Why do we feel uncomfortable when we talk about race? We are simply not used to having an honest and open conversation on a topic that feels loaded with potential sensitivities, yet it is a topic that is common to the human experience. It is time to confront this discomfort in order to open a way for more understanding through discussion.
The Engaging Race Project welcomes stories from all, independent of colour, culture, or ethnic origin. This project provides a space to share thoughts and experiences; it is, in other words, a forum to facilitate discussion, to inspire dialogue, reflection as well as a deeper understanding and awareness of race and cultural diversity.
We wish for you to lend your voice and share your stories. We will publish the stories below in hopes to further conversation on a difficult topic.
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London, United Kingdom
I grew up in quite a racist environment – not that my parents were, thank god – but at school and with other family members I encountered some pretty ignorant stuff – vocabularies punctuated by racist slurs. Not that this was an unusual experience for someone growing up in white rural England in the 1980s/1990s. I’m sure it wasn’t.
I had a mixed race friend at primary school (I think the only Black kid I knew until I moved to London), who endured horrific abuse – called all kinds of names, chased and beaten by the older kids, and even in role play games among his friends he was always made to be the bad guy – the ‘Indian’ in Cowboys and ‘Indians’; the Nazi in WWII games (I mean, what the fuck?!). His parents moved away in the end. Small wonder. Now, when my parents complain about their racist friends, it reminds me why I never want to move back.
Desiring a less homogeneous environment, I chose to study in Leeds, though that didn’t work out as I’d hoped. It’s a multicultural city yet my course and accommodation were almost exclusively white. Now I live in East London. Admittedly the cheap housing was a big draw, but being in a multicultural area makes all the racial differences so much less important. Seeing my kids playing on equal terms with their friends, from diverse backgrounds, and not asking ‘why people call them names’, like I used to ask my parents, I feel I’ve discharged my duty to give them a less prejudiced start in life than the one I had. One of the most instructive experiences was walking into a local African restaurant and having all the clientele stop eating and stare at me, the only white person in the place. Finally, I know what it feels like!
I talk about race quite a lot with my wife, as we both had similar experiences growing up and like to read about race issues, emigration, empires and decolonisation, but through different mediums – she reads books while I’m more likely to check out what museums are doing through displays and exhibitions.
California, United States
When I first arrived at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, as an international graduate student in September 1989, I noticed that most of the white students and black students on the campus tended to hang around and sit together in their own groups, whether it was in the lecture halls, cafeterias or on the campus grounds. As a newly arrived student from China, I could also sense tension between black and white students when we discussed certain topics in the classrooms or in small groups. I didn’t know why.
It was strange to me as in China we have just Chinese which include Han and minority people or “foreigners” which include all white, black or brown people from outside of China. I did not understand this automatic segregation.
My friend Annie who came to study a few months earlier before my arrival told me that she had felt the same way. Now, after living in America for the last three decades, I realize that racism and bigotry are still present and take many forms.
Hate groups and xenophobia exist in America today. From my personal experience, I had been called “China girl”, “China doll”, and sometimes “That Oriental woman” or “Yellow woman” etc. With strangers and people I didn’t know very well, I usually ignored them and got on with my own business. But with people I know well, such as neighbors and co-workers, I usually said,” Hey, I have a name. Just call me Youfeng.”
I have observed over the last 30 years in America that these degrading racial slurs have slowly diminished as many Americans became more educated and sensitive to minority people and ethnic groups and treat them with more respect and dignity. President Obama even signed a bill eliminating “Negro” and “Oriental” from federal laws. I welcomed and deeply appreciated the passing of this bill and President Obama’s leadership.
When Trump became the president in 2016, I noticed a resurgence of prejudice and racism. It is getting worse day by day, especially during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Trump called the Covid-19 a “China virus” targeting the Asian-American population. Instead of leading the country to fight against the virus, he downplayed the virus and then blamed it on China. He took no responsibility while our country suffered terribly from the pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
But I have been encouraged by the recent protests against police brutality and the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations in America and across the world. Hundreds and thousands of protesters, young and old, as well as middle-aged, from all races and background stood up and demanded meaningful changes. It has reinforced my belief in the Constitution of the United States and made me even more proud to be an American citizen. I have reacted emotionally many times while watching T.V., listening to the news on the radio, and checking the updates on social media. It was truly emotionally healing for me because I feel we have reached a positive turning point in American history and world history.
I hope we will have more honest and open discussions on the topics of race, equality, justice and hope. Only by sharing, appreciating and understanding other cultures and human experiences, can we then really validate other human beings and reach a mutual understanding between people in our country and people all over the world.
It’s always a complicated process to explain who I am. When people ask, I’ll usually say that I’m Canadian. The next question I’ll get is, “Ok, but where are you from?” My typical response is that I’m born and raised in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Then when they proceed to ask about my “background” or “heritage” or “origin of parents”, I’ll reply with the following: “My mom is from Taiwan, my dad is from Hong Kong, I was born in Canada, but I’ve lived extensively in other countries as well.” Now that’s a mouthful!
Upon graduation from university, I set out to explore other cultures by living and working abroad. A funny incident in China in 2008 comes to mind. My friends and I were on the subway in Beijing during National Holiday. One of my friends is Canadian with a South Asian background, another Filipino-Canadian, yet another Canadian had a Dutch background, so she had the “look” people expect. Chattering excitedly, we were interrupted when someone asked if I was their translator. Insulted, I replied, “no, I’m their friend and we’re all expat teachers at an international school.”
I also remember a time in Dalian, Liaoning (where I worked for 3 years) when a taxi driver asked my Dutch-Canadian (quite strange to see those two identities hyphenated, eh? Whereas it feels normal to see the term “Chinese-Canadian”) friend if she was an English teacher. My friend chirped in Mandarin fluently, “I am the Math teacher and she is the English teacher!” while pointing to me. The befuddled taxi driver was rendered speechless.
It’s interesting how we tend to jump to conclusions based on superficial markers of identity: eye colour, hair colour, skin colour.
Living in India for 6 years has also produced quite comical moments. I remember once a coworker and I were driving back to the children’s home when we were stopped by police. They blocked the rural road and requested that we open our doors and trunk for closer examination. They were stopping every vehicle and searching for cash to prevent crooked politicians from bribing villagers to vote for them. Apparently the cost of a vote is a mere 100 rupees, or approximately $2 CAD. A few days later, one of my coworkers took the same route home after a groceries trip. The police stopped him again to examine the car. “Where’s the Italian lady?” they queried. Apparently because my skin is “fair” (heck, everything is in the eye of the beholder!), I had suddenly become Italian. My coworker laughingly told me this when he returned to the children’s home. The police had assumed that I was Italian because apparently the only other foreigners seen in that region were Italian nuns.
One time I was travelling in India and was visiting the Red Fort in Delhi. By then, I was used to requests from Indians to have my photo taken with them because evidently they viewed me as “beautiful” because of my “fair” skin. A little girl around the age of 8 came up to me and requested a photo. As I bent down to talk to her at eye level, she grasped my face in her hands and asked me in amazement what cream I used to get such lovely and fair skin. Perhaps this girl didn’t have preconceptions about “race” yet and just thought I was a very light-skinned Indian. After all, I do have black hair and brown eyes.
4 days ago, I was summiting Mt. Frosty in Manning Park, BC. This is one of my favourite hikes, and I was ecstatic to be doing it again after 9 years. On the way up, my cousin and I ran into a guy with a non-North American accent. He mentioned that he had a Youtube channel called KurdFit, so I then asked him if he was Kurdish. He told me he was. Later on, he asked us where we were from. I then relayed the same question to him, and he said “Suri”.
“Oh cool, Syria!” I enthused while conjuring up all the BBC articles I had read about Syria and the Kurdish fighters’ role in pushing back the Isalmic State (or ISIS) in order to make more small talk and possibly grasp the chance to learn about a different culture. “Which part of Syria?”
“Fraser Heights,” he responds.
I begin racking my brain trying to decipher what he had said. Northern Syria? No. Wait…. Fraser Heights! That was an area in Surrey, BC! To confirm, I then exclaimed, “oh, Fraser Heights, Surrey, right?”
How ironic. The very thing I rail against I am guilty of. I hate it that people can’t take the fact that I’m Canadian at face value, but always feel compelled to dig deeper. I mean, how Canadian can I get? I was born and raised here! The only people more Canadian than me that I can think of are the First Peoples. Everyone else has immigrated over, whether it’s 400 years ago or 2 years ago. At the same time, I was asking the hiker questions to find out where he was from, not accepting his ‘Canadianness’ at face value either. In fact I was so busy fitting him into my preconceptions and schemas that I had totally misheard his replies to my questions. What complex, contradictory, convoluted individuals we are!
California, United States
Born and raised in a remote city in China where the population is relatively homogeneous, I did not give much thought about race before I came to the United States, which is probably why I felt so confused in 2017, when I was on the Skytrain in Vancouver and saw a woman who immediately stood, covered her nose, and mumbled a slur when an African man with a Taqiyah cap boarded and sat beside her.
Unfortunately, I still didn’t have a chance to dig up more on the topic of race until I enrolled in an Anthropology class with concentrations on race and racism when I went to college in the United States.
Most students in my class only took this class for the diversity requirement of graduation. I took it for the same reason, but it later turned out to be probably the most influential one for my entire freshman year. The first day of class my professor began with a story about how the famous Central Park in New York City was built on the evictions of a village of African Americans. When the video story ended, an African American student raised his hand and expressed his outrage, “Why? Why could they do this?” I looked around my class: although no one attempted to silence him because we were all quiet, the vibe was definitely not uncomfortable.
With this uncomfortableness, I started my first assignment: filling a brochure called “Racial Healing Exercise.” I was hoping that this brochure would immediately told me why we felt uncomfortable in that class, but it didn’t. It started with asking me questions like “When was the earliest time you had a racial identity?” or “What were the feelings you had at that time?”. Those questions required a lot of time for me to recall. In my short memories of 18 years, my racial identity was centered on phenotypes and nationalities: according to my mother, I met two tall white men with blue eyes on the street when I was four years old. I asked my parents why they looked so different from me, and my parents said because they were foreigners, and I were yellow. My feelings were confusions. Why did I recall so clearly? Because till these days I still don’t see which part of me is yellow if we’re talking about skin colors.
As our class went on, we finished filling out the brochure and covered more topics like color-blind policies, funding from conservative groups and its influences on the U.S. legislation, prison-industrial complex. One thing I was sure about this class was that it certainly did not “heal” me: I started noticing that some questions my roommate asked me in the class could be categorized as “racial microaggressions,” such as “How did you get here? Do you have airports in your hometown?” or “Why did they teach you Shakespeare in high school?” This was probably why I did not go trick or treating with him on Halloween (Yep, college students still do trick or treating). Deep down I knew that my roommate was a good person, but I suddenly didn’t know how to deal with my uncomfortableness or the most fundamental questions like who I am and what kind of person I want to be.
Things didn’t go any easier for me. In the last few weeks, COVID-19 started landing on the United States. Fortunately, I didn’t experience any explicit discrimination against me probably because I’m living in California or I stayed in my dorm most of the time. Unfortunately, when we decided to write on how this pandemic will change racial discrimination against Asians in the U.S. with theories covered in class, none of my group members seemed to care because they did not read the assigned readings for the class at all (This didn’t just happen in my groups; in fact, this class was designed to be relatively easy and known as a “GPA booster” around students). I ended up writing this group paper alone, and during the whole time I was thinking, “Why didn’t they care? Should I always stay silent like this by simply writing a paper that no one other than my TA read? Is there anything else I could do?”
Those doubts and confusions also cast upon my passion about my major, Political Science. When most people around the globe were outraged by the death of George Floyd and the notorious long-lasting issue of police brutality in the United States and started protesting on streets, the thing I got was that all my finals were made optional. I didn’t feel relieved from the pressure from finals exams; on the contrary, I feel so guilty that I had this “imposter syndrome” in which I thought that I do not deserve these optional finals because I didn’t protest, donate, or do anything: every time I looked at emails from the school and the news, I was filled with self-loathing. I could not sleep, so I decided to pull an all-nighter writing my optional final paper for my Introduction to American Politics class. Ironically, we were asked to write on possible policy and institutional reforms for eliminating police brutality and racial injustice. The next day morning, when I tried to catch up some sleep, the protest finally came around my apartment by the road. It was completely peaceful: people stay in their vans as followed by the COVID-19 related social distancing policies, and they honked as a form of protests. While I was to start revising my paper because obviously I was not going to sleep, my new roommate during this pandemic, also a Chinese international, knocked on my door and asked what happened. After I told her it was the protest, she rolled her eyes and swore in Chinese because obviously the sound of honking interrupted her precious sleeping time during finals week.
I shut my door and sat on my bed. I started crying out loud till my nose clogged because the honking sound would perfectly cover for me. I was extremely frustrated and kept thinking: “Why a humanities major like her would be so apathetic about these things? But hey, could my major do better? I don’t know.” I’ve spent a lot of time reading from Plato to contemporary influential political scientists some of whom happen to be my professors, but obviously I could not do better because I did not do anything. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating and discussing about how to avoid the abuse of power and how to acknowledge our privileges so we could use them better to achieve equality or equity for people who don’t have them. I was wondering why we Chinese students didn’t or probably never realized that it was such a privilege for us to stay at a well-decorated, quiet, and safe apartment to prepare for our final exams without worrying that their living places would be burnt by radical protestors or the next second our families would be violently treated by the police. But what position did I have to say such seemingly terrible accusations out loud? All I knew was that I was sitting there writing a paper which in Chinese would be called “Academic Trash” since it was produced by an undergraduate student who couldn’t even pull her own thoughts together and it certainly would not change a thing about either police brutality or racial injustice in this country, and again I did nothing.
Then without me noticing my first year at a U.S. college ended. I found an internship for political campaigns, hoping that I could start doing something. Till these days I still don’t know how to deal with my feelings during this special period, but one thing I’m sure is that I cannot allow myself to stay silent anymore if I want my major, my passion, my ultimate causes of liberty and global justice to come true. I don’t know if I should end this piece of writing with a famous quote like “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” but one good way to end it is to say that I’m making progress on my way to the ultimate “racial healing”.
Emile de Bruijn
Swindon, United Kingdom
I am probably passively racist, or subconsciously racist. I am white, and my earliest years were spent in Delft and Schiedam, near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I can remember there being some black and brown children in our class, but later we moved to the more easterly province of Gelderland, where my schools seem to have been almost exclusively white.
Intellectually my parents were fairly liberal, but socially they were quite conservative. Our cultural interests were shaped like concentric circles: Dutch, Anglo-Saxon and European cultures were most relevant to us, then Asian cultures, then the rest. Those cultures of ‘the rest’ were not despised, they were just very distant. There was a certain hesitation towards them, a lack of familiarity, and I think have inherited some of that.
My parents had both been migrants: my father emigrated from Holland to New Zealand with his parents and brother in the early 1950s. They were expected to fit in, to learn English rapidly, to become New Zealanders. My father met my mother there – she had been born in New Zealand and her ancestors mainly came from Britain, although one of them had been Italian. After my parents married, they saved up to go on a world trip. When they got to Holland they stayed a while with my father’s relatives, and then I was born, so they stayed a bit longer, and then permanently. So by this time both my parents had migrated, albeit in opposite directions.
Being white people in a European country did to a large extent mask our migrant identity, even to ourselves. Once my parents had decided to stay in Holland, my mother was keen to learn Dutch, to become Dutch. Even so, I learned English from her as a second language: although I was born in Holland, I was also partly Anglo-Saxon. But English was a popular foreign language in Holland anyway, practically everyone took English classes at secondary school and there were constantly British and American films and series on television.
When I was about ten years old, my New Zealand grandmother gave me a small book about the landscapes of the Japanese 19th-century printmaker Hokusai. I was entranced by those images: their lines were clear and yet unfamiliar, their colours vivid and un-European, their compositions bold and reminiscent of abstract art or design. I was reliving the shock and delight of the western rediscovery of Japan in the late 19th century. That little book was one of the factors that subsequently led me to study Japanese at university. Japan was in the news a lot in the 1980s, as a country combining cultural otherness with enviable economic success, so that was probably another factor.
In many ways my fascination with Japan was a form of orientalism, as Edward Said has described it: an encounter with a culture very different from one’s own, experiencing the pleasure of the unknown and the half-understood, projecting of one’s own hopes and desires onto that cultural Rorschach blot, coupled with a wish to learn the secrets of that other culture, to master it – in the sense of mastering a language, but probably also in the sense of learning to control it.
Looking back, it now seems to me that the Japanese department at Leiden University was structured in a deeply orientalist way as well. Western forms of linguistics, sociology and historiography were being applied to this non-western culture, with the implicit and explicit understanding that these western methodologies were the only route to understanding Japan. And on a practical level they were indeed essential: we had to learn the language, we had to acquaint ourselves with the facts of Japan’s history, the structure of its society. In that sense it was a rigorous academic programme. But there was always an assumption that this way – the western scholarly and scientific way – was the best, indeed the only way to really analyse and understand Japan. This, I can now see, was classic orientalism, in its late-20th-century, post-imperialist, liberal incarnation: cultural relativism armoured by scholarly superiority.
I have subsequently researched and written about the impact of Chinese and Japanese art on the west. As part of that I finally got round to reading Said recently, and I realised that in some ways he is describing me and my research: even when I am analysing the western attitudes to Asian material culture, I am to some degree using the orientalist methodology of knowledge-gathering and description as a means of control. I am an orientalist writing about orientalism.
My wife and I have settled in Britain and our son was born here. Initially that was just a practical choice: we had found jobs here, we liked Britain. We spoke the language, we fitted in, we did not reflect on it. But then in 2016 the Brexit referendum happened, and suddenly we were foreigners, ‘citizens of nowhere’ in Prime Minister Theresa May’s chilling phrase. Populism and xenophobia were not just sociological concepts, they were visceral emotions alive all around us and directed at us. I do not want to over-dramatize it: we have never been physically threatened or verbally abused. Our whiteness probably helps to disguise us to some extent. But it has led me to the realisation that I am a migrant and that quite a few people around me (perhaps half the British population) see me as part of a problem.
So I am a migrant as well as an orientalist and a latent racist – a curious mixture, but probably far from unique. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that the different attitudes to history – antiquarian, monumental and critical – shouldn’t be mixed up, because that leads to perverse conclusions – using the fact that an artefact is old as an excuse not to examine it critically, for instance. But in my own situation I think it might actually be quite productive to scramble the different facets of my world view. The migrant can say to the racist: ‘Hang on, you’re actually an outsider, too.’ The racist can explain to the orientalist why ‘othering’ is such a deviously attractive mental process. And the orientalist can use the tools of the western scholarly tradition to place migration and otherness in their historical perspectives. Like turning the compost heap to add some air and moisture to the leaves.
Milton Keynes, United Kingdom
“When your face colour makes a girl scream”
As a child, I lived in Iran with my parents from 1968 to 1972. My father was serving in the British Embassy. I was sent to a boarding school in the UK but spent the holidays in the Embassy compound in Tehran.
My parents had Iranian friends and colleagues, but the Shah was on the throne and in the context of diplomatic life, the style of life was very western. Even so, for a nine-year-old the sensual impact of living in Iran was massive. I remember the brilliant blue and turquoise tiles of mosques, the ochre and sand tones of the countryside, the spicy (and some less savoury) smells in the bazaar, strange tasting food and the impact of the heat of the summer. I was also impacted by encountering beggars on the streets – at that time rare in the UK. All these experiences felt exotic, but none gave me a sense of racial difference.
That came during one of my parents’ trips. They covered the country searching out famous historical sites, mosques, and palaces. During one of these trips near Shiraz, we visited an ancient mud brick town. It may have been Bam. As we wandered the streets, I was surprised to realise that people were living in these ancient buildings. That was when I learned what “race” meant. I turned a corner ahead of my parents and a local girl of about five was playing. She looked up, stared at me hard and burst into tears and ran off howling to her mother who scooped her up. I was shocked and retreated to my own parents. What had I done? I had been perfectly friendly. The guide explained that it was likely that the girl had not seen “white people” before. It still took a while to internalise that he meant it was simply the colour of my skin that had made a child scream. I hadn’t “done” anything, I simply “was”.
This experience made a deep impression and I feel a useful one because ever since it made me think carefully about the effect of “appearance” and “difference”.
I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia. As the borders were essentially closed back then, it was extremely seldom to come across people of different races. Yet, the country had its own racial problems: gypsies that moved to Europe over one thousand years ago. I was too young to remember who it was that warned me not to associate with them, but someone did.
To avoid them was impossible. They were part of our lives and living in my community. I remember one afternoon after school, a friendly gypsy kid in my class invited me and another white kid over to his house. My insides were immediately filled with red flags and warning signs. “What are they going to do to me?” “Will I get out of there?” These were just a few of the questions I asked myself. I was 8 years old and I thought was risking everything.
For me, this was probably the first time in my life I made my own decision based on courage. When we arrived at his place, it was not nearly as bad as I had anticipated. I remember it being tidy, simple, but it was a home treated with respect. Then something else happened. The gypsy kid was hungry and asked his mom for a meal. She told him she’d bring it right away. Without waiting to be offered some food, I announced that I didn’t want anything whatsoever.
I have no idea what she thought or if she felt the insult in my comment but at the time, I didn’t care. For me, the priority was not to eat what I thought would be dirty, stale, maybe even rotten food. When he got his plate of meatballs and mash potatoes, I was salivating from the delicious smell. But even this wasn’t good enough for me to try the food. The racism was too deep.
As a small child, when you are told that gypsies are dirty, lazy, liars, bullies, always trying to trick you… these ideas stay embedded in your head and your mindset is flawed. Some people would say this approach is simply a preparation for life with gypsies. I say it’s a preparation for life with a racist outlook.
Yes, during my childhood I encountered unpleasant situations with gypsies, the same way I experienced bullying, lying, cheating from white kids. But what I inherited was something that created a wall against anything that differed from my own race. It took me a while to change this.
What helped was travelling, moving abroad, and getting to know a diversity of races. It was exhilarating and inside my heart, it created a form of freedom that I will always be thankful for. To rid myself of racial prejudice allowed me to love my neighbour, but also to love myself more.
I was lucky to have lived in culturally and racially inclusive countries and saw that it isn’t the utopia that many of us are told. I do believe that people living in single race populations, there exists a certain level of fear and carelessness towards other races. This should never lead to or justify any form of intimidation, violence, discrimination or incarceration.