Omer Aziz walked with fear at Queen’s

Brown Boy reflects the crisis of rage

Image supplied by: Cayley Pimentel
Omer Aziz spoke about his time at Queen’s.

When Omer Aziz, ArtSci ’12, graduated from Queen’s with a politics degree, he left with a deep understanding of fear.

In his debut book, Brown Boy, Aziz discusses politics, race, and religion at Canadian and American universities. Most importantly, the memoir discusses the fear of being the other—the immigrant, the Muslim, the “brown boy”—and challenges readers to examine their class positions in academic institutions.

Brown Boy shows a world of borders and boundaries where people don’t typically cross from one side to the other. As Aziz enters the elite world of academics, from Queen’s to Cambridge, then Yale to Harvard—his life shifts beyond what he could fathom.

“In terms of our potential as human beings, in terms of what we can do in this world, in terms of who we can be, I don’t think we should ever put borders and limits on that,” Aziz said in an interview with The Journal.

Aziz doesn’t live the same life as his immigrant parents, who worked late-night shifts and made just enough money to get by. He enters Ivy League schools and works closely with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—something he couldn’t have foreseen growing up.

Hailing from Scarborough, Aziz didn’t feel prepared for the culture shock he experienced among the white, homogenous population at Queen’s.

The white privilege found at the university taught him the meaning of rage.

“If you’re a white Canadian kid and you went to Queen’s and all your friends are white, all the people around you are white, you don’t think you don’t have any diverse friends,” he said.

“You don’t seek out any kind of diversity, you’re fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with how the world is going to be. Your parents have failed you and your community has failed you.”

In Kingston, Aziz knew he was different, and he knew those around him knew he was different. This difference wasn’t something to be celebrated or worn as a badge of honour. Instead, his religion and appearance became something he feared would be an excuse for exclusion.

“I wouldn’t admit to myself, maybe I felt it as anxiety or stress, depression, or culture shock. But really in my heart, it was fear,” Aziz said.

Initially, Queen’s was lonely. Living on a floor of predominately commerce students, some coming from private schools like Upper Canada College and St. Michael’s College, made the gap between him and his floormates enormous.

“There was a complete absence of any conversation on race and belonging. Anyone wanting to take it seriously would elicit mockery. We felt very unsafe. Muslims felt unsafe and Asians felt unsafe,” Aziz said.

Racism and xenophobia at Queen’s caused  Aziz to struggle with depression in his early months at school. In comparison to his graduate and law school experience at Cambridge and Yale, Queen’s still stands out to him due to the heightened ignorance and extreme entitlement of its students.

Aziz speaks to xenophobic attitudes against immigrants, Muslims, and people who are religiously different from what the predominant society is accustomed to. He writes about the tension between his desire to enter that world and the fear of assimilation into Western culture.

His memoir presents a first-person perspective that shows the intersection between his
working-class background as a Muslim person of colour and the privileged life of his peers at Queen’s.

He speaks of a wonder for the world just outside his window, where his father would lecture him about school and his Amma—mom—would tell him to say his prayers to Allah.

Queen’s challenged Aziz to seek new ideas, explore new authors, and find ways to educate himself. When he started at Cambridge and Yale, they weren’t as difficult as he initially imagined them to be. He credits his professors and Queen’s for preparing him academically for these institutions.

“As we get older it’s easy to soften the past because we want to come to terms, accept, and heal. That’s really important. We should never dilute the truth either. I put myself back into that boy’s shoes and position, and no one should feel that type of fear.”

Society must reckon with history until we recognize what has been done to marginalized groups in Canada, Aziz said, or else we’re never going to move forward.

He hopes Brown Boy will provoke conversations and reflection on privilege and race.

Tags

book, Book review, Queen's culture, race, religion

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