Linda Sarsour came to speak at the University for an event titled “Discussion on Reclaiming Arab Identities and Intersectionality in Activism” on Thursday, Nov. 11. The talk was hosted by the student groups Middle Eastern Perspectives, Students for Justice in Palestine, Shakti, Ladies First, Earth House, Invisible Men, and Women of Color Collective.
“The main purpose [of this talk] was to raise awareness of Arab and Middle Eastern identities on campus,” said Rajaa Elidrissi ’16, who planned the event. “This group is invisible and does not have a racial or ethnic category in the U.S. I wanted to organize this talk to inform the Wesleyan campus of another student of color group at the University.”
Sarsour is the Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York. She is a Palestinian Muslim American, as well as, a community activist, and a mother of three.
“I wanted to book her because she’s been on the news a lot speaking on issues regarding Arabs and Muslims,” Elidrissi said. “She also speaks on how all marginalized groups should support each other.”
Elidrissi interned at the Arab American Association of New York during the summer after her first year at the University. She decided to reach out to Sarsour through her website, hoping that she would speak at the University. During her visit, Sarsour spoke about her thoughts regarding the recent threats to black students at various college campuses around the country.
“I’ve been thinking about what our role is in the larger conversation,” Sarsour said. “Really it’s not about being people of color, to be honest with you. It’s about black people feeling safe. Let’s be straight with that, because I consider myself to be a person of color, but I don’t know how unsafe I would feel on college campuses in comparison to someone who is black.”
In particular, Sarsour focused her journey on understanding the cruciality of intersectionality.
“What’s important about this particular event is this idea of intersectionality,” Sarsour said. “You know we’re not just one identity. I’m not just a woman; I’m a Palestinian, American, Muslim woman. I’m a parent. I’m a social justice advocate. I’m a racial justice activist. I run a non-profit; I work with refugees; so there’s multiple facets of my identity.”
Sarsour also talked about how as a young woman, she did not fully realize the need for intersectionality.
“For folks that know New York City or know cities like New York City, I never really felt like I was different than anybody else,” Sarsour said. “New York was like, ‘Everybody is in New York.’ I didn’t feel different. In my high school, I was actually cool. I didn’t feel like I was getting bullied. It never [felt like] I was different, or that I didn’t deserve to be somewhere.”
For Sarsour, a lot of her perspectives regarding race and how she felt about herself changed after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I always was like, ‘I’m Palestinian,’” Sarsour said. “That was my thing. I never walked around being like, ‘I’m Muslim.’ That never really came to me. For me, religion was something you believed in by yourself. It was between you and whatever you believed. That was it. I think September 11 was the day that I was like, ‘Okay, I’m Muslim.’”
Co-founder of Middle Eastern Perspectives Israa Saber ’17 found this discussion particularly important because of the impact she believes these topics will have on the University’s community.
“Middle Eastern Perspectives aims to make the Wesleyan community more knowledgeable about Arab culture and Arab issues, particularly within the U.S.,” Saber said. “This talk about intersectionality [has done] just that, and it will also allow us to reach out to other minority groups who may have similar experiences.”
During the years that Saber has studied at the University, she cannot recall a time when there has been a speaker of Arab heritage who spoke about Arab issues. She lauded the individuals who brought Sarsour to speak on campus.
“Sarsour is well-known within the Arab community for her political activism, and it’s important for Wesleyan [students] to hear her talk so that they can learn more about the Arab-American community,” Saber said. “It is absolutely necessary for us to continue to have these kinds of talks here because of the increasing Arab presence in the U.S. Wesleyan students need these kinds of events to become more aware of our community.”
Elidrissi hopes that members of the University community who attended the discussion left with a better grasp on social justice, intersectionality, and why understanding each other’s struggles is vital.
“My family identifies as Arab and Muslim, so you can see why this is important to me,” Elidrissi said. “The construction of an Arab-American identity is also important to me and important to people like Linda.”
One central point that Sarsour made was the importance of people sticking together and standing up for each other, regardless of whether they are personally being attacked or persecuted.
“I understood what segregation was; I understood what Jim Crow was; I understood that there was discrimination in our country,” Sarsour said. “I wasn’t feeling like our country was perfect. [Racism] was just not something that was [always] apparent to me or something that I experienced on a personal level. That’s the importance of solidarity and building good communities. Just because something ain’t happening to you, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”