Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Meandering Musings on Race and Racism

In 2005 I married a wonderful young woman named Nerissa D'Souza. Her family is Goan, and though she is Indian by nationality, she spent her entire life in Dubai. When I moved to Dubai in 2006, I moved in with her family, and by 2007 I had become a "traditional" Indian son-in-law, that is, I became the sole earner supporting a multi-generational family.

Embracing my "Indian" identity, I learned to eat spicy curries every day, I fell in love with cricket, I learned to name the major political parities in India and speak at some length about their policies, I became able to hold forth on the differences between the many different religious, cultural and lingual groups in India, and I learned to love Bollywood movies. But even though I am now far more "Indian" than my in-laws will ever be "Canadian," I have only ever been merely tolerated, not accepted by them.

So what does this have to do with race or racism?

Before I moved to Dubai, my wife and I were in desperate straits. Prevented from finding work on account of a visa mix up, my wife had to stay at home while I worked three to four jobs at a go, dropping jobs and getting new ones wherever I could eke out a few more dollars. After our first child was born, and freshly out of university with a mountain of debt, we hit the wall, so to speak. We had no money left, not enough coming in, and could see no way of rectifying our situation but for one - we had to leave Canada.

When I arrived in Dubai, a few months after I had sent my wife and child ahead of me, I was a nervous wreck. With only a couple hundred dollars to my name, living at my in-laws, and upon their kindness, I felt lower than I had at any point in my life. Yet my wife was entirely unconcerned. Why? Because, as she told me, soon after I arrived, I was "white," and we were in Dubai.

Three years earlier, when I had lived in Japan, I had my first taste of what it was like to be a "minority." Words like "minority" and "mainstream" get tossed about so much in Canada, with such specific associations, that it took me a while to see myself as the minority. In Japan I encountered racism every day, from mild examples to extreme xenophobia. But Japan is very homogeneous, and Japan has a long history of fearing and avoiding outsiders, so I didn't think much of what I saw. The racism was never specific, just a matter of those who exhibited nihonjinron (Japaneseness) and those who did not. You were wither nihonjin or gaijin - Japanese, or Foreign.

But in Dubai, when I again found myself in a minority situation, where the locals only account for up to 10% of the population, the dichotomous nature of racism I found in Japan morphed into something more along the lines of a shattered mirror, with innumerable facets reflecting each other, but each being separate and unique. Here it seemed that race or racism as not something widely spoken about or acknowledged as a social ill, but was actually a functioning aspect of the societal fabric, ubiquitous and universal.

My wife's faith proved justified, when, inside of a month, I landed the best paying job I had ever had, a job where in only three years I found my salary rising to a level beyond what I could ever hope to earn in Canada. I chalk it up to luck, and serendipity, but sometimes there is a part of me that wonders if I was the recipient of this bounty not because of extensive credentials or experience, but because of how I looked, and how I spoke. Then again, I had experience in the field, and my employer-to-be was facing a sudden manpower shortage. But still, from some of the comments and attitudes I later encountered from other colleagues, I had to wonder, because regardless of the truth of the matter, it is the perception of that truth that carries weight day to day.

As a Canadian, and a product of that education system, it bothers me sometimes, even though I have proven myself at work over and again since being hired, that others might think I am where I am now not so much because of who I am, but because of what I am. But whatever my feelings are in the matter, the fact is, my situation is accepted as the norm here.

A Keralite colleague of mine was shocked, not too long ago, to find out that not only did I not have any "lands" or "houses" in Canada, but that I had debt. As she told me, she had assumed that because I was white, that meant I was wealthy. She had never questioned why I was hired or my qualifications for the job, and simply assumed that I "should" have that job.

Though she worked the same job as I (but in a different department), and earned the same income, and even though what she earns is ten times what I earn in terms of relative purchasing power parity, she did not even really need the money because her family was very wealthy in Kerala. I, on the other hand, desperately needed that job to support my family, to start to make some headway so that we could build a better life for ourselves. From my perspective, I saw my colleague as being privileged, and felt more than a little envy. Yet even with that in mind, my colleague still felt there was some sort of hierarchy at play, that regardless of wealth or upbringing, race really and truly mattered - that everything aside, perhaps I was the one to be envied.

In Canada, my colleague would be considered the "minority," and I would be seen as a privileged member of the mainstream. Here I am seen as a privileged member of the "minority," and she was seen as just an "Indian." And in there lay the irony.

Few in Canada would know this, but there are about as many Keralites as there are Canadians in this world, even though Kerala is about half the size of New Brunswick. And when you take into account the diasporic nature of Keralite society, there are probably more Karalites than there are Canadians by a good margin. With this fact in mind, in the context of globalization, words like "minority" and "majority" really begin to lose meaning, but what about concepts like "race" or "racism?"

Racism, in the North American conception, is a matter of the privileged actively thinking or acting against the less privileged. In terms of academia, racism relates to the white male patriarchy, and pretty much the rest of society. While anyone can have a racist thought, only a member of the majority can be a racist. That is, only a member of the privileged majority can discriminate or alter their actions towards others due to race (meaning also culture/creed, etc) and have those actions be considered racist. That's because the discourse on race and racism has, over time, devolved to being an issue of black and white (figuratively speaking).

But is that correct? Is that true? If not, then who, really, is a racist? What, then, is racism? What sort of behaviour would qualify as being racist in nature?

When I go shopping with my wife, when we go to a jewelry store, I am often asked to stay hidden, outside, and around the corner. The reason being that if the salesman does not see me, and does not see that my wife has a "white" husband, we will pay half as much as we would otherwise. And when we walk in public, and get into an argument, when my wife yells at me or castigates me in public, I have to restrain myself from replying in kind because to my wife it would appear as if I was talking to her like she were a maid. Why? Because to others, the sight of a white man talking harshly to a brown woman would be seen as such.

Regardless of my being her husband, and the love, children, and experiences we share, the colorblind nature of our relationship falls away the moment we step into public view. We both have to play roles, roles which change and evolve depending on who we talk to or interact with.

By conforming to these unspoken dictates, does that make my actions racist, or examples of common sense? By avoiding being seen by a South Asian salesman in the knowledge that my wife's colour and nationality will help us get a better bargain, I can hardly claim to be "colourblind," because I acknowledge differences in race, and I alter my actions towards other based on those differences, which is what racism is.

Which makes me what?

1 comment:

  1. Hi there, just read your article after getting to it via a link you posted in a comment on fakeplasticsouks. Very well written and nice to actually read a perspective such as this from a 'white man', rather than hear it discussed or assumed by others.