist act. Mental illness as a label conveniently replaces terrorism in an act that persevere terrorism for minorities and incorrectly stigmatises the mentally ill as violent. I believe we should criminally charge those in political power for promoting stigmatisation as it is divisive and encourage terrorism against stigmatised groups.
Do you support or take part in any anti-stigma organisations or charities and if so which ones and why?
Locally, an advocacy group called We Are You has taken root and is actively working against dehumanisation. I am happy to support the group’s growth.
While my business, Survive Your Story, is not specifically designed to counteract stigma, much of what I do is coach individuals and groups to use writing as an act of release and recovery with issues of survivorship and mental illness. Many of my clients are dismantling the stigmas applied to them during victimisation or diagnosis. A part of my business model is offering at least one full scholarship for every trauma writing workshop I teach to make access to healing tools accessible and affordable. With that goal in mind, I have a Zazzle shop where I sell Survive Your Story merchandise, and donations can be made via PayPal.
In your own words please tell us how you feel the arts and creativity can further help to empower, communicate and educate people with regards to discrimination, privilege and stigmatisation?
I will return to my previous statement that arts make alternate life experiences accessible. I took refuge in books and paintings as a child. I travelled the world through the written word. Art allows us to challenge ourselves without risk. It allows us to open ourselves without bleeding.
Whether we are creating or enjoying art, it is a portal to personal growth.
If you would like to find out more about Shawna and her work please follow and support these links:
Please visit Shawna’s Zazzle shop and make a purchase to support the pursuit of survivor art.
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