When Smart People School You

A few nights ago, I was at a girlfriend’s house for wine and cheese and a little banter. There were three of us there – all of us women, entrepreneurs in the ethical fashion scene, and each of us struggling through business, relationships, and life in general. We get together every once in a while just to vent, and air out our struggles in a safe space.

We were chatting about a range of things, and eventually, as we always do, the conversation turned toward relationships, particularly marriage and kids.

The hostess said, “you and J are going to have the cutest babies!”

My partner J is a white, French Canadian (a true “pure laine”, some Québecois will proudly say), and I’m Filipino Chinese. So whenever the topic came to babies, our friends and family always said things like this.

And I, without thinking, regurgitated what I had heard so often before: “I know! Mixed babies are always extra cute!”

I immediately sensed V., my companion from Malawi, tense.

She said, “Oh… I wish you hadn’t said that. I like to think my child will be beautiful no matter what their race and no matter who I end up with. Race has nothing to do with it.”

I was taken aback. In general, I consider myself an overall enlightened person. I’m conscious of the language I use, and am pretty aware of my own privilege – being an upper middle class, university educated Asian Canadian who was raised here and speaks English and French. I’ve had discussions with people about the intersectionality of race, gender, and class; and constantly remind myself that others’ lived experiences, though there are similarities, are not the same as my own.

In short, I am not used to being schooled.

So I was stunned at first, not quite sure how to react. I think I mumbled something about how I didn’t mean to say it that way. Probably tried to backtrack a little bit. I don’t even remember. All I can recall is the feeling of sinking, and a flaccid attempt to save face.

But as the conversation slid, as it tends to, away from discomfort towards ease (we had already moved onto something like books or films), I sat there not really present in the conversation, reliving what happened minutes before. I knew instinctively that my friend V. was right.

Without knowing it, I had been propagating racist stereotypes and unconscious biases people had towards lighter skin. Typically, when people talk about mixed babies, it’s always a mix of white with black, or hispanic, or asian. Or asians with blacks. Or hispanics with blacks. The overall effect of which is lightening the gene pool. Saying that “mixed babies are cuter” actually props up this hierarchy of skin colours – at the top of which is white, black is at the bottom, and the range of skin tones were inbetween, like a pantone system. Except instead of paint colours, we were talking about races.

I had unwittingly been promoting this idea that mixed babies were cuter simply because I heard it multiple times in the past. And I didn’t think to challenge it because I was benefitting from this misdirected claim. You’re saying my babies will be super cute? Why, thank you, kind madam!

No, of course I didn’t mean anything by it. And of course this didn’t automatically make me racist, but I was propagating a racist perspective – that some babies, because of their genetics, were better than others. And that’s a pretty fucked up thing to say, isn’t it???

In acknowledging this, I felt the embarrassment spill all over me, as though it became part of my skin. And the more I felt it, the more I wanted to cover it up.

I think about what I should have said instead, and how the conversation could have played out differently.

Rather than trying to backtrack and make up some excuse about what I really meant to say, instead of immediately becoming defensive and trying to save face, I could have said, “You know, you’re right. I never thought of it that way before. Thank you for pointing that out to me.”

And then we could have launched into a really amazing discussion about race and prejudice and perception. Wouldn’t that have been a much better way to handle it?

Now let me be clear. It’s never pleasant to be schooled, and unless you’re on a power trip and enjoy pointing out people’s flaws, you’ll find it equally unpleasant to have to be the one schooling others. But isn’t that what true diversity is? Creating safe spaces for people to make mistakes and to correct others and to engage in conversations where there is bound to be disagreement. And discomfort.

So, what do you do if you find yourself in a situation where you’re the one being schooled? Leave your ego at the door, and show appreciation instead. It’s not often you can get educated for free.

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Toronto’s City of Colour

Toronto’s City of Colour

Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common.
Celebrate it every day. – Anonymous

We’re meeting for after work drinks. She complains about her no-good co-worker and how she’s been neglecting all her tasks and pushing them onto her.

“What a c*!” she exclaims.

I react with shock. They both turn to me and one asks, “What’s the big deal?”

I explain that it’s derogatory against women. She says, “So what? I say the n* word all the time.”

I look at her with bewilderment. “Well, that’s really not any better!”

One accuses me of being a feminist. I snap back, “What’s wrong with that?”

We all take a sip from our drinks, avoiding eye contact.

We had heard a lot of good things about Kit Kat, an upscale Italian restaurant in the downtown core. My friends and I are excited to give it a try so we make a reservation for her birthday.

I arrive, running late as usual, and go directly to the host.

Before I can say a word, he takes one look at me and says, “Oh, I know which table you’re at.”

He leads me straight to a table with my friends, who happen to be the only other asians in the restaurant.

We scheduled our business meeting at a coffee shop since we wanted to keep the climate casual.

I arrive early, set up my laptop and order myself a cup of coffee. I see him from afar in jeans and a button down shirt. He’s fairly young, in his late 20’s and wearing glasses.

I extend my hand in greeting. He clasps his hands together and bows, “Ni hao.”

I’m stunned. “Ehrr.. nice to meet you. I actually don’t speak Chinese.” The words stumble out.

He looks flustered and apologizes. I ask if he speaks Chinese. He says no, but he’s always wanted to learn.

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He looks up from his textbook at the rest of the class. We had just gone through a reading in French about a Muslim girl struggling to integrate in Canada.

“I wonder – what do you think is better?” he asks in French. “A melting pot or a mosaic?”

Everyone simultaneously says, “A mosaic.” He asks, “Pourquoi?” Why?

One student explains how people should be allowed to maintain their customs and traditions. That’s what makes Canada so great. We don’t expect you to give up who you are.

Our professor considers this. He is an older gentleman who has come from France to Canada a year ago. He talks to us about how he hasn’t been able to find any employment except this one, teaching French at the school. It’s a variation of a story we’ve all heard before.

Everyone is silent.

We’re invited to be speakers at NextDayBetter Toronto, a speaker and food series aimed at empowering youth and the filipino diaspora community. We do our part and chow down on modern twists of pulutan (Filipino finger foods).

The night wraps up with a panel discussion featuring business owners and executives of various corporations around Toronto. The theme is “Your vision of Toronto in 2030.”

One woman who has successfully launched two of her own businesses admits to growing up and feeling like she didn’t belong in either the mainstream filipino culture or Canadian culture. She admits to feeling like an outsider to both.

Another man who is a VP of something in a big multinational based in Toronto admits that even though he is in a senior position, seeing another filipino at the office fills him with so much comfort. It feels like someone else can understand.

The room fills with sounds of agreement.

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The group of us are chatting over wine. Somehow the conversation turns toward growing up in Toronto.

I make a bold statement, “To be honest, despite the diversity in this city, I still feel people are hugely ignorant of each other’s cultures.”

He looks at me for a second, considering my response. Finally, he nods.

“I know exactly what you mean. In a way, Toronto is so diverse that it’s easy to stick with what you know. That’s why we have grandmothers living in Chinatown who’ve lived here for 30 years and haven’t learned a word of English.”

“Or white people who grew up in Toronto and only have white friends,” someone offers.

We all agree.

On the way home, I take the streetcar and pick up bits and pieces of conversation. Someone is confiding to her friend in Spanish about the man she’s dating. Two guys complain about their boss in Tagalog. A couple of French tourists try to figure out how to get home. Another language I don’t know but could be Portuguese.

Everyone turns when the Frenchman asks which stop is coming up. A woman responds and they get off at the next light.

This is a post inspired from Day 13 of course Writing 101: Compose a Series of Vignettes through Blogging U