Alhamdullilah, I left London:

Racism, Islamophobia, and Neoliberal Wet Dreams in London Ontario.

CONTENT WARNING: The following essay covers themes of sexual harassment by way of intimidation, islamophobia, hate crime. Exercising self-care is advised.

“Hey, is this your dad’s store?” my beloved friend, Lily, texted on March 28, 2021.

She sent me the following video:

https://www.instagram.com/p/CM-uP0sHx9h/?utm_medium=copy_link

My heart pounded faster and faster upon hearing my beloved brother, Hasan’s voice increase.

“Go back to your country” — I turned off the screen.

“Fuck London,” I told my Toronto roommates.

London is not a city I’m proud to call home. We immigrated there in 1997. I was one of 4 racialized students in my first grade at my French Immersion école élémentaire. By the time I hit eighth grade, I wanted out.

“Are you Chinese?” the kids used to ask me when I spoke English with a Malay accent.

The accent dropped quick.

“Go back to your country,” I heard racist customers say to Baba all through out my childhood.

“You’re so articulate,” said the Karens.

No shit, I juggled four languages at the age of six — I wanted to sass back.

If it wasn’t racism, it was islamophobia.

“You’re not gonna come back married are you?” my white neighbor, a retired school teacher, said in response to me telling her about visiting Malaysia for the summer.

I was 16 when she said this.

When I attended masjid events, community leaders often diminished the rampant racism. NDP representatives apologetically addressed racism in the community at a documentary screening. A community leader, an Arab lawyer, followed-up on their speech by saying “London isn’t a racist city”.

“Islam preaches peace” —

Islam also doesn’t teach us to pander, I thought.

I left the gymnasium fuming. The cognitive dissonance was unbearable.

Baba’s store was a central site of racism for me. Working at the store was when I felt smallest. Working at Baba’s store taught me the hurdles of what it meant to be working class. Customer service, commodified empathy and emotional labour.

I made sure to wear baggy tops and no make-up to divert attention away from perverts. My ‘uniform’ didn’t spare me from sexual harassment. My natural face made me subject to infantilization because, let’s face it, white people age faster than colored people. My ‘uniform’ attracted a different type of predator.

One day, a 6 foot plus white guy walked in and made small talk as we completed the transaction. I was friendly, the same way I was with most customers. He returned regularly and our conversations lengthened.

“Sarah, how old are you by the way?”

“I’m 23,”

“Oh no way! I thought you were younger,”

Gross, I thought.

“23 isn’t bad. Guess how old I am?” he chuckled.

“I don’t know, 35?” I said sharply. I knew where this was going and I wanted it to end.

“37”.

Gross, gross. I stopped making eye contact. I thought maybe he could read my body language.

“Would your dad allow you to have dinner with me?” he said mockingly.

Islamophobia, noted.

“I’m not interested”.

“Why not?”

“I’m just not,” I said staring at the door hoping another customer would walk in and break the tension.

A few nights later, he came into the store inebriated during my evening shift. I pushed through my discomfort to complete the transaction. Beep Beep. His debit card declined.

“Can I pay you back later?” he slurred.

“No. I can put these items aside and you can return with cash,” I responded calmly.

He returned without cash and the card error re-occurred. One of my regulars noticed I was uncomfortable and stepped in. He escorted the man out of the store on my behalf. I thanked him and thought I was safe for the evening.

The man returned a forth time. This time, there were no other customers in the store. He began to take off his clothes. I pushed the giant man out the door and locked it from the inside. I ran to the storage room and called Baba in tears and panic.

Baba pushed him away from the door and escorted me to the car. The man followed us and clung on to the car trunk as Baba tried to reverse. Baba stepped on the break and immediately called the police.

Arab uncles left their stores to yell at the man. “Stay here,” Baba said as he left the car to calm the men down. Baba played referee as the Arab Ammos got rowdier.

A chubby 20-something white guy pulled out his phone to record the conflict. I glared at him from the car window. He stood in place across the street laughing while I dried my swollen eyes.

Complicit like the Canadian that he was.

To the white gaze, this was all a spectacle.

“When the police comes who do you think they’re going to arrest?!” Baba yelled at the men to calm them down. Baba was smart to think of the racial optics.

The police station is only a 5 minute drive away. It shouldn’t be too much longer. I repeated to myself to bring down my anxiety levels.

The cops took over an hour to show up.

To this day I wonder: Would they have arrived faster had I been the one to call? Would the police have arrived quicker if I was as the Karens say “articulate”?

When Eternity Martis wrote, London Ontario was a Racist Asshole to Me , I felt goosebumps because of how much the article resonated with my lived experience in my hometown.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world,” said well-intentioned neoliberals.

So I did.

I organized roundtables, panel discussions, and conference presentations as an equity educator. I mobilized a team of student organizers to collect marginalized students’ testimonials to present to Western University’s VP of Student Life.

“You’re the next AOC,” white feminists said to Rowa, my beloved Sudanese sister and co-organizer, when trying to poach her for municipal politics.

“We need more women like you,” they said.

Rowa reminded them of her socioeconomic status. She was a Black Muslim woman who grew up in public housing and the first in her family to attend university. She didn’t have the network or capital to run a campaign but she had the identity markers they were looking for.

The liberals and fauxgressives talked a big game of ‘needing more representation in politics’. As eldest immigrant daughters, we wanted to see change in our city. We wanted to see change for our siblings and communities.

We courageously ran a municipal campaign the year we turned 25.

You would think we’d be praised for aspiring towards the Canadian Dream considering we attended a university where First World brats were often caught saying: “Politics makes me anxious”.

We were a Muslim-women-centric team, all below the age of 30. This should’ve been a historic chapter for London. This leadership experience should have been celebrated as uplifting “diversity” in the city.

It was not.

Our leadership was not cherished.

It was neglected.

Now, if we were a team of white women it would’ve been #girlbossfeminism.

We mobilized racialized youth to participate in politics for the first time.

Uff, as a media studies scholar, I can’t help but imagine the media coverage we would have gotten as white women. Stories upon stories of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diverse communities’. The optics of white women alongside a rainbow of melanin tones would be a neoliberal wet dream, would it not?

Instead, I witnessed constituents freeze upon seeing our hijabi volunteers at their doors. The local Londoners, white constituents, kept their eye contact towards me, a non-hijabi woman. White women were quick to close their doors on our Black teenage volunteers unless I, a racially ambiguous-Asian-esque woman, was the one to introduce them. Keep in mind, Ward 12 is a London riding with some of the highest concentration of Arabs and Muslims in the city. If constituents were ‘nervous’ to see Black boys and Hijabis at their doors in this region, how much more hostile could these interactions have been in ‘less diverse’ ridings?

Our participation in municipal politics was not celebrated. It was feared.

The on-the-ground racism and islamophobia was disheartening but what was most heartbreaking was being gaslit by so-called allies and fauxgressives. White feminists from organizations like Women and Politics, the same women who poached Rowa to run, offered us no tangible support. They did not take a stand when we approached them with instances of bullying, racism, or islamophobia. The ladies who lunch refrained from getting their hands dirty.

For me, one of the most profound disappointments came from Labour Leaders*. As working class candidates, we intentionally designed a platform that advocated for working class constituents. We supported public housing, public transit, and we specifically tackled municipal politics to challenge the institution of policing. #Defundthepolice.

We were informed that the council only nominates one candidate from each riding. At the press conference, the labour leaders nominated two candidates for Ward 12. They conveniently couldn’t decide between a Black Muslim woman and a white woman. Labour’s pandering and commitment to identity politics effectively split the votes among progressives.

What is the value behind splitting the progressive vote in a racist, islamophobic, city like London other than to spare themselves from public criticism?

We left the press conference completely shattered and humiliated. My Middle Eastern and Asian pride would have rather received no nomination than a pity vote. Astaghfirullah. (I expand more on the campaign experience in my autobiography).

My campaign shoes ~ RIP 2018 ~

I had numerous heartbreaking experiences prior to campaign. However, my spirit fundamentally broke for the first time upon completing this leadership experience.

“You should be proud of yourselves!” said the ladies who lunch.

Because affirmations pay rent, right?

Not a single one of the fauxgressives offered us mentorship or even asked us: What are your next steps? How can I support you in your aspirations?

Nothing. Just a few high-fives and re-tweets.

Broke and broken was how I came out of my courageous campaign experience. Leaving London was my only option to carve out my career path and find some semblance of sanity.

“Congratulations for finally leaving London!” my girlfriends cheered while welcoming me to Toronto in September 2020.

The domestic terrorist attack on the Muslim family in London on June 6 2021 brought back my loveless London memories. The ‘alleged’ 20 year old domestic terrorist, Nathanial Veltman, murdered:

Grandma, age 74

Mom, age 44

Dad, age 46

Daughter, age 15

My heart breaks for the nine-year-old-boy recovering in the hospital.

London Muslim Mosque — Photo by my beloved brother, Hasan Barzak (@hasanslens)

إِنَّا لِلَّٰهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ

“Racism and Islamophobia are real!” cried the pandering politicians. One of the most atrocious Islamophobic attacks in North America had to happen in London for the public to wake up to a reality I knew all too well.

Perhaps what is most sinister to me is how the perpetrator is 20 years old. The perpetrator, domestic terrorist, was born the year 9/11 happened. This murderer was not old enough to remember what went down.

Which begs the question: What diet of racism, hate, and islamophobia is present in our cultural environment that fosters these atrocious beliefs?

Inshallah, my lived experience answers this question but if my accounts aren’t convincing enough let’s do a systemic analysis.

The year we ran for city council was the same campaign season Ed Holder ran for mayor. The London Mayor tweeted the following in response to this atrocity.

ED HOLDER TWEET

Ed Holder was a Conservative candidate for the London West riding between 2008 and 2015 under the Harper administration. While Americans were celebrating the peak of Obama-Nation, Canadians voted in a Conservative administration that was responsible for legalizing islamophobia.

For those of us who have political amnesia, the Harper administration was responsible for enforcing the legalization of islamophobia through: Bill C-51 and Bill C-24. Read more here: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/faisal-kutty/stephen-harper-sows-fear-muslims_b_8094044.html

I say all this to say hate crimes don’t exist in isolation. Hate crimes don’t happen because of one bad apple. No. Hate crimes happen because there are entire institutions and cultural ecosystems at play that uphold and foster hateful beliefs. We, as members of the civil society, are responsible for being civically engaged and supporting our courageous leaders who have the audacity to challenge the status quo.

To my millennial and zoomer generation: IT IS NOT ENOUGH TO RAGE ONLINE.

Young leaders like myself and my team needed more young people to donate, volunteer, and offer material/tangible support. My team needed guidance, mentorship, and momentum. We needed action not arm-chair allyship. We needed praxis beyond social media slacktivism.

The momentum expressed at the London Vigil has me cautiously hopeful. I am proud to see my younger brother, Hasan, and his friends speak up and speak out. However, I write from a place of heartache and deep disappointment towards the London community who left my team devastated after campaign. I write from a place of disappointment towards a Canadian community who took far too long to wake up.

I will not be swayed by political pandering and lipservice from local leaders.

I will not foolishly assume a happy ending.

I stopped trying to love a city that would never love me back.

Our Muslim leadership was not celebrated. It was forgotten.

I rest in peace knowing I gave my hometown my absolute all.

Leaving London was the best decision for my well-being.

My only regret? Not leaving sooner.

Fauxgressives, lipservice liberals, white feminists and arm-chair allies, do not ask Women of Color to clean up your messes.

Do not ask Women of Color to take on initiatives that make you feel like a ‘woke’ person unless you have the support systems in place to uplift us.

Do not expect Women of Color to be pitbulls in a dog fight while you watch us suffer from the sidelines.

Do not say “Good job!” to Women of Color unless you are going to offer us a ‘good job’ after completing said initiatives.

Fauxgressives, lipservice liberals, white feminists, and arm-chair allies:

Attending marches, changing display pictures, and eating speciality coloured Tim Horton donut sprinkles will not cure racism and islamophobia.

No. Neoliberalism will not solve islamophobia.

Fauxgressives, lipservice liberals, white feminists, and arm-chair allies:

I need to see y’all sweat for change. I’ll be watching the work you get done.

In Solidarity,

Sarah

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Sarah Barzak

Sarah Barzak

Born in Milwaukee, raised in Canada, I am Kak Long, an eldest immigrant daughter of Malay-Palestinian descent. Cultural Critic & Producer @sarah.barzak on IG