The increase in hate crime and racial abuse in the U.K. post-Brexit, the mass shooting at the Orlando gay nightclub, the Paris and Brussels attacks, the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism and white supremacy by Donald Trump, daily police killings of black people in the U.S., the catastrophe caused by ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the recent suicide bombing in Istanbul are just some examples of the instability in the world.
Even though Canada has received global applause for welcoming Syrian refugees, it is also facing a wave of rising negative sentiments and fear of insecurity against people of colour. Today, people of colour stand most vulnerable to the atrocities inflicted on account of racism, prejudiced stereotypes and layers of multiple oppressions.
One’s nationality, skin tone, accent and gender affect the way one is treated. The discrimination, in the existing socio-political status quo, has been appearing with a stronger shade of vendetta and vengeance against certain groups of people. Canada and Fredericton, New Brunswick are no exception.
I came to Fredericton, New Brunswick as a transfer international student in 2013. Being part of St. Thomas University―a liberal arts university―has given me an opportunity to open up my perspective about things around me. The practice of critical thinking has helped me understand better some of the complex issues many of us face in our daily lives like racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. However, what I have come to realize is that, it is very different to read, think, debate and talk about such complex issues than it is to actually face them after knowing how such prejudices stem from carefully constructed stereotypes and deliberate propaganda.
As a woman of colour, I have not felt targeted hatred by anyone or perhaps did not realize it during my time in Fredericton, apart from a few incidents that could be called passive micro-agressions.
Fredericton is an amazing city with a lovely and very giving community and my time at St. Thomas University has been nothing short of life changing. However, the summer of 2016 has been particularly interesting. Some experiences that I had these past three months made me sit back and reflect on how this surge of phobia and discrimination against people of colour has managed to entangle even Fredericton in its clutches.
After many failed attempts at finding a job as an international student, I finally found a job at a call centre as a customer service representative for a service provider. It is an inbound call centre that receives calls from all over Canada. It was almost amusing to see how people who cannot see your face, do not know who you are, what your educational qualifications are, what experiences you have had, etc―make your voice and particularly your accent to be the sole representation of who you are and use it as a measuring scale of your rationality and capabilities. A common question that I was often asked was, “Do you even understand English?”―No! I have a B.A. (law) [India], a BA (Criminology and Criminal justice), a certificate of honours standing in Interdisciplinary Studies and I am going to join the law school. NO! I absolutely do not understand English.
There was this one particular incident and my first one since I started working there that shook me to the core and made me feel sick to my stomach. A man, in his 60s or 70s, with a husky voice was on the other side of the line. As an agent, part of the procedure required me to authenticate the customer’s identity before providing any information about the account. The network connection on his side of the line seemed very unclear and I could barely hear what he was saying. Unfortunately, as annoying as it was for him as well as for me, I had to ask him to repeat the details of his account for me multiple times so that I could confirm his identity. Having to repeat himself multiple times led him to lose his cool and he suddenly became very offensive and abusive. He started swearing at me and called me a “F******* idiot Asian woman” who does not understand anything he was saying. According to him, he was speaking a language that I could never dream of understanding.
In another incident, a customer assumed that I was speaking from a call centre in India just because I have an Indian accent. In another one, an old lady, who lost her phone and could not get a new one and was extremely frustrated, called me an “evil poisonous woman” whom she had happened to speak to on doomsday. In another incident, again where the network on the other side was bad and the customer’s voice was very hard for me to understand, I had to tell the lady on the other side of the line to repeat her address for me twice. She decided that I did not understand the “English” she was speaking and wanted to hang up and call back again to speak to another agent who understood her “English.” I kept wondering if we have 50 shades of English too! Similarly for yet another customer, my accent suddenly, in the middle of the conversation, became unclear for her to understand the moment our conversation moved to discuss prices.
Everyday for about two months, I used to go home from this call centre with a migraine―frustrated, angry, irritated and with a feeling of helplessness.
Unfortunately, the discrimination was not limited to my workplace. As a student I use transit service in Fredericton to go from place to place. Once I was just about to get off the bus at my stop and I had an empty polythene bag with an empty packet of trail mix nuts that I was about to throw in the garbage bag on the bus. The bus driver, who has been consistently rude to many international students, asks me with a stern face, “Wait! What is in the bag?” I started looking at her confused. It took me about 5-10 seconds to convince myself if she really said what I just heard. I looked at her and said, “Ma’am! It is an empty packet” and even then my answer did not seem very convincing to her until I actually opened the polythene bag and showed her the wrapper. What I really wanted to say at that moment was, “Ma’am! It’s a bomb!” and then just walk off. But then that would also have been against law for which I would have been held liable.
Now I realize that all these verbal aggressions might be very insignificant against the gruesome incidents that I mentioned in the beginning. But all such big incidents begin with such small everyday experiences where people assume it to be “normal” to say things to certain groups of people as a matter of privilege. My intention to write about it is in no way to invite any sympathy from anyone of any sort but rather to suggest that it is NOT OK to treat any individual with a bias of any sort as much as it is operating as the rule of order in the wake of current incidents. Not speaking out against such ignorant people would mean letting them practice their so-called “normalcy” of demeaning people who don’t confirm to the mainstream parameters of a “perfect identity.”
It is definitely not the same New Brunswick that I came to in 2013 and the awareness of that fact just instills a sense of disappointment and disbelief in the so-called universal human rights of equality and freedom from discrimination.