I was standing in a Sears store in Rexdale, a neighbourhood of Toronto. My daughter, Noor, a beautiful, kind, quiet girl of Punjabi descent, and I were waiting to pay for pieces of a uniform for a job she was to start the following day. I was wearing a chunni and I remember that it kept sliding off my head over my shoulders. Ahead of us, an older woman placed a sweater and a shirt before the cashier. The customer had a cute little companion in a stroller that Noor and I were exchanging smiles with. We were so enamoured with the little one that we barely noticed when the tension began at the counter.
The saleswoman, tall with long, thin braids pulled back from her face with a blue head band, was explaining to the customer that the sweater she wanted was not on clearance. The customer was not having it. “It was on a table marked clearance.”, she insisted with notes of what? exasperation, impatience, annoyance? in her voice. The saleswoman patiently explained that clearance items all have special sales tags on them but she was happy to see if someone can go check for her or take her back to the clearance table to solve the problem. This seemed to further aggravate the customer. The saleswoman left to find a manager to assist the customer.
Then this woman turned to me, in my chunni, kirpan on my side, standing with my daughter, in front of that little, impressionable girl, and said “Can you believe these blacks? None of them have any idea what they are doing!”
What the hell did she just say? Does she even SEE me? Is Noor, beautiful Noor, invisible to her?Why the hell does this woman think that I would welcome or entertain such a low-class, racist comment? This is 2016 for FUCK SAKES! It felt like several minutes before I found my tongue and made it work. After unleashing it on her, in as calm a tone as I could muster for the sake of the little girl in our midst, the saleswoman returned, the red-faced customer put aside her intended purchases and left the store. I didn’t do the ugly, racist thing but still I apologized to the saleswoman and to Noor. I was embarrassed and ashamed that her special type of asshole continued to exist. In truth, I was also momentarily sorry that I didn’t slap my fellow European descendant upside the head.
Almost every day, incidents like that happen. Often the racism or religious intolerance is more subtle, sometimes its much uglier. But also almost every day, someone who is inevitably white, inevitably well meaning, inevitable uninformed, will give me some form of explanation or advice that is along the lines of one or more of the following: You’ll never get rid of racism, so… There is hate in all races… I’m not a racist but… They’re in this country, they should adapt… But the hijab is oppressive… They’re just like that though… This is a Christian country so… Racism just isn’t a thing in Canada… Racism just isn’t a thing for my generation… No-one in Canada would threaten a Sikh (or Muslim, or [insert other here]) just because of who they are… or my favourites (read heaps of sarcasm in here) Everyone is entitled to their opinion, All lives matter and Every race has bad and good people…
What these well meaning (for the most part) folk don’t seem to understand is that these are all either intolerant comments themselves, are followed immediately by intolerant comments or are a way of denying, forgiving or ignoring the problems. They don’t begin a discussion, they are meant to end the discussion. What they need to understand and acknowledge is that racism and other forms of intolerance happens in Canada. It’s all around us. It doesn’t matter how many “Most Tolerant” lists Canada makes it to the top of … INTOLERANCE. EXISTS. HERE. and it can’t be whitesplained away.
I was raised by racist, religiously intolerant, homophobes who claimed to be Christians but never went to church. They claimed “love thy neighbour” when it was convenient while they went about hating on their neighbours. I was very aware of intolerance at a young age and I was aware that my parents expected me to lie about it. They were outraged when I told my first friend, Iram, the truth – that my parents wouldn’t let me play with her because she was from India. So outraged. I’ll admit, that even at six years old, having angered and embarrassed my parents, I felt satisfied because at least the truth was out there.
Being raised in that house had an effect, though not the one intended by the parent units. Instead of nodding and agreeing with their twisted thinking, I learned to challenge and fight. My early forms of rebellion consisted of wearing a homemade sari to Geography class for multicultural day and, with the help of the local library and the profits from a Kool Aid stand, I made Egyptian cookies filled with pistachios and almonds to share with my all white kids class.
My “rebellion” has become more nuanced since then but then again, so has much of the intolerance. In some way, I owe the parent units a debt of gratitude because their hate has shaped who I have become. Fighting that hate, speaking out, embracing the different, that has become the theme of my life from early childhood to my life as a Sikh woman, lawyer, writer, mother and wife.
Today, the battleground looks different. It’s much bigger for one. It seems to me that there are more warriors on the field, on both sides. After a time of relative peace, when it seemed like we were at least working together to stamp out intolerance… the troops are dividing again, thanks in large part to irresponsible political leaders. Instead of fighting against hateful ideas that the parent units would spout, I’m fighting for my turbaned husband and son, my daughters, my grandkids, my friends. I’m fighting for my Sikh brothers and sisters and for my brothers and sisters of all faiths. I’m fighting for my neighbour, Hassan, who escaped the horrors of ISIS and now just wants to ride his bike and kick his soccer ball and smile and believe in a world filled with good people who do good things. I’m fighting for Iram and me, and the kids who should be allowed to just freakin’ play together.
There’s been another change too. When I was younger, I believed, I really, really believed that I could shield others by going into battle myself. I would take on the fight so that they wouldn’t have to. I became a lawyer to add even more armour to that shield. I realized relatively early on that I can’t truly shield anyone – not completely anyway. Every one who is different in some way will have also experienced intolerance in some way.
What I can do though is fight alongside the other soldiers and when not fighting, I can lend my support. I spend time hearing battle stories, trying to understand, tending to wounds, offering encouragement, planning the next stage of battle, and I can offer education and conciliation to those on the other side of the field who are not fully entrenched. I can use my pen and my privilege to amplify the voices of others and to tell my own story. Then I can go back and I can fight another day for those who can’t, alongside those who can.
My name, Himmat, means brave. It’s a name I try to live up to. Still, I wake up each day hoping there will be no need to battle today. I live for a day when there is no one left to educate, no one left to hate. When I pray, I pray for that day to hurry up and get here. When all of this fighting becomes part of a history that we teach to a generation who never experienced it.
Canada, this beautiful, blessed country that so many can (thankfully) take for granted might be further along in the battle than some places, but even in “The Most Tolerant Country” in the world, we aren’t there yet. That’s my message to Canada in its 150th year – don’t stop now folks, we’re not quite there yet.
Peace and love,