Colour, Power and Weapons.

A month ago, when a white man on his bike said "that's what you do in your country
eh?" with a mock Indian accent for 'jaywalking' on an empty road, I was angry and agitated. I even started chasing him; as if to hold him by his neck and 'educate' him. I don't know if I chased him to give him a lecture on Canada's history or just push him under an oncoming vehicle. Unfortunately/fortunately he had the green and pedalled away fast. It wasn't directed at me per se; it was my brown colleague who made him slow down (only slightly). But it didn't matter because that's why it’s an insult: stripping our individualities and reducing it to our skin colour. The whole thing left me enervated. It was a punch below the belt and I didn't get a chance to give it back in kind. The anger in those moments is quite blinding and probably beyond normal, rational analysis. And I think that's the potency of racism, casteism, sexism etc. There's no immediate, equally strong response to any of those insults, except, perhaps, literal, physical violence. When something similar happened today with a non-white man with an accent I felt angry but also terribly perplexed.

It happened in a mini-mart like store in Downtown Toronto -- notorious for bikes getting stolen in minutes of leaving them. I had forgotten my u-lock and had to buy a temporary wire lock from the store.

I said, very politely, "Do you mind if I get my lock first, my bike is outside unlocked."
He replied, quite rudely, "That's not how it works in Canada my friend. In Canada people wait in line."
- "I know enough about Canada, I'll just wait"
"You wouldn't let me do it if I were in India, would you?"
- "How does it even matter? How would you know I'm from India? I could be from Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, or even born here. You don't have to be a pathetic racist, you could just say no," I said, with discernible anger.

The brown woman at the register who also looked annoyed by his comments joined immediately and said, "look, why are you talking about India now? If you don't want to let him through just say that, don't talk about unnecessary things." She's probably from India, or Pakistan. It didn't matter. There was a moment of apparent 'brown solidarity'. Except that the man was, well, brown..ish. He continued to say something that I don't quite recall, but he mentioned Canada at least twice again, and it made me say, "I didn't say anything about where you're from, just get your stuff, I will wait"
"You want to know where I am from?" he asked.
- "I just said I don't care…I don't care where you're from"
"I'm an Arab"
- "It's irrelevant, I don't care"

Not wanting to worsen the situation, I stopped talking further and waited for him to buy his smokes (one from each kind, about 20 in all) and leave. (And I need to add that others have, in the past, asked me to get ahead because they were in a rush. So the whole thing was unusual for me.)

Apart from his non-whiteness there was one other thing visible: he was much bigger than I. I couldn't help but think that his size and mine -- an awareness of that difference -- contributed a great deal to his tone, his thought process. His demeanour suggested that he's the classic bully who has lugged his body around to establish some kind of authority since he was young. At that moment he even pulled in the "way things are done in Canada -- a 'developed' country" rhetoric to legitimize it.

Both the incidents underscore the sense of authority and legitimacy assumed by seemingly different people. In the first case, it was a white Canadian who was probably motivated by his sense of entitlement over "his country". "The mighty, prosperous land of Canada that was built by the white-man in the last 200 years. Damn those native savages who arrived here before us, becoming a moral inconvenience. Damn these coloured bastards who sully its richness and beauty. Why do we let these people in? And why can't the natives just die off already?" Besides, the white man always belongs, wherever he is. So yes, Canada's history (or American history, if one draws a parallel) is irrelevant for his apparent indignation, for he's white.

The second case is a little less straightforward. It's an Arab who wants to tell me (and others whenever he gets a chance, I presume) that he's the intelligent/civilized/cultured immigrant Canada needs. Someone who absorbs the 'Canadian way of life' and demonstrates it to brutes and FOBs like me (at least according to him)[1]. It's either just that or mixture of that and an Arabian sense of superiority over Indians (by skin colour, by migrant labourers or simply history). He might have heard that Canadians are also nice, but why be nice when he's big? For power only looks for elements, in anything, to compound itself, not undermine[2].

What's more interesting is that on both occasions I was in my office attire. And the first time neither my colleague nor I said a word. I might as well have been a Canadian citizen, it wouldn’t have changed anything. It's incidents like these that remind one of the absurdity behind nationalities on the street. There are no nations, only colours and to lesser extent accents. Beyond that, an AK strapped to my back would have made some difference too, perhaps.
1. Such behaviour is not particularly unique to any one ethnicity, of course. Since I managed to stay off of the ‘mainstream Desi’ folk for almost five years, I’ve avoided the gratuitous condescension one experiences among them.
2. A big man intimidating smaller men/women has an evolutionary history, just as it does for all animals. But because humans have gotten ‘civilized’, too, these situations present the classic conflict between civility and rationality, and animal instinct. A self-introducing lethal weapon is the balancing factor that puts the smaller man/woman back on level. Inducing paranoia over vehicle sabotage, poisoning etc., may work too. Would like to write more on this, but I need go prepare dinner for my tall neighbour.

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