COLUMN: No sense or direction for some labels

Historical geographical names can be confusing

‘Why are we called East Indian when we are from Gujarat?”

Upon discovering that the state my ancestors are from is actually located on the west coast of India, I asked my dad this question as a school-aged child.

My recollection of his exact words is fuzzy but I internalized the phrase, “Columbus took a few wrong turns.”

Today, decades later, I decided to look up the historical reasoning behind it all. What I found was less ‘reasoning’ and more just an expansion on the blunders of European explorers and colonizing powers.

My research was kick-started by a question someone asked me on Twitter about the difference between the terms East Indian and South Asian. I knew that the latter was a more recent category and more accurate, but I didn’t know how to articulate this.

I came across a handy reference on encyclopedia.com that went into detail of what was considered the East Indies (and how it broke down into the British East Indies, the Dutch East Indies and the Spanish East Indies), and how pretty much everyone Columbus stumbled upon was called an Indian.

To differentiate, markers like East, West and horribly, Red, were created.

As a child, ‘East Indian’ was a mystery to me. I spent my early childhood in Victoria where I went to school with and was in contact with many First Nations children. I heard them being called ‘Indians’ and I, at age six, couldn’t wrap my head around it.

I knew that we weren’t the ‘same’ Indian, but that didn’t clear things up for me at all.

In my later schooling years on the mainland, when there was a shift from Native/Red Indian to First Nations or Indigenous, the world started to make a little more sense to me.

Then I befriended someone whose family was from Trinidad & Tobago. They were West Indian. But not Indian. And the picture blurred a little more.

I think I’ve sorted it out with some research and, as painful as it was to keep it all straight, encyclopedia.com came through for me. Things are way more in focus now.

As an adult, I referred to myself as East Indian until Indo-Canadian came along, and now I’ve switched to the term South Asian. The latest moniker refers to all the countries in the Indian subcontinent which include Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives.

Yes! I found my ancestral country in that list.

While we can’t do anything about the fact that for centuries people were misnamed at the whim of foreign powers, we can certainly try to understand the history and then make an effort to use more accurate terms.

I know this can get confusing and maybe even frustrating. Nobody wants to offend anybody else by categorizing them incorrectly.

A couple of things will solve that, if you really need to use a category:

1. Ask someone if and how they identify with a particular term; and

2. If someone miscategorizes you, just think of it as an opportunity to build bridges without making it personal.

After all, if I had to look up my own history, I’m going to go easy on anyone else who is still learning.

Columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The corner of North Bluff Road and Stayte Road in White Rock was a hot-spot for signs promoting the five candidates vying for the MLA seat in the Surrey-White Rock riding. (Tracy Holmes photo)
South Surrey/White Rock voters have their say on issues that matter to them

Transportation, trains to COVID-19 are top of mind for Semiahmoo Peninsula residents

Upgrades underway at the Sunnyside Reservoir, adjacent to Sunnyside Acres Urban Forest, raised concerns among some residents Tuesday (Oct. 20), however, stewards of the park say everything went off without a hitch. (Tracy Holmes photo)
‘No issue’ with South Surrey reservoir drainage, despite trail user concerns: urban forest steward

Forest visitor taken aback by ‘unprecedented flooding’ of trails

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Staff members at Surrey Pretrial test positive for COVID-19

Ministry of Public Safety says employees tested positive between Oct. 18 and 23

A new 23-storey condo development – which might also house a new White Rock city hall space – is proposed for the current site of 3 Dogs Brewing on Johnston Road, and will be discussed by the Land Use and Planning committee on Oct. 26. (File photo)
Civic centre could be part of new 23-storey White Rock condo tower

Development proposal to be discussed Oct. 26 by council’s land use committee

(Image: CDC)
Fraser Health orders Surrey food-processing facility to close amid COVID-19 outbreak

Staff member at Surrey long-term care facility also tests positive for the virus

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives a daily briefing on COVID-19 cases at an almost empty B.C. Legislature press theatre in Victoria, B.C., on March 25, 2020. (Don Craig/B.C. government)
B.C. sees 223 new COVID-19 cases, now 2,009 active

Two new care home outbreaks in Surrey, Burnaby

BC Hydro map showing where power has been knocked out is dotted with over a dozen outages. (BC Hydro map screenshot)
Thousands without power in Lower Mainland on election day

One outage in Langley and Surrey is affecting over 4,000 customers

file
One dead after fiery crash near Agassiz

Agassiz RCMP report a 56-year-old man died Friday night

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

BC Liberals Leader Andrew Wilkinson, BC Greens Sonia Furstenau, BC NDP John Horgan (The Canadian Press photos)
British Columbians vote in snap election called during COVID-19 pandemic

At dissolution, the NDP and Liberals were tied with 41 seats in the legislature, while the Greens held two seats

The possibility of the Canadian Premier League expanding to the Fraser Valley has been floated online. (Facebook photo)
Canadian Premier League possibly eyeing Fraser Valley expansion

Soccer league looking to add ninth team to the mix, B.C. markets potentially rumoured

Most Read