Human rights speaker encourages more openness and less political correctness
“We may all have come on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now … and we have a choice either to sink or to swim.”
With her own version of this Martin Luther King Jr. quotation, Raheel Raza opened her keynote address Friday evening at the Diversity, Equity and Human Rights (DEHR) conference, held at Barnett House April 8 and 9.
Raza, by her own admission a “totally politically incorrect” journalist, public speaker and human rights advocate, gave a humorous and wide-ranging talk in which she connected many of her personal experiences as a new immigrant from Pakistan 30 years ago and as a progressive Muslim woman today with issues of diversity, equity and human rights in Canada and around the world.
When Raza first arrived in Canada, “multiculturalism” was the buzzword, rather than “diversity.” Back then, people were not afraid to ask newcomers questions about their cultures and backgrounds, she said. Today people are so cautious and fearful about offending others that the very dialogue that’s essential to making progress against bigotry, ignorance and injustice is inhibited.
“Political correctness only chokes conversation. … We are living in a time when diversity is only going to grow, so we need to have these conversations,” Raza said.
Getting beyond political correctness was a key concept that Raza came back to several times during her talk, emphasizing the need for everyone to be more open and willing to ask questions and stop worrying about making mistakes. It’s OK to make a faux pas.
“I’ve spent a lifetime learning from my own mistakes, stepping over the politically correct line,” Raza said.
Only through personal interactions, honest one-to-one contact, can we achieve real understanding of the diversity of each other’s experiences, she said.
Using her own family as an example of how she lives diversity every day, Raza recounted that she and her husband are both Muslims but from different branches of the faith (she is Sunni and he is Shia, making them “Sushis”), while her two sons have married outside of both their religion and their culture.
In sharing her family stories, Raza illustrated her second key idea: that diversity is something that must be celebrated, and differences approached with humour and love. And whenever there is friction and misunderstanding, the only solution is to sit down and talk to each other to find a resolution.
“It’s all about the conversation. … We don’t talk enough to each other to be able to understand the nuances of diversity,” Raza emphasized.
And if you want to understand diversity well, you also must acknowledge that “it’s not all ‘kumbaya.’ … All cultures are not created equal. A culture in which women are respected is not the same as a culture where women are not allowed to have an education or one in which honour killings take place.”
Canada, Raza says, is held up around the world as a shining example of pluralism, but now Canadians face the challenge of understanding the diversity of experiences that recent refugees are bringing here, people coming from parts of the world where diversity and human rights are not respected, and they may bring those attitudes with them and have trouble integrating into a secular, democratic society.
“If we want justice and fairness for ourselves, we must also want the same for others, but when we want it for others, we must also want it for ourselves. It has to be a two-way street,” she said.
Everyone’s rights matter, both those of minorities and those of the majority, Raza said. This will be a challenge for everyone, but especially teachers, who will confront these issues head-on in their classrooms every day.
Raza closed with this message: “We have the ability to achieve, if we master the necessary goodwill, a common global society blessed with a shared culture of peace that is nourished by the ethnic, national and local diversities that enrich our lives.”
Survivor calls for “reconciliaction”
Speaking at the Diversity, Equity and Human Rights conference on April 9, Cree chief and lawyer Wilton Littlechild shared his personal experiences as a residential school survivor, calling for everyone to put reconciliation into action.
Littlechild worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to examine the devastating consequences residential schools had on indigenous families. He explained that the policy of the schools was to “kill the Indian in the child,” and that the consequences of destroying aboriginal language and identity are what teachers are dealing with today in their classrooms.
Ultimately, Littlechild said, the way to heal and move forward is for people to love and forgive, and to find balance between the four elements of life: physical, mental, cultural and spiritual.
“If you want to be a winner in life, you need to find balance.” ❚