With xenophobic and white supremacist movements on the rise around the world, it’s never been more important to organize and speak out against racism. As the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today, we share this profile of broadcaster Shushma Datt and her creative campaign against racism.
Launched in 2015, on the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., the Raise Your Hands Against Racism campaign encourages people to celebrate Holi, a Hindu festival in which people bury their prejudices and differences and throw colours at each other to become one.
Keeping the spirit of Holi alive, the campaign started by Datt — a practising Hindu and CEO of Spice Radio 1200 AM in Burnaby — has tried to take into its embrace people from diverse backgrounds. (Full disclosure: I also work at Spice Radio. As it happens there are issues on which Datt and I disagree, but we share completely a commitment to fighting racism.)
Born and raised in Kenya, Datt has always been passionate about social justice and anti-racism struggle, which has strong roots in Africa. She was pained to see prejudices against Black people even within South Asian communities. She had previously worked with BBC in London before moving to Canada in 1970s where she became the first female Indo Canadian broadcaster.
This year’s annual Raise Your Hands Against Racism event was held on March 3 at Roundhouse Community Centre in Vancouver, where Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith and anti-racism educator and activist Alan Dutton were honoured for standing up against white supremacy. While Smith has written consistently against racism, Dutton has been on the front lines of many anti-racism campaigns and has received death threats from white nationalists. Smith too has received racist backlash for advocating for the rights of visible minorities through his editorials.
Dr. Sunera Thobani, a professor at the University of British Columbia, presented the first award to Smith. Dr. Thobani was honoured by Spice Radio last year for challenging Islamophobia. In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, she was the victim of a corporate media smear campaign, and received many hateful messages for questioning the racist and imperialist policies of the United States.
Datt presented the very first annual award to a senior RCMP officer, Baltej Singh Dhillon, in 2016. Dhillon, who was the first turbaned Sikh officer to be recruited by the RCMP, had faced a hostile campaign both inside and outside the force.
Datt wants to recognize the individuals who have taken positions against bigotry. She herself has faced backlash from Sikh fundamentalists in the past for standing up against religious extremism. This was during 1980s when a movement for separate Sikh state was at its peak both in India and Canada. Though she was ostracized and dubbed a “Hindu nationalist” for speaking her mind against Sikh separatists, she has also been critical of Hindu extremism, which has grown in India under a right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party government whose supporters want to turn India into a Hindu theocracy. Not only that, she has given enough airtime to those who are critical of the BJP and the Indian establishment that she has even taken some heat from local BJP supporters.
At the March 3 event, people were invited to dip their hands in coloured paint and leave their hand prints on a white paper along with written statements against racism. The event was opened by Indigenous activist Cecilia Point of the Musqueam Nation, who shared a traditional song to recognize that Canada was built on stolen lands belonging to First Nations. Another Indigenous activist associated with the BC Federation of Labour, Joyce Galuska, also addressed the gathering. Galuska was in the forefront of the letter-writing campaign asking the Canadian government to launch a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. There can be no reconciliation without justice for Indigenous peoples, as the tragic cases of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine have recently reminded us.
Despite a misinformation campaign that has often been directed at her from within the South Asian community, Datt, who draws her inspiration from the Hindu religion, has proven that she adheres to a Hinduism based on the principle of openness, treating the whole world as one family. Her practice stands in contrast to the brand of Hinduism practised and preached by the supporters of the BJP.
This amazing woman teaches and inspires us all to raise our voices against any form of discrimination with courage. Hers is a strong voice against the growing challenge of alt-right, and an important ally in our fights against all xenophobic and supremacist movements.