Vote NO – A Plea from a former Student to the Toronto District School Board

A young member of CoHNA Canada, who grew up in the Toronto School District, has penned this heartfelt letter to the trustees asking them to Vote No, on a proposed motion to add “caste”. We publish the letter below, while keeping the identity of the former student hidden since they fear being targeted for speaking out! 

Hello and Namaste,

I am a proud Indo-Canadian who stands against all forms of discrimination. I am a recent University graduate, and my primary and secondary schooling was done via the TDSB.

There are many things I loved about being a student in the Toronto District School Board — lack of snow days aside 😉 . When I was in the 5th grade, my mom and I put on a shadow puppet show about an ancient Indian epic called the “Ramayana”. Making shadow puppets by hand with my mom, and sharing my culture with my classmates was a pivotal memory. Later, in middle school, I decorated the foyer for Diwali using “rangoli” — a colourful decoration made of coloured powder that represents love, auspiciousness, and happiness. In high school, I was quick to invite my friends over for Diwali celebrations at my house; I dressed in traditional Indian clothing for picture days; and I loved exchanging cultural meals with my friends.

I remember the TDSB being a space that, while not perfect, truly listened and cared for real inclusion. If this motion were to be passed, South Asian students would be barred from displaying affection for their roots, in the same way that I once did at TDSB schools. Please keep reading to understand how this would be the case.

On the surface, this motion sounds noble — why would anyone be against an “anti-casteism” motion, right? In fact, I know it will be easy to deny the voices against this motion. It will be easy to shrug off personal responsibility to the truth in favour of what “appears” good. I’m sure that you’re facing pressure to act fast; I’m sure that you’re being given analogies comparing race to caste; and I’m sure that people who stand against this motion are having their character defamed. But I would like to remind you that commitment to the truth is never easy; because I’m also sure that this motion is attempting to speak on behalf of a hugely diverse group of people who don’t share its outlined beliefs.

I beseech you to understand the impact of such a motion in the context of the Canadian, South Asian diaspora.

To begin, we need to understand why race is not like caste.

Why is race an inappropriate analogy for caste?

  1. Race is not like caste because there is no visual identifier for caste. Neither is there a foolproof way to identify caste based upon last name or region.
  2. Race is not like caste because South Asians have the powerful choice to live without a caste identity. Racial identity is something that a person doesn’t really have the opportunity to opt-out of, but we do have the opportunity to opt-out of caste identity. This can be an extremely powerful decision that South Asians have the agency to take. In fact, it is reflective of many of our experiences growing up in Canada. Why would the TDSB try to assign caste identity to South Asian students who do not restrict their lives according to caste?
  3. Race and racial discrimination have a specific historical context within The Americas, that caste simply does not have. Because of slavery and colonialism, it makes sense to talk about race in the North American context. Caste does not have a historical context in North America. In fact, this motion insinuates that Canadians of South Asian descent should be monitored closely because they may hold an alliance to the colonial system of caste that was once used to control South Asia. 

The fond memories I have of my childhood as a TDSB student is something I would hope ALL children get to experience. With a heavy heart, I am confident this motion would paint a target on the backs of all South Asian kids who simply want to exist. They, and only they, will be presumed guilty at first glance. Only Brown, South Asian students will be discriminated against under this motion. 

Already, Trustee Rajakulasingam has said that “caste may be identified or indicated with what you eat…”; if such thought were to be put into practice, it would mean that Non-South Asians would be allowed to have any dietary preferences they so wished without suspicion! But Brown, South Asians would be given the side-eye for choosing a vegetarian diet, for example. Do you see? None of our personal decisions would be viewed with innocence, in the same way that a Non-South Asian’s choice would be.

And already, the vote for this motion is being held on Holi; a holiday of extremely religious significance to South Asian Hindus. Must our festivals, which should be times of celebration, harmony, and acceptance, be co-opted in this manner? A clear message is being sent: “Oh, this festival you take pride in? How about you start being self-conscious about your beliefs instead? We demand that you prove your innocence, on your religious holiday, via this motion”.

Celebrating our festivals in the way I once did at school, would come with an underlying sense of dread for South Asians if this motion were to be passed. Major holidays like Diwali and Holi would be called casteist; South Asian epic literature would be analyzed through a lens of ahistoricism and faulty parallels to race; life choices as personal as dietary restrictions would be viewed with suspicion. Will there be anti-discrimination policies with footnotes that read: “Please note that South Asians have imported casteism, and as such, they must be watched with extra caution”? And how will students be monitored — will the TDSB ask South Asian students to wear a “caste badge”?

Canada is a multicultural country — how many times have we all heard this? Canadians of South Asian descent are still Canadians, and we shouldn’t have to prove that to anyone. In fact, it is with sadness and great mental exhaustion that I am writing to you today… I am burdened with having to disprove a negative about myself and my community. It’s like I’m trying to run up a slippery slide… blanket statements that malign the entire South Asian diaspora are very easy to make, and having to fight against that is an uphill battle.

My heart drops at the thought of authentic and positive cultural exchange being curtailed by a virulently discriminative motion that whitewashes itself to sound as if it upholds social justice; that is why I’m writing this personal letter to you today. I beseech you to vote NO; stand on the side of justice and do not let this motion pass. Justice is never convenient. Justice is never easy. This motion holds very real harmful implications for South Asian TDSB students.

This motion which claims to be anti-casteism… is casteist, racist, and xenophobic in its very essence. That is why I am urging you to vote against this motion. Vote for truth; vote no.

Thank you and dhanyavad

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