Racism exists. Systemic racism exists. Personal racism exists.
I’ve been late with this post. The main reason is work intruded. Also, two reasons, I’m called the SloMan. The third, I have three reasons, is the real one. There is just so much I want to say. In this post, I suspect, I will be able to say just a few of the things running through my head.
Over the last few weeks we’ve all seen the protests develop in the US. Still reeling from the deaths from COVID-19, the barefaced, cold-blooded murder of George Floyd galvanized the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The police departments across the US are facing unprecedented scrutiny. With the presidential elections just a few months away, I fully expect the country to remain destabilized for a long time.
But what is racism? I’m no social scientist and I won’t be able to define it for you in a technical way. I can give you examples, though, from my own life, to demonstrate the discrimination that is at the heart of the matter. For racism manifests itself in discrimination. Rules that are changed based on the colour of your skin, your ethnicity, your nationality, your caste, your religion, your sex, sexual orientation.
“We’re hiring monkeys now??“
One could argue that discrimination based on religion, sex or sexual orientation is not “racism”. And one is probably right. The effect is the same though. You’re not allowed to do something because of <insert social qualification>.
Racism, thus, is a particular instance of Discrimination.
Racism is a particularly abhorrent instance of Discrimination.
“You speak English”
I moved to Canada in 1997. Since I knew nobody here at all, I spent the first 6 weeks in the US at my brother’s house to get my bearings and reach out to recruiters. The day after I arrived back in Canada to start the job search in earnest, I put on my suit and went off to visit some recruiters.
At the very first place, the lady rode down with me in the elevator after the meeting.
“You speak very good English. How long have you been in Canada?”, she said.
“I came in yesterday”, I told her.
I spent 6 months looking for a job. I would interview about 5 or 6 times every day. Sometimes, I’d be called back multiple times to spend 30-45 minutes each with 5 or more managers. I heard this statement multiple times.
Almost without exception they talked about “cultural fit” for any prospective employee. All of them lamented that I hadn’t worked in Canada before. I quickly gathered that work performed anywhere else, especially in a “third world” country, was not considered to be of any value. I was, apparently, awarded some points for being able to speak English colloquially. However, these points were completely wiped out by the horrendous and fatal lack of “Canadian experience”.
None of these companies got around to making me an offer.
“In this country..”
I eventually had a request from a US consulting company. I left my little room in Mississauga in the wee hours of one morning and hitchhiked my way via Toronto (wrong way to catch a Greyhound bus) to Willamsville, NY to meet with them. I returned home to my little room well into the wee hours of the next morning.
The next day, I woke up late and checked my voice mails. There were two from a government agency I had interviewed with for a job as a Clipper programmer (through sheer desperation).
The voicemails had lain on the machine for a day. They had arrived 3 hours apart. The second one opened like this :
“In this country, we respond to voicemails. You do realize we are offering you a job”. I called them to say I wasn’t interested and the voice at the other end became a tad aggressive in telling me that I was lucky to be getting an offer and in my state, I had better take it or else. I told them, I was taking up the “or else” offer.
“Well, then, remember we won’t be so magnanimous if you can’t find a job”, he said.
Many years later, in my second stint in the US, working for another US consulting company, I was flying in and out on a weekly schedule. A year later, coming home, I handed over my passport and landing card to the Canadian Border officer. He never said a word, stamped my card, scrawled something on it and was on the verge of handing it back when he changed his mind. He crossed out what he had written and put something else on it before handing it to me. No words were exchanged.
At the exit, I handed over my card and was directed out into a passage I had never been through before. I walked through it and pushed open the door and found myself in a large room. I stood there, unsure about where I was and what I was supposed to do, because nobody had actually spoken to me yet.
It was then that a young border guard saw me standing there and called me over with his finger.
His first words: “In this country, we say hello, first.”
I could see the slight sense of shame he felt as I handed over my Canadian passport to him. He made me pay $40 customs duty for a $15 t-shirt I had bought during my 5 day stay, which allowed me a $850 duty-free allowance, to punish me for his shame.
Twenty something years ago, driving into the countryside, we stopped at a Tim Horton’s coffee shop, in a little town in the middle of farm country. The staff stared at us as we walked in. The few customers at the table also glanced up and stopped talking. The girl at the counter spoke slowly and haltingly, almost as if she was searching for intelligent life in this brown family.
I remember another incident. At work, in my first job in North America in Western New York, Buffalo area. I was asked to go down and speak with “Glenda Blunt”. (Not her real name…). The office had cubicles with high walls and I hurried around the corner, I almost ran right into her. As I recovered, she asked, very slowly, “Are… you…looking… for… someone?”
Throughout our subsequent 15 minute meeting she spoke anxiously and slowly to me. A manner she dropped when speaking with her colleague who also joined us in the discussion.
These are probably due to lack of familiarity, but these examples do display an inherent view that if you’re not white, then you’re somehow not quite as clever, perhaps, or not familiar with the language, because you’re not white.
US Border crossings
For my first job in the US, I lived in the Canadian city of Niagara Falls. Every morning, I would drive across the border to go to work. I observed certain patterns.
- Car ahead of me. White arm would stick out of the window. No papers, passport, driving license etc would be handed over. Border guards smiling, pleasantries exchanged, white hand would be drawn in and car would disappear. I would drive up next and be met with unsmiling countenance, arm outstretched for papers, stern request for “nationality”. My papers would be scanned, car windows rolled down, boot opened.
- I would cross over around 8:00AM, five (5) days a week and sometimes on weekends too. I would meet the same border guards everyday, while driving in the same car I used everyday. My papers were checked everyday.
- I got snarky comments everyday.
- “Looks like we’re hiring almost anyone these days.”
- “What’s so special about you?”
- “Who is your CEO and why does he want to hire you of all people?”
- “We’re hiring monkeys now?”
I learned early to hand over my papers, take off my glasses and answer direct questions with short, simple answers and ignore, studiously, all other barbs and comments.
In all those years of crossing into the US, there is, so far, just a single pleasant border crossing experience. Lady at the airport, scanned my passport, checked my visa, stamped the passport, flipped open the photo page, examined it, examined my face (glasses off) and said “We’ve gone a little grey since, haven’t we?” as she handed me the papers.
I’ve seen this on my travels. The latest example of this was in Rome, down the street from the Colosseum. We stopped off at a roadside pizza place and the guy came over to say “I want to tell you we don’t have anything vegetarian.” We assured him that was just fine. He made an elaborate show of wiping the sweat off his forehead.
We’ve been left standing at the entrance as other people are ushered in. We’ve been left sitting at the table while others got service.
Did you see the pattern from the examples above? How about this next example?
I was on my way home from work, driving north on Leslie St, Toronto. I was the first car behind the line, stopped at a red traffic light. There were four cars behind me all waiting for the light to change. Someone (on his cellphone) hit the Infiniti Q30 at the back of the line. The Infinity hit the car in front and so on until I was tapped from behind by the Toyota Camry behind me. Cops showed up. All the drivers of the 6 cars involved stepped out and were interviewed by the cops.
I was the only one who was asked to step into the back of the police car to make my statement. I was also the only non-white driver amongst the six. I was the one furthest from the point of impact.
Profiling is real and it exists and don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t. I’ve been followed for miles by cops, as I drove my car with Canadian license plates in the US, all the way to the point where I turned off down the lane marked “Canada border”.
I worked with people with multiple DUI convictions. They paid a fraction of what I paid as auto insurance. Why? The logical line of reasoning tells me that they were white, born and brought up in Canada. I, on the other hand, was a brown man, a first generation immigrant. Auto insurance rates in the towns of Mississauga and Brampton, two towns with strong brown populations, are amongst the highest. I live in Mississauga
Consider this: My 1998 Honda Accord with the bare minimum coverage was $1500 more per year to insure than a 2005 BMW 320 with full coverage. Why? Because brown people overwhelmingly buy Hondas and Toyotas? (It’s a bit of running joke, actually, with more than a stereotypical grain of truth in it). . I sold the Accord, in case you’re wondering, instead of choosing to get fleeced in this manner.
You’re not going to convince me that there isn’t something skewed in the logic in the systems.
Black Lives Matter
I can hear some people scoffing. Ajesh, the examples you have provided are mild!
Yes. They are. They ARE mild.
I haven’t had to face violent cops. I’ve managed to stay clear of cops. Believe me, the fear is real when I say that I don’t trust cops. I’m convinced I will be seen as guilty until innocent, that my papers will be scanned more thoroughly, my defence will have to be more rigorous.
I believe the systems are inherently skewed to disbelieve and discredit certain sections of the population who tend to be non-white.
I make no attempt to compare my experiences with the violent encounters that black people face in the US. There is no doubt in my mind that the US has deliberately and insidiously managed to create an atmosphere where violence is normalized. Elections are harder for some sections, education is much harder for some sections, food, subsidies, social systems are geared to develop a lower strata of citizens.
The omnipresence of guns is another way to ensure violence continues. I suspect the hidden reason behind the push for more guns is to perpetuate the social desire to teach those uppity slaves their place in the country. There are some who need the guns to feed their machismo, some to feed their patriotism, some to “protect” themselves, some to support their “heritage”.
But the reason gun control doesn’t go anywhere is a concerted effort to maintain a violent society in which the systemic racism and violence towards black people can be safely hidden.
Back in the late 1960s / early 1970s in Calcutta, the Naxalite movement sought to overthrow the government in a bloody coup a la October Revolution in Russia. In the ensuing violent years, lots of ancillary murders took place as people took the opportunity to settle scores. Among the larger violence, these were simply lost.
Slavery never really ended in the US, in my opinion, it just went underground and became systemic. Witness the higher rates of criminal convictions among black populations. No judge talks of “oh poor young (white) man! His life will be ruined if I put him away for the sentence he deserves for raping an intoxicated and comatose girl behind a dumpster”, in those cases. Somewhere, I’m sure there are studies that show severity of punishments by race. If someone has them, I’d like to read them to test my hypotheses.
I grew up in India, where your name and surname tells everyone a lot about you. My surname, for example, marks me out as a member of the class that has traditionally looked down upon “lower strata”. Caste-based reservations exist and a proper exploration of that issue requires a nuanced exploration in its own post.
I will say this. We’re all geared to discriminate. I am, too. I have personal biases, too, and it takes effort sometimes to ignore that voice in the head. Racism exists. We all experience it and we’re all guilty of it at some time or other in some form or the other.
The large bulk of the population, however, is not violent about it and doesn’t want to exterminate entire races to satisfy its biases.
However, until we remove the systemic biases built into social, business, political systems, we’re not going to be done.
It’s one thing to have Unilever rebrand its “whitening” beauty cream, to topple a few statues, march in the streets, change a few flags.
The real fight is to ensure sections of the population are not treated as second class through systemic bias.