When I was growing up as a young girl, I wanted to desperately ‘fit in’ with the rest of my classmates. During our primary school days, my sister and I were the only children who looked racially ‘different’ from the rest of the students in our elementary school. We had ‘brown skin’ and many of the children were unwelcoming to those of us who were ‘different’.
Unfortunately, at that school, my sister and I would often get teased, taunted and bullied for not ‘fitting in’ with the majority of our classmates. My sister and I were also often ‘picked at’ during recess or lunch hour, and we were told that we were ‘dirty’ for not being able to wash the brown off of our skin. Other traumatic experiences included: teachers also being equally as unwelcoming as my classmates and turning a blind eye to their behaviours. I also remember during my first day of school, my teacher did not speak a word to me (or my sister) simply because she assumed that we did not speak English.
I have never shared this to my readers, as it is a painfully personal memory. I do not wish to re-live these rather traumatic or bitter-sweet memories and do not wish to spread negative complaints, elicit compassion or anger on my behalf from others. I have many positive memories since those days and would only wish to express how these painful experiences have actually strengthened me. In fact, my editor was not happy with this article and chose to reject it entirely. I sense that it may have hit a raw nerve with her and so I’ve decided to post this as my blog entry instead.
Still prevalent in Canadian schools ?
I believe that similar issues are still prevalent throughout Canadian schools today. Many ‘different’ children are still being bullied and teachers (god-bless them!) may also knowingly or unknowingly be passing on their own values, beliefs, assumptions and indifferences to their students.
How these experiences have shaped my perceptions
Although I wouldn’t understand that then, I now look back at those years and those students and realize that they were only repeating the ignorance that their parents taught them. I will discuss bullying, the school system and trauma at a different time, but I’d like to express the importance of embracing difference in this blog platform. Difference can be seen through race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, mental illness, or any life experience that you, your life or a loved ones may not have been directly touched by.
It wasn’t until later on in my adult life that I realized that ‘being different’ also was a gift of being unique. This would really be an asset that most these other children would never have the privilege of experiencing or developing. For instance, I now have a thorough understanding of diversity, cultural sensitivity and cultural competency because I grew up in a multi-generational family from an ethnic minority that not only spoke various languages, but actively practiced a different religion, cultural norms, values, and traditions that were different from ‘mainstream’ Canadian families. It is this upbringing that I believe has strengthened my openness to working with different groups of people today.
Is the experience of racism and discrimination changing in Canada?
My difficult experiences during my early childhood are examples of discrimination and racism that an immigrant, refugee or newcomer child and family endures and experiences from the majority culture or community. It is good to see that our definition of being ‘Canadian’ is actually changing.
While growing up in the late seventies and early eighties, racism and discrimination were not hidden, whereas in my opinion, it has gone somewhat underground or is more hidden in our mainstream culture simply because it is not politically correct in our modern culture. But in my opinion, racism or discrimination to those who are different hasn’t gone away or been ‘cured’ yet. And more controversially, I believe that this issue has become more visible during Canada’s recent debilitating economic downturn in our economy.
Diversity is a very important aspect of Canadian culture and society. These unique differences are what permits and supports the creation of a patchwork quilt of backgrounds, cultures, languages, ethnicities, cultural norms, values, traditions and experiences that have provided Canada with the unique identity of communities co-existing with the common thread of being Canadian. In recent times, discriminatory and racist values, beliefs and norms from various groups of Canadians have re-entered the Canadian sphere. These Canadians seem to believe that newcomers should ‘assimilate’ and completely let go of their previous languages, cultures, traditions, and beliefs and literally blend into Canadian society like all other ‘Canadians’.
It is an absolute necessity for new Canadians to learn English (our national language other than French), learn about Canadian history and create new ‘Canadian’ traditions, norms and experiences as Canadians – but how can newcomers or those who are ‘different’ balance their differences in their previous identities through language, cultural and ethnic backgrounds with the expectations of being a ‘Canadian’?
Some thought-provoking questions about assimilation versus diversity and the effects of economic recessions on political and social views
It’s a slippery slope that and a fine line between wanting to ‘assimilate’ as the Americans do in their ‘melting pot’ of assimilation. I wonder if this thinking has become more common during our recent economic recession, during which groups of people tend to withdraw out of fear, frustration, insecurity and anger and then start to demand that others (such as newcomers) not receive ‘specialized services’ based upon the fact that they are immigrants. These same folks believe that immigrants haven’t earned their rights to access supports and services as these people have. During recessions, there is a political, economic and social pressure to limit and cut back on programs and services geared to support newcomers. This then makes me wonder whether this form of racism and discrimination ever really went away? But let’s get past these issues and problems and explore some solutions shall we?
This so-called ‘specialty-treatment’ may actually help support our future workforce if we invest in this population now. Can we get past the financial, emotional and social insecurity during these tough economic? These times often do ‘force’ people to behave out of insecurity and fear? Or do these unfortunately ‘unchanging’ beliefs, values and morals shine through during these times of disparity?
Ultimately, I believe that we all truly want to belong to a greater entity and work towards a greater purpose or good in our lives. We should be permitted to live amongst our unique differences and similarities without being criticized for our decisions. Afterall, isn’t the fabric of complexity of differences what truly makes ‘Canadians’ unique? Our diversity within diversity allows us to create a unique identity of groups of people who bring together different strengths and characteristics that will strengthen this country during the tougher economic times. And, we are gaining such a rich understanding of people’s histories and lives that could only strengthen us as ‘Canadians’.