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It is never simple, is it? There are always shades. Sooner or later, regardless of the subject of discussion, the phrase “it’s complicated” creeps in.
I am not a racist – of course, I am not.
I’m a high school math teacher, 58 years old, female, heterosexual, married, a mother: about as boring as a citizen can be. Also an immigrant to Canada, since I was 21, but white, English-speaking, from a Western European country, therefore “desirable,” then and now.
I have experienced relatively minor prejudices in Ontario. There were, 30 years ago, many quite vocal people who thought women couldn’t teach higher level mathematics, that I should have taken my husband’s name and that I, not he, should be the main at-home caregiver for our children. I could write a boring novel on the countless examples of everyday prejudice directed toward women such as me back then. All annoying, all genuine examples of prejudice but none fatal or even life-changing. Nothing that marred my love affair with my adopted country, where no one cared what my religion was or what my father did. Or so it seemed.
Along with countless others of my generation, I patiently explained, stood my ground whenever possible, shrugged (sometimes seething) when it simply did no good and waited for time to enlighten. And times have most certainly changed. For the likes of me, anyway.
I have taught in small-town public schools, posh independent boarding schools and some in between. I’ve taught happy, loved and cared-for children, and many who were not; I’ve taught many gay and questioning teens, some of whose status I was aware of at the time; I’ve taught children of single parents, some who were struggling and some who were not; I am certain I have taught trans students, though I was unaware of it; I have taught children with two moms, two dads, two sets of different parents and many other combinations. I have taught children of many different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
I never saw any association between a child’s sexual orientation, race, culture or family status and whether or not he or she was loved and cared for. I have always been baffled by the strongly held views of some, that these things matter a whit when interacting with people. Of course, they matter in the sense that they’re all part and parcel of who an individual person is, but not when deciding whether the person belongs – anywhere.
I struggle with some things, though. I have known and worked with women and girls who are covered, wholly or in part, and sometimes that makes me uncomfortable because I know, or think I know, the traditional and historical reasoning. But who am I to tell any woman what she may or may not wear? Or what her reasons are, or should be? I was appalled by the last government’s attempt to ban the niqab in some settings, though I still hope everyone getting on a plane is matched to a passport somewhere by someone. I declined to work on a contract in Saudi Arabia because I do not choose to cover myself, or to be any part of that society.
So, somewhat smugly, I can conclude that I am “the least racist person” – just like Donald Trump! – except it is true about me. Right?
But … it’s complicated. A number of times now, in Ontario, a man has refused to shake my hand in a professional setting, usually a parent-teacher meeting, because I am a woman who is not related to him. That’s my complication. I know the reasoning, I know it isn’t personal. But it feels personal.
I have been told quite clearly, by some who know me well and by one who loves me, that I am the one who is showing disrespect – by offering my hand and forcing the man to refuse, thus embarrassing him. Except, I always offer my hand (unless I have a cold, for which I always apologize).
I don’t pay attention to the gender, ethnicity, religion, orientation, hair colour or age of a person I am meeting (assuming I could even tell what any of those are). Is my only option, then, not to offer my hand to anyone, ever? That would be a significant thing for me.
And, this is the thing: When my hand is refused, for the sole reason that I am a woman, I feel embarrassed and disrespected. Friends have told me that feeling this way does make me racist, or at least narrow-minded. Surely there can be a reasonable middle ground? Or, and I cannot believe that I am about to type this, is the obligation of “reasonable accommodation” all one-way?
I did accept a contract in South Korea. There, the head bow generally replaces the handshake (though my hand was never refused if I forgot). I thought this was wonderful – a perfect non-contact but meaningful gesture. Except it, too, gets complicated. I was mildly admonished for dipping slightly too far for someone who was “just a store clerk.” I noticed that students dipped deeper for male teachers than for female ones, for Koreans than for foreigners. And I saw, with some amusement, that the exaggerated bow offered by some boys to some Western teachers was anything but respectful, but that those teachers were invariably oblivious.
Anne O’Regan recently moved from Toronto to Shanghai.