A University of Toronto female professor was harassed, struck at the back of her neck, at the Toronto Symphony by a 50-year-old man who called her a "child" and a "bitch" after she took a permitted photo. She was waiting for almost an hour outside the hall while the perpetrator enjoyed the show, before her concerns were addressed. When I first saw the professor's tweet, it felt like the ground shook under my feet. I was shocked, dumbfounded and deeply disappointed. Perhaps this was too close to home since she and I work for the same academic institution. She is a professor while I am an academic counsellor. I have never met Professor Aisha Ahmad before.
This incident came on the heels of a recent viral video where a woman in a Mississauga medical clinic went on a verbal rant wanting a white doctor to see her son, one who "could speak English" and did not have "yellow teeth" or was not "paki."
As a loyal and proud Canadian who follows Islam, and who chose to wear the hijab only a few years ago, I have been fortunate to not experience overt verbal racism while growing up in vibrant Toronto. This changed a couple of months ago.
My husband and I were on our way to work and routinely, we pulled out of our residential street into a large busy road during rush hour. As is customary, after stopping at the stop sign our car crept forward to merge into traffic. A white man on a bicycle with a traffic visibility vest came along speedily and because he had to go around our car, swore and called us "paki" and said some other things that I could not discern because of the closed window. He was not wearing a helmet and bicycling on the sidewalk, but that is beside the point. My husband and I were shocked and immediately angered by this interaction. We drove alongside him in the right lane because we were angry and upset.
In one split second, all of who we are, is reduced to the colour of our skin.
After the man and I exchanged some hand gestures, my husband wanted to get ahead of him and pullover. While I was incredibly angry, I held my husband's side and advised him not to do so because the man on the bike was ignorant. We surmised that in an altercation, we would be seen at fault because of our brown skin and my hijab. My husband, an engineering professional who abides by a professional code and I with my two University degrees, had to remind ourselves to be better people and to practice restraint. It is ironic that this occurred the morning that my office was to have a two-hour office training on Islamophobia at 9 a.m.
What do these incidences have in common?
All these incidences are in public places -- spaces that we occupy together to carry on our daily lives. Our lives intersect in these spaces of enjoyment, or healing. Voices of hate and evil are being freely unleashed here -- the space where we all have equal rights to exist. It is becoming increasingly acceptable to be disrespectful and even cause physical harm to people and places that are non-white, particularly towards Muslims. The evil of extremes in society seems to fuel this hate every day. In one split second, all of who we are, is reduced to the colour of our skin.
Racism takes power and wields privilege based on that which is on the surface, and yet, to combat it, one requires resilience, restraint and courage. Respect for knowledge, and professionalism seems to be waning. Medical school requires years of incredibly rigorous training as does earning a PhD. Engineering and graduate degrees are not earned easily. Professor Ahmad, an educated woman and has the skills to stand up to the situation that she faced but many others would not be able to to do so, and would simply walk away wounded.
I have always been aware that there are "white" spaces and traversing these can be challenging because one sticks out. As a young person, who attended concerts and plays with my English literature and drama loving friends, we would be often be one of five people of colour among 500 capacity theatres but we knew we were OK. I assumed that people who attended symphonies were civilized and open-minded individuals who had a flare for understanding the uniqueness of the arts and the humanities, where the root word is "human." When I travel these spaces now, I am extra vigilant for my safety and a part of me feels "otherized." I resist this otherization and remain proud of my Canadian identity. I remind myself that I belong, that I contribute and this is my space too.
Incredible people give me hope. Incredible people like Sharon Samalia, or the supportive email I received last week from a colleague lamenting the hate that she is witnessing towards Muslims in the Canadian community and around the world, are reassuring for the good that is in the human spirit. I urge all who think that hate is unjust and racism is unfair, especially if you are from among the privileged group, to stand up and stand together. We cannot allow venomous ideals and actions to contaminate our Canadian values and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which makes us the leader of the world. As Martin Luther King said, "In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
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