By Tahsin Bakth
Edited by Ashleena Bilal
"Where are you from?"
I hate being asked where I’m from. The truth about me that everyone hates is that I’ve never felt that I belong anywhere, and yes, that includes Canada. Most people I’ve admitted this to become either very offended because they think I’m refusing to associate myself with Canada (I’m not), or they accuse me of clinging to a Bengali identity I have no right to hold onto (I argue that I do).
Let me explain what I mean when I say that I feel I don’t belong anywhere at all. While I feel Bengali - my parents, and my mother in particular, had a huge influence on me growing up - and I still feel at home in Bangladesh, there are certain things that set me apart from people who were raised in Bangladesh, because I was influenced by another culture as well.
However, I’ve never felt that I belong in Canada either.
How can I?
I’ve never felt accepted or represented in this country. I’ve never felt as though someone like me was welcome here. I don’t feel safe here because of my skin colour and my religion.
I have watched family friends being murdered because a man left the house wanting to kill a Muslim, and she was there, wearing a niqab, at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all it took for her to be killed.
I have heard Federal Immigration officers laugh with their colleagues as they mocked my parents for their accents, when they thought we couldn’t hear. Snickering about “immigrants” in that familiar way. I have seen the way social workers huff and puff about the massive delays translation services apparently cause in the disability offices when my parents required them, and the way cashiers still refuse to look at my parents while they’re speaking to them. Instead they all look at me, apparently finding my parents’ accents too hard to understand (it’s really not), waiting for me to take over and remove the burden of having to interact with them.
I live in an ethnic enclave of Portuguese and Italians on the west end of the city.
It’s the way everyone in the stores in this neighbourhood stares at my Brown parents and my mother in a burka when they enter a store and watch them do their groceries. Their eyes follow us everywhere we go.
When I attended high school in this area, I was the only South-Asian student in my grade, and one of the few Muslims in the entire school.
Growing up, my classmates referred to my religion as “fricking Islam” whenever it was brought up and painted the headscarf as an issue of brainwashing within the Muslim community. While they were disrespectful of every religion besides Christianity, they enjoyed mocking Islam’s religious teachings and practices the most in class. My friend who wore the hijab had it torn off in class. Another one of my friends often had people scream “You terrorist!” at her because she wore a necklace with the Shahadah (the Muslim declaration of faith) on it.
I was in a bus full of East-Asian people when I got shoved around and spat on, and I was confused until I realized I was the only dark-skinned person on the TTC shuttle bus. No one else was being looked at with revulsion and shoved around the second they stepped onto the bus.
All throughout my life, from my peers, from my work supervisors, from my colleagues, to my teachers, who told me “You’re in Canada now. All you need is English and French” when they realized I knew not one but several languages of South Asia. I have heard many people say “You’re in Canada, speak English” when overhearing a private conversation between peoples in another language, and argue; “Canada is a Christian country” and “You should go back to a Muslim country if you want to be Muslim” when I announce I’m taking one day off for Eid (although technically I’m also supposed to be taking off two weeks, just as they do for Christmas).
My knowledge and love for my cultural and ethnic heritage from my parents and my different religion was seen as a threat to Canada and my assimilation to what was considered Canadian. So much for multiculturalism and celebrating diversity.
When I told my classmates that I was Bangladeshi - Canadian, not Indian - Canadian as they had assumed, one of them said “Why aren’t you Indian? All Brown people are the same though. Does 'Bengali' even exist? Did your people just make it up so you could be different from Indians? What’s the Indian language anyways? Aren’t Bangladeshis stealing Indian land?”
I grew up in this world. I understand not everyone else is like this, but most people that I knew growing up were like this. Racism and intolerance are serious issues in Canada.
It’s hard for me to discuss these issues, however, and admit that I’ve never felt like I belonged here as a result of these things.
Canadians like hiding reality under the rug, because reality is so much harder to deal with than the tolerant, polite, multicultural Canadian society we enjoy presenting to the rest of the world. It’s a myth, but it’s one people cling to despite reality not matching up. I’ve lost count of the amount of people that have told me “This is Canada. Racism doesn’t exist here” because they haven’t faced it themselves. When I told them that I’ve faced a lot of racism throughout my life, they looked at me and said “You’re lying. This is Canada.”
No one likes hearing what I have to say on this, because no one wants to hear how bad it has been for some minorities in this country.
When Pierre Trudeau’s government included multiculturalism into Canada’s newly repatriated constitution in the 1960s, maybe it was done with good intentions. Yet Canada’s much boasted multiculturalism is less of a reality and more of a mask we use to hide the very real and very strong racism and xenophobia in Canada which minorities - such as myself - have faced in the past and continue to face today.
For a country that supposedly prides itself on its diversity, it’s alarming to note how Toronto’s famed diverse populations lives in ethnic enclaves for the most part, and racialized peoples and immigrants disproportionately struggle with poverty, discrimination and police brutality compared to White people.
It’s why a boy in my high school believed he could embarrass me by accusing me of being “an Indian girl from Regent Park” or somewhere else “on the East End, like Scarborough” in front of the class. You see, these places have become synonymous with poverty and racialized peoples and what high-schoolers who were born into the upper middle class and live on the West End like to do is snicker whenever these areas are mentioned and make fun of people struggling to break out of the poverty cycle…rather than educating themselves or having any compassion for their fellow Torontonians.
Racism, xenophobia, ignorance, Islamophobia, homophobia, police brutality, poverty, etc. are not “American issues” that Canadians are above. They’re our issues too, and they always have been.
Canada is a country built on the worst genocide and ethnic cleansing that took place on this continent, on the basis of white supremacy and European colonization. Christianity is entrenched into our constitution. Things haven’t changed too much since then, whether or not we like to pretend otherwise. We’ve just gotten good at hiding them by silencing the voices of persecuted and marginalized communities within our society.
And to all the offended, weirded-out people who have demanded to know where I think I belong if I refuse to say I feel like I belong in Canada … the answer is still nowhere.
It’s an answer no one wants to hear, but it’s the only honest one I can give.