A few months ago now I was in court for another one of Mohammad Mahjoub’s court hearings, another day in the 12-year trauma he’s had to bear, living in indefinite detention without being charged. On the witness stand was Egyptian lawyer Magdy Salem, who had spent nearly 20 years in Mubarak’s jail and had taught himself law, recently released and speaking from Cairo via video link and through an interpreter. To accommodate the time difference the federal court was unusually sitting on a Sunday and starting at 7 a.m., and it seemed everyone’s nerves were fraught.
The spat began at 1 p.m. Mahjoub’s lawyers demanded a recess and stormed out of the court. The judge also left. The court transcriptionist, a middle aged white woman, leaned in to the mic and called over the government lawyer, Bernard Assan.
“Can you please spell out all these weird names that the witness is saying,” she said. “It’s hard enough understanding your accent that I have to make sense of the weird things he is saying too.”
“My accent, what accent?” responded Assan, obviously taken aback. “You have an accent,” the court transcriptionist insisted.
“A Canadian accent...” he responded, his voice trailing off.
“No you don’t, and don’t get me started on that. Just spell out the weird names or the record will just state foreign phrase over and over,” she said and stormed off in to the judge’s chambers.
To understand the context you should know that Bernard Assan is a Black lawyer who speaks in a nasal but markedly Canadian accent.
I related what happened in court that day to a couple friends, explaining how the government lawyers tried to discredit and smear Salem, making exhortations wild and reckless statements which could put his life in danger in Egypt. Both of my friends zeroed in on the incident I described above, lamenting how racist the court transcriptionist was.
I was a little shocked. This reminded me of the time when a landlord told me that he had rented out the place and, when I returned a few minutes later having forgotten my bag there, found him showing the place to other (white) prospective tenants. When I confronted him calling him racist, he responded that he had done no such thing, he had been in fact “extremely polite”.
There seems to be this idea in many circles, progressive and mainstream alike, that racism is somehow about rudeness or visual markers. If someone yells abusive names at people of colour, if someone shows up on Halloween wearing a non-white costume or mispronounces someone’s name it’s racist and deserves immense condemnation.
If, however, the government launches a multi-year campaign of terror against Muslim immigrants, rounding them up and locking them away, it’s harder to call it racism. The media certainly won’t report it as such and you’re definitely not going to be able to file a human rights complaint about it.
Personally, and this is just me, I don’t care so much if someone calls me names, or makes fun of my accent. I totally understand that for others it’s extremely traumatizing. But for me, it’s when I and so many other people like me can’t get a job, can’t rent a house, can’t travel, or can’t get healthcare that I get angry. When racism has a material impact, I get furious.
On November 4, 2012, over 43 organizations in Toronto are organizing a demonstration against Jason Kenney being honored by Haifa University. This convergence is being framed as a march against racism.
It should be obvious but it isn’t: Kenney’s immigration policy, like all immigration policy rooted as it is in colonization here and imperialism abroad, is racist. Austerity policies impact indigenous people and people of colour more which make them racist. Environmental degradation and climate change is happening through the destruction of indigenous and people of colour communities and it is racist. Kenney's unflinching support for Israeli apartheid while kicking out Roma refugees escaping neo-Nazi violence is racist. Though it’s true that having immigration papers does not free people of colour from racism, not having them increases their vulnerability to racialized violence. And these policies and decisions are enacted (though enforcement is a different matter) with a smile and a clap, not a truncheon.
Yes, I think the white court transcriptionist was being racist to Bernard Assan, but her actions pale in comparison to the racist violence Assan and other government ministers have enacted against Mahjoub, Harkat, Jaballah and the many other Muslims living in fear of being targeted by Islamophobia. And it does not matter how nice and gregarious he is otherwise.
A note on convergence:
It’s rare to be part of an organizing project where many different communities are gathering together for different reasons at the same moment. Usually if an action is diverse, it is because many different communities are coming together at the same moment for a single demand. November 4th is different. This event supported as it is by Haifa University, Stephen Harper, Ezra Levant and Peter Munk is bringing together migrant justice, Palestinian solidarity, sex worker rights, environmental justice, immigrant rights, women’s rights activists and more. We are building links, forging ties and understanding the interconnectedness of our struggles. The goal of most protests and demonstrations is to force those in power to act in a particular way. On November 4th, the most important goal (to me) is the fact that we will be on the streets together, in solidarity. That's pretty exciting.