How being a minority taught me tolerance

How being a minority taught me tolerance
By Omar Alghabra 

On April 17th, Canadians will celebrate the 30th anniversary of our beloved Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is an appropriate occasion for me to share how Canada and the Charter helped evolve my values and approach to life.

I was raised between Saudi Arabia and Syria. I lived as a member of the majority sharing similar faith, sect, language, culture, and heritage. Minorities mostly kept their identity private and avoided drawing attention to their background.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear generalizations and negative stereotypes about minority groups. There was a sense of superiority over minorities and it manifested itself in different ways: comments belittling other people’s faiths and cultures; whispers questioning people’s loyalties; jokes mocking their “unusual” traditions.

No wonder most of them kept to themselves.

Such conversations were had by well-meaning people who didn’t know any better. There was no effort to understand different cultures.

If a member of a minority would ask for accommodation they would hear reactions like “What more do you want?” “You are doing very well for yourself in ‘our’ society.” “I wish I enjoyed your success.” Sometimes comments like “If they can’t adapt to our values maybe they should find another place to live,” were commonplace. It was as if members of a minority were visitors and not equal citizens.

As a young teenager, I don’t recall pausing to reflect on the unfairness of how minorities were treated. Such subtle and not-so-subtle narrow-mindedness had no impact on my life. My interaction with members of minority groups was limited to superficial pleasantries. I did not learn about their lives, culture, heritage, and history.

I moved to Canada when I was 19, where I became a member of a small minority and was exposed to other cultures and lifestyles that were alien to me.

I was struck by how surprised and sometimes offended I was by questions and comments I faced when people displayed ignorance or dismissive attitudes towards my culture. Much of the curiosity was genuine and well-intended, but it was frustrating when tainted by misinformation.

That was when it became clear to me: During my childhood I was sheltered believing in simple black-and-white absolutes, ignorant of other shades. The comments I found disturbing today were the comments I used to tolerate yesterday. It was a transformation from the simplicity of being part of a homogeneous dominant culture to the humility of having to explain who you are.

The old saying “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoe,” became more sobering than ever.

This journey allowed me to question everything I thought was accurate. Any assumptions I had that could not withstand the test of logic and justice were discarded and replaced by informed ones. Going through that exercise solidified my understanding of my identity and humanity.

Phrases like “this is conventional wisdom” and “this is common sense” were no longer as persuasive as they used to be. Does “common sense” include everyone’s perspective? Not always.

I learned that fundamental rights should not be conditional, dependent on the mood of the majority or bestowed through tradition. Human rights are universal, non-negotiable, and to be applied equally.

The letter and the spirit of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms defined Canadian culture. That unique Canadian attitude is visible in our schools, workplaces, and neighbourhoods. It nurtures respect and accommodation for everyone even if they look and sound different.

This is not to say that racism and systemic unfairness don’t exist in Canada, but the Charter makes it hard for them to prosper.

Becoming a minority provided me a perspective that I would never have had had I remained a member of a majority. Canada and the Charter provided me with the space to belong as a full citizen with equal rights.

I was once debating a friend about the lack of equal rights for minorities in the Middle East when he told me that I appear to have forgotten everything I learned in the first 20 years of my life. My response was that I never have, but that I also learned from the next 20.
Omar Alghabra is a former Liberal MP & President of AT Labs Canada. Follow Omar Alghabra on Twitter:

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post (Canada) and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.