Racism and Brain Injury

How much does subconscious racism factor into dismissing my concussion advocacy?

Posted Jun 09, 2020

Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy
Source: Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy

All lives matter, except some less than others for all of human history. That’s the point of #BlackLivesMatter: Black lives matter as much as white lives or Asian lives or Indian lives or Indigenous lives. And disabled ones. There should be no hierarchy of acceptability.

I haven’t written about racism because my focus is on brain injury; racism is too damn hard to write about. But these past two weeks within the context of COVID-19 and the reaction of Canadians plus political, organizational, and church leaders in contrast to down south, has angered me with some of its minimizing and request for us to approach them rather than the other way around. I’m also rethinking some pre-pandemic events, for Canadian racism is subtle, not overt. It’s mostly quiet and hard to pin down, other than a young man shot and tasered to death on a streetcar or a young woman falling to her death

from a balcony or a publisher looking at me like I’m some sort of cockroach that erupted from under her shoe.

Some background of me: I’m the child of a mixed marriage. Many ethnicities reside in my genes, but the Zoroastrian ones — the ancient Persian ones, a culture the British Museum erased and a people Iran continues to persecute — are the visible ones. I am fairer than I look and darker than I am.

Zoroastrians are white. Not the pink fairness visible in some British from long-extinct Saxons. Nor the olive white of my mother from her Welsh genes. But white white. A thousand years ago, Arab Muslims invaded my ancestral home, destroyed much of our writings, and killed as many as they could. A genocide. My ancestors fled south into India and Burma where they were allowed to stay as long as they stopped evangelizing and didn’t marry any Indian. You can tell from skin colour which ancestral line broke the latter rule. My grandmother’s skin colour was much darker than my grandfather’s whose line visibly remained “pure.” Because the people left are so few, I’ve heard that Zoroastrians can be prone to diseases from inbreeding.

The edict against evangelism meant that people like me, a child of a non-Zoroastrian and a Zoroastrian, were not welcome.

We’re also not welcome in white North America.

I call myself a “half-breed” because that’s how I’ve been treated. Those who find offense in the term may wish to consider why it’s used.

I’m a minority of a minority of a minority. I’m an injured person (minority one) of a half-breed minority (minority two) of Zoroastrians (minority three) and female to boot. I don’t have a group who has my back like Blacks and Indigenous people do. Perhaps biracial or Jewish culture are the closest. And I lost my personal identity through brain injury.

My first brush with racism happened in Bombay when, on the first day of school, at age three, a young boy refused to play with me because I was too fair. I’d never had such an experience. In my apartment building, older kids and younger kids, no matter our colour or religion, all played together. His racism confused me and began me crawling into a shell.

My second brush with racism happened in Toronto. I don’t have one stand-out memory. I have a series of memories of name-calling, breaking my things, and physical assault (nothing requiring medical attention, fortunately). My parents left me to figure out how to deal with it. Maybe that’s partly why I can speak out relentlessly about the abysmal way people with brain injury are treated. I had to learn how to protect myself while not losing the courage to be myself.

I actually don’t know how the racism stopped in junior high. It’s like the instigator had a coming-to-Jesus moment. He came up to me after Christmas to apologize and offered his hand. After that, his group stopped calling me “Paki,” and going after me. In high school, I hung out with Asians and no longer experienced overt verbal and physical racism. It’s all been subtle since then, like walking into a bookseller conference pre-injury and I’m the darkest person there, except for one man who saw me walking toward his booth and reached out to me like a man drowning in a hostile sea, latching onto a friendly face. We chatted, then I moved on into the hostile sea and was politely, smilingly dismissed by every booth I approached.

After my brain injury, it became hard to distinguish on which basis people were civilly, politely, compassionately ostracizing me and my ideas. Was it racism? Sexism? Or the prejudice that people with brain injury are scary, justified to be abandoned, not worth collaborating with, and don’t know what’s best for them? How are people of colour, Indigenous people, or Blacks who have suffered brain injury treated differently from white men? Do we know? Has anyone studied this intersection of prejudices and discrimination?

Most of my adult life, my doctors were Jewish or racial minorities. Having a white male psychiatrist has been eye-opening. He refuses to believe he’s racist and sexist; I refuse to let him off the hook, although I’d stopped confronting him on it until these last two weeks because it’s just exhausting. Trying to get a woke Canadian to face their racism is like beating your hands raw against impervious bricks. Same, too, with sexism. And same with advocating for effective neuroplastic treatment for brain injury.

Now I wonder, though, how much people in brain injury organizations and health care dismiss my advocacy, politely and compassionately agreeing I have a point while doing absolutely nothing about it, because of my ethnicity and gender? Or because of my name?

Copyright ©2020 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.