There’s a lot of focus on matters of racial representation and the inclusivity of minority voices in the media, in workplaces, on catwalks, on TV and in magazine spreads. America has been the central focal point of this discussion; I read tons and tons of articles and news pieces on horrifying mistreatment, racial tensions, and senseless prejudice-fueled violence in the U.S. of A., and it brings bile to my throat every time. After seeing a report on the tragic death of Samuel DuBose today, I couldn’t help but think more deeply about how racism is (unfortunately) embedded in society and how everyone, regardless of who they are, is irrevocably linked to this issue. It got me thinking about my own experiences with more subtle racism, too, and how nobody can really fully detach themselves from it.
An anecdote, if you will: I used to work for a very large Canadian bookstore chain as a salesperson. I was hired as a seasonal worker, and after my term finished there I was not asked to stay on as a part-time worker. I was one of only two minority workers in that particular store location (I’m Chinese)—the other was an East Asian guy. One of my friends (who still works at that store) says that the management there has asked everyone whose schedules do not align with the store’s planned shifts to seek employment elsewhere, and she thinks that Asian guy might not be around for much longer because of this. Once he leaves, the sales, management, and merchandising teams—the entire workforce there—will be entirely white. This is a problem.
When I brought it up to one of my other friends, she said, “Well, that’s not a problem. They’re just hiring the people who are best for the job, right? So it’s not like they’re discriminating against non-white people. They’re just hiring the best employees.”
This might seem like sound logic, but I find it hard to believe that out of all the applicants, only the white people were found competent enough to make it in. If you inspect that belief a little more, it’s inherently racist to imply that only people of a single race are “best” for a job, too—there’s no job in the world that only one race is always, irrevocably best for, and to say otherwise is to discount the abilities and facilities of all other races.
Another point of interest: There were never any black employees at that bookstore, and I’m not sure I remember seeing any employees with visually recognizable traits associated with African descent at any of the locations of that particular chain that I’ve visited throughout my life. There’s also a noticeable lack of non-East Asian employees: almost no Indian people, Malaysian individuals, or people of other types of ethnic groups. Speaking now as a customer rather than a former employee, it’s disheartening to go into a store and be surrounded by white people and helped by white sales clerks in a place where an overwhelming amount of the highlighted books are written by white people.
In my town, there aren’t very many Asian people to be found working in places that aren’t Asian restaurants, Asian markets, convenience stores, or laundromats. There is a distinct lack of colour in a lot of the stores I go into: When I was younger, for instance, the Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister and GAP employees were always thin, able-bodied, and white, and a lot of fast-fashion stores that I venture into now are the same. It’s not just stores, either; my entire childhood was characterized by a lack of colour. The Crayola markers I drew with had only a single, pale, peach tone to represent “skin colour.” My schoolteachers were almost always white. My fellow students were all white. I remember being rejected by cliquey girls because of my race. In sixth grade, when my class was studying China and Chinese culture, my white teacher brought in a white male classmate’s white mother to speak on the topic, despite the fact that my parents and the parents of the other two Chinese students (and only other non-white students) were all immigrants from the country we were talking about. In this same class, it was implied that I didn’t know what I was talking about when it came to my country of origin, and I was laughed at and made fun of when, in a burst of confidence, I dared to wear my blue cheongsam to a special international foods day event at school.
Growing up, I hardly saw any Asian people on television: There was Mulan, and…Wanda from The Magic School Bus, I guess, but that was all. The heroes of the movies and shows I saw and the protagonists of the books I read were overwhelmingly white, and if there was an Asian character at all, they usually served a nominal role in the furthering of this white protagonist’s goals. They were one insignificant cog in the wheel of another person’s machine; always the workhorse, rather than the driver.
And yet it’s important to note that up until four or five years ago, I thought that racism no longer existed. It was a naïve worldview, sure, but I wasn’t yet a teenager at the time. After entering junior high, my awareness of the little injustices, the tiny fissures in the image of a racially equal world, grew more and more until I began to see reality for what it really was. Racism is everywhere and affects everyone, and I feel powerless to stop it. Patriarchy is one enormous force, racism is another. Both serve to oppress and shut out certain people, and they’re both hugely complicated issues that, like it or not, encompass everyone. I have one friend who tries so, so hard to distance herself from racism by erasing the lines between different races with her language—her intent is good, but her execution sometimes inadvertently incorporates all those deep-seated racist ideals. To her, cultural appropriation does not exist, because cultures should be free to take from others as they wish without consequence. She doesn’t understand that picking and choosing what the take from another culture without also accepting the other aspects and the history of that culture is racist and disrespectful. She gets upset when I talk about cultural issues and the internal conflicts I have to reconcile for being a white-washed Chinese-Canadian, because speaking of such things acknowledges that she and I are of different races. In these conversations, I feel trapped. I’m struggling to come to terms with myself—not white enough to belong in the White communities I was surrounded with for so long, and not Chinese enough to belong with “authentically Chinese” communities. I’m up shit creek without a paddle, and I can’t even talk about these issues without people in a place of privilege getting offended because my language, my discussion of the issues that affect me, makes them uncomfortable. When a person of colour can’t even voice their own issues using language that makes the privileged less than 100% comfortable without being shut down, what recourse do they have left?
It’s true that race should not be something that affects your opinion of someone’s skills, personality, or soul—but the solution to racism is not to forget race entirely. Instead, a better idea would be to listen to the struggles of other races in a world that is inherently unequal, understand their plight, and consciously make choices to diminish the influence of the current oppressive system. Empathy is the real solution. It’s hard to oppress someone else if you empathize with them, the same way it’s difficult to be angry with someone if you understand and feel for the reasons behind their motives. Simply ignoring race discounts the age-old struggles and injustices endured by generations of minorities, and insisting that everyone is the same and equal in the world that we currently live in is overly simplistic and naïve. But empathizing and validating the struggles of another: THAT is progress.
My white friends tell me to calm down. “It’s not a big deal,” they say. “Who cares if Fresh Off the Boat is the first show to feature Asian people? It’s not that big of deal!” It is a big deal. For an Asian chick growing up neglecting her heritage and trying so desperately to act and speak and be white—for a girl who spoke methodically for an entire year trying to iron out her Cantonese accent once a classmate pointed out the funny way she said her words—it’s all a big deal. It’s a big deal that an Asian is portrayed as something other than a geeky sidekick. It’s a big deal that the stories of Asians are being told on mainstream television. Stories of people of all cultures are valid, and yet for a long, long time, I’ve felt like Asians fall through the cracks. I watch so much YouTube because it’s where I can see Asian faces as a normality, on the regular: makeup tutorials for monolids, stories of hidden racism faced by Asians, videos about what Asian foods and restaurants are best, short films and movies where Asians fill the lead roles. It makes me feel like I’m part of something other than the twisted narrative that Asian girls are alternately shoved under the rug when it comes to having their stories told and desired because of messed-up fantasies and ideals perpetuated by a white world. You can’t prize someone’s looks and reject the substance beneath the surface. And, fun fact: all Asian girls do not look alike. We come in all shapes and sizes. We’re not all porcelain-skinned, petite, and squinty-eyed with thick accents and sleek, shiny hair. We really don’t need to all be pigeonholed into that singular body type. On that note, all Asian people do not, contrary to popular belief, actually look that similar. This doesn’t even go for people of the same race—there are wide disparities between the different Asian nations and their populations. Look carefully and you’ll discern the many differences.
People seem to prefer erasing Asians from history. Canada hates to acknowledge that it once placed heavy head taxes on Chinese immigrants in an effort to discourage them from bringing over their families after having built the Canadian Railway, and both the land of beavers and maple syrup and the United States do not like to remember their periods of Japanese internment during WWII. I have even heard people claim that Asians do not suffer racism, but this is not true.
Besides having grown up in the sixties with people calling her “chink” as she walked to school while mimicking her accent, my mom faced racism even as she entered the workplace in the late eighties and nineties. My mom used to work for a telephone company, and one day she had to make a call to another department. When the guy on the other end—let’s just call him Darryl Smith—picked up, the two of them exchanged greetings; afterwards, Darryl said, “You know, there must be a problem with my caller ID.”
“Why?” my mom asked. “Mine’s working.”
“Because it’s got an Asian name on here, and you don’t sound like an Asian person.”
Silence on my mother’s end. Then: “Well, what is an Asian person supposed to sound like?”
This is just one story that makes me angry. There is prejudice for all people of colour, but more often than not it goes unrecognized or, if it is acknowledged by authorities, waived away with a trite and paltry apology. This can be applied to a myriad of different ethnicities, too—it’s not limited to any one group.
Ugh, what am I even trying to say here? I guess I’m tired of turning on the TV and seeing Asians typecast. I’m sick of a limited depiction of the world’s population in the media and in workplaces. And I’m done with people in positions of privilege discounting the requests of the oppressed. I want more colour, and if that makes me sound like a pouty child, then so be it. If I were a kid now, my Crayola box would have more skin colour options in it now. But it’s not enough—and to be honest, I don’t know if it ever will be in my lifetime.
A note: I do not mean to discount the struggles of any other racial groups by any means by saying any of this—I absolutely stand in solidarity with all people of colour. This is just my experience with oppression—I can’t speak to the experiences of people of other ethnicities, but I sympathize with, empathize with, and validate their stories as a fellow person of colour. Although our struggles are not exactly the same, they originate from the same root problem of a whitewashed world.