A short while ago I wrote about my experiences with being discriminated against on public transport in Zurich and how it left me feeling unhomed.
Further things have happened since then which remind me that this country will continue to surprise me, both in good ways and in bad.
For every elderly gentleman who suddenly apparates on steep hillsides and teaches us to take the pram zig-zagging down rather than straight down so that our child does plunge straight down a hillside (the thought of what could have been still creeps me out), or every suited-booted Zurich version of a City bro who helps me heft the pram onto trains because I stood in the wrong spot and missed the easy access doors or every amazing woman, man, child who has waved hello to my children and wittered away with them in Swiss German and taught me a random assortment of affectionate words in Schweizer Deutsch…
…There will sadly be a complete douchebag who can completely ruin my day, week or month, whose obstinacy can wreak havoc on not only my physical health but mental too. Sadly those guys can apparate anywhere too, sometimes in the places where you least expect it. Unfortunately, teleportation powers are not just reserved for the good.
But, what is good? And what does Switzerland have to do with it? Douchebags exist everywhere. It’s time for me to admit that at times I can be a douchebag too or if I am being kind to myself, I have the potential to be a douchebag as well.
I think of myself, as we all do (unless you are Baddison from OISTNB) as a good person. A few days ago, I did something today that I certainly would classify as ‘bad’. And by doing something, I mean I thought something and that thought wasn’t great either. What was especially not great is that I’ve never questioned myself about this before. After a doctor made an unkind comment and an unkind gesture about my child’s weight (which reminds me, we really need to talk about and work on ways we can talk about weight, body image and body positivity to our children, to our boys as well as to our girls) my immediate reaction was ‘Gah these doctors really need to brush up their bedside manners’. Fortunately the reaction was in my head. The thought lingered and festered and I grew angrier and angrier that I had not spoken up then more strongly than I did (I did speak up, so tiny pat on the back for me because I find confrontations incredibly hard).
But here is the thing, if her words were rough then so was my reaction entirely uncalled for and it was completely unfair. It was discriminatory.
For the last five years my children have been almost exclusively been treated by these doctors. My daughter’s life was effectively saved by these doctors . These nurses have stood with me for the best part of an hour to reassure me that they would everything they could to sustain what looked like an unsustainable pregnancy and entire teams of these professionals have stood at attention ready to whizz my dramatically inclined second born to intensive care should she need it and not to mention that for the last few years every single vaccination or prescription has been administered by these doctors. I should be the last person to even think for a millisecond that ‘these doctors really need to brush up on their bedside manner’. For the last five years, these doctors have been keeping my family and myself safe, healthy and alive. These doctors and these nurses have been kind to us, they have been good. But, in the heat of the moment, all those memories of goodness and kindness vanished and I discriminated against a whole people, a community simply because I was upset. It was an individual thing but I made it a community thing. Why is it that when we are keen to praise an individual, we praise the individual but when we have one bad experience with one person who may or may not be having the best day of their lives, we condemn an entire community or a profession? Perhaps the lady who was rude to me had a bad experience with an Indian? Perhaps she condemned me as a consequence?
It’s time for me to admit that I have been that lady too. Maybe I haven’t acted like her but I’ve shared similar thoughts. Maybe?
What haunts me is that thought of mine is now in the world and I have to admit to myself that just as others discriminate and some have discriminated against me, I discriminate too. There’s no point in preaching from the pulpit about discrimination if I don’t admit that the problem lies with me too, in a sense, it begins with me too. If we are to actually work towards a less discriminatory society, let’s first look inwards and audit ourselves before laying the blame at other people’s doors.
Discrimination is socially conditioned into us. Growing up in the gap between England and India, I experienced the ironies of it throughout my childhood and young adulthood. Derogatory comments were made about both sides of my heart. If someone assumed I had been married at age nine to a man five times my age, someone else would assume that all Westerners stank because apparently ‘Britishers’ don’t bathe. Sigh.
Or clean their bottoms properly. Double sigh.
Someone else would assume that I smelt of curry while yet another person cautioned my mother to keep me under lock and key to ensure that I didn’t wind up as another teenage pregnancy statistic… I learnt to pick my battles because otherwise I wouldn’t have coped. I did not lead the revolution but as I sat on the fence between two distinctly different cultures, it was clear that discrimination lay everywhere.
People in circle would think nothing of and still think nothing of making comments that were regional(ist), casteist, parochial, elitist and discriminatory about race and/or religion.
(I’m consciously making the decision not to talk about caste any further here because I think I need to educate myself on this topic. I need to check my privilege and I understand that I don’t yet have the knowledge to discuss a topic which deserves sensitivity and an understanding of the full range of nuances. When I do talk about it I want to do it justice rather than add insult to centuries of injury. But of course, suffice to say, caste discrimination is everywhere and we are kidding ourselves if we believe that it doesn’t endanger lives and livelihoods anymore. But have I spoken up enough when comments have been passed within my earshot? No, I’m very sorry to say that I have not. I’m a douchebag and I will try to do better.)
Then, of course there’s colour. Not just black, white, brown. Thanks to a colonial hangover that very few are willing to get rid of, the shades of brown remain a battlefield in themselves. But have I revolted when someone said something about ‘she’s dark but a nice person ‘ as if the two were someone mutually incompatible. Nope. In fact I’ve brought and used Fair and Lovely myself in a bid to look conventionally attractive.
I haven’t led the revolution when people have spoken horribly about people from African countries living and working in India today in spite of feeling sick at the words I was hearing, I haven’t said anything in defense of the Marwari community living and working in Kolkata or the Tamil, Telugu, Kannadiga communities- all of whom have just as much right to call Kolkata their home as my family do.
I’ve let discrimination run riot in my life. People I respect and otherwise look up to have come out with gobsmacking diatribes and I’ve remained silent. So how can I expect that I should not be discriminated against myself? If I discriminate, if practically everyone I know discriminates, what gives me the right to believe that I should be treated any differently?
So my point is, to work against discrimination let us first begin with ourselves. When we categorize and draw distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘discriminators’ versus the ‘discriminated against’ then we relinquish control. If we remind ourselves that we do it too, that we are all part of the problem, we allow ourselves to be in control of making positive change. If we are able to state that we do it too and we are working hard not to do it more, we can also discourage the whataboutery that invariably starts whenever someone feels accused by something that we or someone else we know and love has said. We want to start a conversation and not shut it down.
Let us embrace the fact that we are all works in progress and rather than rant and rave about the other and the injustices that the ‘Other’ has meted out to us, let us recall (in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words) more than a single story. If only I had been mindful of all the help and kindness and trained myself to remember that I have received from German and German-speaking doctors and nurses, I wouldn’t have brushed off an entire country and it’s people. It is a thought that I will feel eternally sorry for. But also grateful for, because it has taught me to recognize that discrimination is not the sole realm of ‘baddies’ but by people like you and me.
No brainer but it really shouldn’t be.