I was born the same year the war broke out in Sri Lanka. A 25-year battle for freedom, equality, and human rights.
After a 10-year stop in Holland, my family arrived in Canada, opened up a restaurant and hired a lady who was well into her 60s. We called her Bonda Aunty. She got that nickname because she was very good at making Bondas - a tamil appetizer. It was time-consuming and did not yield a big profit. People did request for it however, so aside from other kitchen duties, Bonda aunty always made these bondas. She was always sweet to everyone and always willing to stay late when the food ran out.
In May of 2009, the Tamil civil war ended with the death of the leader of the resistance. My dad and some of the others were somber and the grief could be felt in the kitchen. People were hearing all sorts of rumors about the war - it ended, it didn’t end, the news was wrong, or it was all fake. Bonda aunty was always quiet around these conversations. Her son died in the war a few years prior. I asked my dad, “It was a few years ago. Why is she sad now?” My dad replied, “His death didn’t matter.”
When I saw Bonda aunty’s face, it wasn’t only sadness that I saw. It was hopelessness too. She knew that everything that she and her son stood for was lost. We understood the war was necessary. All non-violent approaches were exhausted. Political and economic powers were taken away and Tamils were systematically erased. Our lives, our culture, and our language, the oldest language still spoken, were about to be erased. The ruling class of Sri Lanka decided that our lives were not important, our futures were not important and what happened to us did not matter.
I was born in 1983. My parents left me in Sri Lanka when I was a year and a half old. During the war, it was difficult to get me out of the country, so I was left with my grandparents. I don’t remember anything, but I heard stories. Usually these stories were of me running around, acting out, and being a rambunctious child. Not until I was in my teens, did I hear the story of how my parents made it to Singapore, then through the cold winters of Eastern Europe, crossing the Berlin Wall, into Holland. When they first arrived, my parents felt welcomed and embraced by the locals. Two years later, they even helped my parents get the papers together to get me to Holland safely. But as time passed and we became more settled in Holland, we began to notice the ways that we were still treated as outsiders, through policies that were never written with us in mind.
For my sister and I, this was most obvious through the school system. I started attending school in Holland in 1986. My mother was told by teachers that she should stop speaking Tamil to us, as it would hinder our ability to learn Dutch. She reluctantly agreed. Coming from an academic background of language and history, she understood how both of these are tied to one’s heritage and sense of identity. Even knowing that, the danger and threat to the survival of her children was so real, that she gave both of those things up, in exchange for the Dutch language and the White model. This is how she ensured our survival. This was her sacrifice for us. She learned the language, and later on, would speak Dutch to us as much as she could.
In Holland, both my sister and I excelled in school. It was ingrained in us early on that because we looked different, we must work harder at each turn. Even though we did this, we were both placed at a lower grade level. When my parents asked our teachers why, they were told that we didn’t speak the language well enough. Both myself and my sister spoke Dutch, and only Dutch since the age of three. My mother had listened to our teachers and stopped speaking Tamil to us for 10 years. All our lives we spoke Dutch and barely knew any Tamil. I was 13 at the time and my sister was 11. Even our White classmates and friends wondered why we were left behind. We soon realized that any benefits we gained depended on our willingness to follow the rules . Their rules. Their game. What we learned at that moment, however, is that even if we excelled, it would still never be good enough because of who we were.
This is nothing new. Most Tamils can echo this story. We silently follow the rules and we still get dismissed. If we have a different opinion and speak out, we are considered “difficult”, “troublemakers”, and more recently, “terrorists”. Our parents raised us to be invisible. To blend in. To put on the White mask. But no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t hide our brown skin or all the syllables in our name. There was no way we could fit in nor were we allowed to express our true selves and flourish.
For a long time, we felt indebted to the White man that brought us here. Albeit true that we had some help from the inside, there are many that believe that this allows them to hang it over us. Maybe not directly, but definitely subconsciously.
When we stop occupying our own emotional space, we allow outside forces to enter and manipulate us.
The way I experienced racism was by them lifting us up, and simultaneously shutting us up, causing us constant shame for wanting to speak out. Some days it felt like I should be grateful, and therefore take the jokes and abuse.
Being raised in a sea of Whiteness, where White values and White culture were considered superior to others, had its impact on me and on the growing number of racialized people living in Holland at the time. By raising us to be just like the White man, we inherited some of their benefits, and most of their beliefs, including their racial views. In comparison to the Black race, we were the lucky ones in the racial hierarchy. We were chosen to be elevated, and a spot given at the table near the White man. Be praised as smart, hard-working, and silent. We went along with the image of the “hard-working Indian”, as it afforded us certain luxuries. Once we saw the benefits, it only made us more complicit. We were hell-bent on proving that even though we share the same skin-tone as the Black man, that that's where the similarities ended. If we did this repeatedly, we kept our standing in the White world and were continuously given opportunities to make our lives better.
Everyone is telling us to be weary of the black man. He will steal your money, rape and murder you. From the first day onwards, we were told that we’re better than “those blacks”. When you hear it all around you, you start believing it. We were working side-by-side with Black men and women,but we were the ones showered with words like, “Oh, he’s such a sweet brown man. Oh, she’s such a hard-working lady”.
Most praise however, came with the caveat that we tow the line. Do not ask for more, continue to accept less, and do not be the nail that sticks out.
Our lives aren’t in jeopardy, as long as we shut up. Our lives aren’t being infringed on, as long as we look away. Our lives aren't dragged through the mud, as long as we scoop up the mess. Our lives apparently matter, as long as we tow the line. Black lives are in jeopardy when they go for a jog, infringed upon when they walk into a store, and dragged through the mud the moment they pick up a brick and fight back, simply because they are tired of jumping for the same piece of pie that was OFFERED to us. When millions of us fled our war-torn country, and certain countries welcomed us, we were so grateful, and therefore, kept quiet and followed the rules. The Black race wasn’t fleeing from anything. They were taken. Why is the world asking for their gratitude and silence? Why should they give any of either?
This is why in comparison, an Indian man isn’t getting shot at the same rate a Black man is. Not because we’re better, but because the opportunity was GIVEN to us to be better. That same opportunity has been, for 400+ years, dangled over the Black man’s head, and been told, “not good enough!”, each time he jumps. When we say “Black Lives Matter”, please understand that the emphasis should not be on Lives Matter. Of course, lives matter. In fact, *All Lives Matter*. However, all lives weren’t taken, destroyed, and then told to shut up and work harder.
We as Tamils should not stay silent to this plight. Always remember that we happen to be a shade that matters, for now.