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.