One of the most remarkable features of the debate in Canada around racism is the near-total absence of solutions, or even proposed solutions. Given how old this issue is, this is pretty surprising in a disappointing way. One possible explanation for this sorry state of affairs is the likelihood that the principle of self-preservation is at play; if a problem gets completely resolved, those people whose ability to make a living depends on the existence of the problem have a problem on their hands. No one would solve someone else’s problem if doing so creates a problem in their own lives.
The sheer magnitude of the issue of racism dictates that any ultimate solution, even one that is halfway effective, will have many components. In my view, one critical component could be the harnessing of women’s powers and capabilities. This view is based on my experiences with women of diverse kinds. Here is a sample of some of these experiences.
ALL OVER A CUP OF TEA …
Upon landing at Nairobi, I was received and taken directly to the office of my employer. I met one of the sons of the owner, the one who had come to India and recruited me. After a few minutes, a lady came in with tea. The owner’s son introduced her as Agnes, the tea-lady. Until that moment, I had not seen anyone with as black skin as hers. She smiled at me – it was more like a very wide grin – and left without a word.
In due course, I learned that Agnes’s job was to take care of the pantry. She made and served tea to the owners and the senior staff, and generally managed the pantry. I had been an avid tea-drinker in India, consuming many cups of tea in a day, but I soon discovered that this tea was making me uneasy in the stomach. Kenya is one of biggest growers of tea in the world, and its varieties are highly prized in Europe, and especially in the UK, but somehow my body didn’t like it very much. I asked Agnes to give me black tea, no milk and no sugar. This worked perfectly. Over time, black tea became my regular drink at the office, although at home, I was still making Indian chai for myself. I never understood what accounted for the difference between tea made at home and that at the office. Everyone else at the office found the tea just fine.
Over time, Agnes developed a very sophisticated tuning with my mood. Although tea was supposed to be served twice a day only, she would appear magically with a cup of tea whenever I felt mentally tired or bogged down with some tedious work. She never expected anything in return. I pondered this and concluded that since she was about two decades older than me and had children almost my age, perhaps this was a mother’s instinct at play.
The day I left Kenya for good, I went to the airport via the office. She served me a cup of tea for the last time and bade my farewell. Her face displayed no emotion.
… OR COFFEE …
Almaty used to be the capital of Kazakhstan until the fall of the USSR. Once it became independent, its president decided to build a brand-new capital in order to properly showcase the oil-rich nation. Aside from the fact that most government offices were located at the new capital of at Astana, Almaty still continued to occupy central importance in the country.
On my first day at Almaty, I was feeling drowsy owing to the combination of the overnight flight and the time difference between UAE and Almaty. I decided that I needed a cup of black coffee in order to be able to focus on work. The coffee-lady there, an old Kazakh woman named Sanya, knew only Kazakh language, so I summoned another Kazakh girl named Bota to tell her to make black coffee for me. I use the word ‘girl’ here because even though she was fully grown, she looked like a girl in Grade 7. She was fluent in English. When she conveyed my request to Sanya, a brief conversation ensued between the two. I asked Bota what it was about, and she replied that according to Sanya, black coffee causes damage to the body in the long run, so she would only make regular coffee. I said no way, I needed black coffee. This was conveyed to Sanya, and as she prepared my black coffee, she was visibly displeased. I think I heard her muttering under her breath.
A couple of hours later, I found my mind slowing down again, so this time I simply gestured to Sanya, pointing at the empty cup of coffee. She muttered some more and made another cup of black coffee. Towards evening, emboldened by my earlier success, I made another attempt at gesturing to Sanya for yet another cup of coffee. She launched into a speech, which I was naturally unable to understand a word of. By the time I had got Bota to join us, Sanya had her hands on her hips, her pose decidedly belligerent. Bota was unable to help me out this time – there was no chance in hell that Sanya was knowingly going to cause harm to my health, however far in the future that harm may be. I decided to call it a day, and left for the place where I had been put up for the duration of my stay.
… OR PANINI
After picking up my daughter after school, I was supposed to take her directly to an event. We didn’t have the time to pop by home for her afternoon snack, so I decided to stop at a Tim Horton’s. They had just launched a grilled cheese Panini, and I thought it would be filling enough for my daughter.
The lady at the counter had a name-tag that said ‘Farida’. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, and was quite apparently South Asian. He face had the spark of the kind of education that goes back three generations in a family. She seemed to be new to Canada, and I guessed that it wouldn’t be long before she moved on to a job more suited to her educational background.
When I ordered a grilled cheese Panini, she asked my daughter if she was coming right from school. I volunteered that we were going to an event. Instantly, she decided that my daughter needed proper nutrition, and said as much while adding lettuce, onions and tomato to the order on her own. She did not consider it necessary to ask me if I was in agreement with her. Her judgment turned out to be correct; my daughter did not get hungry until we returned home late in the evening.
It has been almost a decade since this incident, but my daughter still fondly remembers ‘Farida auntie’.
THE MOTHER OF ALL SOLUTIONS
Some tendencies are at the core of human nature – competition, confrontation, compassion, cooperation and compromise are among these tendencies. Racism boils down to a combination of competition and confrontation, augmented by an imbalance of power between the contenders. At the risk of sounding sexist, I am willing to state that compassion and cooperation come more naturally to women, especially to mothers.
Any solution to an impasse between people requires a heavy dose of cooperation. Getting a proper understanding of someone’s suffering is possible only through compassion. Our efforts to tackle racism in Canada are going to have to depend on active participation of women in the exercise. Then we will be in a better position to make the necessary compromises to ensure a better Canada for all.