Should I be doing more?

I think this year has left  many of us doing a lot of thinking, or as Kylie Jenner would put it, “I feel like this year is really about, just the year of realizing stuff”. This year unpacked a lot of issues — fueled even more so by the pandemic — from things like healthcare and gig/precarious work to racial and socioeconomic issues. 

I’m not going to say I faced overt racism (besides this one time when a kid compared my skin colour to poop – but that’s a whole other story), however, having grown up in a dominantly white  town, I grew up realizing that I had grown accustomed to staying mute in many “micro aggressive situations”. Below is just a short list of examples from my elementary school days:

  • Making jokes about my nose and my hair. As a person who identifies as Sikh – Sikhs have long hair for several religious reasons (identification and honor to list a few). I had long hair up until 8th grade (before my nani ji (maternal grandmother) passed away from cancer) — but before then kids would touch it without consent. It might not seem like a big deal to many but as a kid (and even to this day) I hated people touching my hair. My nose is a more prominent feature, and as a kid I often got compared to Pinocchio. I now have slowly grown to love it, and I’ve realized it is one of my most ethnic features – I just didn’t fit into the Eurocentric beauty standard when it comes to my nose.

  • When my classmates made fun of the food I brought to class, and having to beg my mom to never pack Indian food again.

  • When kids asked me how to say a certain word in my language – not for learning purposes, but more so to make fun of that word.

  • When a kid told me that cricket was the rip off version of baseball, and then being mocked when I told the kid that cricket in fact came before baseball

  • When people make fun of my name or mispronounce it and never bother to learn it (this one has always bothered me because honestly it’s just a matter of respect).

  • When Aboriginals were referred to as Indians in class (even if it was for context reasons) and everyone stared at (it’s actually a real thing, and very uncomfortable), people get away with learning less and confusing two completely different groups of people.

  • When people say there is only one human race. I didn’t realize how much this one bothered me. I think it comes from a right intention, but why is it always said to a person of colour? And why is this said to me when I’m talking about a racial issue?

two men in white playing the sport cricket Photo by Village Cricket Co from Unsplash Looking back at past incidents, I often ask myself if I should’ve done more. Should’ve done what you may ask? Maybe educate myself more, educate others, or maybe I should’ve spoken my truth when no one else could speak it for me. 

For the longest time I blamed it on the fact that we were just kids and they don’t know any better. But then again, why? I did know better. Maybe it was because I knew I was different, or maybe it was the way my parents raised me. From a young age my parents have exposed me to the news and tried to educate me to the best of their abilities. They taught me to be grateful for what we have. I mean, since the age of 3 I’ve wanted to travel the world,  thanks to the educational world map placemat my parents had got me. Up until that point I had only known about Canada and India, and finding out there’s a whole lot more world out there astounded me.

vintage world map Photo by British Library from Flickr distributed under a Public Domain license Now you might wonder: did it get better? Yes, and then no. The summer before 6th grade, I had moved once more, to a different part of this town. This part was newly developed and surprisingly attracted a diverse group of people. The 3 years I spent there I made some of my best school memories. I was freer mentally than I had ever been, and peers, teachers and staff wanted to listen and be fully involved with the students. I was free to express my culture and was even encouraged to do so. This school had also held the first diversity night in our town (which I believe is still a continuing tradition).

But then it all changed once again when I got to high school. I had moved, once again, back to the same neighborhood. I didn’t realize at the time that I  was repressing so many of my emotions. It wasn’t until the beginning of 12th grade, when I finally ditched a toxic group of friends. And it was a very specific comment about how “all the Asian kids hang out with each other” that made me realize how many things I had ignored . Another thing that helped was my interest in world issues – both actual world issues and the class I was taking with the same name. In this class it became very apparent to me that most people did not really care about the actual class that much.

I also realized how there were many people with the mentality that “if you work hard, you will succeed”. This is a notion that often stigmatizes low income – often people of colour workers as being lazy, or not trying hard enough. As a daughter of a taxi driver and a stay-at-home mother, growing up in a town where most people owned two properties and could afford multiple vacations a year – it was hard to explain to someone why they were working just as hard - if not harder. People often got defensive or didn’t want to understand or flat out told me that I was wrong. Thankfully, I had a teacher who made me feel safe to express my thoughts in the class (these types of teachers are so important). When I wanted to talk about such issues, it wasn’t to make someone feel sorry for me, or make them feel guilty for having it better, it was because there was a lack of knowledge, and arrogance that often surrounded low income families. I wanted people to see that there was more than just hard work that often accounted into where you get to in life – hard work matters, yes I won’t discredit that – but there’s so much more than that.

 

two female friends dressed in formal wear Original photo by Puneet Sidhu Even to this day I have a hard time feeling comfortable about sharing things about my heritage, or even enjoying it to the fullest. I still feel uncomfortable wearing Punjabi clothes when it’s not required, listening to Bollywood/Punjabi music with the windows rolled down, and talking in Punjabi with people my age. I’m super embarrassed to admit all of that (I can’t say if it’s because of my introverted tendencies, or the fear of getting judgemental stares/questions, or both). It took me by surprise in my first year anthropology class when a white girl asked me what a Sikh temple was actually called (at that time I hadn’t realized how I always called it a temple and not a gurdwara, simply because it was easier then repeating myself). It was moments like this that made me realize how much damage I was causing by not educating people. But the truth is,  a lot of times (and even today) I feel as though I did not have the credibility to do so because I never felt “brown” enough. But then again, who does? It’s acknowledging and knowing that there is something wrong and working on becoming better from it. I’m still constantly working on it, and often catch myself not doing enough. Whether it’s not educating myself, others, or missing out on opportunities where I can speak my truth. The intention behind writing this is hoping it resonates with someone — maybe someone who feels a similar way, or feels like they’re not doing enough. As long as you recognize it and work to a place where you feel comfortable doing so – you are making a difference.