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Illustration by Rachel Wada

After years of research and hard work, this summer I was promoted to full professor by Brock University. It’s ironic that this progress for a visible minority happened during the “great pause” of COVID-19, and when society was finally – remarkably – awakened to racism by the killing of George Floyd.

Like a lot of people in these never-before-seen times, I took a long look in the mirror. How could this be happening? I had been in academia for a quarter-century and thought I was making a difference. How to find hope now? Just because I had “made it” in academia? What next?

Incidentally, my research is on brain and language, which means I could be in either linguistics or psychology departments. Out of curiosity, I did a web search of those department types at major Canadian universities. My search revealed that just a handful of full professors at those schools are both female and non-white. That reality alone says, “Houston, we have a problem.”

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Words can heal and words can hurt – one minority doctor’s experience

Nevertheless, I do have hope.

July 5 was Gurupurnima, a day in Indian culture that celebrates one’s teachers (a guru is one who removes darkness, or a teacher; Purnima means full moon). My son had just completed a week-long tabla (Indian drum) workshop given by a McGill University music faculty member (online, thanks to COVID-19). The workshop ended with a lovely Gurupurnima ritual, where the instructor patiently explained the significance of each step, such as how to use incense and where to place it.

Here’s the thing: The instructor, Shawn, was not of Indian origin. He explained how to perform the ritual as taught to him by his guru, a renowned virtuoso from India. And there I was, a granddaughter of a Sanskrit guru, learning about this ritual on Zoom. I chuckled on the inside at this beautiful reminder that a unique feature of our human brains (other than our neurocognitive ability to use language) is that we can be flexible with social identity. We can have, and adapt to, more than one. In fact, if we simply (and figuratively) look in our own backyards, we know this to be true. We each have two parents, and so we each have extended family on either side, two groups with whom we likely interact just a bit differently. And yet, we love them equally (for the most part) and are always ourselves with them.

This idea of multiple identities, being able to belong to different tribes, is an important facet of ourselves to remember as we traverse these extraordinary times.

I’ve always been aware of my several cultural identities, thanks to being from Quebec, having parents from India, and studying and working in the U.S. in my 20s. In fact, I would have to say that being aware of my different identities has always helped me navigate difficulty.

But the way in which I was formally introduced to my “other” identity was a bit of shock.

On my first day of kindergarten, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table. Dad (a statistics professor at Sir George Williams University before it became Concordia) looked serious, so I got a little nervous despite still feeling excited about starting school. He said, “Don’t feel bad if you raise your hand and the teacher doesn’t call on you.”

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I sat there, puzzled.

“People prefer people who look like them. And you don’t look like your teacher. She will call on the Canadian kids.” (For my parents, “Canadian” meant “white.”)

More bewilderment.

“It’s just human nature. What you have to do is work harder than everyone else, so you can be the best in your class.”

Talk about pressure. And all I wanted was to wear my new cardigan and start school.

“If you are the best in your class, your teacher can’t ignore you. This is Canada. You can make it here – if you work really, really hard. In India,” he said (keep in mind this was the 70s),“it’s about who you know, not how good you are. But not in Canada. Here, you can make it.”

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And then, as if we’d just been idly discussing the weather, we walked to school.

Like many kids, I refused to listen to my parents. After all, I’m Canadian! I was born here! Sure, kids at the neighbourhood playground called me racist names, but they were just ignorant kids. As a five-year-old, I was convinced grown-ups would know better and do better.

Today, we are all too familiar with the term “unconscious bias.” Today, we know that, unfortunately, my dad was not entirely wrong. Still, I’m glad I didn’t take his words to heart. If I had, I might have, or would have, or could have seen racism (and its close cousin, sexism) everywhere I went.

The story of George Floyd reminds us that racism is definitely still here. But I’m here, too. I can’t give Mr. Floyd his life back; I can’t return the land my house sits on to the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples. But as a professor, I’m at the top of a system (finally), and I have a voice. In the classroom, I will continue to call on students of all shapes and colours and backgrounds. I will continue to speak up, respectfully, when I see or hear things I disagree with, or that are simply incorrect.

And I will remember that our humanity lies in our flexibility. We have the brains for it, and due to the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, we now know we have the heart for it, too.

Veena D. Dwivedi lives in St. Catharines, Ont., where she is a professor in the Psychology department and Centre for Neuroscience at Brock University.

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