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This is a HARD blog post to write. For someone who was so unforgiving of others for their discriminatory behaviour, I‘d been casually discriminatory myself!
This is a HARD blog post to write.
Over the past few years there are so many movements all over the world that is taking on discrimination against minorities head on. From #MeToo, Black Lives Matter movement, Asian Lives Matter to BIPOC communities taking on bigotry – people in general are checking their own privilege and their own intolerant behaviour. Whether it’s by choice or not, whether they behave in ways consciously or unconsciously – fact is, we are all on blast now.
And thank God for that.
I’m no different.
Having lived for well over a decade in the US and then over five years in Shanghai, I got stuck in India in 2020 because of Covid. I’ve only recently lived in India for any significant period of time and it’s been a big eye-opener.
I guess I needed to get away from my immediate family and surroundings to realize something very profound about myself. As a very opinionated person – I’ve never had problems calling out people for their privileged and discriminatory behaviour. I was someone who was only too eager to drop the inequity and prejudice bomb on anyone and everyone. For someone who was so hard and unforgiving of others when it came to their discriminatory behaviour – unbeknownst to me, I had been very casually discriminatory myself!
I then made a conscious decision then and there to own up to my own behaviour and cut out the crappy parts.
Circumstances decreed that in December 2020 – my life as I knew it was no longer what it was. And among the changes I had to make was the difficult decision to let our family domestic aide (house-help) go. I no longer needed her services since I would be vacating the house I lived in. But when I let her go, I made sure to give her three months of salary which is unheard of in India. The domestic worker industry is unprotected under Indian laws and they do not have any unions (unlike countries like South Africa which have a domestic worker union). This means that domestic aides can and are hired and fired at the will of their employers.
Basically, one morning a domestic aide could be making plans for her life based on the monthly salary. And she can come home that evening without any salary because she was fired. And there’s nothing she can do since there is NO protection for the domestic aide in India.
I still had to let my domestic aide go. But I made sure that I paid her three months of salary as a buffer until she found a new job. Which, luckily, she did within that week.
Anecdotally, literally no one I know has ever done this. But I figured- if I were in a regular job and I was laid off- I would get financial remuneration as a buffer. So, I did the same when I let my domestic aide go.
There’s a word in Hindi called baksheesh. It means giving people a tip or a favour or charity. In India we give baksheesh to blue collar workers who work and help us. Every year during Diwali we give baksheesh as thank you to our maids, our plumbers, our postmen, the courier guy, chauffeurs and more. We give money and buy them new clothes and give them a box of Indian mithai (sweets). There is an innate sense of servitude in that gesture. And not everyone gives the same baksheesh. Some people give one month’s salary, others give a saree and sweets, and many others don’t give anything.
I hate it. I hate the term baksheesh. It makes it seem as if we are doing these people in our lives a favour. There’s an underlying sense of servitude in the relationship. And that SHOULD NOT be the case. We are PAYING THEM FOR A SERVICE THEY PROVIDE. And I make that very clear when I give money during Diwali to extended employees in my life.
And when I give a month’s salary, new clothes and mithai – I tell them it’s a bonus. A bonus is what a company gives its employees every year for their stellar work. There are no favours done. And I make that clear to my employees as well.
You may think it’s a small thing – after all, it’s just another word, no?
Words matter. Using the right language matters. I hate when friends and family very casually dismiss our domestic aides as ‘servants’. They are not. It matters we call them by the right monikers. And no. There doesn’t need to be any baksheesh given to our domestic employees. And we are NOT doing them any favours and neither are they doing us any favours. We are paying for a service they provide. And they deserve a bonus. And it needs to be called a bonus.
There are so many times we take the help of people for a job here or there. From helping us sell our old bedroom set to getting us an extra copy of our rental agreements, from finding new tenants, to getting our marriage certificates. These are jobs that we can probably do but we don’t have time and so we request our apartment manager or the general factotum in our building/condo complex to help us out.
And they do.
And most times they do it for nothing. They do it because they work where you live and feel the weight of their position. They are too scared to say no or ask for reimbursement for the extra time they spend on those extra chores we give them. And the few times they actually ask for something I have heard them getting chewed out and called everything from ungrateful wretches to thieves in public.
I hate when that happens.
Don’t get me wrong – there have been many, many times when close family and friends have imposed on my time and asked me to do something that takes a LOT of time and effort on my part. And I do it. Because…hey…they’re family and friends and I’m happy to do it. But I also decided early on that this is one thing I would NOT pay it forward.
Whether my condo supervisor helps me during his off hours with a new tenant for my apartment or helps me get an ambulance in the middle of the night or takes my parents for a doctor’s appointment – depending on the job – I PAY FOR THE SERVICE. There are some services that are built in to the condo fees I pay where I live. But for everything else – I always, always, always pay them.
For a service provided – it’s payment. When it’s in the interest of a business transaction – I call it a commission.
Some countries have divisions and differences based on class. Others are divided based on religion. And then others are divided based on caste. And so on. And discriminatory behaviour based on those perceived differences show up in the most ordinary and extraordinary places and situations.
I once lived with an Asian woman in Los Angeles who wouldn’t allow my American friends to use ‘our’ bathroom. There was a common bathroom near the living room and that was the only one the Americans could use. Everyone else – Europeans, Asians, Africans…she was perfectly fine with letting them use the bathroom.
FYI: I had just moved to LA from Kansas and needed a place to crash for a few weeks before I moved out to my own place. And so I shared my friend’s bedroom. I won’t tell you her reason for why she discriminated against Americans – it’s just too bizarre. It’s so ironic. In today’s America where there is so much hatred against Asians – the reverse was true with this one Asian woman a decade back.
Lots of bosses in offices do not like it when their employees sit and shoot the breeze with them. There is a clear hierarchical chain of command that they do not like broken. Don’t sit here. Don’t touch that. You cannot enter the temple. There is so much casual discrimination towards all kinds of people in the world that it’s overwhelming sometimes.
I know I cannot change everyone and everything. But what I realized I could do was make a small start towards equality and equity, at least in my own house.
So…everyone who comes to my home sits on the same couch. Whether it’s my parents or my sibling or my immediate family or my friends or our domestic aide or the young woman who takes out our trash or the guy who picks up our laundry or our plumber, our pharmacist, our grocery vendor, the pizza delivery guy, our electrician. When they come to my house, they’re invited inside and they sit on the same couch. Everyone is offered the same cup of tea and they all drink out of the same cups and saucers.
Look, I know that this may not always be practical. I’m an avid traveller. I want to see the whole entire universe and more. There will always be a place I visit where someone is displaying discriminatory behaviour- overtly or otherwise.
I’m not going to be naïve and pretend I can always figure out where discrimination happens. And against whom. Covert discrimination is hard to discern and even harder to figure out. But in the case of overt discrimination – whether it’s a place of worship, a restaurant, a nightclub, a beach, a park – if I know about any discrimination, I try my best to never ever frequent that place.
I honestly don’t know if my determination towards lessening discriminatory behaviour, at least by my own behaviour, will have any real tangible effect or not.
One small step for me. And, hopefully, one bigger step against discrimination.
Image source: Still from Pink
Hi...I'm Roopa. I'm also a messy optimist! I'm an academic-cum-artist. I'm a writer, filmmaker and professor of creative writing. Academically, I've a Double Masters and a Phd read more...
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