Meharoona Ghani is the Manager of Community Connections and Diversity at the North Shore Multicultural Society. She is also the Principal of M. Ghani Consulting, Community Engagement and Diversity Specialist.
This interview was conducted over the phone on April 5, and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Cara Pryor: I’ve been thinking about when Trump was first elected and how much, I guess, smugness there was in Canada, imagining that we don’t have the same kind of problems. We don’t have a Trump. And then a few days later there was the attack on the mosque – which didn’t stay in the news for very long. I wondered what you thought about that.
Meharoona Ghani: I remember a posting on Facebook, a comment that said, “oh be glad that we’re in Canada and it’s not like this in Canada.” There were a couple of comments like that, and I didn’t bother responding because social media is not the place to do it. I just looked at it as, in Canada, there are people out there who think that we’re fine.
To me it’s not about which country people are in, it’s about human beings who are uncomfortable in different situations and lash out in behaviour that is oppressive or racist. The situation in the US has caused those yahoos in Canada to resurface and do things like paint a swastika in Edgemont Village, or the shooting at the mosque. We have racism in Canada. It’s been here all along and has never disappeared. I’m not smug.
The example of the mosque: the problem to look at is, why was that individual not called a terrorist, and what is the power of his whiteness? How [has] the construct of white been created throughout history to position a certain group in power while keeping other people out of that power?
We are all guilty. I’m not saying we are all racist. I’m saying we are all guilty of perpetuating ideas without even knowing we are doing it. We [need to] stop and look: What systems are in place? Are [we] aware of that history? [Are we] aware of ourselves?
Cara: There’s sometimes a criticism that many people may see themselves as anti-racist, but do nothing. If we’re all guilty, all complicit in these systems, what is required of us?
Meharoona: There is no general answer for everybody. It comes down to what is in your control and what isn’t.
There are people of colour who are also complacent. There are reasons for that too – there are some who want to be a part of the norm, a part of the mainstream, and not sure how to be vocal – because they might have experienced racism, or they don’t want to stick out as a person of colour.
Some white people might not be saying anything or doing anything because they’re also afraid of sticking out or doing something wrong. So it becomes completely overwhelming for people.
I think looking at what’s doable, and within a person’s control, is a way to help somebody deal with something. For example, if I was working in a library, I’d review the books and literature to identify what’s missing in terms of different types of issues and expand the collection. I’d review our demographics and ensure those people are being served. That’s one simple, do-able way.
A white person could talk to a person of colour, and say, “I’ve noticed this is missing. What can we do together?” Perhaps that person of colour might be looking for somebody to notice, to work with to bring it forward. Perhaps that person of colour might not be saying something out loud because they’re not sure if they’re going to rock the boat.
It’s relational. It’s two people coming together and saying, “What can we do?” Find the courage to say it out loud.
So it’s breaking down, what the simplest thing a person can do that they have control over as a first step? And from there it can evolve to something bigger. And the next big step might be, what are we doing to make sure we have diverse staff? What does it mean to have diverse staff?
Cara: What does it mean?
Meharoona: Well, it first means that the current staff needs to have training to understand what it means to have diverse staff. What is it they want? People are saying things like, “We want a diverse board.” And I’m saying, “Okay, that’s great, but what does that mean to you?”
A diverse board does not equal having every token checklist person there. It means people who have a very deep understanding about the systems of inequity that are in place that we need to change. [For instance], would the meeting time change to accommodate a person with a disability who needed to eat their meals and take their medication at a particular time?
I don’t believe organizations have thought through what diversity means, and how they’re going to serve that need, other than having a checklist, thinking that it’s just people of colour. Some people of colour are not even aware of what being diverse means.
I don’t want white people to feel that it’s just them that need training. I feel every single person needs training. [Many people of colour don’t necessarily] know anything about [their] own self-awareness, and the unconscious biases [they’re] carrying. A man of colour might be just as sexist as a white man.
And it’s ongoing. As people, as organizations, as a society, we need to come to peace with the fact that we are never going to have [complete] belonging. We have to come to peace with the fact that we’re constantly changing. So that means as we’re constantly changing, we have to be constantly educated on those changes and [think about] how we’re going to respond or react, or be proactive to change.
And we’re not always going to get it right. So that means, what are the spaces we are creating to make sure people can come forward in a safe way, in a respectful way, [and say], “You know, I’m not sure about x,y, and z. What can we do?” Belonging is always about being lost and found. And we go through that our entire life. The critical thing is: How do we support each other when we go through those moments of lost and found?
For me going through a process of lost and found was about letting go of what other people think. And so I am much more vocal than I ever used to be about the work I do in the diversity field. It has a lot to do with being told I have multiple sclerosis. My courage comes from that process of what I’ve been through, this self-realization that, I don’t know what my time on earth is going to be like. I might lose my vision, I might lose my ability to speak, I might lose my cognitive ability. I might lose so many things in my body.
I made a choice that this is my life’s purpose. So you make mistakes along the way. That’s part of courage. That’s part of lost and found.
Cara: How did this become your life’s purpose?
Meharoona: When I was 8 years old I was first called racist names. That led me to fight racism. But at that time I never saw it as my life’s purpose. Over time, I wanted to be a librarian [laughs], but diversity was always a part of that. I’d be looking around and thinking, “Where are the books that I want to read? I’m going to bring in the diversity lens.” Then I got sidetracked with women’s studies and race. I left government in 2011 and I was one of three women of colour in the entire country to lead a provincial multiculturalism and anti-racism file. After I left, I resisted and tried to get jobs that had nothing to do with diversity. My master’s was in gender and international development and my thesis focused on violence against South Asian Muslim women. I was looking at community development, community participatory work. How do you bring community together to deal with issues? But the diversity thing kept on being put in my face, wherever I went – boom, boom. And finally I said to myself, maybe I’m supposed to be listening to this. And then I knew, this is just my life’s calling.
Cara: Before we go, I want to talk about the workshop you do. I personally felt profoundly affected by the hijab exercise that you took us through [where you begin the session wearing the hijab, and facilitate a discussion around our perceptions of your identity. Then you take the hijab off and facilitate a similar discussion]. What do you think it is that makes this so effective?
Meharoona: There are two personal threads. [First], I was exploring wearing the hijab for myself. I did wear it at different times to see if I would wear it permanently, so I went through that journey.
The other personal thread is that when I was in my twenties, the first Gulf War happened in Iraq, and I was in a Muslim association [in Victoria]. We were being invited by different communities to come and talk to different organizations about Muslims. People were afraid, and they didn’t know anything about Islam. They wanted to learn about Muslim people.
We got invited to Camosun College. I was in the audience. And there was this UVIC professor who converted from Catholicism to Islam. She was of white identity and was also part of the [Muslim Association]. She wore a hijab, which is a head scarf, and she also wore what’s called a burqa, which is a long robe.
Suddenly the audience started focusing on her clothes rather than the topic. There was an assumption starting to become apparent that she was being forced somehow to wear the clothing she wore. And then, in the slip of a second, she suddenly took her hijab off in front of the entire audience. She kept it off, and her hair – long, beautiful, auburn hair just fell to her waist. And she said, “This is my choice. This is a piece of cloth. It does not define who I am.”
Me and my sister and other young Muslim women silently cheered. We felt so proud. And that was the first time I felt proud to be Muslim.
[So] when I was asked five years ago to be a keynote speaker at Corrections Canada – about diversity – I thought, what am I going to talk about? I reflected a lot on what [diversity] means to me, on a personal level.
I also believe that part of transformational change comes from personal story. If we want to make change in other people, or if we want people to feel something around the importance of what we’re doing, then we’ve got to become vulnerable and share our personal story.
Then I remembered that scenario at Camosun College, and I thought, “Oh! I’m going to do that.” Because I’d tried wearing the hijab – I’d wanted to see what it was like. So why don’t I come in and do the whole scenario of wearing it and taking it off and see what happens? That was a ten-minute keynote and from there it has evolved into a two-hour workshop.
Cara: And it really did open up a space for people to say out loud their fears and their worries about what that meant, and who you were. It also provided a space to recognize internally, like, “Oooooohhh….I thought you were this person, and now I think you’re this person. And this is what I’m doing in the world.” It was a really important tool to spark that inner exploration.
Meharoona: It shows, “I’m also a human being under all this clothing. I’m just like you, whether I’m wearing this or not, I’m still you. Behind this, I’m just like everybody else.”
Find Meharoona online at:
Cara Pryor is the Head of Community, Program, and Service Development at the North Vancouver City Library