South Surrey & White Rock Chamber of Commerce hosted a virtual townhall Friday, June 12, to discuss issues of inclusion, diversity and racism. (Contributed images)

Chamber townhall panelists share experiences, insights around racism

South Surrey & White Rock Chamber of Commerce forum leaves officials ‘at a loss for words’

Nadia Irshad, a panelist in last Friday’s virtual townhall on racism, diversity and inclusion, didn’t use her brief time slot to get into the jokes she hears on a daily basis about not telling people her last name because, “they might think you have a bomb on you.”

The mother of three was blunt in cautioning those listening to the session, hosted by the South Surrey & White Rock Chamber of Commerce, that they may not like what she had to say.

“You may hear my words as rage. I might trigger people who have lived through racial violence and it will make everyone listening here very uncomfortable – and that’s the point,” Irshad said.

“Real change only happens when we get vulnerable and uncomfortable, because comfortable isn’t working.”

One of nearly a dozen panelists asked to participate in the June 12 townhall, Irshad told of giving birth at Peace Arch Hospital in 2010, and being denied pain medication during labour, despite repeated appeals over the course of hours.

“The white nurse told me I wasn’t really in pain … that I should focus on the laughing gas and I’ll be just fine,” Irshad said. “No anesthesiologist was ever called.”

As Irshad washed off the blood in the shower afterward, still in tears, the nurse stood about a foot away “and she looked at me with such a look of disgust, I felt like an animal in a cage on display,” she said.

“No one should ever stand naked, bleeding, shivering … asking for a towel the way I asked for a towel that day.”

Friday’s discussion was organized in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis after being forcibly restrained by a police officer. Chamber executive director Ritu Khanna said the incident and others like it aren’t new, but “caused everyone to stop and think.”

READ MORE: ‘He is going to change the world’: Hundreds attend funeral held for George Floyd

“It’s not an issue that is ‘over there,’” Khanna said. “We know that we have heard and seen incidences, definitely in the Vancouver area, but even in our own community.

“We just wanted to bring people together to hear their experiences, their perspective, and create a forum where we can learn from one another and start the conversation. This certainly won’t be the last time, or the only time, that we talk about this.”

The stories shared during Friday’s forum evoked emotions both from those who had lived through the incidents and those listening.

Some experiences were violent, including that of former Sandpiper Pub co-owner Bill Lawrence, who told of being physically assaulted and the target of racial slurs outside of his Marine Drive business in March 2016, and of a “driving-while-Black” incident 16 years ago in North Surrey, that “got way out of hand” when a Surrey RCMP officer pulled him over.

READ MORE: White Rock city councillor tells of racial attack

Lawrence, who is also a former White Rock city councillor, said the incident outside the pub ”showed me that racism in a lot of people is just under the surface and ready to be unleashed at even the slightest incidence of not getting what they wanted.”

He prefaced his recounting the North Surrey incident by noting, “I definitely do hold the Surrey RCMP in high regard.”

On that night, however, he’d forgotten his wallet at the pub, and so had no ID on him, “and that fact, along with a very, very quick trigger finger of that officer and officers at the end of it all, left me cuffed and Tasered twice while I was lying face-down on the ground.”

“Some might say in that situation, it was a little bit excessive force,” Lawrence said. “The aftermath was pretty horrendous.”

Mark Burgin, a coach for Excellent Ice and a director of Semiahmoo Minor Hockey, said he has run from police three times since moving to B.C. in 1995 – not because he had committed any wrongdoing, but “because I was really tired of being pulled over” for no other reason than being Black.

He told of being interrogated at the border after the officer doubted he was indeed the father of his son – who happens to have blue eyes and fair skin due to a recessive gene on Burgin’s side – despite the fact he had the documentation to prove it.

Burgin also cited a newscast he watched Thursday (June 11), in which a police spokesperson said it was “unfair” that people were judging them simply by their uniform.

“I said, ‘Well, welcome to being Black,’” he said.

Nira Arora, an on-air personality for 94.5 Virgin Radio, told townhall participants of how, at age three, kids threw rocks at her on the playground and call her a derogatory name because she was different.

Arora remembered that after she left the playground in tears, her parents – after learning why – promptly took her back and encouraged her to stand up to the offending children.

That message of standing up, and its role in helping end racism, was a common thread among members of Friday’s panel, which also included author Karen Dosanjh, Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell, chef Vikram Vij, White Rock Pride Society president Ernie Klassen, Cici Liang of the Surrey White Rock Community Engagement Society and Garrison Duke, the director of employment and language services at DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society.

“It’s not enough to post a black square on your social media, your Instagram profile,” said Dosanjh. “It’s, what are you going to do?”

Education is also key, added Dosanjh, who has done extensive research on the experiences of South Asian pioneers and described their reception in B.C. “quite unwelcome.”

“History repeats itself and here we are in 2020 speaking about the same things,” she said. “Today, if you’re not horrified by what you’re seeing and what’s going on, then you’re not paying attention.”

Irshad emphasized to the panel that while the townhall was organized by a business organization, racism “is not just a business matter.”

“Racism is a system, it’s prejudice-meets-power. It’s not an attitude or individual acts of aggression, it’s how you think, institutions, status quo, norms that are structured to hold white dominance intact, and it is violence,” she said.

“If we are only to concern ourselves with business matters, racialized people in this city contribute and make this city a better place. And we can choose where to invest and we’re not as powerless as some may imagine.”

In wrapping up the townhall, Khanna and chamber board of directors president Adam Smith both described being “at a loss for words.”

Smith said while he had “troubles” growing up in an area where he didn’t speak the language, his experiences were “nothing like what we’ve heard today.”

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