Young People’s Press had a correspondent reporting from the UN World Conference Against Racism Conference in Durban, South Africa. This is her story.
I’m in South Africa, almost safe and somewhat sound. I arrived in Durban yesterday, just before noon, took the shuttle bus and was dropped off right in front of my hostel. The hostel is a bit shoddy and pungent with the smells of maleness. And though it is located close to where the UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) and Youth Summit will take place, it is not situated in a particularly safe area.
I read an article defining “race” published in a local paper, The Mercury. Included were ridiculous pictures, depicting the nine “geographical races.” The Mercury’s view of the “typical” representatives for each race included fierce looking Pigmies for the Australian race, Tibetan monks for the Asian race, some guy who looked Indonesian with a hand painted on his face for the Aboriginal race and – get this – Claudia Schiffer, German supermodel extraordinaire for the European race. Funny.
With earnest feeling, South Africans of Colour tell me that when in the face of a White person, they instantly assume their diminution. Their sense of Self shirks and shrinks. They become very small. But, like a twirl on one foot, as not to dwell on darker times, they change the subject and speak about “living altogether” and how “we are now free to live anywhere we choose.”
There are signs to welcome the delegates. One billboard has the words, “You’re not a Racist…Right?” written in a slender, grey type…non-obtrusive at first glance but in effect, piquing. Each backpacker I spoke to, who saw the sign on the way into town remembered it. I wonder who else did.
The shutters were clicking and the flashes popping when Clayton Peters, the Communications Manager of the WCAR Youth Summit, made his announcement. “The International Jewish Student delegation…have boycotted the Youth Summit, claiming it is a farce, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitist.”
The Youth Summit was about talking amongst ourselves. Youth to youth, young person to young person. We are malleable and can still muster the effort to see ourselves as human. Our ability to do this was one of the principal reasons why we were included.
Having the conviction of “being right,” coupled with refusing to see any other viewpoint, has shown itself to be the greatest danger threatening our existence.
Youth delegates are asking whether the UN is committed to officially recognizing the participation of young people when the World Conference is over. Youth members dissatisfied with the leadership of the IYC are planning to release a statement requesting the UN to form a Youth Body. The youth representatives want to push this demand…to ensure their continued participation in future intergovernmental processes and as a means to establish an International Youth Network that will be set-up as a post-WCAR program to combat racism.
Dr. Hedy Fry, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Status of Women, spearheaded the Youth Summit at the WCAR and ensured that Canadian youth played a significant role in it.
I asked her what the government’s next step to ensure youth continues to be part of governmental processes will be. “I think one of the things I would like to do is bring youth who are here (at the WCAR) together and do a debrief,” she said. “Talk about what happened, what were the resolutions, what were the strategies. We feel that youth should be the most important people in the March 21st (International Day for the Elimination of Racism) initiative because they have the ability to make the changes that we need. And many of our people raising awareness and who are in education are wearing old hats. The need for youth at present and to build the future is very, very important.”
I surfed the National Post and Globe and Mail websites and was disappointed with the inflammatory reporting. Until this morning, issues pertaining to anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish sentiment on the ground were not as virulent or as wide spread as the picture drawn in print by mainstream Canadian journalists. Most briefings I have attended and the feedback I received from Canadian and American NGO representatives show that delegates in general are sympathetic to all of the victims who have suffered because of the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.
There are status quo interests that will be seriously, if not severely, threatened once the Conference is over and once a UN Declaration and Plan of Action is signed. When the document is finalized, people of the world who experience discrimination/racism will have a legal framework – within which to seek redress – should their own governments fail to recognize their plea. Can you imagine what this means to governments who are currently implementing xenophobic legislation against minorities in their countries?
My paranoia of the City Centre has dissipated. Meeting more locals and having a chance to talk with them about their life and how they see themselves as South African people of the post-apartheid era is making me see Coloured, White and Black people as people rather than victims of racism. The impression is, slowly, the crossing over of Whites, Blacks and Coloured people across quarters that was once prescribed as forbidden is changing the face of the City Centre.
I’m sitting on a sand dune on North Beach, Durban looking across the wide, heaving ocean. The North beach sits alongside Marine Parade Road, known for its tourist-friendly boardwalks and grand-styled hotels. I look around me, expecting to see a few White people taking an afternoon stroll, but there are only young Black children running around and other Coloured people sitting at the beachfront cafes, enjoying the fresh sea air.
Judy Persaud dawdled and dithered. Finally she gathered the courage to reveal her sexuality to her family. Her Indo-Caribbean mother was shocked that her daughter was lesbian and she couldn’t do what her hurting child wanted most -show some affection.
“I just wanted her to hug me. That’s all she needed to do,” Judy says.
David (not his real name) also hoped he could count on the love and support of his Guyanese-Muslim family. But those hopes were shattered when his mother fainted after hearing of her son’s sexual orientation.
Judy and David are two of the 10 youth featured in an audacious documentary called “Rewriting the Script: A Love Letter to Our Families.” The film looks at sexuality in the South Asian community and is designed to help South Asian parents and families in their journey toward understanding and accepting their lesbian, gay and bisexual children.
The producers of the video say they wanted to come up with a resource tool to help communities and families deal with homosexuality in a more loving and constructive manner. The 45-minute production took three years to produce.
“They were coming to the whole process with a lot of love. They wanted to do this primarily as a way of speaking to their families and drawing their parents to them,” says Mark Haslam, the director of Toronto’s Planet in Focus Film Festival, about the group of youngsters.
The film is an intimate journey into a world where hurt, pride and shame battle with acceptance.
“In many (Asian) cultures it (homosexuality) is strongly related to faith and sin. There is a lot of strong cultural pressure that would make you feel shameful about coming out,” Janice Dahl, a youth worker at a Toronto-based settlement agency, says.
“It’s a huge challenge,” she says.
Within the South Asian community, a fear exists among many young homosexual people of losing their place within the delicate settings of family and social relations. “It is very difficult to open your mouth and say something that will jeopardize your support network,” says Dahl.
Thankfully, in most major Canadian cities there are organizations that assist young people who are gay and lesbian. These groups help young people accept and understand their sexuality as well as deal with the social disapproval that may be attendant to it.
Yet, there is still a long way to go in making this community feel accepted. In 1989, suicide was the leading cause of death among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Luckily, Judy does not harbor any thoughts of suicide. Her family now accepts who she is and her relationship with her mother is growing. Even though she may face discrimination and ridicule in other places, every morning she goes out knowing that her family is behind her and that makes a difference.
David’s situation has not changed. A thick stands between him and the family he loves. He longs for the day when his family can look beyond the barriers, and give him what he needs and cherishes most – their love.
Recently, I went to Gerrard Street in Toronto with a batch of bridesmaids to find saris for an upcoming wedding that we’re all attending. As we walked from store to store with the distinctive beat of Indian music trailing behind us, I noticed bindis of all shapes and sizes, reddish and black henna and of course the beautiful and exotic fabrics commonly used for saris.
As a South Asian, these sights and sounds are nothing new to me. But seeing them elsewhere is a bit of a surprise.
When I walk into Le Chateau, Costa Blanca or many other hip stores these days, I often see our fashions or hear our music. Suddenly saris, bindis and henna are the latest style, and popular songs, like Noreaga’s ‘Super Thug’, have an obvious South Asian beat.
Since I was a child, I have seen my mother and aunts dress up in saris and bindis and though I havn’t been too fond of our music, I am familiar with the sounds of the tabla beat and Hindi tunes.
The funny thing is that growing up in Canada, I did not once hear a classmate remark at how cool it was to decorate your forehead or wear a sari. As a matter of fact, these things were completely uncool, silly looking and something that only a “Paki” would wear.
Isn’t it odd how I don’t hear such things being murmured anymore when I see
girls of all different cultures walking by with their arms and ankles covered in henna, wearing skirts and dresses made from Indian-influenced style?
I can’t quite get over this fad, not because I don’t want to share my culture with the rest of the world. South Asians have always been wearing the saris, the bindis, the sarong, and henna, but no one thought it was too cool at that time.
It is a well-known tale of embarrassment for South Asian kids to have their
mothers pick them up from school in full cultural costume. We’ve heard it all before:
Why is your mother wearing that?'' orEww, what’s that on her forehead?”
I wasn’t completely ashamed of being Sri Lankan when I was a child. Sure enough my parents dressed me up in little saris and, oh, wasn’t I the cutest thing? But that was at home.
The pictures they took of me were never the ones I took to school for show-and-tell. After all, what would my little classmates have thought had they known the other side of my Canadian self that played dress-up in beautiful fabrics rather than dresses, and pranced around to South Asian music rather than pop singers like Madonna?
Even Madonna, however, has picked up the South Asian vibe. The video for her song “Frozen” shows Madonna, her hands adorned with henna, moving in ways similar to Indian dance. Also, the song itself is distinctly influenced by South Asian musical traditions.
And Madonna does not stand alone. Artists such as Tatyana Ali and Shania Twain have sported bindis and saris in their videos. Lauryn Hill’s “Killing Me Softly” is yet another example of a popular song that draws freely on South Asian music.
When artists that are not South Asian use the culture to add flavour to either their songs or videos, it now tends to be a seller, but South Asian artists who
normally use traditional beats in their music are pretty much unknown.
Of course, Apache Indian came out with “Arranged Marriage,” a song that actually made it to hip radio stations. But I’m talking about artists such as Toronto’s own Punjabi-by-Nature that have put a modern twist into Indian music.
South Asian people are not nearly as popular as their culture is becoming, which is nothing new to me or my South Asian friends. We watch TV and read
magazines, and it is obvious to us that South Asian people are not well represented. As a culture, we are pretty much invisible in the entertainment media.
For example, given that fashion mags are displaying the latest South Asian inspired fashions, isn’t it ironic that there are never South Asians modeling this latest fad?
It’s not that I see anything wrong with people of other cultures wearing our clothes, but I do wonder why South Asian people are not also shown displaying styles that are originally from our own culture.
And where does this leave us? While the brown kids are begging their mothers to put away their bindis, other kids are begging their moms to buy them some.
Well, that’s what’s hot for the moment. Fads come and go, but South Asian people will continue to wear their traditional styles, as they always have.
Though I wish I could say that people will now be more accepting of our culture since they have tried it on for size and liked it, I have my doubts.
The embarrassment of having Mom pick you up at school will continue for South Asian kids simply because the henna is covering brown skin and the bindis rest in the middle of an Indian woman’s forehead.
Can anyone give me a justifiable answer as to why?
It is a question that neither my South Asian friends nor I could answer. In fact, I wanted to quote my South Asian friends on the subject but when I told them that their names would be used, they quickly refused.
They told me that it would be too embarrassing having their names associated with an article on South Asian culture.
It just isn’t cool.
The world changed on September 11th. Especially my world.
As a young Muslim woman, I had always been aware that common misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam, apparent throughout the western world, could affect how others would treat me.
But I also knew that progress had been made. Over time, I realized that the political values of most Canadians included not only acceptance, but also appreciation of Canada’s diversity.
Cosmopolitan cities around the world were becoming friendlier places. Overt racism was becoming less common. And communities that had been divided through centuries of conflict and tension were coming together, particularly in diasporic youth cultures in the West.
Toronto based media personality Irshad Manji puts it best: “Diversity is like oxygen. I only notice it when it’s missing.” Visible minorities in Toronto had slowly become a majority, outnumbering the previous one – “whites”.
In Toronto, we see hijab (head covering worn by Muslim women) everywhere. Buses, shopping malls and schools are full of “veiled women.” I, myself, had been wearing one since I was nine years old.
Like a turban, yarmulka, or even a bandana, my hijab used to be a token of self-expression. It was something I was immensely proud of. It was something that defined me as an independent, confident woman who wasn’t afraid of the world.
My hijab made me feel liberated. It protected me from the sleazy gazes of the people around me. It was my security blanket. It was.
But on September 12th, the day after the tragic events in New York City, things changed within the blink of an eye. And they changed drastically.
While sitting on the subway on my way to university, I realized that while people usually fought for seats, pushing, shoving and even yelling, today was different. The seats on either side of me were empty.
“Must have beat the rush,” I thought to myself, but then looked up from my newspaper only to see the usual crowd reaching out for handrails and poles, waiting for an empty seat.
All of a sudden I was reduced to nothing more than a diseased rat that no one wanted to get too close to. I felt like I had a sign posted to my forehead that only I couldn’t see. A sign reading “Danger: Stay Away.”
As my stop approached and I stood up, people automatically moved out of my way to let me out. Almost like VIP treatment, I thought, except that it was accompanied by frowns and angry faces.
Toronto media was quickly bombarded with stories about “Islamic terrorism,” and “Islamic fundamentalism.” Unfortunately the two terms were used interchangeably.
For me, this meant that my hijab was no longer a form of security. Rather it became a hazard.
Hijab, a form of fundamentalism, was now something that defined me as a “terrorist.”
Within a matter of weeks the world returned to its state of intolerance. Decades of hard work and education for a world of harmony were destroyed and we returned to our ethnocentric ways of the past.
Racism was abundant, and hijab was not. Today, I don’t wear it. Today I am afraid to wear it.
But this too will change. And this change will begin with me. I’ve realized that more than intolerance, racism breeds fear. I will not let it defeat me. I will not let the world move backwards.