By Natale Dankotuwage –
Sinhalese Immigrants from Colombo who have migrated to Toronto are an interesting phenomenon. I’m going to concentrate on this very specific segment of society because I am, by the fate of birth, one of them. Or so that’s what I’ve been told and raised to believe. But sometimes I feel nothing like them. Mostly because as a human rights advocate their prejudice disturbs me.
The prejudice is evident in the selective ways they engage with others in Toronto. Judging others based on the neighbourhoods they grew up in, the schools they attended, and the last names they carry from an Island they left.
From carrying over the Royal College dinner dances and cricket ceremonies. To prizing their fair skin babies. Sinhalese folks have subtle ways of garnering a sense of worth on foreign land.
At a young age I would learn that certain last names were more reputable than others. And that certain last names married other last names everyone had heard of and learned to value. Though historically speaking, the Sinhalese never exactly kept last names. You’d either take on your father’s name as your last name or name yourself after the locality you originated from. Last names were something the colonialists taught us.
I would also learn that my father had not attended the “best” school on the Island. He went to a “mediocre” school called “Prince College” in Kotehana. To a little child who admired her father a great deal the name of the school sounded quite prestigious enough. And yet for some reason my father had learned somewhere – along the way – that his school wasn’t good enough. And he’d teach me the same.
My father would tell me that when he was old enough to know better, he’d tell his mother to send his brother to “Ananda”. For he had grown to learn that it was a far better school. And as a result, till today my Father’s youngest brother attends all the annual cricket ceremonies in the Greater Toronto Area.
Sometimes I’d look at my father as a mother looks at a child. And wonder, who had taught him to devalue these things. Where had he learned this? Nevertheless, from these stories I learned of the things that were of merit and the things that were not.
My father left all of that behind in the 1980’s. To build a life in a place where the school and locality he was from wouldn’t entrench him with a certain social standard. My father went on to become quite a successful entrepreneur in Canada.
I was born in Toronto. Raised in Uptown Toronto. In one of the wealthiest areas in the city. And then to middle school and high school in Richmond Hill another Upper Middle Class neighbourhood. When I look back at much of my upbringing, I realized how hard my father worked to provide us an Elite upbringing. Carefully selecting the neighbourhoods, we would grow up in. Even if it meant moving far away from the inner circle of Sri Lankan community boroughs unfolding in Brampton and Scarborough.
As he moved up the social ranks, he opened various businesses and continued to keep company with all sorts of people. Regardless of their class or place in the world. Uncles I loved dearly, the father of the son I dated, spent their lifetime working in factories or as carpenters. They were dinner guests. Because from all the things my father taught me. The one thing he failed to teach me was something called “discrimination”.
Because of the things my father taught me. The one thing he failed to teach me was something called “discrimination”.
As time has passed a lot of these families have begun to progress. Their children superseding their parents in social standard. And it errs, to say the least, to see the perpetuation in the prejudice that was susceptible in Colombo repeated here in Canada. In the way these family friends and their children choose social circles and even lovers.
The very people who once congregated our homes when they were of a lower-income. Today of a higher standard now circulate with new friends. The Vaisakha’s, the royal college – the whatever other institutional bigotry.
Even subtle acts of Shadeism are evident. Shadeism being the pedigree of prizing those of fairer skin more than those of a darker skin tone. Evident in how they slowly replace their friends of darker skin tones – with those who are of a fairer skin tone. It is all quite disturbing.
As the Toyotas become Lexus’s. The houses grow bigger. So too the social circles have begun to change. And what is most fascinating being that they are perpetuating the social standards they learned in an Island that they disowned.
But what is most painful, is that those we were willing to show respect, honor and dignity to when they were nobodies have decided to turn their backs on us once they became somebodies.
Why discrimination and prejudice perpetuates in our communities disturbs a part of me that has always sought to maintain the integrity of equality in my actions and thoughts. Not because I do not have the intelligence to discern, but rather because having the intelligence to choose one’s actions or thoughts; I choose humanity over and over again. Rather than choosing transitory social symbols that garner a false sense of superiority over another.
*Natale Dankotuwage is a graduate of a Master’s Degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation. She works in Digital Innovation with the Federal Government of Canada.