Racism is that word that no one wants to talk about. A colleague said she went to a training on public speaking, specially to prepare for TED-like talks, and the advice given was “If you’re going to speak about race or racism, lower your voice.” We can’t lower our voices, it is time to call out racism and label it for what it is and for the harm it does. In that same conversation another colleague talked about hearing a white man say “Why aren’t more people angry? Why aren’t we all angry about racism?” My astute colleague calmly said “We are mad and we are angry, but we can’t always show our anger. We don’t always have the luxury of being angry.” She’s right sometimes as People of Color if we get angry and speak up about racism we’re labeled as ‘the Angry [fill in race],’ or if we get angry our anger is misinterpreted and seen as hostile, or if we speak up about race the burden shifts to People of Color who are then blamed for the problem.
If we say race matters, we also need to believe racism matters. Racism is insidious it shows up in big and little ways. It shows up in headline grabbing news stories, and it shows up in smaller ways that are harder to see, name, and define. When we don’t name racism we say it doesn’t matter, we give people a free pass in thinking they are exempt from dealing with racism.
Two Experiences in One Day—I’m Over Thanksgiving
The Friday after Thanksgiving killed the thanksgiving mood. I was home eating a bahn mi sandwich when the doorbell rang. Two women (not Chinese) said they were looking for Chinese speaking families to share religious information with in their native language. I was hangry (hungry-angry) and rude—no giving thanks here for their preying with prayer. The two women sulked off confused why I wasn’t receptive to their divine message. It had nothing to do with their message, it had to do with the delivery.
The racism they demonstrated was subtle and disguised as kindness, but it was still racism. When the women said they were looking for Chinese speaking people, they were preying upon a vulnerable group. Native Chinese speakers are most likely immigrants and at a disadvantage because of language, new-comer status, less community and family support, and not knowing the American culture. I’m also guessing the two missionaries are learning Chinese or at the least not native speakers, which means if they are looking to practice their language skills which will benefit them more than the Chinese immigrants.
Earlier that same day I stopped by my favorite Vietnamese deli to pick up lunch. The shop is small so everyone is in everyone’s business. A White family stepped in and the father picked up tofu spring rolls and said to his teenagers “Let’s get these, what are they called? ‘hee hees’?” He was being serious-funny. I gave him the stink-eye. It was rude to insult another person’s food with a made up name that sounds like something a toddler would say. That behavior wouldn’t be condoned by children in a mainstream restaurant, yet when a White dude steps into a Vietnamese deli he can get away with it.
These two examples happened in one afternoon. These two examples didn’t lead to devastating consequences, but they demonstrate the underlying values that people in my community hold. I have so many other examples of individual, structural, and organizational racism. I’ll save those for another day, some of them are worth sharing because they are so painfully sad or just sad-funny.
We have to own up to our actions. We also need to begin to see that sometimes we make mistakes but we also learn.
“We weren’t trained to admit we don’t know. Most of us were taught to sound certain and confident, to state our opinion as if it were true. We haven’t been rewarded for being confused. Or for asking more question rather than giving quick answers. We’ve also spent many years listening to others mainly to determine whether we agree with them or not. We don’t have time or interest to sit and listen to those who think differently than we do.” — Meg Wheatley, Willing to be Disturbed
In order to undo racism we have to admit we don’t know. We don’t know what it is like to live in another person’s experience, we don’t know how a person will react, and we have to be ok with not being rewarded or having the answer. The rewards will show up in learning about others and creating a more inclusive community. We also have to learn to ask better questions and to ask why is it ok to make another person feel lesser because of their race.
When we admit we don’t know we begin to build an understand, we build relationships by being open to new ideas. When we admit we don’t know something we are also bringing voice to the unknown and breaking the code of silence. The silence is hurtful and is a tacit form of anger.
Racism Matters, our Collective Voice Matters
At a gathering of African American families I sat next to a high school principal. At one point he leaned over to me to tell me about the restorative justice work his school has undertaken. He said they started learning about restorative justice, but quickly pulled back. They didn’t pull back because they didn’t believe in restorative justice, instead they chose to lean in and do they work by starting with themselves. He realized that he and others had to heal themselves before they could create an environment conducive to restorative justice and community building.
We need to do our own work around learning about race and racism, myself included. I need to grow as a person and stretch my thinking about race. Several years ago I would have been annoyed by the two incidents I wrote about earlier, but wouldn’t have been as pissed as I am now. On the positive side, several years ago I wouldn’t have known how to put together the Fakequity chart that guides me and others on how to work towards racial equity. I hope you’ll join me in continuing to learn so we can have a collective voice around calling out racism in its many forms.
We need our collective voice to rise up and call each other on the racism that exist. Sometimes this is in comments or actions that take place on a personal level, or in policies and within institutions. With enough collective voices we can begin to root out racism and build stronger communities.