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Friday, June 5, 2020

Racism and Parenting as a Sikh Mother: Working towards uncovering my own bias

“You are a n***** too, right? Like in the book?”

This was said to my 9 year old little girl by her classmate and friend, during a small group discussion about the novel they were reading in class.  The book was about slavery, the teacher had discussed the use of this word in her lessons. My daughter came out of her school that afternoon, and as we started walking home she started telling me this story while big tears fell down her face. She was shocked, no devastated, confused, hurt but also bewildered.  She knew at that age how loaded that word was.

In that moment of parenting, I was at a loss of what to say to her because I wasn't ready for this kind of conversation.

Let me explain.  I was ready for a conversation about racism. In fact, we've been having conversations about it with our children for a long time, it had always been a conscientious decision as parents of colour.  I was ready for a conversation that started with her telling me that someone told her she couldn't play with them because she was brown (which we had already gone through), or that she was called a "smelly Paki"on the playground (I had my own childhood experiences to share with her about that), or even that she should "go back to where she came from". For these, I was ready. Our lived experiences were easier to use to help teach them that discrimination because of skin colour was something that was not acceptable.

As Sikh parents of three children, we have openly discussed issues about racism,  bigotry and the injustices that come with it.  And as both religious and visible minorities ourselves, our kids have learned what prejudice looks like in different ways:

When they learn their Sikh history they learn about the horrific struggles and injustices done to their community.

They’ve seen the painted images of our Gurus as martyrs on the Gurdwara walls that show the brutal sacrifices at the hands of various oppressors, all because they believed something different.

We’ve spoken to them about the first hand experiences my husband has faced being a man who wears a turban in Canadian society.

They've heard both our childhood stories of being called names, being told to go back to where we came from, and about a hundred other examples. 

They’ve witnessed the random selection process at airports around the post 9-11 world and watched how their father who may be angry and annoyed at the "randomness" of the process has to conduct himself with politeness and cooperation.

They’ve heard the brazen slurs thrown at our little family while exploring the freedom trail in Boston on a summer trip.

They watch events unfold on the news and social media

But what I wasn't ready for was having a conversation about racism that excluded our experience as visible minorities, where the topic had nothing to do with the colour of our skin. In that moment of my child telling me this story through choked tears,  I wasn't ready for the next part of this conversation.  The part of the conversation that calls out the bias towards Black people by the South Asian community. Our own bias. My bias.

Anti Blackness in my community

Even though we have lived our lives as the "other" and had many of our own first hand experiences with racism, there is another dialogue that needs to be opened up.  The dialogue that recognizes that as South Asians, we experience a level of privilege as being perceived as the 'model minority.' Our community's perceived achievement of a higher level of success, that in fact has come because of the sacrifices and hardships of those marginalized communities that came before us. But also that as a South Asian we hold many of our own biases and prejudices against Black people.

South Asian have continued to stay quiet when racism rears its ugly head in violent and glaring ways towards the Black community.  Yet we are quick to appropriate elements of Black culture through music, sports, fashion.  We are quick to join in and be a part of the celebration of Black excellence but not to offer our help and support. In fact we lean heavily on colourism to discriminate in our own communities and use the barometer of dark skin as being negative and associate so many harmful stereotypes with it.  We are quick to jump in and say "me too" when we discuss systemic racism but not to make the changes in our own biases that are needed.

All those years ago when my daughter finished telling me what happened in that classroom, I paused.  I was at a loss about what to say to her.  I could've said, "well you should have told her that she is wrong, because you are not Black." But what would that serve other than perpetuating the otherness between our communities, to further ingrain and allow racial bias against Black people. 

A Parenting Reflection to do better

So I did what I often do as a mother when I am searching for the right thing to say. I bought myself some time and I asked her what she said back.
" I told her that it was not ok to use that word, Mom. I told her that using that word is racist and hurtful to black people."

She didn't tell the girl that she wasn't the N word.  She didn't laugh it off. She didn't stay quiet. She didn't say she wasn't black. She didn't look to defend herself. What my nine year old did was to stand up, in her own small way, to tell someone else that they were wrong.

Parents are often haunted with teaching their children the right thing, to be better than us, to do better than us.  We read parenting books, blogs, share our experiences with one another, sometimes cry ourselves to sleep because we are searching for the right thing to say, do and teach our children.  But sometimes, it is in their innocence, before they have learnt any bias or judgement, that they teach us. In my daughter's response and in my hesitation to respond, I heard the whisper of my own biases.

I continue to confront my own prejudices, and those that are in my Punjabi community.  What I am learning to do to be better is this: I can work towards dismantling a system that may hurt me or my family, but that hurts others more by simply speaking up and not making it about myself.  I can lend my name and sign petitions to hold accountable those who brutalize black and brown bodies that aren't ours.  I can march along in protests demanding justice for a life that was taken because of a $20 counterfeit bill.  I can support by purchasing, reading, discussing and sharing with my children books that share the experience of being Black in America (or in Canada, or anywhere in this world). These are easy steps to take, there are countless social media posts pointing you in the direction of these resources.

But I must also confront the biases I have learnt in my community. Collectively, we must speak up against racist comments by our family members and friends. We have to stop saying "Africa" as if a whole continent of 1.2 billion are all the same people but instead see the beauty in their differences as diverse people of language, cuisine, culture and faiths. By doing this we humanize them, and value that human worth beyond skin colour.  We have to stop commenting at the different shades of skin around us as if there was a set of beauty ideals that were worth any value.  We have to stand beside our Black coworkers, neighbours, friends and strangers to listen to their stories, to just listen and not jump in to say "oh that's my experience too."

We have to continue to do the work as parents for our children but also to do the work within ourselves for our society.  While I by no means have figured out how to be the perfect ally, I am continuing to learn and unlearn and not allow my own skin colour be an excuse to not do better. I owe that to myself, to the Black community and to my children.

Note: I have interchanged the terms Sikh, Punjabi and South Asian in this post to reflect all the communities that identify with, which also includes Canadian.

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