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Why microaggressions are more harmful than conventional racism

By Aymen Sherwani, October 29 2021—

Last week, a Calgary-based educator, Tanveer Kaur, took to her Instagram, which has been made private, to express her frustration about how she was treated at the Renfrew Aquatic Centre in a now-viral post. Being a mother of three children, Kaur was excited to take her two sons to swimming lessons. However, when it came time for the swimming instructor to take attendance, things took a more negative turn when said instructor singled out Kaur’s 4-year-old son, Gurdas, for having a “weird” name. 

In an interview with the Gauntlet, Kaur spoke more about the experience and how microaggressions can have a lasting impact within the community. 

“[The swimming instructor] looks at my son and pauses — and I’m just like, ‘Oh boy, is he going to try to guess?’ He said a name on the list — I don’t even remember what it was, but I said, ‘Oh, no, that’s not it.’ Then he showed me the list and I said, ‘Actually, it’s right here. His name is Gurdas.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, why do I always get the weird names?’” said Kaur, recounting her experience with the swim instructor. 

Compared to more outward bursts of racism, BIPOC Canadians are more likely to run into microaggressions or backhanded comments that conceal thinly veiled instances of intolerance, whether it be homophobia, racism or sexist jokes. Someone commenting on how well another person speaks — should they be from a visible minority group — or even how different a name sounds are just a few of the many comments that further exclude the receiver and position them as an outsider. In Kaur’s case, it was a seemingly harmless joke about her son’s name, rooted in his Sikh heritage. In reality, these jokes are not harmless — they communicate a negative bias, whether implicit or explicit, towards the recipient’s identity and ultimately leave them feeling less than. 

“How do you laugh with him when he laughs at you? He [the swimming instructor] made my son feel like he doesn’t belong because his identity is something that’s weird or ‘other,’” she said. “Kids who were there saw and heard that interaction — to almost say, ‘hey, it’s okay to treat people like this because he was the adult, and they are the children,’ so he’s setting the example.”

Kaur’s concerns carry a lot of weight, especially when factoring in how heavily normalized it is for people of colour to accept what is happening to them as a joke. She explains that, aside from the overwhelming online support, she also received an influx of comments from “older white men” that were either in disbelief that such an experience could have ever occurred or insisting that it had been in jest. 

“I think that completely degrades your experience, as somebody from the BIPOC community when someone says you don’t know your own experience,” she said when addressing the online backlash. “It is just completely erasing your lives and experiences — nobody else can tell you how you felt right at that time.”  

Aside from being a mother, she is also a master’s student at the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary with a focus on Inclusive Education. Coming from a place of both lived and academic experience, Kaur uses her background to inform the work that she executes on a day-to-day basis. This is the case either through her findings as a master’s student or through her former role as an educator at Khalsa School Calgary — a K-9 faith-based private school that provides a leadership-focused environment to Sikh-Canadian students, many of which come from immigrant and newcomer backgrounds. 

“I taught there for many years, and that definitely gives you an insight into what their experiences are in Calgary as newcomers trying to navigate the system and the barriers [within it] — it definitely helps me bring that lens of understanding to see how everything [at the aquatic centre] happened, and how they affected me,” Kaur added. 

In 2019, Environics Canada conducted a study on Race Relations in Canada and found that most Canadians acknowledge that racialized Canadians experience discrimination either often or at least occasionally, 75 per cent acknowledging the prejudice against South Asian Canadians, such as Kaur. The study also concluded that over 38 per cent of Canadians experience discrimination in the workplace, most of it taking the form of microaggressions and snide comments related to one’s identity or physical appearance. 

Oftentimes, overt racism in Canada is hard to find and, evidently, a large portion of it manifests in remarks with implicit biases that leave others feeling at a loss for how to respond because of the subtlety in which they are said. For that same reason, it is harder for people of colour to seek accountability for the hurt and pain they experience. 

Kaur explained that when her son’s swimming instructor referred to his name as weird, she did attempt to hold him accountable as she “felt uncomfortable leaving him with somebody who just said that,” but did not reach the desired consequences. First, she approached the front desk at the Renfrew Aquatic Centre but, according to Kaur, they were more concerned with whether the instructor was doing his job properly. 

“She just said ‘I’m sorry it happened,’ but didn’t really understand why I was upset — instead, she just kind of kept pressing, like, ‘Okay, but do you feel like he’s teaching your son?’” Kaur said. “But that’s not the point — my concern is that he wasn’t treated with respect.”

After class, none of the staff members came to stand by Kaur in support of her — instead, Kaur stated that she had to be the one to approach her son’s swimming instructor for an apology. 

“He did say ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,’ but there was no place of a genuine understanding that what he said would hurt a child,” she added when asked about whether she felt the apology felt sincere.  

“He didn’t say ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it’ or even ask ‘How do I pronounce your son’s name, so I can learn it for next class.’ He’s his teacher for another five to seven classes, and I was trying to say ‘I’d really like you to reflect on your thought process before those words came out of your mouth,’ because this is not an experience any other child would have gone through, and this won’t be the first for mine.”

Instead, she explained that her son’s swimming instructor “just kind of glossed over it” before informing her that he was late for his next class. According to Kaur, this is what prompted her to share her experience on Instagram in the first place. 

“There needs to be some action taken because there was no commitment from them.” 

Emphasizing the need for Albertans to be more cognizant of the words that come out of their mouths, and whether or not they are creating a safe and welcoming environment for people who don’t look like them, she concluded that kindness and empathy are needed now more than ever. 

“We need to take a step back and listen to communities that have had very different experiences [than you] and to give them space to speak on what they’ve been through.”

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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