Recognizing Racism

My biological father and mother were born in India in the 1930s to middle class Muslim parents. They met in Lucknow, a large city in Northern India. In keeping with customs, both sides of the family met and gave their blessings; my parents married in the early 1940s. India was split into two independent nations seven years later, and Pakistan became a Muslim region while India retained a Hindu majority. The horrors of the India-Pakistan partition are wide-ranging, each side having a different perspective of the causes, nature, and consequences of the separation; survivors still have vivid memories of the terror more than 70 years after the partition (see: Doshi & Mehndi, 2017; Khan, 2017; Singh, 2010). My parents fled the war-stricken country under dreadful conditions and settled in a large suburban area in Pakistan. Shortly after arriving, they learned that the local people were not welcoming toward the Muslim immigrants from India, increasing the difficulty for them to connect to the local community.

My father made a decision to move to Saudi Arabia, Iran and then settled for Canada. I guess he was looking for a sense of identity, purpose and belonging.

It was a chilly snowy morning in September of 1979, and approximately one month after I arrived in Canada, my sponsoring sister took my sister and me to a local junior high school for registration. After the initial assessment, the principal placed me in grade seven and my sister in grade nine. The principal did not say very much as she walked me to my class except to correct my accent. When the teacher introduced me to the class using my legal name (Huma), it prompted a stream of laughter, giggles, and smirks as I heard some children mocking my name. I felt humiliated and unwelcome.

As time went on, I had many negative interactions with other students, and the sense of isolation and loneliness became progressively worse. The early childhood experiences of growing up in a war-torn country, parents’ troubling immigration experiences, gender discrimination at home, and social exclusion at school has had a considerable impact on my psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Accordingly, I understand the intrinsic social need to belong and to feel valued and respected.

I began working outside the home when I was sixteen years old. My most recent work experience was as a senior human resources consultant in a publicly funded institution. Here I facilitated equity, diversity and inclusion workshops. The purpose of the training was first, to increase awareness of workplace diversity, highlighting behaviours considered to be harassment and discrimination, and to outline procedures for resolving complaints informally and formally; second, it was to develop and enhance skill among employees to recognize their biases and assumptions, identify the legal outcomes of discriminatory conduct, and to equip workers with skills that they could transfer into their actual worksite.

My experience of training over 5,000 employees over the course of six years led me to the conclusion that equity, diversity and inclusion training I provided was ineffective in changing the negative behaviors; most participants did not develop new skills nor increase empathy toward people who looked different than they did, and being bullied, harassed, or discriminated against. In my role as human resources consultant, I processed dozens of human rights complaints related to harassment and discrimination, and I continued to witness the detrimental impacts of harassment on individuals’ mental and physical health. It became apparent that there are many questions to be explored regarding the effectiveness of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion policies and training and human rights protection in reducing harassment and discrimination.

Fast Forward

The recent senseless killing of the Muslim family in London Ontario where four members of Afzaal family originally from Pakistan were killed after a truck drove into them on Sunday June 8, 2021, led me to reflect on my own location, my family history and the years of bullying and harassment my family has endured. A 20-year-old Ontarian man, Nathaniel Veltman is charged of what is labelled as “terrorist attack” “hate motivated crime.” Veltman is described as a “lone wolf” there is not much known about the young man. All we know at this point is that this attack comes as a surprise. Apparently, Veltman did not express any negative opinions toward the Muslim community, and he did not leave a trail of hate manifesto online as is common in these types of violent crimes. Was Veltman racist toward minorities? How do we perceive racism to show up in Canadian society? Are we expecting people to show up with Swastika tattoo on their forehead? Are we expecting people with racist beliefs by displaying their affiliation with the KKK? No, sometimes individuals who harbor Xenophobic tendencies show up as Veltman, quiet, shy, recluse, and do not share their inner fears with their neighbors. They affiliate with people who look like them, think like them and might not have an opportunity to interrogate their mental frame, perspective and habits of the mind. Can training lead to empathy building?

I am sure the Afzaal family came to Canada looking for opportunities for their children just like my parents did in 1979. They went for a walk but were killed merely because they looked different. Racism toward immigrants was blatant and I knew where I stood. Today, Canada professes to be a tolerant society in comparison to the United Sates and I believe that racism has simply gone underground. Will traditional equity, diversity and inclusion training be sufficient to eradicate racism and build empathy? I believe we need to explore an alternative pedagogical approach to bridge the gaps between the Afzaal and Veltman.