Teaching Race and Identity in the Classroom: A College Teacher’s Reflections on Bones of Belonging - Dundurn
Sep 14, 2023

Teaching Race and Identity in the Classroom: A College Teacher’s Reflections on Bones of Belonging

Teaching in the summer is a challenge at the best of times. Students are still tired from the last academic year, and they’re taking on jobs to pay next year’s tuition. Keeping their attention for an intense six-week course just before the summer heat waves hit can feel like trying to catch a shadow. 

As I prepped for my second-year “Intersectional Identities” class this past spring, I noticed an overrepresentation of international students on the class list. My heart sank. Please don’t misunderstand me: I love my students. But in recent years, my college, like every other college in Canada, has aggressively recruited international students to come and study. International students pay exploitative rates of tuition – sometimes five to seven times higher than domestic students. The only way they can afford to pay their tuition is by working punishing schedules, often all night long, only to fall asleep in my class. They do not buy textbooks out of an earnest need to save money. Their situation has left myself and many of my peers – upper-middle-class, predominantly white professors who love reading and have never worked a night shift in our lives – at a loss about how to engage a student population struggling to survive through circumstances I can try to understand but will never experience.

The stage was set. Over the course of six weeks when everyone was already tired, I was going to teach a class of non-Canadians — a group who were especially tired, and especially broke, and facing the whitest professor on the planet — about intersectionality. 

Enter Annahid Dashtgard’s Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World. In a series of short stories, essays, and meditations, Dashtgard invites her reader into an intimate conversation about belonging, nation, migration, exile, and love.  There are no clear answers in her text, and there are many contradictions. Within those contradictions, readers have no choice but to adopt a nuanced stance. All of a sudden, complex post-colonial ideas we had clumsily worked to define in previous classes came to life. 

For instance, what does it mean to live in a diaspora? As students read and laughed their way through Dashtgard’s recounting of her experience in a Farsi language class, they began sharing their own experiences. “Am I still a member of the diaspora if I don’t like going to the Brazilian dance nights at the local restaurant?” one student asked the class. Another chimed, “What am I supposed to do if other Indian students don’t like me, but white Canadian society also doesn’t like me, but for different reasons? Do I reject the diaspora and claim Canadian identity or do I try and fit into the immigrant community here?” “I never thought we were allowed to criticize Canada. It makes me feel more honest to be able to say I’m grateful to be here, but it’s also racist.” Dashtgard’s vignettes helped us develop a shared language for students to understand their own location and experience in ways new and profound.

Teaching Bones of Belonging was a catalyst for creating a deeply connected learning community in an intense semester. Dashtgard’s writing helped illuminate theoretical concepts undergraduates can otherwise struggle to understand in a way that felt relatable, inviting, and fundamentally human. I look forward to teaching Bones of Belonging again in future iterations of the course.

—Dr. Emma Lind

Annahid Dashtgard is CEO of Anima Leadership, a racial justice consulting firm. Over the last two decades she has worked with hundreds of organizations and leaders to create more inclusive workplaces. Her first book, Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation, met rave reviews. Toronto is her chosen home.