I saw a most pleasant sight a few mornings ago: a little girl walking to school in a salwar. For those who don’t konw, a salwar (also sometimes called a punjabi dress) is a pant suit with harem-style pants and a long tunic with a sash called a dupata.
In grade 6, when I moved to Toronto, I wore a salwar to school occasionally, much like the other girls would wear a dress, just for a change. And I was teased. Even when I stopped wearing them, into grade 7 and 8, I was called a “Paki”. I’d never experienced this in Burlington. What was that? I remember making conversation with my father one day and told him that someone had called me this name. He looked mortified. I know that he faced racism when he came to Canada, but perhaps not as overt as that and I think he hoped that it would skip me because I was born here, had a white mother and that times had changed. Apparently not. He said that I should go right to the principal the next day. So I did.
The principal was just as furious. He asked for the name of the offending student and explained the procedure. The student would be called down to the office, reprimanded and then I would be called down at which time he would have to apologize. He would also be warned that if he did it again, he would face a two day suspension which of course would be noted in his file. This is exactly how it played out and he never said it again. But others did. Seven of them. None ever did it twice. I didn’t publicize these events, but my close friends knew about it and they kept it quiet. Why would I want to speak up about this? This wasn’t something I was proud of. It was embarrassing. But it all came out one day when it was a guy in my own class. I came back from the principal’s office and there was a call to the teacher asking for him to report to the office. The rest of the class started putting two and two together.
I was berated for making a mountain out of a mole hill, excuses were given that it was just a name and he didn’t mean it. My favourite: “You’re not even Pakistani!”. In legal terms the term “mens rea” is used to describe “The intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused.”. Whether or not it was true was irrelevant. They all had intent to do harm. I am happy to say that I defended myself and my friends backed me up. I was not the one to do harm. They were. I hope they never did it again and that they have changed. But watching that little girl walk to school in a salwar with a smile on her face and a bounce in her step makes me think that the world has improved. At least I hope so.