During the 2010 Winter Olympics, I found myself doing a short term minimum-wage job in Vancouver soliciting signatures on a climate change petition from the streets surrounding some of the sports venues. I was part of a small team instructed to work in pairs for safety. In the first couple of hours on the job, I received many ‘raceompliments’ such as, ‘Your english is good’; ‘Lucky, you don’t need no sun tan’; ‘Paki-bitch’; ‘Where is your hijab?’; ‘Where did you come from?’; ‘Where did you learn your english?’; and, of course, ‘Go back where you came from’.
Right away, it was necessary for me to put in place a defense strategy, and my instinctive temporary solution was to begin sharing these ‘comments’ with my team mates in order to stop the racist attacks from piling up on me. Keep in mind that these comments were like fresh items being thrown onto a compost heap as high as a downtown highrise, since I have been a Canadian for over thirty years, and before that, I was raised a woman in Pakistan, so the heap was already made up of numerous ‘sexompliments’ and other ‘woman-abusements’ from there and here. So, I began sharing these racist vignettes in the form of small jokes, and my team mates, all young White people studying at local universities, were supportive. We laughed together and that made all the difference to me in terms of continuing to work while taking these insults at the rapid frequency that they were being dished out to me as a Woman of Color working on the street.
By the end of that week, I was asked to meet the Boss, who after listening to me became a bit restless in his chair. He said that perhaps I was making the situation more complex than it actually was by exaggerating my street encounters. That threw me off a bit because he seemed like an educated person who was apparently committed to bringing change for the better, and I couldn’t reconcile it with his blaming-the-victim mentality regarding my direct encounters with racism. So, as if joking, I asked him if he was a racist. At that, he jumped up from his chair, and said something that I could never forget, and these were his exact words (except for the name of the country perhaps): ‘How can I be a racist? My wife is Jamaican!’ To me, his concept was, and is, as baffling as: ‘How can I be a sexist? My wife is a woman!’ But, I recovered quickly, and asked if his wife had ever ‘shared with him’ any of her experiences of racism. He said no or seldom. That confused me a bit more, so I asked him about her profession, and it came out that she held a well-paid position with a government or education agency. That, of course, figured. I know how most professional middle class South Asians do not acknowledge that racism exists in this society, and they are adept in minimizing it when it happens to them or to others in front of them. Some even go as far as to stand with the settler-colonialists to condemn or to put down their own or other non-White ethnic groups. Racism takes many different forms, such as in this scenario where it is in-your-face naked, not woven in subtle processes of an educational or governmental office.
I must also note that for his part, the Boss was indifferent or clueless about the impact upon me of being exposed to those hateful racist comments, questions and statements said directly to my face, on the street, and at that high frequency.
When people choose to not see race as it factors in their lives and in the lives of others, they also may not see a few other things such as ‘class’. In this case, I was also taken to task by the Boss for soliciting and getting signatures from people who did not have an email address. Let’s see, what kind of people or which population groups are likely to NOT have an email address in Vancouver in this day and age? Yes, many homeless and older jobless people don’t have an email address, add to them some of the seniors of Color who have not yet made the transition from mail to email, people who live marginally, those with no access to technology, or ever learned to use it, rural folks, the poor. Does that mean they don’t have an opinion on the state of our environment, or that they are not impacted by it, or that their opinion is not worth having, or that their voices do not need to be heard in this matter?
The reason provided by the Boss was that signatures with email addresses could fetch the campaign a much-needed $5 each. It is interesting that he told me this even when at my job interview with him a few weeks back I had made it clear to him that I do not support selling people’s contact information when their signature was taken for one specific purpose, but that it was okay with me if a non-profit organization to whose representative that information was given, used it to send occasional messages regarding their own campaigns and events. It was as if that conversation had never taken place, and I was asked to stop soliciting signatures from those people who had no email addresses to be sold.
Since an average of only 2-5% of the signatures I took were solicited from homeless/jobless people or seniors of Color, why would a non-profit environmental protection organization not make room for them, in order to have their point-of-view and to include it in that democratic process? Instead of including the City’s marginalized voices, I was asked to stop gathering their signatures, opinions and input. Could this be because, like racism, it would have been too much of a challenge for the all-White middle-class organizers to reconcile these voices with their self-serving well-funded environmental activism? One wonders what the reasons could be.
Leaving the wonderment aside, let’s go to the end result: Even when I was the most punctual and hard-working member of the team who daily scored many more signatures than others, I could not last in that job for more than four of the six weeks, and even though they said they have my resume ‘on file’, I was never again asked to do any other work for them. Again, one wonders why.
This was a clear example of directly-administered racism on the street, and, it also showed us how that experience was NOT IDENTIFIED as racism by an all-White non-profit organization.
But that’s not the only form of racism encountered by People of Color in the workplace; there are various indirectly-administered forms that are subtle and way more lethal than the above. In those instances none of the ‘raceompliments’ are directly uttered but the actions, discussions and conversations show that that is what may have ‘informed’ the individuals who in most cases have not given the issue of systemic racism enough thought to determine where they stand or they have given it thought and have decided to continue to support the current prejudiced systemic structures. And, unlike the varied representation of people on the Street, in a non-profit organization a more homogeneous population may be found where individuals are well-educated and ‘aware’ of racism, and so the expressions are not as blatant. This unprocessed or processed, deep and submerged racism creates a much more difficult experience to live through and point to than the one shared above. We, as People of Color, must confront racism in all its varied forms in all different aspects of our daily lives- economic, social and political.
I had a four-month long debilitating experience of this ‘deep and submerged’ racism while working with another non-profit organization whose claim to anti-racism, or ‘diversity’ (their name for it), was to hire a hijab-wearing woman as their receptionist. Perhaps I was the only Person of Color ever hired by them in a decision-making role (the Project Lead); and, it seemed they didn’t know what to do with me. I was honored when they offered me the job on the basis of my work with Surrey Muse, as well as my ideas about the project that I had earlier presented in their community consultation meetings, and so I was delighted to accept. Three other people were also hired at the same time to look after publicity, technical direction, and coordination of available resources. I was asked by the Project Manager to develop a plan on the basis of project mandate and the notes from community-consultation meetings. I worked full-time (and into overtime) for the next three weeks to research and develop our plan, that was then sent to the Project Manager and the other three hired staff. That’s when strangeness began, where two opposites were at work at the same time, and one could not know which one was operating when.
For example, even though the Project Plan was unanimously praised by all concerned and it was approved without any significant critique or modification, much hostility began to come through to me via emails. As I was asked by the Project Manager to begin implementation, two of the three co-workers began to question my every move, from my developing the plan to getting the project logo redesigned. A meeting held between us was spent in squabbling about job descriptions instead of hashing out the implementation of the project. Soon, it began to feel as if I did not have colleagues or coworkers, but fierce competitors whose main job was to take me to task with excessive, and often self-serving and ill-informed, scrutiny.
I used the terms ‘ill-informed’ and ‘self-serving’ because in most cases, the concerned co-workers either had not taken the time to read the whole message or document under discussion, or they had not taken the time to inform themselves about the issues involved. For example, the person who sent long messages to say that I didn’t have the right to get the project logo made, hadn’t noticed that the project already had a logo and that I was only getting it re-designed (it had appeared too ‘simple'(!) to me and I had said to the Project Manager that we could add some ‘complexity'(!) to it). My second co-worker was dissatisfied with her designation and assigned areas of work (that had been agreed upon by her and the Project Manager before I was hired), and she remained focused on those throughout the four months of my tenure with them.
During this time, the Project Manager and his role also began to seem strange. For example, when the very first squabble arose (about whether I had the right to develop the plan) the so called ‘discussion’ went on and on for days before he made himself available to confirm that indeed he had asked me to develop the plan. I wondered why he didn’t do it sooner? Unfortunately for me, he followed this pattern regarding all such interactions- let the abuse happen, let me deal with it by myself. But if it appeared that I was beginning to embarrass my co-workers, step in and end it.
What this situation did to me was to put me under a lot of ongoing unneeded and unnecessary stress, and it left me alone to do the implementation of a sizeable project. What rescued me from this two-faced atrocity was the response from the members of Metro Vancouver’s arts community who were contacted by me to contribute their skills and time to the project. My heart softens and my eyes moisten with appreciation when I think of the fact that these were all volunteer positions. The project received support from individuals, organizations and businesses. Within a month or so, the project’s web page was receiving over a thousand views a day without us spending any money on advertising or promotion. Our calls for submission for different genres were reaching deep into the community where artists and writers of all ages and descriptions were motivated to contribute to the project. The implementation was going according to the plan, and everything was successfully in place in four months.
By that time, becoming tired of the abusive routine of my co-workers, I sent them an email message summarizing my work, and asking them to tell me what they had done for the project in four months. I went on to suggest that it might turn out better if they were to focus on their work instead of focusing on me. That brought the situation to a head, and within a couple of weeks, I was asked to resign by the Project Manager, and so I did.
In this regard, my curiosity remains with the priorities of the Executive Director and the Project Manager regarding that decision. They did not seem to understand nor care for the project mandate. Their actions seemed to indicate that they did not care, respect, nor honor the over thirty people from the arts communities who had committed to the project on a volunteer basis, half of whom were established and recognized professionals in their fields. The fact that official calls for submissions were made public, and the end date for submissions was near did not matter to them. Commitments made with the larger arts community also seemed ‘off their radar’ as they seemed unimpressed that they had, as an organization, made commitments to the public through the project. It was difficult to see if anyone was worried about the possibility that it might be an abuse of public funds to shelve a fully developed and community-engaged project in the middle of its implementation, and for no apparent reason. One may wonder, what were the true priorities in play, as it seems to this author that the goals and objectives of the project did not form a part of those priorities.
I have some clues regarding my question about the priorities of the administration. When the Project Manager asked me to resign in an email message, he also made some interesting comments. He said that they had been wondering if ‘a rabbit will ever come out of the hat’; and, that doing this project was a simple matter of organizing a few devising workshops (art creation through a collective process, mainly used in theater-making), but I made it unnecessarily complex by sending out calls for submissions and getting independent arts consultants for each genre to make the final selections.
The mandate of the project was to help produce art and literature meaningful enough to encourage a change for the better in our society. Focus themes had been drafted through community consultations that artists and writers were asked to speak to through their practiced art forms. In my view, the devising-workshop method was not a good tool to fulfill the goals of the project since it would require artists and writers to be physically present in the workshops to participate in the project. This factor alone could place serious limitations on the quality of submissions or on the art produced on the spot as it would filter out people because of their geographic location, class, color, and other marginalizations suffered historically by certain population groups.
If most of the marginalized communities are filtered out, then what kind of art-for-change we can expect to produce? Devising workshops indeed work well in the field of theater but outside of it some people and organizations may favor this method because the results might be predictable as the majority of participants would be known to the organizers, and so, the end product/s would likely be amenable to the system’s powerful but highly-prejudiced structures.
The methods evolved through the project plan assured the widest participation from diverse communities of Metro Vancouver. It engaged the arts communities through direct volunteer involvement of community leaders and youth into different layers of its implementation including outreach, solicitation, and the selection of submissions. Most prominent among the people engaged were Indigenous writers and artists because of the central position that community must hold in any kind of ‘art for change’ project in Canada. The integrity of the process was evident in requiring blind submissions and in hiring of expert professionals as selectors who were independent of the project and its parent organization. If it was allowed to go through, the project would have enriched us by surfacing meaningful poetry, short fiction and memoir that would have been published in the form of a chapbook; paintings, sculptures, sketches, cartoons, multimedia and photographs that were to be displayed in an exhibition; songs, dance and music in performance, audio and video; drama skits and monologue in live performance and videos- all featuring artists and writers from the different arts communities of Metro Vancouver.
But that lovely rabbit was not allowed to come out of the hat- not because the administration doubted that it would, but because they weren’t sure of what kind of rabbit it would be. The only thing obvious at the time was that it was not going to be an all-White rabbit with token spots of color hidden behind the ears or a few on the forehead to make them super-obvious. It is amazing that the administration was not interested in the ‘rabbit’ herself but was hung up on what she would look like.
Why is there so much fear in CanLit of the writers and artists speaking from the diverse communities of its metropolitan cities? Why is it that the necessity to create and provide space to marginalized communities is not recognized in an ‘art for change’ project? Why were the methods evolved by the project (that were successfully in place in four months) to assure that the historically marginalized communities had an opportunity to participate, not validated by the administration? If the administration was in any doubt about the project, those community members (artists et al) could have been invited to evaluate this program, their voices would have been heard, and the efficacy of the program would have been better understood.
But it was not the plan nor the project itself nor my work. I was made to go through this jarring experience, and the approved working plan of a project was shelved because of a sense of White Entitlement held by my White co-workers and the all-White administration. In the first and last meeting we had as a group, I had asked my co-workers why was I facing such hostility from them, and one person had said that I was ‘too good’ and the Plan I had presented was ‘perfect’ but that she was unhappy for not being a part of developing it. I did take her first statement as a true compliment even though the one following it was false.
The project’s organizing group was not a collective structure; I was asked to develop a plan to be presented to the Program Manager, but I had sent it to everyone for feedback and input; first the sketch of the Plan where all three co-workers had made it clear to me that they were concerned only with their own areas; accordingly, their feedback on the Proposed Project Plan was limited to those areas. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t clear what I should have done- present a project plan that did not fulfill the mandate or had many loopholes, something that did not make sense or did not jell together, just so my ‘entitled’ co-workers could feel better about themselves?
It was White Entitlement that made it possible for my two co-workers to not do nothing in four months for that approved-by-all project plan and still face no consequences from the administration. I shudder to think what would have been the consequences if two Women of Color were to try to do that in that exact situation- they would not last a few weeks let alone four months. When I, as the Project Lead, confronted them on this, I was asked to step down. The Executive Director was part of making that decision, and she made it without responding to any of my concerns and without giving me a moment of her time.
I was still reeling from this experience, unable to share with anyone, when I saw this on Facebook: The “Problem” Women of Color in the Workplace, by Emily Yee Clare, an educator and illustrator at the Centre for Community Organizations (COCo) in Montreal. The tool is originally created by Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Non-violence, and it corroborated my experience from beginning to end; from ‘honeymoon’ to ‘exit’.
To me, it’s in sync.
White leadership – Tokenized hiring
Woman of color enters the organization.
Woman of color feels welcomed, needed and happy.
Yes, these were my feelings. I felt happy that my vision for the project was supported by the organization, and my hiring to me meant that the organization wished to encourage inclusive and representative art and literature.
Reality – Repetitive injury
Woman of color points out problems, tries to work within, pushes for accountability.
Indeed, I did point out problems to the individuals responsible and to the Program Manager, but nothing was done about anything, I had no choice but to keep working. And, yes, I was asked to leave the moment I directly pushed for accountability.
Response – Denial of racism
Organization denies, ignores and blames, puts responsibility back on woman of color to fix the problem, people of color are pitted against each other.
Yes, this was my experience exactly, on all three counts. The Program Manager ignored what was going on, and when he couldn’t, he blamed me; and, the Woman of Color who was the only one supportive of me in the first three months, was pitted against me by the fourth month.
Retaliation – Target and attack
Organization decides that woman of color is the problem and targets her; organization labels the conflict as a communication issue, a personnel issue or claims the woman of color is not qualified or ‘not a good fit’.
Yes, the conflict was labeled as a ‘communication’ issue, and I was labeled as an ‘isolationist’- someone who prefers to work in isolation, and, of course a magician with a magic hat, and, someone who made simple art projects unnecessarily complex.
Woman of color exits the organization
I was asked to resign: to undo everything I had done in the previous four months; to lose face in front of my communities and all the people who had promised their time, skills, resources, ideas and money to the project.
It is apparent that adding ‘complexity’ to the ‘simplicity’ of racist constructions in a Canadian workplace is a serious offense that is not going to earn you any distinctions. Rather it’ll make you lose your current job and shut a few doors on future ones. Even worse can happen if you start to talk about it. But then, how can we not.
My story exposes some of the pain experienced and the damages sustained by myself, and it points to those experienced by other People of Color elsewhere in Canada. Losing a job is damage enough in itself, yet we as Women of Color lose a lot more than a job; there are damages to our physical and mental health, yet no one who caused it is held responsible. Such is the reality of living in a racist, sexist and classist system.
I recommend accountability for organizations who wish to hire People of Color. Each non-profit organization needs to have an Anti-Racism Action Plan of its own that provides for mandatory anti-racism training for staff and volunteers. To have it, not just because the funds that are being used by non-profits are contributed by People of Color as well, but to do it to make it safe and possible for all of us to work together to the best of our abilities.
Fauzia Rafique is a novelist and poet involved in rights activism through her writing and organizing. Working with non-profit organizations, she has developed print resources around racism, violence against women, Islamophobia and poverty. This includes ‘Developing an Antiracism Action Plan: a manual for workers in service organizations‘ (Toronto 1992), and anthology ‘Towards Equal Access, a handbook for service providers working with survivors of wife assault‘ (Toronto 1991). Fauzia coordinates Surrey Muse, an inclusive art and literature presentation group serving Metro Vancouver since 2011.
edward stefan kuris is a painter, sculptor and poet who has exhibited his work since 1969 in many solo and juried group shows including Fergus, Elora, Toronto, Quebec, Slovak Republic, Cuba, and Japan. His paintings were used in a film by Academy Award winner Brigitte Berman. He is an Associate of the Ontario College of Art (OCAD) since 1970. Visit Ed’s facebook page.