In late June, Convivium’s Peter Stockland engaged in public conversation with lawyer, teacher and community activist, and author Jamil Jivani, 30, about his new book Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity. Over the next three days, Convivium will serialize an edited transcript of the discussion so readers who weren’t able to attend might experience Jivani’s remarkable story and wisdom.
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Peter Stockland: As I was reading Why Young Men, I kept thinking of that wonderful TV series The Wire, which looked at the life in inner-city Baltimore over the course of five seasons.
There's a particular moment I remember acutely, and it kept coming back to me as I was reading Jamil's book.
There's a young character who is on the tipping point of entering into the life of a street gangster, and there's an older, wiser character called Cutty. He's an ex-con who runs a boxing club where he tries to help kids avoid the kind of life Michael’s headed for. There’s tension between Cutty and the young man, but overall they work it out. One evening they come out of the boxing club and Cutty's trying to give his protégé a bit of a pep talk, keep his spirits up, help him understand that there's life beyond the limits of the neighborhood that they're in. He says to him, "You can get out of this, you can go places, you can do things."
The young man, walking alongside him listening to this almost pro forma pep talk, turns to Cutty and asks, "But how do we get there from here?" Cutty stops, looks away, and says blankly, "I haven't got a clue.”
That scene is the synthesis of the trap of that neighborhood and the lives represented. There's this will to get beyond it, to transcend it, and yet there's this implacable wall of not having a clue of how to get out of it.
Jamil – it struck me, as I was reading, that from a very early age, you lived both ends of that dichotomy. You knew that there had to be a way out of this, but you had no idea how to do it. Am I accurate there? Is that a proper sense of where you were?
Jamil Jivani: I'm glad we started with The Wireas a reference, because one thing I think that show did very well – that I hoped to do with my writing – is provide the chance to look at the lives of people who are often seen as unrepresentative of our society. They are under-represented because they are poorly understood or stereotyped, or part of minority groups that have burdens put on their shoulders because of the broader inequalities of our society.
From their lives you can actually get a really deep sense of what's happening in a bigger picture; that you could look at the lives, for example, of a young Muslim man in Belgium, and through that you would actually learn something about what Belgium is like as a society, right? And not just about him and his community. I think that's kind of what The Wire did really effectively, and what I hoped to do, too.
One of the things I explore in the book – which is a pretty defining part of my life – is what I would call a poverty of imagination, that transcends material comfort. You could look at people who are materially deprived, like some of the Baltimore neighborhoods that a show like The Wire talks about. But you could also find a lot of the same cultural circumstances in a wealthy suburb, or in a place where someone has been given many of life's gifts, yet still doesn't have a great sense of what they're supposed to do with them, or what a good life looks like.
That is the benefit, I think, of looking at these problems not just from an economic perspective, but understanding them from a cultural perspective, and from a community perspective, how someone perceives him or herself, and the future that they might imagine. There are so many variables that don't get captured just by looking at whether you're poor or not. There's also a whole other host of factors that shape us.
I grew up in Brampton, in a mostly immigrant community. Most of my neighbors were Sikh, or from the Caribbean. We were all new to the neighborhood. It was a newly developed area. We were all older than the houses we lived in, but we were not lacking many of the conventional things that people might think a child needs in order to thrive.
We had a good school system, all things considered. We had a new community center with a library that was built not far from where we lived. We didn't have a lot of crime or violence, and yet we were people looking for an identity, and looking for a way to belong in this country that our parents were new to, and consequently we kind of had a lot of variability in the kind of cultures and subcultures that we engaged in.
One of the biggest difference-makers, for instance, in my neighborhood was that we didn't have a church or a mosque or any kind of religious institution in walking distance to where we lived except for a Sikh gurdwara. In fact, many of my Sikh neighbours had moved to that part of Brampton specifically because there was a gurdwara there. That wound up being a pretty big difference-maker in terms of who, for instance, thought it was worth going to school and putting effort in, and seeing that as a way to get to that better future you're describing, versus who didn't. Because people who were part of that gurdwara community, I think had a strong foundation through which they had people who had an answer that question of, "How do you get there from here?"
Whereas many of us, I think maybe most of us, didn't have a strong community like that. We didn't have folks who had an answer to that question. We spent our lives trying to figure it out and along the way. Most of us didn't.
Peter Stockland: I want to get to the issue that you've touched on there about that relationship between faith and identity, but I want to start at the very beginning of the book and work our way towards that bridge of faith and identity. I want to start with the very first paragraph of the book, which I think is so telling.
"By getting on the school bus on that gray sky morning in fall 2003, I revealed a secret to the world. I was illiterate. At least I was according to the public school system. I was the lone grade 11 student on the bus, because only tenth graders had to school that morning, to complete a test proving they could read and write at their grade level. All the other kids in my grade had the morning off. I should have been sleeping in too, but I had failed the test the year before, and had to rewrite it to free myself of the illiterate label."
To me, that paragraph so powerfully sets up the rest of the book. Both in terms of that sense of the weight, the 2000-tonne weight that such labeling represents, but also the way in which those labels can occur in such small and ordinary settings. We think of rage, of the crisis of identity, as these large things that play themselves out in huge street actions, and ultimately maybe end up in court action, involving the law, the broad sweep of politics, however far we want to take it. Yet identity, and that sense of labeling, and that sense of limits, and having to struggle out from underneath them, starts in really small ways like being on a school bus, doesn't it? It starts right on your street corner when you get on that bus.
Jamil Jivani: Well, I started the book with that day for a few reasons. I thought it would be a good way to kind of tell the Ontario school system how wrong they were by starting a book explaining that I was once considered unable to write. To me, that was one of the clearest rock bottom moments in my life. I think it's one that even people who don't fail literacy tests like I did can maybe relate to. You could probably look back on your life and say there was a time when you thought so low of yourself, you maybe hated yourself, you had a very bleak sense of who you are and what your future held. And, consequently I think I could have been turned into virtually anything depending on who was around me and who was in my life at the time.
I failed that literacy test because I just didn't care to try in school and to show what I was capable of. A year and a half after re-writing it, I had the highest grades at Humber College. The question I wanted to pose by telling that story was this: how does a kid who, a year and a half later has the highest grades at Humber College, and four years later has a scholarship to go to Yale Law School, at some point between 15 and 16 years of age, get labeled illiterate? How do they have their self-esteem crushed by the school system? How are they put in a position where they think that the only hope they might have in the world is an illegal life?
That's fundamentally the challenge we have when we think about the conditions that a lot of young men face, which is that they are kind of squandered potential, and wrapped in hopelessness, at times where they should be making contributions to our society, right?
That was what that moment represented to me, and certainly it was a terrible day. I mean, to out yourself as someone who can't read and write, and to know that anyone who sees you go to school that morning knows that you are stupid…. That's how I thought of myself. That's a difficult way to experience your childhood. I remember the irony of getting a letter saying that I could read, and being able to read it, and just thinking how out of touch my life was with the kind of system that I was living inside of.
Peter Stockland: You were reading a letter that told you that you could do what the test said you couldn’t. You knew what the test said you didn’t know.
Jamil Jivani: Yes
Peter Stockland: I have to admit I had a tough time actually reading my way through the next paragraph I want to quote from the book. I had to stop a couple of times and sort of breathe deep. You talk about your relationship with your dad and him basically disappearing out of your life. Years later, you came across a video that you watched as kids about your family life. On the surface, the video presented a happy-clappy family and yet you discovered: "In my last few viewings, I started to see something that I'd missed as a kid. I could see his [your father's] struggles. The distant look in his eyes when he was around his wife and kids, his discomfort when showing affection, the emotionless expression on his face. Our few family photos tell a similar story of a man who just didn't know what he was doing."
I think that's an unbelievable insight, one it takes huge courage to be able to see. I wonder, though, and this is some personal prejudice coming through, personal experience may be coloring it, if you didn't actually know that when you were a kid. Maybe you didn't have the language to know that about your dad, but I have a theory backed up by absolutely no data at all, just a gut hunch, that kids know everything. They just maybe don't have the vocabulary to detail. But they know what we think they don’t. Do you think, as a kid, that you knew that that emptiness was in your dad and knowing that maybe hurt – or helped – you further down the road?
Jamil Jivani: I suppose I knew something was wrong with him in the sense that I could tell, for instance, that he was not happy to be around us in the way my mom was. But what I didn't know until I kind of went into the writing process for the book, is I just didn't look at him like a young man who didn't have a father himself. Right? Every memory I had of him, every thought I had of him was shaped by a certain resentment I felt that he had rejected me and I couldn't see him more than just this guy who didn't do what he was supposed to do.
So, when I said I was going to write this book where I was going to look at young men whose lives are easily misunderstood, you know, criminals, terrorists, people who we as a society often condemn sweepingly and don't grant much empathy to, I felt like I had to do the same for my own father. And that was a bit of, I guess, a difference in my perspective, and that's why I think I can look back at him differently than I had previously.
I have two younger sisters, and they told me after I did my first book talk - which was in April when the book came out - that it was the first time they ever saw me talk about him and not get angry, because my whole life I had a very emotional reaction to him. In part because he came to symbolize a lot of the flaws I felt I also had in myself, and a lot of the unfairness I thought I also experienced in our society.
So emotion is all I felt when he came up in conversation or when I had to think about him. This was kind of the first time where I said well, let me look at him as a man himself, who also experienced this kind of curse of fatherlessness, and see how it played out in his life, and see how being profiled by the police affected him, how being immigrant to Canada affected him. I wanted to see how his life played out and take my own emotions out of it.
The book was kind of the first time I ever did that, I think, so that's where I think the different perspective comes from.
Peter Stockland: Just a page or two later, you complete what seems the other half of the dynamic. Again, from personal experience, and from having watched this play out over and over as I was growing up, you say of the relationship with your mom and what happened after your dad left, "Mom gradually became less social and seemed to embrace loneliness. She spent so much time excusing my father's poor behavior when they were together that she probably thought, "That's how men are supposed to be." She gave up on the possibility of meeting someone who might be different. Both she and I struggled in silence."
That, to me, is an almost clinical description of people that I've known and experienced in life, of an environment where exactly the kind of things that you're addressing, the rage, that sense of crisis, that sense of identity, unfold. Whether it's unfolding within a minority identity context or as part of some majority identity, that crucible is really a big part of where it comes from, isn't it? That, "Both she and I struggled in silence." There are no words to give to it when you're living that, are there?
Jamil Jivani: Certainly I don't think I had the ability or the language to talk about the void left in my life by not having a father, or the many ways I would then go on to try to fill that void. And I think my mother didn't either. I think that affected our relationship pretty significantly. Not only were we were working through differences of gender in that respect, but we were also working through differences of race.
My mom's an Irish-Scottish Canadian, and I was a kind of biracial Black man and we had these experiences that we didn't know how to talk about. So, my father's absence was bigger than just what wasn't done. It also meant that as we went through life together, we didn't know how to bridge the gap between us.
The difficulty that men generally have, and certainly younger men have in being able to express their experiences, their challenges, what they go through, is enormous, right? I mean there's research that I talk about in the book that kind of backs that up, and I would imagine most of you in the room also on a gut level, understand that to be true, whether it's in your own life or in some of the men you know. When you're a young man in particular who kind of has to provide that voice to speak up for yourself, and you don't have anyone who can kind of help you formulate those thoughts or articulate those feelings, it's a real problem.
I was suspended from school, and had lots of issues because of that. I would get into fights and not know how to explain to anyone why it was more important for me to get into a fight than to go to school and be seen as weak or soft, or a snitch by talking to the teachers about what was going on. I didn't know how to explain that, and I didn't really have people in my life who seemed to understand it either. So that communication gap is enormous I think. On a societal level, what we're seeing I think is a recognition of that, right? There are a lot of books for instance right now, that are about masculinity and male experiences.
The bestselling book of the year so far, by Jordan Peterson is written by a clinical psychologist whose following is primarily young men, and I think the fact that that's happening in the world right now, in the Western World in particular, is a sign of how little conversation has happened about these issues. Not just in people's homes like mine growing up, but in general. I don't think we have great dialogue on these issues, and I don't think men, and young men in particular, are very good at articulating what's going on.
The writing is on the wall. It’s only going to get more important, right? When we look at the disruptions to our economy for instance, a lot of the jobs that are going to disappear are going to be jobs that are disproportionately held by men, the men who are under-skilled for the changing economy. That's a group of people that needs to be able to talk about what that means for us. Right? How is that change affecting us? How is that affecting our families? How does that affect how our sons perceive their future? But we're not good at that. It's not happening.
A deeper social problem that we’re all facing pertains to those discussions of masculinity and bridging those communication divides that, hopefully, deep conversations like this are helping to some degree.
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