March 29, 2018 6:00 am
Updated: April 6, 2018 10:08 am

Farah Nasser: My first experience with racism

Global News anchor Farah Nasser speaks candidly about how she was confronted with racism at a young age as part of the #FirstTimeIwasCalled series.

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We live in a country where diversity is supposed to be celebrated. People belong in Canada regardless of their race, religion, ability, gender, or sexual orientation.

READ MORE: The #FirstTimeIWasCalled project

But not everybody is always made to feel included. Hate crimes within certain minority groups are on the rise, politics are seemingly more divisive and comment sections on news websites are often filled with racist reactions.

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It makes one wonder how far we’ve really come. I want to tell you about something that happened to me a long time ago.

READ MORE: Canadians are concerned about the rise of racism, new survey says

I grew up in Mississauga, a city where, according to recent census data, more than half the residents are visible minorities. Back in the 1980s, though, it felt like a different world. My elementary school had very few South Asians.

I have a memory from one afternoon on the playground that is imprinted in my brain. I couldn’t have been older than six when a boy the same age yelled loudly, “Get off the monkey bars, you Paki!”

Typing that out still gives me a visceral reaction decades later. I can still remember what it felt like reaching for the next red monkey bar, feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. I recall thinking, “He’s figured me out,” my elementary school brain clearly not computing that the colour of my skin was a dead giveaway. Each time I advanced to the next bar, my eyes welled up more and more. When I got to the other side, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I ran away in tears, embarrassed and hurt.

The #FirstTimeIWasCalled project:

Part 1: Jagmeet Singh

Part 2: Jully Black

That day, when that boy uttered the word “paki,” what I heard was “dirty,” “smelly” and “different.” For several years after, I tried to be anything but that. I would shy away from anything that was representative of my race. I put on a valley girl accent and would trade the tandoori chicken wrap my mom made for a friend’s wonder bread ketchup sandwich at lunch. I dropped out of Kathak, traditional Indian dance classes.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t even from Pakistan, “paki” was being used as a derogatory umbrella term for all South Asians. My schoolmate used the word as an insult and intended for it to sting. We teach kids “sticks and stones” but the truth is, names can hurt just as much.

More recently, someone very close to me made a joke about my religion. The joke was not particularly funny but it also wasn’t intended to harm. Still, it cut to my core and burned inside. The next day instead of moving on, like I have so many times before, I said something. I explained how hollow I felt in that moment and how that seemingly meaningless joke hurt in a deep way. Then came two powerful words: “I’m sorry.” I could tell this individual felt awful about the remarks and since then, our interactions and conversation surrounding religion have changed.

READ MORE: Edmonton Christian couple says adoption nixed over their views on sexuality

This experience got me thinking. While there are some who are intentionally hateful and don’t care about consequences, there are more who utter inappropriate words without realizing the implication. What if we could reach out to those people and explain how it feels to be on the receiving end?

For the past few months, Global News has been interviewing prominent Canadians about just that. We have asked people to bravely open up about hurtful moments in their past for a new series we’ve named #FirstTimeIWasCalled. These were difficult conversations, but each shared his or her story with the hope of a more tolerant Canada.

As a platinum-selling recording artist and Juno winner, Jully Black told us about being called the N-word on the TTC. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh opened up about having his turban ripped off. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne spoke about the anger she felt the first time she was called ‘dyke.’ And activist Farheen Khan told us about being physically, sexually and verbally assaulted while wearing her hijab.

READ MORE: Jagmeet Singh speaks out about anti-Islam heckling incident

These are powerful accounts, but they are not limited simply to people in the public eye. We all have a story. We’re encouraging you to share yours on social media by using the hashtag #FirstTimeIWasCalled.

When we are criticized for something that we can’t change about ourselves, like our race, religion, ability, gender or sexual orientation, the wounds run deep. Opening up about your experience has the power to change someone’s perspective or motivate an individual to speak up when he or she witnesses injustice.

“It made me feel small, it made me feel dirty, it made me feel not accepted,” Jully Black, Canadian singer and songwriter, told us. “It made me feel ‘unCanadian,’ if there’s such a thing. It made me feel like my family was not to be loved.”

“There was something wrong with me for just being me,” said Jagmeet Singh, federal NDP Leader. “That I was just there, I hadn’t done anything, I hadn’t hurt anybody, I was just existing and my existence was just somehow wrong.”

Learn more about #FirstTimeIwasCalled and feel free to share your stories using the hashtag #FirstTimeIwasCalled.

Or, reach out to us by using this contact form. If you contact us, your submission may be used in our future coverage. However, Global News won’t share your name and contact information without your permission.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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