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I have tried hard for 10 years to integrate into Quebec City’s society. Beyond the safety net of my professional life as a forest entomologist, I regularly have isolating encounters here. I’m from India. I came to Canada in 1997 as a student and travelled across the continent for my research. I spent six years in Vancouver, three years in the United States and three years in Fredericton. I was successful in my career, carefree and happy. I had never felt any discrimination in the cities I lived in, based on my origin.
I was lured to Quebec City in 2009 by the offer of a research job. I met my husband here a few years later. He is an anglophone from New Brunswick who speaks fluent French and we were enthralled at the prospect of a bright future.
Despite its beauty, the city felt vaguely unfriendly. As my French became fluent, I tried my usual activities of community choirs, spinning, yoga and outdoor clubs with little fulfilment and then quit. At a spinning class at the community centre, a couple of years after I arrived, the instructor called out our first names on the attendance list. All except mine. I went over to check. “You missed my name, it’s Deepa.” Four weeks on, she still skipped me. The following week, I scratched out my name and wrote “Marie-Josée” instead. Sure enough, she called out, “Marie-Josée.” I said “Oui” and looked around. Nobody blinked. Marie-Josée became my alter ego. I had tried for years to get contractors to repair my floor and fix a broken window. They never returned my calls. I created a Facebook profile for “Marie-Josée” and contacted them online. I had five responses immediately and got two contracts. They were surprised to see who I was, but did the work. They never came back.
We bought a beautiful apartment in the middle of town. We co-own the building with two other apartment owners. For no apparent reason, right from the outset, they didn’t seem to like us. First, it was hostility, then outright aggression. When my son was born, there were no congratulations. Regularly for a year, when we came home at the end of the day, they banged hard on the ceiling and frightened our son because “this was no place for children.” And yet, I hand out candy to at least 60 neighbourhood children every Halloween.
When I walk my son to daycare, the Quebec mothers look away even though we’ve crossed paths for over a year. A wave of envy sweeps over me as I watch them have animated conversations with each other.
Frequently, hospital secretaries look annoyed as I walk up and are unnecessarily rude. A recent encounter is typical: “You misunderstood,” glared a secretary, after I had waited two months to see a pediatrician. “You don’t have an appointment.” I dug out the appointment slip from the depths of my bag. Of course I had an appointment.
My acquaintances nodded knowingly. “You live in a white neighbourhood. Move to the outskirts where the immigrants live, you’ll have fewer problems.”
I could never fathom the undercurrent of hostility I encountered. Until one day, I heard it coming from my toddler’s mouth. My husband has Scottish roots with light skin and reddish blond hair. Our son, who is three, is not as dark as I am.
Earlier this year, I was at his daycare getting him dressed to leave when he pointed to a mixed-race baby in the hallway. “Maman, I don’t like the brown baby.” “Why do you say that?” I asked, shocked. “I like the other babies,” he replied, adding: “Caca is brown maman, that’s a caca baby.” I was rattled that he’d just linked excrement to skin tone. The day before he’d also noted my dark skin for the first time: “Maman,” he said, “you’re brown.” The issue of skin tone had never come up before at our house.
In the days that followed, my son asked me every time I picked him up why I was brown. “Pourquoi maman? Pourquoi, pourquoi, pourquoi you’re brown?” Several of his friends at daycare had told him I was “not nice” and was caca because of my colour. “What did you say to them?” I asked. “I said, ‘Ma maman, elle est très, très, très gentille.‘” My poor baby was defending me against other toddlers because of my skin tone.
I explained that I was born in India where it’s always hot and the “brown” helps protect people in hot places from the sun. But it continued. He moved on to “not liking” a daycare worker who came from Haiti. I spoke to another mother, who is white, who told me her son had said the same thing about the Haitian worker. She reprimanded him, and he stopped saying it at home. But he continued to taunt my son at daycare about his “brown mom.”
We told my son that he was brown, too, half-brown because mom’s from India. “Maman, I’m brown too? But I’m nice? I’m nice, maman.”
The children were all between three and five, most were around four. I spoke to the daycare workers about these daily incidents. They didn’t seem surprised nor shocked. Somewhat dismissively, they assured me that this was not a big deal. They would organize a diversity workshop for the kids.
Then, about a month later, my three-year-old’s observations while waiting in a Costco checkout line shattered me completely. He sat facing me in the shopping cart. He pointed behind me and said loudly, “I don’t like him.” I turned to see a black man standing in a parallel line looking at his phone.
“Why don’t you like him?”
“He’s not nice, he’s not my friend.”
“Tell us, why is he not nice?”
“He’s not my friend.” Then he pointed to the white man standing right behind us and said, “He’s my friend.”
“Look, the other man, he’s just shopping, like us.”
“He’s doing bad shopping. He was shouting.”
My son realized he was cornered, and lied.
Then my husband said, “What did the man look like?”
“He was brown.”
It was too much for me to bear and my husband stepped in: “Mom’s brown, grandma and grandpa are brown, your cousins are brown…”
“He was lots brown.”
It was clear to me now: Because my son was being taunted regularly at daycare for his mother’s skin, he wanted to deflect the hurt onto others who are darker than her. Since the COVID lockdown began, I’ve found myself thinking that the isolation we’re facing has been a blessing in one way. It’s given us time together as a family and time away from outside influences. We’re keeping our three-year-old at home now, even though his daycare reopened in May, and the decision has actually improved my life. It’s given me relief. It’s giving my son relief, too: Racism at its purest is racism from the mouths of babes.
Deepa Pureswaran lives in Quebec City.