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Confessions of an Immigrant

The roots of racism in Canada may not be as deep & systemic as the US, but they creep underground, hidden by the mulch of Canadian niceness.
Confessions of an Immigrant

Justin Trudeau sweats profusely under the July sun, waving a rainbow flag as he stops a few meters away from me. The Pride Parade has been held up by Black Lives Matter. The crowd stirs as activists lay down their demands. In the 30 minutes it takes for the floats to start moving again, BLM emerges into the consciousness of Toronto.

“Are they importing a U.S. issue into Canada?”, was a common refrain afterwards. With the wretched history of race relations south of the border and our national tendency to measure up against the US, it’s easy to understand that complacent reaction. And that impression persists. Ontario premier, Doug Ford’s reaction to the George Floyd riots engulfing the US was that Canada doesn’t have the “systemic, deep roots” of racism that the United States does. Underneath this complacency, uncomfortable truths linger.

I abandoned the post in 2010. Racism wasn’t something one wrote about in the Middle East. It was something one experienced, yes. Confronted, not really. Race in Dubai was the working title, so obvious and yet so freighted.

I moved to Dubai after grad school. “The Palm put Dubai on the map, The World put the map on Dubai” read the billboard on Sh-Zayed Road, alluding to the palm and world-shaped islands dredged into the sea. Dubai had arrived and it felt like the center of the world. A middle eastern version of the American dream. There were just two problems: The colour of my skin and the colour of my passport.

Dubai suffers from the same colonial overhang that afflicts most of Asia: white is superior. If cities had a default colour, Dubai would be brown. South Asians make up 60% of the UAE’s population and yet, that colour carries so much baggage. Unlike the West, where racial discrimination is (on the surface) illegal, it remains rife in the Middle East.

In those first few months in Dubai, my mostly expat bubble offered a degree of protection. But the racism was always there. Some of it was systemic: the licensing agency refused to convert my US driving license because I did not have a US passport. But most of it was subtle and additive. At restaurants, where the staff would take orders from my white friends first or in the rental market, where reps would charm my (white) relocation consultant thinking the home was for him. Or at the curb, where the taxi drivers would prefer white passengers.

I needed a coping mechanism and it came from a mentor who had thrived in the UAE — “If you go seeking racism, you’ll find it everywhere”. Translation: Reframe your perspective, Adnan, you can’t change the system here. As I settled into life in Dubai, there were two forces at play. One was internal, I inured to the racism and classism that permeated everyday life. The other was playing out on a grander scale.

The bottom of the pyramid in the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries is solidly brown, especially if you include Filipinos as Kamal Al Solaylee does in his exploration of What Being Brown in the World Today Means. As a kid growing up in Dubai, I remember a separate immigration line for poor people. That is brown countries. If you were white, you deserved the fast track. A colleague remembers an immigration officer scowling derisively at his passport emblemed with Ashoka lions, “al Hindi” he said, gesturing him to line up elsewhere. In the late 2000s, changes in the world brewing for decades, started to become more visible in the GCC. There had been a wealthy Indian merchant class in Dubai, but now you could also see brown executives scaling the corporate ladder and a rising India asserting its economic dominance. The perception of brown was changing.

“I don’t want any Indians (read: brown) on the team”, said the GM of a Saudi conglomerate. “We’ve paid premium rates and want the team to come from Western countries”. I had been in the Middle East several years at this point, but it still stung. This was years before Pichai and Nadella became household names, so I retorted, “Do you know the chief executives of Deloitte, Booz & Co and McKinsey are all of Indian origin?” He thought for a moment and responded, “If they’re coming from US or UK, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll accept them”. Dragging out maaaybee for effect.

I got to know him well eventually. He could be charming, perhaps even kind. That sweltering afternoon, he was also racist. Here’s the problem with racism: Few people have the self awareness to acknowledge their own racism. We explain it away. “Oh, but what I meant was…” or we hide behind morally weak generalizations: “People from that region tend to be…”.

And so, it was from that milieu that I visited Toronto in June 2014. ”I could not have chosen a worse time to visit Toronto”, I posted online from the departure lounge in Pearson, “for it left me with a view untainted by the reality of winter. The city was alight with celebration of summer, bursting with activity. The people warm, friendly, accepting. In a very odd way, even though I was visiting, I didn’t feel like an outsider. I shall return.” I moved here two years later.

Toronto is home. After years of being globally itinerant, I feel like I belong and with belonging comes responsibility.

The email is from P Sid. I don’t recognize the name at first. He has attached his CV, asking for feedback to make it ‘more marketable’. I glance at it and realize that he has taken the first step himself by changing his name, effacing his identity just enough to get past the resume screener. P Sid sounds a lot less South Asian than Pervez Sidique.

Before Sidique truncated his name to fit in, he only wore dress pants and button-down shirts. His sartorial cues out of sync with the GQ issues he perused. After 5 years as a marketing exec for an English-daily in Pakistan, he decided it was time to move to whiter pastures. He arrived in Canada in 2001, another brown face among the 18,000 admitted from South Asia that year. That’s when his affair with underemployment began, an abusive relationship that drove him to seek part-time comforts, like over-priced business school education, funded by debt, sweat and minimum wage. It took 18 years of hustle for Sidique to land a job that pays well, doesn’t require an onerous commute and engages the mind. A happy beginning, with a minor wrinkle. The job is in Portland, Oregon.

According to research by the Center of Policy Alternatives, men of colour earn 22% less than white men. This disparity goes well into second generation and beyond, with second-generation immigrant men of colour earning 21% less than their white counterparts. In other words, Canada doesn’t just have a new immigrant problem, it has a colour problem. And it’s not getting better.

A black executive shared his personal story recently and it troubled me. Everyone deserves to live free from discrimination, the person with the face tattoos and sagging pants is entitled to the same rights as a professional with academic pedigree. That the ideal world doesn’t exist isn’t surprising. It’s that you can be articulate, “clean-cut”, affluent, eminent, polished, dapper, you can be all those things — and still not escape the menacing sweep of discrimination.

For people of colour, each rung of the corporate ladder gets steeper. At entry-level positions, men and women of colour represent 34% of professionals. By the time you get to the c-suite they make up only 14%. The journey is more perilous if you’re black. The black executive’s story wasn’t a Sandra Bland incident, with tyranny captured in high-definition. It was a story of microaggressions, of getting pulled over by the police for driving through an affluent neighbourhood. But most of all, it was a story of overcoming great odds to reach the top of the ladder, only to find that your children can still be called n*gg*r at school.

The roots of racism in Canada may not be as deep & systemic as the US, but they creep underground, hidden by the mulch of Canadian niceness. Racism manifests in the untreated tap water of indigenous reservations, in the disproportionate incarceration of black bodies, in the enduring underemployment of immigrants. It manifests yes, but it is also confronted — and that’s what makes the Canadian experiment possible. The conscious calibration towards fairness.

James Baldwin wrote presciently in 1962, “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we…do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, … to change the history of the world.” The lives could be black, indigenous, LGBT. They could be Uighur, Rohingya. They matter. Let’s not falter in our duty and change the history of the world.