BUILDING BRIDGES: Stand together when one is singled out

BUILDING BRIDGES: Stand together when one is singled out

It is quite an emotional experience to be told you don't belong, writes Taslim Jaffer

Last week, Surrey resident Guerda Henry and her family were on the receiving end of a shameful incident that happened in their own townhome complex pool.

Shortly after arriving at the pool with her children and extended family members, Guerda was approached by the complex caretaker at the request of another resident. She explained to Guerda that there were “some concerns that you guys shouldn’t be here.”

When I heard Guerda mention this on The Shift with Drex radio clip, I had to pause at that trigger.

It’s difficult for a person of colour to hear those words and then just keep reading, just keep taking in a story. Because those words – “you shouldn’t be here” – is equated with many painful events that have happened to us personally and/or to our larger community. Whether it’s at a pool for which you pay strata fees, or in a country in which you have created a home, it is quite an emotional experience to be told you don’t belong.

But Guerda had to move forward. Because you can’t just stand there and stare blankly in the face of those charges, no matter how thrown off you are. So she proved by way of having her key fob scanned in the system that she did, in fact, belong there.

The caretaker apologized and Guerda’s family had to continue on with their day.

If you have never experienced this type of situation, you may wonder how big of a deal is it to just carry on after being asked to simply prove that you belong somewhere.

I can’t speak for Guerda but I can tell you from my own experience that being singled out like that feels a little like moving through a quicksand field of embarrassment and anger. It weighs heavy on the mind and the heart.

Needing to tend to her 20-month-old’s needs, Guerda left the pool with her toddler to go to her unit, only to receive a phone call a few minutes later by her 12-year-old niece who was still at the pool. Apparently, her niece was being questioned by the resident who had complained to the caretaker.

In addition to the humiliation of being the only family asked to show ID at the pool (when there were several other families there), there was the added fury of having her niece, who is a minor, interrogated by an adult outside of the presence of another adult.

In the aftermath of this story, I hear two voices: one of shock that this happened in our Canadian city, and another that is asking us to take notice, to believe that these incidences happen.

To Guerda alone, this has happened twice in the last two years, according to her radio interview.

As the story unfolds, we will learn more details of what transpired and why. Not all sides of the story have been heard. In the meantime, how can we receive the perspective of a woman who feels mistreated?

I’ve been asked many times by some wonderful people for ideas on how to be an ally to a person of colour.

The first step is to listen to the lived experiences and believe them. Let the shock wear off. It’s much easier to make progress when we understand that these things happen – even in our backyard. It happens. It’s awful, but it happens.

Now, let’s ask what we can do next. Next, we call it out. Anyone witness to a situation like that can jump in and say something.

We can’t hide behind the ‘minding our own business’ bit without trading in a little humanity, so let’s not do that. If it is safe to do so, we can stand beside someone being wronged and help them through the situation. If the situation appears to be unsafe, we can call for help.

And, it’s a good idea to record an exchange as it’s happening. At a time when it’s someone’s word against another’s, this is invaluable.

From the interview I heard, Guerda and I appear to be on the same page. We both believe we live in an incredible community that is diverse and, for the most part, welcoming and inclusive.

But clearly, we haven’t eliminated incidences like these (and the ideas that underly them); until we do, we need our allies to hear us, believe us and stand with us.

Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

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