Skip to main content
Facts & Arguments

Akbar Ahmad didn't think about skin colour growing up – then he began to travel

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

As an expat currently living in Paris, I thought I'd remind my fellow Canadians how good we have it back home.

My name is Akbar Bashir Ahmad.

My mom told me my name meant "great news." I later learned that was grammatically incorrect and it didn't mean what she thought, but the sentiment is a nice one. It wasn't her fault really, as she didn't speak Arabic. Even though her mother was from Pakistan, my mom had lived in Canada since the age of 3 and her native tongue is English.

Her adolescence was akin to mine, in that I didn't really think about colour growing up. My classmates were mostly first-generation kids from Egypt, India, Hong Kong, China, Armenia, the Czech Republic, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy – your basic United Nations of cultures.

It wasn't until university, where I was searching for new groups of friends, it became apparent who I was. My mother always wanted me to hang out with "good Muslims." The funny thing is I never quite fit in because I wasn't ethnic enough, either not being religious enough or not speaking Arabic, Punjabi, what have you. On the other hand, I never fit in with the "white crowd" either as I was just a little too different, a little too ethnic. Eventually, I did find my people that are, to this day, friends for life. But that was my first seed of doubt.

When I finished my studies, I took a year to backpack across Australia, just after the London Tube bombings in 2005. Australia was the first place I truly experienced full-fledged racism.

I was living in the state of Queensland. People started looking at me differently, judging me with their eyes. Old ladies would get up and move if I sat next to them on the bus. A man came up to me on the street, told me to stop, lifted my shirt and said, "Just making sure you're not wearing a bomb." I was 24. I laughed because I didn't know how else to react. I'd never experienced that before.

On another occasion, I joined a group to go hang-gliding. The instructor singled me out: "I don't want to be that guy, but you're not going to blow us up or anything?" he said.

I became paranoid. I eventually came back to Canada, but I couldn't shake the angst. It took me three years before I felt comfortable in my own skin again.

Fast forward a decade and I met my soulmate, and decided to move in with her. She lives in France, a country riddled with terrorist attacks and sociopolitical problems. I arrived in September, 2016, and you can feel both tension and racism in the air, more than I did in Australia. People here have no problem staring, looking you up and down.

I've been trying to find design work in Paris for the past few months with no luck. Finally, one of my cold calls hit and a recruiter messaged me to meet for coffee. It started off well and then he moved on to what I needed to work on. The first was about my portfolio, but the second point floored me.

"Your name: Akbar," he said. "It's too ethnic, too Muslim. With everything going on here, people want something more … you know, French; more white. If it's between you and a François or Gilles, it'll always be the latter. What I'm trying to say is you'll never get work in France with this name."

My heart sank. I felt sadness, hurt and then anger. I was used to being judged by the colour of my skin, but never by my name. "It's the last thing people shout before they kill, it's the first thing they'll see on a paper," the recruiter continued. "Naturally, they won't be drawn to you."

I was unnerved. I wanted to dig in and tell him off but I kept cool. I was seeing another side of things I hadn't even considered and it made my head spin. "But I'm proud of who I am, my name and what it means," I said. Then I wanted him to feel a little uncomfortable about highlighting this point, so I added: "Back where I come from, we don't have this problem."

The meeting eventually ended; I called my girlfriend and couldn't help but sob. I wanted to go back home to Canada, to safety. I messaged my sister to tell her what happened and she encouraged me to look to leaders that encountered similar obstacles: Barack Hussein Obama, Muhammad Ali. It helped. It reaffirmed that I am proud of my roots, who I am and my name – something I had so much trouble being comfortable with growing up.

Being judged for your skin colour or name is just plain ignorant. As Barack's mother told him, "To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear."

My name is Akbar. It means "the greatest" and quite honestly, I am great. To abide others to appease their ignorance and fear will never happen because I know my skin colour and name isn't what's wrong, it's those who judge.

Akbar Ahmad lives in Paris, but grew up in Toronto.