An innocuous phone call to take feedback on my writing turned into a reflection on my identity and voice. Oh, and also racism.
One of my first journalism stints in Vancouver was as an Associate Producer at CBC Radio. Photo by Ben Nelms.
Hit the play button to listen to the audio version of this essay.
This fact about my life makes for a strange conversation starter — I worked in public relations in Dubai before foraying into Vancouver to pursue journalism.
Public relations is seen in near disdain by many people. The 'dark side' is what this profession's usually called, a nod to PR professionals adept at putting a sinister 'spin' on things and shady backroom lobbyists helping make vapes seem as harmless as Tom Hanks at a teen nightclub.
But I? The portfolio of brands I handled included mineral drinking water and a children's nursery. So yep - my 'dark side' usually involved writing press releases on the launch of a new size of bottled water (they always got smaller), and telling parents they should risk bankruptcy to put their toddler in an elite pre-school because the kid will recognize Mozart's Symphony No. 39, and maybe cry in that tune.
There was no dark side, but something that happened one day at work would shine a light on a part of my psyche that until then was hidden in plain sight. It would surface questions about identity, self-worth and my own voice — questions I think about to this day.
And it would teach me something about internalized racism.
The phone call
So here's how I remember the incident. (To avoid flirting with libel laws of that country, I will keep details about the people involved vague.)
Part of my job involved writing. A lot of writing — ironically far more than how much I now write as a podcast producer and a journalist. At the time I was the point person for drafting press releases for a certain high profile client (not water or pre-school - I had growth too).
The person at the helm of this company was a trailblazer in all sense — a frequent face on magazine covers, an illustration of the country's image of a modern society and proof of what can be achieved when everyone's given a chance to rise to the top. Where the client started walking, privilege followed. Where they stopped, power rested.
They were also the person who gave me feedback on my press releases. And the incident happened during one of those feedback sessions.
I, along with two of colleagues at the agency, hunched over a conference call to listen in and take notes. Getting feedback from clients on a written piece was normal. It usually happened over emails and didn't need the whole team's presence. But owing to the high profile nature of our client, it was all hands on deck.
As writers, we're reminded to develop a thick skin — to not take feedback personally, that each person has a distinct style and that the ultimate goal is an improved piece of written work that everyone can understand.
So the client begins listing the many gripes with the press release one by one. And I take notes, all the while preventing my writer's self-worth from internally combusting. My colleagues and I exchange glances and raised brows at feedback that is difficult to understand - things that pertain to style and tone rather than fact or grammar. Each feedback sounds like a complaint without the offer of a solution.
But this was all still tame compared to what was coming.
A few minutes into the call, it's pretty clear that the client doesn't have a problem with portions of the press release. They have a problem with the whole piece — they're looking for a complete overhaul of the way it's written.
And it doesn't stop there — the client wants a complete overhaul of the person who's written it.
For just as the complaints piled on and the occasional silence in the room became more awkward by the second, the client very nonchalantly says:
"Actually, the whole thing sounds like an Indian wrote this."
I shot confused glances at my colleagues. What? Did I hear that right? Did I miss something in between? And dafaq I forgot I'm actually Indian?!
The insinuation here was that the writing was poor because it was written by a non-native English speaker. And by extension, the writing was of poor quality. But why the client linked it specifically to the Indian nationality is a bit beyond me. I have my guesses but nothing more.
I was hoping one of my colleagues would jump in and defend the supposed Indian writer in the crosshairs. But that didn't happen. My writing at that point was beyond saving because now it wasn't about the skill. It was about the skin.
The silence that hung in the air was so pregnant, that if no one spoke we would have welcomed twins. One of my wiser colleagues tried to divert the conversation, made promises that we'd rework the article and finished the call, or should I say, the dressing down.
I remember all three of us dispersed towards our desks instead of regrouping to discuss what's to be done next. I think we were all too tired. And as the only Indian in that room, I'm glad we didn't talk more.
Right above my desk was an exposed HVAC that drilled a loud hum into my ears every day, each day, for close to three years. But the phone call and the last few words of my client continued to ring in my head, drowning out the groans of an industry-grade machine.
This felt different
I personally don't like to nit-pick when people say offensive things, unless it's for humour or pull their leg. Not because saying offensive things is not bad, but because I feel calling people out is a bit draining. I also default to giving people the benefit of the doubt — that what's mildly offensive to me was said without ill-will, especially if the person has a track record of being principled and kind.
Moreover, righting one discriminatory statement, or one offensive comment will not reverse institutionalized racism harbored over the decades. I feel It's not worth it and it's an attitude that I've questioned myself.
But this felt different — different because it was the first time I was conscious of how I sound, and it served as a very personal reminder of what the client's casual dig represented. In fact, it would have been less problematic if it were a dig. It was not. When the client said the "problem" is that the piece sounded like an Indian wrote this — they meant it.
Of the many things I could be upset about, the thing that still astounds me to this day is this — when the client associated the poor writing with the country of my origin, with my 'Indianness' — I knew what they meant by this. I got it. It made sense. And that's what I regret about this the most.
I had internalized a supposed truism that poor English is a baggage that every Indian carries.
For far too long, people from the Subcontinent — whether that's India and Pakistan or Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — have been regarded as poor and inept ambassadors of the English language.
People of that region pay their colonizers the highest respect by speaking the English language, and for many second and third generations, they do this at the expense of their own mother tongues. And arguably, their mother tongues and the heritage, poetry and sounds associated with them are far more beautiful than what English offers.
(Just fyi: my client was neither English nor European.)
But bring this cultural subservience to a country like the U.A.E, and things become more complex...even sad. It's a country that's more Indian in its tracing of history, trade and labour. It's a country built by brown skin hands lifting hot bricks in sweltering heat.
It doesn't boast a Victorian past, or a European charm. And yet — it loves the sounds and sights of anything that's many shades paler than brown or black. Dubai is one of the more racially and ethnically diverse cities in the world — a 'melting pot' as it's often called. But it loves to choose its diversity of convenience, to decide which race sticks to the bottom of the pot and which one floats on the surface.
This isn't more true in the country's media landscape. I remember listening to the radio (for news, not music) and realizing how despite being surrounded by people everywhere who look like my lost twin, there was nobody on the airwaves who sounded like me.
Funnily, the 'experts' who'd come on as guests to educate the radio hosts and the public had more of that 'proverbial' Indian sound. This selection by nationality is pervasive in all industries. The fact that having an Indian passport gives you an inherent disadvantage at jobs, salary and career progression is an open secret.
Being brown isn't just basic. It also isn't equal.
Which is why when the client came clamouring down on my press release, poking holes at my nationality was a shortcut. It was a definitive way of telling me that my writing sucked. The client didn't find it odd and was guilt-free. It was, in my opinion, a version of internalized racism — where there was tacit acceptance on both ends that English is better, but 'Indian' English is inferior.
But what's worse — I didn't believe it was wrong. I was sad that my writing failed to convince someone, and wasn't as bothered that someone singled out my nationality as the cause of apparent poor work.
Where my skill and skin clashed, my mind rushed to salvage the skill.
But that changed when I moved to Vancouver, Canada.
Finding my voice a new home
I was acutely aware that if I, the tone of my skin and the voice in my writing stood out like a sore thumb in the U.A.E, it would scream with a raised hand in North America.
Yes, brownies like me are overtaking this region so I'll never be alone. But most of them are sauntering in IT parks and becoming tech bros. The world of media — in print or broadcast — is still not the easiest industry to break into. (Unless you're fixing a reporter's computer.)
But in two short years, my voice felt more at home in this hipster city than it did at home in Dubai. Having a different voice was seen to represent a different set of experiences, a different perspective. Even a fresher perspective at times. Instead of trying to adapt to sound like someone, my journalism instructors encouraged me to own it.
When I interned at CBC Radio in Vancouver, and later picked up shifts as a reporter after graduation, I went into work and came out of it never having thought of my accent. My editors drilled through my writing just as editors do, and my producers gave me feedback on my radio pieces just as they always do. But they did all of this and more to make my work shine.
From pitch meetings to selecting guests who came on air, there was and still is a concerted effort to reflect and celebrate the diversity of a country that's changing. A country that has many races, many languages, many accents, many sounds.
This is not to say that Canada and its public broadcaster are immune to far more serious and contested topics on race and diversity. Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman, there have been calls from journalists across the country — and specifically at CBC — to address systemic racism. Toronto-based journalist Radiyah Chowdhury's essay goes into deeper, personal reflections on the struggles of working as a journalist of colour. The essay won this year's Dalton Camp Award.
But personally, scanning my eyes across the newsroom in Vancouver gave me a sense of acceptance, no questions asked. At best — nobody cared I "sounded like an Indian." On other, and admittedly more exciting levels, some enjoyed my distinct accent.
And there's one story that I'll never forget.
The kind lady at McDonald's
Around Christmas in 2019. I was asked to be the live traffic and weather reporter for CBC Radio's early morning show in Vancouver. For someone starting out in the industry, few things are as exciting as this.
Yours is the voice that wakes up Vancouverites at 5:00 a.m., and believe it or not, people actually change their travel routes based on the information you give every ten minutes. It's the kind of work that has made journalists (and just some of the kindest people) like Lisa Christiansen and Amy Bell a household name in this city.
After I had finished doing traffic and weather one morning, I walked into McDonalds in the next block. Dreary, sleepy, thinking about how I may have sounded on radio, how I could have said a few things with more clarity, paced myself a little better.
While waiting in the digital kiosk line, a senior walked in with a stick, and with an adorable bright smile that would rejuvenate any dreary soul. And I, taking my time to think if I should double up the espresso shot in my coffee, offered her to jump the queue and get ahead of me. She politely declined, saying that she gets a senior citizens discount when she orders at the till.
Her eyes darted to my CBC badge with my name. "Hey! So that's you. I heard you on the radio today!"
Flushed, I thanked her for listening to the show. But she had more to say.
She told me how she knew the CBC newsroom was diverse, but never heard that diversity on radio. And that she was pleased to finally hear a voice that sounded like...well...like mine.
The gracious silver-haired-woman wanted to tell me that she could hear my distinct accent, that I brought something different to the radio. And from the longer conversation I inferred that she liked what she heard.
What she heard on Canada's public broadcaster on that sleepy morning, even if for a few seconds every ten minutes, sounded a little like me. It sounded a little Indian.
The voice is a vocal thumbprint
As I reflect on that incident in Dubai, and think of my journey so far in Vancouver, I think of the people who critique and cast aside others for having a voice that's different from the voice that's in vogue, that's in power.
And by voice I don't just mean the literal sound of one's vocals and cadence. I mean a voice that's editorial in nature — that helps people and especially young journalists think, understand and embrace the world in their own unique way.
I wonder how many people doubt what they think about, just because the sound in their head is different from the sound that's considered mainstream, that's worthy of going on air, or that reads better in print.
The voice is a vocal thumbprint, a powerful and an inimitable part of one's identity. But it's also malleable — easily bent and modulated to fit a character and scene that may not match with your true self.
And this is why, the words of that client are seared into my memory as a warning sign to this day. And this is why, I'm sure, I remind myself to be proud of the voice I've been able to retain — even if it's an ongoing struggle to protect it and use it in the right way.
If that person ever read this long, droning piece...I hope they don't read it in "their" voice, but instead they read it in mine.
Because, after all, sounds like an Indian wrote this.