Everyday People

A profile of four young South Asians, their unique anti-racist strategies and streetwise commentaries
By Hiren Mistry

Share Article

Teaching people that anti-racism is an every-day issue is difficult in itself. But convincing people that anti-racism is everyday people's work seems to be posing an equally difficult challenge.

Within the complex web of oppressions we are caught in, the detestable (but, sadly, inevitable) "lateral violence" brothers and sisters inflict upon one another is on the verge of claiming its next innocent victim: the authority and voice of the young South Asian Canadian.

Within the context of the anti-racist struggle, academics, theorists, workshop leaders, and "established-artists" seem to be the only ones who are given any authority about how and where this "people's struggle" is happening. Or at least that is what the latest news about anti-racist work— found within the journals, the dissertations, and the conferences — seems to be saying.

The "people" referred to in these official discussions about racism ironically remain anonymous, and consequently they remain without a voice of their own. As the move towards an anti-racist future is being made, the issues of voice, whose voice, silence, and access demand serious consideration. It would be a set-back for us all if anti-racism work began to be associated only with a particular generation, a particular way of speaking about it, and a particular reference point from which anti-racism work can potentially happen.

By profiling the lives of four young South Asians and their unique views on anti-racism it is hoped that the readers of this Anti-Racism issue will challenge themselves to make the links with, and embrace the scope of, the anti-racist realities they speak of.

The four individuals profiled in this piece are intelligent, but not necessarily "intelligentsia". They are "down" with what needs to be done in their communities, but they are not down on the communities themselves. The bridges they are creating are daring, but are by no means dangerous for us to extend into our own lives. And most importantly, their views and their lives speak from their everyday, which within the current state of much "official anti-racist" work, makes such lives and views extraordinary.

Sumita Bidaye

Sumita was born in 1975 in Toronto. She is the daughter of immigrants from Maharastra and currently is in her third year of Environmental Studies and Education. She has this to say about her own work: "I'm interested in anti-racism, which means that I also look at environmental racism, who is exploited, and how, in the global exploitation of labour, media representation, and how the various systems we live within attempt to make us more materialistic. I don't go for the traditional anti-racist 'multicultural' model." On and off campus, Sumita also strongly commits herself to organizing against police brutality. In Toronto, she has been one of the strongest in speaking against the 4 recent unprovoked fatal shootings of Black and South Asian men by Metro Police. On a wider scale, Sumita has committed herself to disseminate knowledge about both journalist and former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal's unlawful sentence to death-row, and the Philadelphia-based Black liberation organization, MOVE (which, in 1985, was bombed by Philadelphia police. Eleven MOVE members died in this attack, including five children).

Rahim Ladha

Rahim's parents moved to Canada, from Uganda, after the 1978 exodus. He was Born in Kamloops, BC, but to this day is not sure how his family ended up there.

"In 1991, I decided I was going to write. I had great diffculty in expressing myself to others—especially loved ones. School didn't allow me to grow in this way so I left. Writing, in the form of plays and poetry later on, at least gave me the opportunity to focus on expression. So now I try to help those who are struggling to express and find voice.

I've voluntarily visited school libraries to check out what was available to the students, only to realize that there was very little to speak to their experiences. So, I gave away books to those who needed inspiration, especially to those younger than myself as part of one of the many small organizations for writers I ran out of my basement. I don't have any books left on my shelf because I continue to give books away. Because one of the key things I've learned about expression is that we must help each other in the process, and create community through it..."

Harjeet Badwall

Harjeet was born in 1971, and raised in the Toronto suburb of Oakville. Attending York University (an institution with a large South Asian population) in the fall of 1991 began a bitter-sweet journey into the meaning of her own South Asian identity in Canada. In her third year the idea of creating a safe space within the university for young South Asians to speak about their individual and collective issues crystallized with the formation of SAID: South Asian Issues Discussed. Since its inauguration in 1993 SAID has become vital link between the critical voice of South Asian youth, and the various schools, organizations, and communities within the city. Harjeet has also worked with the South Asian Womens' Centre as part of a project to provide services for young women in crisis, and she has worked with ASAP (Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention) as a networker between mainstream and South Asian service agencies. In between, Harjeet was on the Board for DESH PABDESH for two years—a time during which the voice for 'youth' was strongly increased.

DJ Guru Prasad

"In high-school we had a band. All brown guys, though not all were South Asian, because some were from the Middle-East. We could have been classifed under industrial music though we played basically anti-music that was non-political. Our only agenda was to crush all agendas...which is something I don't necessarily agree with any more. But over all it was a very important time for all of us, because it was rare to see that kind of cultural mix, in that kind of experimental space." It is this "blurring of lines," as Guru calls it, that has been at the core of his experiences at community radio, on the air, on the mix, at the school newspaper, in the clubs, and as an independent experimental "music-life-and culture" writer over the past S years. "Being involved in community radio was incredible when I first began. Not only was I forced to open my mind and ears to everything from techno, to death-metal, to Australian indigenous music, but I was also being confronted by people, like a White punk-rocker—who looked like a Dread—politicizing me about racism. I was forced to confront myself about why I liked certain people and certain types of music. Was it because they were either being represented on the cover of a magazine or got critical acclaim from the 'right people?' I really began to question how people form judgments...

That process of 'blurring' was beautiful."

Anti-Racism Today

Sumita When anti-racist projects or movements stay "downtown," what I don't see happening is the critique of what the urban setting means in itself, such as the White idea of the metropolis, or White civilization, as being better, the assumption that the environment is something that needs to be controlled, and the idea that the subjugation of workers is deserved. These are the implications for the urban experience. The philosophies that bind—or separate—our relationship to land play a huge part in how we can potentially create understanding and compassion with each other. It makes such a difference when, say, indigenous people from Guatemala ask for apprenticeship from the land, whereas European colonized civilization wants to stay as far away from land as possible. Holistic revolution is needed. We need to fight holistic oppression. These links matter as we struggle against oppression. This critique of anti-racist projects as downtown-centric is important for other reasons too. The majority of the most oppressed peoples live in the low-income suburbs. So when demonstrations are happening downtown, what is neglected is the suburban reality. The White suburbs are a real obstacle for mobilization and visibility for many of the oppressed. The dissemination of knowledge—especially for the youth—needs to be happening here too.

Rahim I wonder where the love is in the anti-racist movements. For myself, my expression, which is deeply personal, is my means for activism. It's coming straight from within. I agree that there are times when we must get up and march to protest. But when people rely on these gestures as being anti-racist work, full stop, I become worried that people are not thinking and feeling for themselves. Rigidity can become the oppressor itself. When one is more elastic, it comes through humility and respect—respect for another person's opinion. Struggle is part of any anti-racist movement, but that means that any movement, or all movements, need to pay heed to the condition and nurturing of the soul. Unless we take care of the battles within, how can the battles outside of us be approached? Because I know for a fact that the more I take care of myself, the more I am able to understand and absorb what's around me, and this creates the deep felt need to struggle with those around me. Intuition and love need to be part of the movement too. Similarities in political ideology don't create a community— they don't create a movement in themselves.

Harjeet My critique of many anti-racist projects—and this applies to a lot of community development projects—is the way funding restricts both the autonomy and longevity of projects. Because of the massive cut-backs, funding for ethno-specific agencies are being given in partnership with mainstream agencies. This means that the mainstream agencies are still given the power to police the ways that the ethno-specific agencies organize. Our communities' most pressing issues, once again, become a challenge to address. Ground-breaking work is stalled because of the forced compromise to work in partnership.

When grants are given for only six months to a year it becomes a challenge to create a sustained movement. The problem is that Government funding agencies continue to see anti-racism as a series of "projects" rather then as a lifestyle or sustained, diverse movement. Community development workers within ethno-specific spaces, then, burn out really quickly trying to create miracles. There is a real problem with the way mainstream society envisions and controls "anti-racism."

DJ Guru I'd like to put it as a question. Just ask any person of colour who has been involved with resistance groups, and have found themselves surrounded by White people. Ask them: 'Do you feel like you were being used when you were involved with these people?' And I don't mean just White people — I mean liberal White people. It's like this: what use is a White activist fighting against racism without a person of colour fighting beside them? Nothing! I am not saying that White people should not support the struggle. But what I am saying is that, when speaking in the past tense, I believe that many people of colour would say that they felt used in the cause of "leftism" Because that Benetton thing was there back in the sixties, and it still is here in the nineties.

Anti-Racism and the South Asian

Sumita My comments about anti-racism in the South Asian community are pretty limited really, because honestly I haven't been included in a lot of it. I have never been to a demonstration that was all South Asian. I am not sure how many South Asian families showed solidarity with the family of Shiraz Suleman, who was killed by Metro police for no reason this spring. The only other thing I can add is that people need to be making links between globalization and popular South Asian culture, and then analyze what is being represented and glorified on screen. Tapping into the political reality of the youth is vital.

Rahim If you ask me to name a South Asian based anti-racist group or movement I would definitely struggle with trying to name one that is dedicated to that. South Asian Issues Discussed (SAID) based at York University probably comes the closest. Though it's political stand-point is multiply oppositional, it at least provides room for the sharing of diverse ideas. In this space, there is no one "right" anti-racist approach. Dialogue is the sole purpose of this space. Understanding and solidarity require this open dialogue.

Harjeet Within the South Asian community, anti-racist work can not be done in isolation. This means that not only activists and community workers need to build coalitions, but people with regular jobs need to take an anti-racist philosophy with them as well wherever they go. Coalition building is the key for the future. Exclusive spaces are still needed to deal with each community's individual issues, but the big picture always needs to be at the back of everyone's mind. A sustained movement can only be created this way.

DJ Guru It's all got to be done with the youth in mind. Because if projects are being done without them in mind, then communication is not happening — then there is no point. The South Asian community is so caught up with looks, cosmetics, and is so visually oriented whereas rooted South Asian culture is incredibly musically oriented. The importance of sound, and the transference of real intelligent information needs to be reinstated within our community here in Canada.

Parting Thoughts

Sumita Remember our people back in South Asia, learn about their struggles, and find out how we are connected to them. Don't believe the hype, and empower yourselves and your families through education. And lastly, find out about India's fifty-one million indigenous peoples...

Rahim It is through expression that I am beginning to learn what love and freedom are about. This spirit is a very powerful thing, and at least for me, holds the potential for becoming the most effective anti-racist tool...

Harjeet There is a lot of work to be done. But during the process we must learn to take care of ourselves. It is only by being healthy in this way that we can be in the position to makes changes where ever we turn. We must never forget to make the connection between what is going on inside of you, and the bigger picture.

DJ Guru Every South Asian person needs to be anti-racist, if not by holding up a sign, then they must be anti-racist in the heart and the mind. Because when Columbus went looking to steal some Indians and all that gold from Eldorado, he really meant all that gold, spice, and labour from India. So we need to thank Bhagvan but we must also challenge ourselves — if Columbus went East instead of West and raped India instead of North America, do you not think that North American Natives would not be on our side?

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
No image provided
Hiren Mistry is a writer, caterer, and collector of music.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre