When I was 8, my family moved to a slummy part of Montreal called Little Burgundy. In the 1980’s, Little Burgundy was a working class neighbourhood, stemming from its history of being populated by railway workers, most of whom were Black. Although in an up and coming neighbourhood, our new home was surrounded by projects in a Black community.
I got enrolled to the neighbourhood school. But upon seeing the demographic of my classmates, my parents rescinded my enrolment for fear that I was surrounded by too many Black kids. According to my parents, they were misbehaved, low class, lazy, dirty, eventual criminals — to be feared, to distance from. I was transferred to private school instead.
My parents are immigrants and had these sentiments, even as people of colour and being treated as second class citizens themselves.
Being Canadian born, of Chinese descent and as a small Asian woman, I’m surely no stranger to oppression. But that’s a story for another day. Even with this awareness and being a prey of oppression myself, I was still bafflingly ignorant and oblivious to my prejudice
See, I wasn’t overtly racist. In fact, my outward persona was mostly kind and tolerant. But I instinctively tightened up and grew suspicious when passing by a Black man. I quietly judged the Natives for being lazy and addicts. I held my breath in the presence of my Indian neighbours. I subconsciously favoured my White teammates’ ideas. I even believed that my fellow Asians were dirty and unhygienic. It’s true, I also discriminated against my own.
None of these instincts were derived from empirical or personal experience. But I heard these portrayals over and over again on TV and from people around me, and I took them for granted. We weren’t taught to be that skeptical back in the day. I accepted the curated narrative of the White male hero, the glorification of whiteness and thus, my unspoken inferiority. It was corroborated when I saw my mother apologizing subserviently to a White man who bumped into her, rather than the other way around. There was a racial hierarchy and I unwittingly subscribed to it. I obediently assumed my position of the hard working, submissive, objectified Asian minx, vying for acceptance from the White world.
It’s surprisingly easy to slip into the roles we’re told to play, to accept our parts as the supporting characters when that’s all we see and know. Imagine being told day in and day out that you’re the villain, the criminal.
I also dished out my fair share of racist jokes. I had a solid arsenal of Black, Paki, Gay, Chinese jokes as part of my social shtick. I meant no harm, I just wanted to be liked. Everybody around me did it, people made Chinese jokes all the time. I was never one for political correctness and surely as a woman of colour, I wasn’t really a racist. No big deal, right?
In my wiser years, I started seeing that my “innocent” jokes perpetuated narratives used to pigeonhole and put people in boxes. They reduced a whole mass of people to narrow identities, that were born from a history of dehumanizing people of colour, specifically to oppress them.
By being seen as the dirty Chinese who eats dogs and bats, a Ching Chang Chong (whatever that means), a virus, I no longer had a blank slate as a human being with unique fears, emotions, aspirations, depth, personality,… the nuances that make me human, deserving of empathy, curiosity and benefit of the doubt.
Bit by bit, I unraveled the threads woven in my belief systems and saw how I played into the racial hierarchy game, even if it didn’t benefit me at all.
Finally, even if just to myself, I had to admit: I’m fucking racist. Yuck.
Racism isn’t binary. People aren’t just racist or not racist. Racism is multi-layered and it spans a wide spectrum, from mild implicit bias to hate-fuelled violence, and I’m definitely on that spectrum. Racism is not just a White people thing. It is global, everywhere and arguably, in all of us. We all make racially based judgments that have become so instinctive that we barely notice it happening.
But to be fair, how can we not be racist?
We live in a culture that is bent on stack ranking us into the haves and have-nots. We judge and compare all day. We revere and respect those with power, we denigrate and overlook the weak. We’re programmed to believe that skinny is better than fat, young is better than old, rich is better than poor, White is better than everybody else, and so on. This type of hyper competitive imperialistic culture is good for economy, but it also renders us in a perpetual state of lack, insatiably hungry for power, relevance and influence. We buy more things and work harder after all, when we feel insufficient and seek to move up the totem pole. By playing this game, our thought patterns are drenched with the notions of superiority and inferiority.
It’s easy to bolster our superiority when others are inferior. In moments of insecurity, we often find scapegoats to condemn, blame and oppress. In my moments of doubt, I have found myself scathingly and ruthlessly judgemental of others, even if only in the privacy of my head. If someone else sucks, then I’m good. At least, I’m not like “those” people.
It is easier to blame immigrants for stealing jobs, than to sit with the discomfort of our financial distress. It is easier to blame the Chinese for the virus, than to feel the anxiety and helplessness of uncertainty. It is easier to blame Black people for crime rates and everything under the sun, than to confront the murkiness of our darkness and cruelty.
Self-righteousness is an oddly satisfying balm that absolves us from personal responsibility. As we condemn another, we find momentary relief from ourselves. We feel powerful and just, morally superior even, as long as we can thoroughly convince ourselves of the others’ wrongdoings. It’s easy to do so, when people around us corroborate our stories. It’s even easier when we have stereotypes to shield us from our empathy so we don’t have to acknowledge the others’ humanness.
Race is but one of many arbitrary parameters used to create hierarchy and infer our power within the chain. But it is stubbornly enduring and annoyingly pervasive. Skin colour is conveniently visible, we all do it to varying degrees, and a wide spectrum of racism is still surprisingly socially acceptable. The remnants of colonialism are thickly embedded within our systems. The brainwashing of our media is deeply engrained in our programming.
Even though I’m aware now of the atrocities that our Black and Indigenous brothers and sisters endure to this day, I still catch myself plagued with racial biases and need to constantly examine my motives. I have volunteered in shelters serving Black and Indigenous communities. I have been lauded for my benevolence, but did I serve with true compassion or with pity? Was it a self-congratulatory act to validate my “goodness”, using them as subjects to bolster my moral superiority once again? Integrity in our intentions matters, after all.
Most of us agree that all humans are equal regardless of gender, race, religion, age, financial status, sexual orientation, body size, political belief, abled-bodiness. We can believe it, say it, make memes about it. Love and Light! But what does it even mean? Do I know anybody who truly embodies it? How do we earnestly eradicate ourselves from a deeply etched hierarchical mindset?
I don’t know, but it feels important to find out.
For one, I can recognize that we’re all subjects of our conditioning, that we’ve all played a role in sustaining these systems of hierarchy and oppression. We have all absorbed ideas that have incented us to discriminate based on race or otherwise. This system has pitted us against another and has made us yearn for a shadowy version of “power” that is rooted in dominance and fear, rather than a truer version that begets integrity and respect. Whether as preys or perpetrators, we have all suffered enough. The seeds that lead us to oppress and hate are seeds of poison within those who harvest them as well.
There’s no easy way to decipher the complex web of our programming, to extract this cancerous pattern from our truest loving selves. But recognizing our personal contributions to the injustice and biases towards Black and Indigenous communities is a good start and one that is long overdue.
I’m doing my best to see myself with radical honesty, to purge my soul from everything that doesn’t align with the Equality I espouse. But truth be told, it’s fucking hard.
It’s hard enough to self-examine, let alone admit our shortcomings and darker urges. Our society is ruthless in our condemnations, with so little tolerance for mistakes. My dark sides hid behind the ego of the “good” person I believed myself to be, comfortably sheathed by my self-righteous and performative support. I was incredulous to my own racism altogether. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Bullying and shaming people into submission rarely produces the desired results and only intensifies the venom. Out of defensiveness, people instinctively dig in their heels or resort to harbouring their feelings covertly, which only buries the issue and delays true healing. Justice must always be served and anger is more than reasonable. But history has shown us that even in the noblest fights for justice, unmeasured anger spawns further hate and divide.
Where possible, can we lead with compassion and forgiveness? Is there a way to firmly stand our ground and denounce injustice without being punitive? Are our hearts open enough to look at ourselves? Are we humble enough to admit our own shortcomings and change our ways? As we hold space for our Black communities’ healing, can we also hold space for reconciliation, for constructive discourse, for listening, for honesty, for vulnerability without the threat of being stoned?
Through my journey in self-discovery, I’ve come to accept that I’m human, I’m deeply flawed and I make mistakes. I’ve given myself space to acknowledge my shadows and the compassion needed to heal them. I’m committed to offer this to others, to anybody willing to have an honest dialogue. As kumbaya as it sounds, it is forgiveness and love that transforms people, not shame and condemnation. As we change, the world changes.
Today, I still hold prejudice. I still have biases that I’m not proud of. But I vow to learn, to do better everyday and to stand firmly for Equality for our BIPOC and any other marginalized communities.
May we all see ourselves with clarity and heal from our collective suffering.
May we forgive ourselves and others for what we didn’t know.
May the pain and injustice we feel serve as fuel to create a new world that is just, kind and equal.