By V. M. GOPAUL
My call to action came on July 8, 2016, when five police officers were killed in Dallas by a black man. The slaying of these white men directly resulted from the fatal shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana—two black men killed by two white officers. Once again, the fires of hatred, cries of despair, and calls for justice erupted all across America. Not surprisingly, the debate went wild in Canada, too, among politicians, activists, and media commentators.
Writing a book about racism with the hope of one day delivering it to the world had been incubating in my mind for years. As I was busy finishing my second novel, Justice Denied, writing my narrative on racial discrimination was scheduled for two to three years down the road. The issue had now become too urgent to delay writing about it any further.
In Canada, discussion about police brutality against minorities always evolves into a discussion about the broader ills of racism.
On a personal level, when I, a brown-skinned person, claim that I have never experienced racism in Canada, my listeners respond with awe, shock, or disbelief. They ask, “In the age of Brexit, the rise of populism, immigrant bashing, racism, xenophobia, and other prejudices in Europe and the US, how can you not experience racism? It is everywhere. In Canada too.”
I answer, “In the last fifty years, having lived and traveled in Europe, North America, Israel, and Pakistan, I never had any discriminatory words hurled at me. This is the truth. This is my narrative and I can’t deny it.”
Yet I am not blind to the social repercussions of divisiveness. Since my teen years, I have contemplated prejudices of many kinds: racism, sexism, nationalism, classism, sexual discrimination, and religious discrimination—all obstacles to justice and empowerment for individuals, minorities, nations, and the world. This post results from my life experience, my understanding of social structures, and my belief in humanity’s capacity to circumvent hurdles in our struggle to attain peace and harmony.
Now at the age of seventy, I am a firm believer in the oneness of mankind. This journey to eradicate from the mind and spirit all prejudices, racial or otherwise, started when I was a teenager. In 1967, during a high school recess, I had a conversation with a classmate about his belief systems, one of which was embracing the oneness of mankind.
Born in Mauritius in a society of Indians, blacks, whites, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, I understood well the walls of division that existed among these groups. From the lowest caste of the Hindu religious system, I was also well aware of the small number of privileges I was entitled to due to my status at birth. Hard work, education, and determination—all hallmarks in the search for a better life—were undermined by the mere fact that I was considered part of a subclass of society.
During that fateful recess, I challenged my classmate, who belonged to the Oneness Movement, by saying that prejudices were impossible to eliminate from human experience and his idea too far-fetched to become a reality. As an argument, I pointed out to him that the social structure in the small Indian Ocean island was laced with systemic racism. In a fierce exchange of points of view, I expressed that breaking all the religious and social barriers from human consciousness to the point that one feels in harmony with everyone else regardless of one’s color or background was unachievable. Would the whites from Mauritius, or any other parts of the world, accept a brown person like myself as their brother? Would the Indians or Chinese treat the Africans like their own? The classmate emphasized that the true spirit of oneness is not an intellectual exercise. Rather, it stems from an emotional stance where one feels every human being on this planet is a member of a global family. He further explained that, from a spiritual perspective, we are all created with the same spirit of the Creator. At that time, none of it made any sense to me. I ignored him. The white folks in Europe would never wholeheartedly accept brown people. Even within the same caste or ethnic group, one was discriminated against for being darker in color, which I was.
In 1971, I arrived in Toronto after having traveled through twelve countries. I felt fortunate to have had the most amazing human experiences in all those foreign lands. During my travels, strangers came to my rescue on numerous occasions when despair and hopelessness were at their peak. Given my wonderful experiences, as I analyzed the methodology put forward by the Oneness Movement, my once skeptical ideas of unification of the human race fell away and were replaced by optimism. Despite my poverty, youth, and many unrealized dreams, I still felt lucky to be in Canada, and I committed myself to racial harmony as a worthy goal.
Racism and other prejudices are barriers that keep humans divided, precipitate wars, pit one group against another, and justify robbing one group to help another. To take my life mission seriously, I acknowledged that the one person I can truly change is myself. Eradicating all racial and religious prejudices in my own mind and heart was not an easy task.
In restructuring my belief system, I had to accept that everyone else belonged to the same human family, no less than my own parents, brothers, and sisters. In principle, this sounds idealistic, but with time, laser-sharp focus, and perseverance, the idea lingers in one’s mind enough to become achievable.
I kept reminding myself of the progress made on our planet. For example, in 1900, the idea that humans would one day walk on the moon, have heart transplants, or travel from London to New York in mere hours would have sounded unimaginable. Not only have we achieved these three goals but also hundreds of other marvelous accomplishments. So we can achieve the oneness of mankind. It will take time.
With the passage of time, I witnessed the face of Canada changing. Immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America came here instead of to Europe or the USA. Throughout all my human interactions, I analyzed whether my behavior was prejudicial in any way. Truthfully, my biases, ingrained in me during my formative years in Mauritius, often surfaced.
As I removed one prejudice, say racial or religious—two of the most difficult ones—I discovered in me other prejudices towards the physically challenged, the poor, the rich, the educated, or the uneducated. What kept me going was the freedom I enjoyed from refusing to look down upon anyone because of their outward appearance.
As time passed, my fortunes in Canada increased in education, job status, and assets. It would have been easy to become arrogant, but I always reminded myself of my humble beginnings and that all the good fortune could suddenly disappear. My approach was to treat everyone with respect and to view each person as a noble being. If someone of a different race reacted in a way that surprised me or offended me, I never concluded that racism was at play. Not everyone has to like me, give me what I want, or give me what I deserve. When refused of a request, I always tried empathy—maybe that person has an abrasive personality or had a fight with someone or that person is sick. I never translated every negative action as a sign of racial discrimination. Simply, I did not know what was happening in someone’s life, heart, or mind. Without all the facts, how could I judge?
This does not mean that I am denying someone else’s experience as a Canadian-born or an immigrant. Lately, there has been a lot of talk on radio talk shows about racism and immigrants fitting in, about political campaigns, police relations, and so on. Canada is a multicultural country, and the potential for disunity will always exist. We must find solutions to fix racial problems, and I have solutions worthy of consideration. Race harmony is our collective destiny. Canada, as a young country without the burden of entrenched traditions and long history, is in a unique position to show the world how this noble goal can be achieved.