Jun 18, 2020

by Amrit Kaillon

In 1987 on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon two girls were playing in their favourite park in London, England.  The girls were competing to see who could swing the highest when a group of white men approached the fenced playground.  The men jumped over the fenced area and began yelling obscene and racist profanities.  “Oye, you stinking Paki, go back to where you came from!.”  By then the girls had stopped swinging.  They slowly etched towards the closest part of the fence hoping to jump over and run.  The men noticed and began running towards them.  Just as the first girl made it over the fence a large bulky man pulled the second one back.  Fear completely gripped her knowing she could not escape.  The man began demanding her to repeat what he said, “say you’re a disgusting Paki! Say it!”. 

Meanwhile, the first girl refused to leave and so a skinny lanky man hopped over and pushed her against the fence.  He was so close that she felt his chest against her back.  She felt his warm breath against her neck and she could smell the scent of cigarettes from his clothes.  She was terrified.  As both girls stared with fear in each others eyes, they knew they were utterly helpless.  All they could do was give into the mens demands.  They were made to repeat the most vulgar profanities, things they didn’t even understand. 

Luckily a woman walking her dog saw the girls in trouble and began to yell.  The men let go of the girls and walked away.  These girls were seven and I was one of those girls.

That day in the park was the first day I learned I was different and have been reminded of it all through my life. That moment was life changing for me. I had never felt fear, sadness, anger, helplessness, shame, embarrassment, loneliness and guilt all at the same time.   In that moment I lost a part of my innocence.  For the first time, I knew the colour of my skin made me more vulnerable to physical harm, emotional harm and consequently mental harm.   For the first time I understood why my parents pushed me to study harder, work harder, have good habits and be strong.   For the first time I understood white privilege. 

I know my experiences do not even come close to the overt and subtle racism that Black and Indigenous communities suffer and I do not wish this article to diminish the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.  However, as a daughter of economically successful South Asian parents I’m able to speak from a position of power and privilege.  This is why I hope my story will raise awareness and act as a voice for those left unheard. 

I am British and Canadian.  I am a human rights lawyer advocating for equality and justice for all human beings. I have lived in over ten countries.  I have visited over fourty five countries and travelled through hundreds of regions.  I am a daughter.  I am a sister.  I am a wife.  I am a mother. I am a friend. I am a Brown Woman.

When my parents decided to move to Canada, I foolishly believed the racism would stop.  It did not for them and it did not for me.  I would like to say my childhood experience was free from racism, but that would be a lie.  From the day I began school till today there are those who judge and treat me differently because I am a Brown Woman.

I grew up in Sharbot Lake and can say I had a relatively happy childhood.  I had good friends, amazing teachers and people were generally welcoming and accepting. 

However, to say my childhood experience was free from racism, would be a lie. There were incidents when I was the victim of racial bullying and name calling.  I remember children calling me “Pocahontas”.  I remember when classmates would leave thumb tacks on my chair to sit on.  I remember the day a good friend in High School called me a “Stupid Paki”.

My childhood experiences led me to believe that if I worked hard. If I made something of myself then those accomplishments would erase my Browness.  It did not.  Till today, I’m constantly judged through a different lens.

I’ll never forget the times I was reminded of being a Brown Woman. The day I was stopped from boarding a flight at LAX airport, because I looked “suspicious”.  The day a white male client refused to see me because he was expecting “someone else”.  The day a white colleague told me to “lighten up” after my white male boss made an inappropriate sexist and racist remark about a client.

I have become resigned to accept certain behaviours; To be served in a restaurant after a white customer even though I arrived first.  To be followed around in posh stores because they believe I may steal something.  To be regularly stopped and frisked at security checks in airports.  To be told to wait in line while a white person is ushered in before me.

It is true when they say what doesn’t break you makes you stronger.  Life has forced me to work hard, be resilient, strong and confident.  My experiences are why I chose to advocate for human rights.  Through my career and time abroad I’ve seen and experienced first hand the impact racism has on individuals, communities and whole countries.  I’ve watched Arabs mistreat Indian and Black minorities working in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for cheap labour.  I’ve watched and worked on cases involving Black South African’s raping and murdering White farmers.  I have been in restaurants and stores in India where employees served Chinese and Black customers with a smile while racially slurring them in Hindi.  I worked on a land claim in Australia where aboriginals were fighting to own rights to land taken from them during colonization.  I’ve seen a Muslim man beat up a Sikh man because of his race.  I’ve seen Romani (gypsies) being spat, kicked and dragged across the floor in Hungary. After 21 years I know that racism is not just a White, Black, Brown, American, Canadian, or Regional problem. It is a Global problem.  It’s a disease that has encroached itself into every corner of the World. 

In Canada, we are good at smugly pointing to our neighbours in the South and claiming Racism isn’t a problem here, but it is.  Racism is deeply routed in the fabric of our society, our history and systems.  A lot of our attitudes and beliefs are shaped when young.  When our family members or friends express racist opinions, it’s common to become conditioned and take on and express those views ourselves.  Have you heard the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”? It is a lie.  When I was ten years old we went to a birthday party in Toronto.  Vijay, an Indian boy was quite angry at me and my cousins for not practicing our faith.  He was so passionate.  We couldn’t understand why.  We just wanted to play.  First, we ignored him, but then eventually told him to get lost.  A week later my mum received a phone call.  Vijay had hung himself.  He hung himself because children at school were teasing him over his accent, the colour of his skin and because he wore a joora (child turban).  Vijay was 13. Till to date I wish I had tried to understand his anger.  Till to date I regret we told him to leave.  Words don’t simply cause harm.  Words can kill.

Having experienced and seen many incidents of racism across the World, it has made me realize how fortunate I am to be living in Sharbot Lake. This community has embraced us and showed a tremendous outpouring of support and love for me and my family.  For me, this town represents how society can and should overlook skin colour.  However, 45 kilometres away I had an eye opening experience while I was out shopping with my daughter.

As we waited to pay, I was distracted and didn’t read the sign informing customers to wait before proceeding to cash. Having not read the sign I moved forward and was instantly scolded by the white cashier.  “Did you read the sign? It’s there for your’s and others safety”  Naturally, I apologized.  When we were finally asked to move forward the cashier lectured me about the importance of the sign.  She told me that her City had zero cases because its residents were following the rules.  When my daughter took notice of her speaking to me I told the cashier that I understood as I was from Sharbot Lake.  Her response was more of a surprised question, “You’re from Sharbot Lake?”.   All this time there was a white older lady behind me watching and listening.  She did the exact same thing I did and proceeded to move forward while I was still paying.  I waited for the cashier to scold her.  She did not.  Instead the customer was greeted with a friendly warm smile and a “it’s a beautiful day”.  I was not surprised.  I’m use to it, but what really broke my heart was when my 4 year old daughter later asked me “why was that lady mad at you and not the other lady?”  In that moment I was done pretending.  I was done with staying quiet as people said inappropriate comments.  I was done pretending that it didn’t bother me.   

Wherever you are reading this article, I beg you, please spread the message to listen and show empathy to those who are tired of experiencing racism.  Show empathy and understanding to those who are fighting to simply have the same rights, freedoms and equalities that you have.  This is not a time for Canadians to be quiet and polite.  Please use your privilege to act in solidarity.  Please use your privilege to speak up. I have never really known a life without racism, but I pray with your support that my daughter, niece and all children of colour may.

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