As a child of refugees who fled what is now Bangladesh, I certainly experienced my share of racist slurs and teasing growing up in Canada. But so did most of the other kids; we all had a way of pointing out and bullying each other about our differences. I took it all as part of what it’s like to learn to maneuver a cultural mosaic (and frankly, high school).
But an incident that took place years later made me really internalize what racism was. I was by then an in-house lawyer at a large insurance company, and my boss thought it would be funny to send me to represent the company at a Canadian Human Rights Commission hearing. The premise? That our company had engaged in racial and gender discrimination while handling an insurance claim. My place of employment was anything but racist, and those of us who were “people of color” thought the claim was outrageous. So we decided to have one of our black business clients join me as the company representative.
When we arrived to check in for our hearing the clerk took one look at us and said, “Plaintiffs?”
Imagine the look on that clerk’s face when I calmly replied: “No, counsel for the defendant, and defendant.”
Throughout the rest of the hearing process, this assumption was made time after time. Judging people by their physical characteristics, which are skin deep and irrelevant to who they are, is racism. So here I was at the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and I was experiencing the first serious racism I’d ever encountered.
So when people today advocate for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) mandates for non-profits, foundations, or corporate boards, in essence they want to turn every organization into a mini-human rights commission. Will those actions in fact serve the very communities they claim to help? I sure don’t want people to assume I’m a plaintiff, or a defendant, on the basis of my skin color.