I haven’t written a post on race or anything along those lines for a long time and to be honest, they probably won’t be nearly as frequently as they used to, but this has been a post long in the making and one I was hesitant to discuss for so many reasons, but it keeps coming up. As always, when I discuss such issues, I feel the importance of stating by way of a disclosure that these are my personal thoughts and experiences, and I acknowledge the people who are doing good diversity and intercultural work in the field, and in no way am I demeaning their efforts.
It goes without saying that I no longer see the world through rose-tinted glasses. Being black, a woman, an immigrant twice-over, I cannot afford to do so. My very presence affects how people around me react. It’s difficult to guess whether I’ll be feared, coddled, condescended to, or ignored and discredited. Rarely am I seen as an equal. As a result, it’s been a very interesting position for me to be involved in the diversity and intercultural field, and I’ve made so many observations that have made me consider my stance, and about whether I actually see any good in me continuing to work in the field. From my first semester of grad school, to subsequent diversity events I’ve not only co-facilitated but also attended, my questions have often been :”Why am I doing this? Who is this diversity work for? What IS diversity?”
I do feel somewhat disillusioned by the diversity and interculturalist field. In my field of interculturalism, a field with a large number of well-travelled and educated people, perhaps I let my guard down a bit and began to believe that my presence in this field would be valued and that I might possibly be able to influence change. In Vancouver we often lament about the invisibility of black people, and just before Black History Month, organizations are often scrambling for black speakers, performers etc. But it turns out a lot of this interest is very cosmetic.
I feel we are still tiptoeing around issues. And what does that make people like me feel? Tired and completely fed up. Yet we are told to be patient. Nina Simone’s lyrics from “Mississippi Goddam” come to mind:
Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow!”
My original thoughts that my experiences, and the experiences and thoughts of people like me, would be better-received by open-minded voices who profess to value and honour diversity, was unfortunately not a reality. What I soon realized is that the diversity we often deal with here are sugarcoated and very disingenuous.
At diversity events, microaggressions are rife. An example is at an event on leadership I attended in March, My partner during one of the exercises was a Middle Eastern woman. As the only women of colour at the event, we inevitably discussed the reality of race, and the fact that nobody had brought up this in the whole event. During the sharing time I felt the need to bring up this point, saying it was important to acknowledge this reality. A white Canadian lady spoke up, clearly taking umbrage at the comment that race is an issue. She objected to my usage of the word “marginalized” and proceeded to “remind” me that I have a great cultural heritage to draw on, and that the reason people want to talk to me is that I’m elegant and eloquent, something she didn’t stop commenting on the entire morning. To top it off, she said she’d experienced racism in Japan.
At these events, what usually happens, as did happen in the woman’s response to my comment is silencing (“racism isn’t so bad here”), tone policing (“don’t use that term, it’s not becoming”), equating oppressions (“I’ve experienced racism too”), and operating according to stereotypes (“you’re so eloquent.”).
Luckily I’m now able to anticipate these things and I’ve had to grow tougher due to my experiences. I have an M.O. for these situations: when I realize I’m not going to get through to people the best thing for me to do is to shut up and preserve my valuable energy. No further interactions with these folks are necessary because you already know you’re talking to a brick wall.
The reality is when a person of colour at one of these events attempts to challenge the narrative and the accepted knowledge, these reactions are very common. They’ve happened to me, as I’ve illustrated, and I’ve seen them happen to others. What people often hope for is for a good photo opportunity to showcase the diversity and market it, and a nice personal story that will make them feel sad or good about themselves. It’s rarely about challenging oneself it seems.
So I’ve come to realize the face of diversity is often not diverse at all (if you look at the board members of diversity organizations, this will become very obvious). I’ve realized that things are taken differently depending on who is saying it. I note the difference in how the black and Asian women I meet at these events feel after them. I often talk to them afterwards and the general consensus is often “tokenism”, “sugar-coating”, “the discussion could have gone deeper”, or “this isn’t new; I’ve known this since birth.”
It would be wonderful to be colourblind but it’s too late for me. Sharing my perspectives to show that there are several frames of reference, is important to me. What I’d like for more people in the field to acknowledge is that how they operate isn’t equitable, it isn’t real diversity work. If we are to call ourselves liberal and such, surely it would make sense to allow those who are marginalized the most to speak out and not to attempt to appease them with platitudes? If we’re not willing to hear the point of views of POC, to hire them in our intercultural organizations, then our diversity push is a mere façade. If we’re not willing to be honest with the nitty-gritty of how race matters etc, I’m definitely not for it. Being involved in anything half-baked was never my plan.