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Biography & Autobiography Personal Memoirs

Bones of Belonging

Finding Wholeness in a White World

by (author) Annahid Dashtgard

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Apr 2023
Personal Memoirs, Race & Ethnic Relations, Essays
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    Publish Date
    Apr 2023
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    Apr 2023
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Sharp, funny, and poignant stories of what it’s like to be a Brown woman working for change in a white world.
I take a deep breath, check my lipstick one last time on my phone camera, and turn on my mic. It’s about ten steps, two metres, and one lifetime to the front of the room. “Hello,” I repeat. “My name is Annahid — pronounced Ah-nah-heed — and shit’s about to get real!”
In a series of deft interlocking stories, Annahid Dashtgard shares her experiences searching for, and teaching about, belonging in our deeply divided world. A critically acclaimed, racialized immigrant writer and recognized inclusion leader, Dashtgard writes with wisdom, honesty, and a wry humour as she considers what it means to belong — to a country, in a marriage, in our own skin — and what it means when belonging is absent. Like the bones of the human body, these stories knit together a remarkable vision of what wholeness looks like as a racial outsider in a culture still dominated by whiteness.

About the author

ANNAHID DASHTGARD (M.Ed.) is the co-founder of Anima Leadership, a highly respected international consulting company specializing in issues of diversity and inclusion. Previously she was a leader in the anti-corporate globalization movement, responsible for several national political campaigns and frequently referred to as one of the top activists to watch in the 1990s. She is the host of the podcast series Breaking the Ocean: Soundwaves of Belonging and the director of two award-winning documentaries, Buy-Bye World: The Battle of Seattle and Bread. Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and Briarpatch magazine. Dashtgard lives in Toronto with her husband and children. Breaking the Ocean is her first book.

Annahid Dashtgard's profile page

Excerpt: Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World (by (author) Annahid Dashtgard)

3: Bad Immigrant

The world is collectively holding its breath for the outcome of the 2020 US election, Trump or Biden? Will people finally awaken to Trump’s bigotry, his ruthless disregard for people’s health during this pandemic, his corrupt divisiveness? I call my dad the day before the potential apocalypse — my fail-safe person to talk politics with (in addition to North American news, he consumes Iranian, British, and Russian news the way most gobble crispy bacon slices). I absentmindedly ask if relative so-and-so in the US has voted yet, and he definitively answers, “I didn’t ask them. They’re voting for Trump.” My mind snaps to attention in shock. I know our extended family’s politics vary, but I didn’t expect any of them to support the dark side, especially after four years of ample evidence of what he has to offer. “They support the wall,” my father explains, “to keep Mexican immigrants from coming into the country.”

“But Dad,” I respond, my voice rising. I feel a hot flash coming on. “They are immigrants! What’s the difference?”

“I asked that,” he responds.

“And?” I demand, the court judge ready to grant these distant relatives instant reprieve or punishment.

“They said we’re the good kind of immigrant.”

I sit there gobsmacked, my brain obsessing over the question, What is a good immigrant? And of course, good is usually measured against its opposite, so the more interesting question is, What does it mean to be a bad immigrant? And which one am I?

There’s this story we tell ourselves (especially here in multicultural Canada) that, “hallelujah, we’re one of the richest and most open-minded nations on earth, anyone would be lucky to move here!” Compared to most other countries, this is true. We have a high quality of life marked by free health care, one of our major political party leaders wears a turban, and people can be Canadian and something else. We make room for hyphenated identities — Iranian-Canadian, Pakistani-Canadian, Jamaican-Canadian, etc.— rather than force people to choose their future over their past. Yet the forced adherence to this as the only story can become oppressive. So many people I met after publishing my book, a story documenting the lifelong double whammy of forced departure (exile) from Iran and subsequent social rejection (racism) here in Canada, surprised me by their insistence: “But aren’t you glad you moved here?”; “Isn’t Canada the best place to be?”; “Look what you have been able to accomplish!” I started to wonder who people were trying to make feel better, themselves or me?

I wonder how many people know the other stories of those who immigrate from faraway lands — how hard it is to transplant a foreigner into the host country and hope the system doesn’t reject them. Even less chance of acceptance if they come from a non-white part of the world. Dad, who was the Auditor General of Iran under the Shah’s monarchy, came here to work for the Auditor General’s office in the Government of Alberta. He left after five years. The reason cited: racial discrimination. I know this only because I found a file in his office drawer more than a decade later. He goes by Jim in public, Jamsheed in private; speaks English with clients and Farsi at home; learned how to swallow casual racism while being the only accountant that many of his rich white clients trust.

The experience of forced immigration as a Brown or Black person, where you look like everyone else in your native country but arrive in a new one where no one in charge looks like you, is a major shock. You gamble everything to scale down to almost nothing and have little control over anything. The collateral damage is an accumulation of invisible dents and punctures to the very shape of self. You find your spirit starting to leak out. You hope you can Frankenstein yourself by grafting on a pronunciation here or adding a cultural mannerism there, but ultimately it’s never enough. People sniff out the foreign in you and remain wary. Depending on what part of the world you’re coming from, whether you’re fluent in English and how much money you have, the experience is either bearable or much worse. An upper-class white Brazilian has a fundamentally different immigration experience than a bearded working-class Pakistani in exile.

No, in order to have any hope of fitting in, you have to be a good immigrant, to be grateful, and to express this gratitude at every opportunity. To be a non-white immigrant from a non-European country requires a super-sized dose of gratitude: gratitude to be here, gratitude for a better life, gratitude toward the benevolent politeness of strangers who exclude while smiling, who are able to hold on to the illusion of their inclusive politics while standing in front of the closed door to belonging. Immigrants are expected to be outwardly grateful while dealing with the anger at what they have lost and what they are facing, in private. Smile in public, rage in secret. And if you rock the boat and show any kind of anger — toward a boss or teacher, an institution or government — for expecting the same meal deal as those around you for the same amount of effort, you should just go back where you came from.

Here are the unstated rules of being the good kind of immigrant:

  1. You will be renamed but always to a shrunken version of your original self, never longer, never bigger. Jamsheed will become Jim and Annahid, Anna. Do not correct people, because it will be a disruption of social rank, and you should be grateful they are conversing with you at all.
  2. You will hear your country’s name consistently mispronounced by people who have never visited but who will insist they are right nonetheless. “No, I’m sure it’s Eye-ran, not Ee-rahn.”
  3. You will get asked, “Where are you from?” as the chaser question to “How do you pronounce your name?” Once people hear the answer, they will make that the most interesting thing about you or shrink back as if there is little else to say. You will negotiate relationships through your difference rather than from common ground. You will go from never thinking about what it means to be Iranian or Korean or Nigerian to creating your own mental PowerPoint ready to hit play at any time: “Yes, I was born in Iran. No, I’m not a practising Muslim. Yes, we ate a lot of pomegranates.” Create the most stereotypical version of the story you can because this will be the least offensive.
  4. Learn to share your birthplace sparingly, more as a bargaining chip than as everyday currency: plus ten points if shared in a holiday icebreaker, minus ten if shared with border security. Mostly better to hide, if you can.
  5. If you date someone who is white and North American born, don’t expect them to understand your constant need for reassurance that you’re ______ [okay, loved, secure, beautiful, smart] enough. They will not understand the insatiable hunger for something you yourself can’t name but feels something like belonging, what you used to take for granted. Try Zoloft.
  6. When you write a book about your life, do not be surprised when older white people look affronted: “But you’re so young to —!” Just smile and pretend demureness even though they are the reason you wrote it in the first place and they will be the last to buy it.
  7. When people sound surprised by, or envious of, your success — and this is important — play it down as being an accident of circumstance even though you have worked your ass off for every drop of it. They will not like seeing a Brown or Black person — especially an immigrant — rising beside or above them. Bring the conversation back to them, pretend you believe in a meritocracy.
  8. When you reach a level of leadership where you are interacting mostly with other white leaders, try not to act surprised or be offended when they call you “dear,” comment on how pleasant you seem, ask you to do an additional five things to prove your expertise, or forget and leave your name off the session promo. People will be shocked if you bring any of this to their attention and even more offended if you tie it to your identity, so just keep swallowing. Again, swallow some Zoloft.
  9. Do not expect any of your friends, colleagues, or neighbours to ask about or remember your own cultural celebrations. If you mention that tomorrow is Eid or Nowrooz, expect a kind of benevolent glazed expression to appear but make sure to smile appreciatively at the lacklustre, “Cool. Nice. Hmmm,” that gets thrown back at you.
  10. Learn to be two different people: Canadian and ______. You will learn to code-switch between your people and the white society you’re surrounded by, inhabiting a different self in each place. The wear and tear this will take on you is part of the price you pay as you pretend to belong, though your body frequently reminds you differently.

I worry that I am the bad kind of immigrant.

Editorial Reviews

We need more women of colour to speak bravely about how to take our power back. This book of stories is a roadmap for everything from healing our bodies to using our voices in the boardroom. It will inspire all who read it to move into action.

Deepa Purushothaman, author of The First, the Few, the Only

In these vulnerable essays, Annahid Dashtgard gets real about her experiences of exile, teaching equity, parenting and relationships as a mixed-race woman in a context of white supremacy. I related to so many of the stories, nodding along, marking up pages and finding relief in her magic of meaning-making. This is a true gift to the world, a moving meditation on how we can create belonging within ourselves and our communities.

Farzana Doctor, author and psychotherapist

In her new book, Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World, Dashtgard uses the power of story to address issues of equity, inclusion and belonging. Her essays convey personal glimpses, expressed with eloquence and humour, into her unique perspective of facing a world that needs to evolve from its current state of divisiveness and entrenched racism into a more open-minded and equitable place. Annahid’s personal, passionate, and intelligent exploration of the world that she has had to navigate provides a road map that helps us all to increase our awareness and commit to doing our part in order to make our respective communities a better place to live and work.

Mark Shapiro, President and CEO Toronto Blue Jays

Annahid is a stunning writer, daring to speak truths that are often hidden or marginalized, and in the process opening people’s hearts and minds.

Judy Rebick, journalist and author

In Bones of Belonging, Annahid translates racism into easily digestible and relatable bites- which as a First Nations person I more than identified with. These inspiring, humorous and moving stories are essential reading for anyone wanting to invest in a more inclusive planet.

Clayton Thomas-Müller, author of award-winning memoir Life in the City of Dirty Water

As a fellow storyteller, I understand the power of story and how it can bring people together. Annahid’s stories tackle racism and inequality with humour and hope in easily digestible chapters. This book is a must-read for people trying to engage in authentic dialogue and action.

Zarqa Nawaz, comedian, journalist, author of Jameela Green Ruins Everything

These stories are an essential roadmap toward our human interdependence and how we ultimately belong to each other. Through her wonderful writing, Annahid is making the difference we need in the world.

Loretta J. Ross, Feminist and Author of Calling in the Calling Out Culture

Annahid Dashtgard has a brave and beautiful story to tell, and she tells it with honesty and elegance in a book that’s as readable as it is important. I found my own hope renewed as I read this book.

Parker J. Palmer, educator, author, Spiritual Elder

Other titles by Annahid Dashtgard