I avoided talking about this for long enough but it’s no longer avoidable given what’s going on in Trump-landia. I really wish everyone would stop kumbaya-ing the conversation about race away and pretending that we all just are the same because we grew up in America (or Canada). We’re not and we shouldn’t have to be. Although race makes up very little of our DNA, the day to day cultural meaning can be much more significant.
We’ve been touting the importance of teaching kids to be color-blind for years and where has it gotten us? To a bunch of crazed tiki-torch carrying radical neo-nazi racists. There are many studies that show that kids eventually do notice race, somewhere between age five and ten, so stifling the discussion doesn’t do anyone any good, and I believe it’s what can lead to racism in the first place.
Why am I already seeing segregation of races among the children at my daughter’s school and at the playground? Worse yet, why are we turning a blind eye towards it? When I gently asked my daughter’s teachers about this, they just looked uncomfortable and embarrassed, which doesn’t do anything to help prevent it.
I will never forget the way it felt like being stabbed in the heart the first time someone called me a “paki” to my face and all his minions laughed along. I’m sure many people reading my blog don’t know what that is, well it’s a derogatory term for South Asians that is just about the equivalent to the n word.
I remember I was feeling pretty hip walking down the street in my wannabee Debbie Gibson haircut and my new beloved on-trend jean jacket my parents just bought me from Kmart. I wasn’t wearing a bindi and traditional Indian attire, not that that should have justified racism but at least I would have understood it better had I been.
We all know that kids can be mean and they can call each other all sorts of awful names but I can tell you that of all the various insults I’ve ever received, there is nothing that stung deeper than racial slurs. Clearly all my efforts to look normal and fit in didn’t matter, I still got singled out.
From that moment on, I never felt like an equal, I always felt I had to prove that I was an equal to the blonde blue-eyed Aryan looking people around me. It didn’t matter that suburban Toronto was about 30 percent South Asian at the time and has been deemed the most multicultural city in the world. I always found myself in some situation or another of being the visible minority among a group of Caucasian kids, feeling like I had to overcompensate for being brown-skinned by proving that I watched normal western shows and listened to normal western music just to be accepted by them. And I’m still not sure that I ever was. To this day, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still have this insecurity. No matter what, I still wasn’t the majority as I would have been had I grown up in India, and because of that, I have often wondered if it would have been better if I did.
I also remember at the time and for many years after, it seemed to be a faux pas to talk about how you felt like you were ever discriminated against, as though you were just being paranoid, because after all, we are all supposed to be the same right? Now, any person of color who grew up in the western world, if they are being honest with themselves, will tell you that they have felt discriminated against at some point or another for their skin color. Being apprehensive about talking about it for fear that others will dismiss you just makes you feel even more marginalized and underplays the bitter reality that racism does indeed still exist.
The downside of extolling the virtues of a melting pot society is that we don’t just get to fully be ourselves (being of South Asian descent is a huge part of my identity) which in turn means we miss out on opportunities to educate others and quell brewing misconceptions.
Ignorance, if left untreated breeds contempt. Haters don’t seem to understand other cultures, countries, languages and, as a result, assume moronic untruths about what they don’t understand. If children and adults simply talked openly about their ethnicity and what it means to be from a non-white American culture, it might shed more light on it, foster empathy, and dissipate any festering negativity among potential crazy-eyed Peter Cvjetanovics of the Hitler youth persuasion.
I would much rather someone ask me a sincere question about my ethnicity/background/race no matter how silly it may sound rather than feel they might somehow offend me if they do. Really, I don’t mind being asked for the 100th time whether there was an elephant at my wedding. No, there wasn’t, and I’m more than happy to explain why. I would be more offended if they didn’t bother to ask me anything and made a bigoted assumption about me (such as when a jerky senior leader at a very reputable firm assumed that English wasn’t my first language, even after hearing me speak and present extensively).
I don’t purport to blithely believe that we can solve this country’s racism problem by casually talking more about it, in the manner of the ill-fated Starbucks ‘Race Together’ campaign a couple years ago. Some people are just going to be racists no matter how well educated and informed they are, but we can at least try to spark a necessary dialogue that begins with our kids and their classrooms. I don’t want to tell my daughters to be color-blind and not ever notice or inquire about outer differences. I’d rather my kids be curious, open-minded, and seek out knowledge about people and the world, and not be censured into the politically correct dialogue of pretending race doesn’t exist. It does, and it’s time we all addressed it.