Ottawa·Point of View

Talking to my Pakistani-Canadian parents about racism

It was a quiet weekend in June when, spurred by the killing of George Floyd, Askar Rizvi and his wife decided to watch 12 Years a Slave with his parents. He explains how that film and others about the Black experience have opened up a conversation about racism in this country, and in his own Pakistani-Canadian community. 

Askar Rizvi knows what it's like to be in the minority. He says BLM brings hope, but also tough conversations

Since George Floyd's murder, Askar Rizvi has been having hard conversations with his Pakistani-Canadian parents about anti-Black racism in their community. (Submitted by Askar Rizvi)

It was a quiet weekend in June when, spurred by the killing of George Floyd, my wife and I decided to watch 12 Years a Slave with my parents. The film tells the story of a free-born African-American kidnapped and sold into slavery in the U.S. 

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When the movie ended, my parents were visibly distressed and saddened. It opened up what's become an ongoing conversation about racism in this country, and in our own community. 

As Pakistani-Canadians, my family and I have had to deal with our fair share of racism.

Why I’m talking to my Pakistani-Canadian parents about racism

CBC News Ottawa

10 months ago
Askar Rizvi started a conversation with his parents about racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Here’s what he hopes to accomplish. 0:53
Rizvi, left, says he has mostly avoided the 'drive-by racism' his brothers Baqar and Haider have experienced in Canada. (Submitted by Askar Rizvi)

I don't have an accent or dress in a way that would identify me as an immigrant. Because of this, I believe I have largely avoided the drive-by racism that my brothers, who are more visibly immigrants, have experienced. 

But that barrier quickly falls once people hear my name, find out my religion (Muslim), or where I was born (Karachi, Pakistan). That's when I encounter things like people mispronouncing my name or ignoring me so as to avoid having to say it, and dealing with the extra scrutiny at the border. 

I had an especially difficult time as a kid. We arrived in North America when I was six, living at first in a white-majority suburb just outside New York City, and later in Orléans. 

Rizvi, left, and his brother Baqar play at a park in Karachi, Pakistan. The family moved to North America when Rizvi was six. (Submitted by Askar Rizvi)
Rizvi, in the white T-shirt, is pictured with his father Syed and brothers Baqar and Haider in their backyard in Orléans. (Submitted by Askar Rizvi)

At school, I was one of a few non-white students and I remember feeling like I badly wanted to fit in. 

Though I listened to the same type of music, took up the same hobbies, such as skateboarding, and tried to dress the same as my white classmates — despite hating much of it — I still ended up on the outside of social circles. 

Some would even pronounce my name wrong on purpose to bully me — for example, by changing the pronunciation into a curse word. You can figure it out.

Instead, I found friends who also found themselves on the outside looking in. My first friend in North America was a kid named Don who was Black and also had trouble being part of the group.

As a kid, Rizvi remembers trying to fit in with the majority white demographic at his school, but still being made fun of for being different. (Submitted by Askar Rizvi)

As an adult, I feel there is less acceptance of the discrimination I once witnessed regularly. 

However, I still don't feel comfortable speaking out as a person of colour. If I am engaged in an online discussion about politics, I will use an alias that sounds more white, partly for privacy, but mainly because I feel my opinion will be taken more seriously if readers think I'm white.

While I have found work as a software engineer under my own name, I know people who use different names, such as my friend Jafar or "Jeff," or who have changed their appearance — by taking off their hijab, for example — to make friends, find work or feel safer. This tells me there's still more that needs to be done.

The Rizvi family, including parents Syed and Naz, and brothers Baqar, Haider and Askar, second from right, attend a wedding. (Submitted by Askar Rizvi)

However, just because you've been on the receiving end of discrimination doesn't mean you can't also perpetuate it.

Like my wife and I — she is also of Pakistani origin — my parents faced similar struggles during their 25 years as newcomers in North America. Now they are in their late 50s and living a comfortable life in Manotick. 

But until George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, we had rarely spoken about common ideas in our Pakistani-Canadian community — ideas I would consider to be anti-Black and discriminatory.

Rizvi, left, pictured here with his brother Haider on a boat tour of the Thousand Islands. (Submitted by Askar Rizvi)

For example, it's not uncommon to find people in our community horrified by the notion that their child might marry someone outside their own race, religion or ethnicity, especially if that someone is Black. Nor is it uncommon to find people who still believe that the lighter the skin, the more beautiful the person. 

To be clear: My parents know that Black people face racism daily, and they are horrified by what happened to George Floyd. But in my view, they and others of their generation haven't come to terms with the fact that immigrant communities can be just as culpable in perpetuating those systemic beliefs.

Rizvi's wife Nikita is also of Pakistani origin. They have been watching movies and talking about George Floyd's murder with Rizvi's parents. (Submitted by Askar Rizvi)

This is something that needs to change, and that change starts at home. That is why we turn on the TV and watch the news about BLM and movies about Black experiences. Afterward, we sit and talk about what needs to change in society and what we can do to help that change. 

I believe that attitudes are slowly changing and I can see it happening in my home. I see my parents realizing that their views from decades ago aren't OK, and that it's not acceptable to judge someone by the colour of their skin.

For me as a Pakistani-Canadian, this is a moment of hope.

Askar Rizvi is a software engineer. He and his wife live with his parents in Manotick.

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