Somali youth experience significant amounts of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia in our schools and communities. In addition, Somali girls are seen as being monolithically oppressed by their culture and religion. My dissertation research demonstrates the spirit and strength of Somali youth as they respond to these marginalizing discourses. My year-long ethnographic study took place at a K–8 charter school that was founded by the Somali community in order to meet the academic, cultural, and religious needs of Somali students. I was primarily interested in how fifth and sixth grade Somali youth experience racialization, and how Somali girls make sense of Somali and American gender norms.
Findings reveal that racialization was highly gendered. Somali boys took up some Black cultural discourses, such as listening to rap music and speaking in Black stylized English, but resisted identifying as Black. Instead they created hybrid Somali American identities. At the same time, parents and elders worried about Somali boys “sagging their pants” and “acting like African Americans.” African American youth culture became synonymous with the negative aspects of American youth culture such as drugs, gangs, and violence. Meanwhile, fewer girls engaged with Black cultural discourses. The greater concern within this community was that Somali girls who wore pants or tight clothes would start ‘acting like White girls.’ The concern with ‘acting like a White girl’ was a trope for being sexually promiscuous; in other words, for not being Muslim. Experiences with racialization were necessarily bound up with hegemonic notions of White masculinity and femininity. Although the hijab is often seen as a symbol of oppression in the West, I show how the girls embraced the veil and subverted the discrimination they experienced, insisting that they are equal to boys. Wearing the veil allowed the girls to challenge some gender norms while remaining connected to their families, their faith, and their community. My research shows how the girls wove together American, Somali, and Muslim gender discourses based on their homegrown experiences and unique desires and interests. The most significant way in which the girls embraced gender equity was in the high academic and professional goals they had set for themselves.
Very little research exists on immigrant youth of this age and almost no research is available on second generation Somali American youth. My research breaks new ground, both in terms of my participants, and in the ways in which I attend to their creativity and strength, and their determination to succeed in America.