A few weeks ago, while vising friends in Toronto, we ended up in downtown. Toronto’s downtown core, like other metropolitan cities, has very limited parking spots, and those that are available in lots are quite pricey. After searching and searching, we saw a man on the street motioning us into a private parking lot that was being utilized in the evenings as public paid parking.
My two friends and I felt this was our best option, and, given the steep price for overnight parking, we also knew it was a bargain. After leaving our friend to park, my other friend and I went to speak to the attendant. We noticed a gate that closed automatically after midnight and weren’t sure how we would exit the lot later that evening. My friend and I, both of South Asian descent, asked the man about the gate as well as general security concerns (e.g. would the lot be patrolled all night?). The parking attendant was Caucasian and had a brusque attitude at the outset. He was curt in his responses. Then in response to a question we had about the gate, he retorted “aren’t you people supposed to be good at engineering?”
After he walked away, my friend and I turned to each other in astonishment. Did he just say that? Should we still park here? Should we say something? As a person of colour, these types of interactions, though uncommon, still occur more frequently than they should. Some may view my annoyance and anger as an over-reaction, but for visible minorities in Canada and elsewhere, these thinly veiled racially charged comments have a persistent impact on our sense of self and belonging within a wider society. In the end, my friends, both Torontonians, felt that the bargain price outweighed the tediousness of continuing to search for a spot and probably paying twice the cost. To this day I question my decision to not call him out on this statement.
When reflecting on my personal ethical/religious tradition I often refer to the words of His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community. The Aga Khan has spoken extensively about the Clash of Ignorance as a more accurate and appropriate term that describes the proclivity for racial discrimination and tension. In contrast to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, The Aga Khan argues that issues of racial injustice stem from a lack of knowledge about other cultures, faith traditions, and histories. Contrary to Huntington’s assertion that different cultures and religious groups simply “can’t get along” because of the differences between and across cultures, the Aga Khan has passionately argued that our differences are not intrinsic to our varied cultures and histories but are borne out of a lack of understanding of those different from ourselves. Of course, one way of remediating this ignorance is by being educated about the diversity of people with whom we share social spaces, whether in the classroom, at work, in our communities, or even more broadly, on our planet.
While some Canadian provinces do incorporate Multicultural Education into their curriculum, multiculturalism is often still explored through what has been termed by Sakoto Fujiwara as the “festival, food and fashion” pedagogic approach that provides at best a surface level understanding of histories and cultures outside of European normativity and at worst the essentialization of a particular culture, ethnicity, or faith. For example, in my school we had an annual “Multicultural Day” devoted to dressing up in a “costume,” bringing a traditional dish to share for lunch, and having a ready memorized fact sheet of the basic tenants of your religion/ faith. I still question how a one-day event could possibly represent the diversities that exist within a classroom. Moreover, how can we ensure that the plurality that exists within specific faith traditions be given value through such a pedagogy? The parking attendant assumed we were good at engineering based on a generalization that South Asians are all good at engineering and math. This may stem from a lack of interaction with the South Asian community as well as the inability to look beyond the stereotypes in our society.
As an educator, I place equal emphasis on skill building in addition to knowledge building. That is to say that we don’t just introduce more content in schools, but we teach students skills to recognize stereotypes, bias, and generalizations. This brings into the classroom the need to be critical thinkers and to be able to engage in a deeper study of our societies and the interactions within. Quebec is the only province in Canada to introduce a mandatory religious education program in all schools, public and private. And while challenges certainly exist in the Ethics and Religious Culture curriculum, it is based on core competencies such as the recognition of and engagement with the Other. These core skills need to be introduced across all curricula around the world.
Coming back to my Toronto encounter, I think back to our silence at the parking attendant’s question. The Aga Khan has spent considerable time and energy ensuring pluralism is at the heart of civil societies. Some Canadian examples include the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa and the recently inaugurated Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Following his examples, I hope that the avenues I utilize, such as scholarship, research and dialogue, allow me to become an ambassador of faith and reason in my everyday interactions. To this end, if I could go back in time, I would have probed the parking attendant further on his sentence. It could be that he genuinely didn’t understand the impact of his words on me. Or we could have ended up not seeing eye to eye. In either scenario, the intersection of interfaith work and racial justice begins with honest conversations.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.