I watch my friendly four year old as she makes friends with kids in playgrounds, malls, restaurants –basically anywhere. She’s quick to call someone her friend despite their age, gender or race. As a mom, I want her to hold that unconditional love in her heart forever. I want her to give like she does, openly and without judgement. And I want that same love returned back to her. But I know deep down inside that it can’t last forever. That one day she will be judged for her gender. For her body. And for the colour of her skin.
I don’t remember the first time I noticed the colour of my own skin. I do remember however, the first time I was called paki. I was in music class in Junior High and one of the students looked directly at me and said it. Paki. I will never forget that moment. It was in that moment I knew I was different.
As a young South Asian girl living in Toronto in the 80s, I really didn’t know what it felt like to belong. As a Punjabi, I remember being a pre-teen with a ton of hair growing on my arms and legs and being ashamed for it. I had lanky arms and was called out for being too boney. I covered my lips with red lipstick as a distraction to the other body parts I didn’t like. But of course that did nothing for the 11-year old me who was fighting her own self-worth.
As I moved into my teen years, I was searching for anyone who looked like me on TV. It was then I discovered Monica Deol on Much Music! Outside of the flashy Bollywood films, I really didn’t see any other South Asian on TV. I loved watching Deol host Electric Circus and imagined that I could be one of the dancers in the background. I was too young but my imagination was always a tool I had to cope with whatever I was going through.
On one episode of Electric Circus, Deol spoke about being a minority and how much she disliked it. She spoke about what it meant to be Canadian and how the word minority just didn’t fit the bill. I remember listening attentively to what she had to say and agreeing with each word. Even as a child I understood how words could shape someone’s reality. Using the word ‘minority’ to categorize anyone that was non-white was just another way to further marginalize a group of individuals who were ‘different’. Fast forward to 2018, that word is still readily used to describe people of colour and that needs to end. It needs to end now.
Having extensively studied linguistics and the power of communication, I’ve come to understand how deep rooted systemic racism can be and how damaging it can be to a person’s sense of worth in society. Even though we are in a better place than 1988, there is still a long way to go to break down the systemic walls that keep people of colour from obtaining opportunities that are available to a majority of white people. This is the privilege that is so often talked about but not always understood. Just by calling a person of colour a minority — who may also be a Canadian citizen that pays their taxes the same way a white Canadian does — it is a form of discrimination.
I know firsthand what it is like to walk in to an organization, a school, hospital, government and see that almost all of the executives leading the company are white. This is not an accident. It’s a carefully thought out system that has been designed to keep those in power still in power.
On a positive, as people begin to understand this system, there has been a slow and steady shift for change. More and more individuals of colour are branching out on their own, discovering their own voice and creating a dynamic business of their own. Small wins are always motivating! But let’s not forget the history. Words like ‘minority’ are not designed to empower and foster belonging in a person. We must change the narrative and create new pathways for people of colour to feel confident in their own skin in a country they call their own.
It is my intention to continue being a voice for change. My dream would be to see the next generation feeling confident in their skin and having a lot more access to opportunities. Will you join me in sharing your voice and being the catalyst to change?