I’ve been sitting with my thoughts for a few days… reading a lot, listening, watching and absorbing. I wasn’t sure how to respond to what is happening around the world and whether I needed to add to the voices already talking about racism and how we, as a global community, must respond. There are a lot of people who are more experienced and educated than I ever will be, and I felt as though I might just be adding noise.
But I realised that I would not have learnt as much as I have over the past couple of weeks or years had others not generously continued to share what they were reading, watching and hearing… and so here are some of those things that others have shared with me recently. It’s not an exhaustive list, just a start – I wanted to link to free resources. I hope it helps you in your journey towards better understanding:
- Systemic Racism Explained – YouTube (4 min watch)
- Steve Locke – I Fit the Description (7 min read)
- Episode 1 – Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man (10 min watch)
- ‘I can’t breathe!’ Australia must look in the mirror to see our own deaths in custody – The Conversation (5 min read)
- 10 things you should know about white privilege – NITV (7 min read)
- Brown eye, blue eye experiment by Jane Elliott – YouTube (51 mins – but worth every minute)
- Actor Meyne Wyatt delivers a monologue on racism on Q+A (3 mins)
My heart has been heavy and to be honest I was surprised to find myself both physically and mentally exhausted at the end of last week. I am still tired.
I’m not sure why I am so emotionally affected by this — I wouldn’t call myself an activist, so I’m nowhere near as tired as the people who’ve constantly experienced or are at the forefront of fighting racial discrimination and police brutality.
And yet, I’m tired. So tired that when I read headlines and social media posts that are fuelled by ignorance, I burst into tears. For me, this is not a political issue, it’s a humanity issue. I firmly believe in the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death; the innate right to be valued and respected for ones own sake, the right to be treated ethically. Part of me thinks, “How is race still an issue we have to educate people on? Why do people still not understand?”
Talking about racism is hard
I’m realising that it’s especially confronting and uncomfortable for people who don’t have to deal with it on a daily basis, and/or don’t have the language and tools to articulate what they’re experiencing or discovering about themselves and the world around them.
It can be quite alarming to realise there is just so much you don’t know.
Last year, I was part of a group of writers that launched the book Sweatshop Women Volume 1 at the Sydney Writers Festival. It’s the first Australian anthology written, edited and produced entirely by women of colour, and it was completed through the support of Sweatshop – a literacy movement based in Western Sydney that exists to support Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
Contributing to this book was a hugely educational and confronting experience for me. Before my first workshop, I don’t recall a time I ever really identified myself as or even used the term “person of colour”. Of course, I have brown skin and Asian heritage, but for a whole variety of reasons, I’d always found the descriptors “white”, “black” or “coloured” strangely off-putting… I think it’s because I’ve had experiences where those descriptors were used to divide people or perpetuate stereotypes and I wanted to avoid that. I was raised not to let my ethnicity get in the way of what I felt I could accomplish with my life, so I simply didn’t focus on it. I think it was also partly because I felt the terms were inaccurate because, as far as I understood the world I grew up in, everyone is “coloured”. We’re all just different shades of beige or brown; I’ve never met anyone who is truly white (and don’t even get me started on the term “yellow” — I don’t know a single Asian who looks anything close to a character from The Simpsons).
But writing with and listening to the stories of these unique women from beautifully diverse backgrounds made me realise that downplaying the significance of my colour (and by extension my culture, ethnicity and heritage) risks diluting it. I lose a bit of myself in that process. In the past, differences have been used to divide and destroy entire civilisations and generations, but today it can be different. It should be different. I have the power to embrace these differences in a way that celebrates and upholds the dignity of each individual. But ignoring our differences does not allow us to celebrate them.
Distinctions and descriptors are necessary, and they can be beautiful and empowering. And so I identify as a person of colour. I understand why it’s important to say Black Lives Matter because as much as I’d love for the world to be different, right now, around the world, black people (including our own Indigenous people here in Australia) are treated like they don’t matter. Race still divides us. And we need to admit that and talk about why and how it does… until race stops dividing us.
Working with and listening to the voices of coloured women taught me to read and write more critically and really consider the power imbalances and privileges that exist in every environment; not just at work, but at home, in my downtime, in my children’s education — everywhere. I used to think I was already conscious of how people of colour have been or are portrayed (or often not portrayed) in the books I read, and the shows and movies I watch, and in the information I consume. Yet, despite being a Filipino-born immigrant, the majority of authors, directors, actors and musicians I devoted my time to growing up were predominantly white and male.
Despite being keenly aware of injustices throughout many a movie screening, job interview, work meeting… I’ve bitten my tongue and moved on.
Shortly after my first Sweatshop workshop, I checked my bookshelves at home and almost every professional development book I’ve devoured in the last decade was written by someone white… most of them were written by a male. I don’t think it’s fair to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with white, male voices, but it is definitely problematic and damaging to have one perspective and experience of the world dominate literature, education and media for centuries.
To truly celebrate our differences, we need to understand and appreciate our differences. That can only happen if we listen to and learn from the people whose perspectives and experiences are different from our own.
It was unsettling to realise this, but that discomfort was the necessary step before growth. I’ve witnessed extreme and unjust bias against certain groups of people, even within that writers’ group, which just goes to show that the journey is never done. The whole experience forces me to check my privileges and critique my own perspective and how these limited things affect my behaviour and biases — things I still need to do on a regular basis.
I will not leave the room
One of the resources I shared above is a video of Jane Elliott conducting the “Brown Eye Blue Eye” experiment on a group of college students:
About 27:00 minutes into the video, one of the students leaves the experiment in frustration, presumably because she doesn’t like seeing a peer being humiliated and she didn’t like feeling humiliated herself.
This scene struck me because it made me realise something so important: some people have the privilege of “leaving the room” and exiting (or ignoring) the conversation just because it’s hard and hurtful. As a brown-skinned Asian immigrant, I never thought I had an option to ignore racism, even if I wanted to… but I am afforded other privileges that allow me to turn off the TV, radio or social media and to stop reading, listening, watching or paying attention to this issue and get on with my life.
But the injustice, pain, physical and mental harm, and destructive behaviour — all of this is a weight that people who are affected by racism must carry, while those who aren’t affected can just “carry on”.
This is the weight that tires and exhausts… until those who are unaffected give space / a voice / a platform / an ear… and then and only then, can we share the weight as a united community…
Having a meaningful discussion about something that is painful for someone else requires us to take on and feel some of that pain — I think that’s just something that our joined humanity demands of us. To truly understand suffering, we need to lean into that suffering. And that is challenging, because suffering sucks. It’s also distracting. It’s hard to think and learn about this and focus on work.
Like any social justice issue, to truly engage, encourage change, and take on part of the “weight”, we need to continue giving this issue space and time and give ourselves and our friends and family permission and opportunity for that discussion, dialogue, and learning.
I have to do and be better.
I know that part of “doing and being better” means consuming, sharing (and creating) more and more and more stories/experiences that put culturally and linguistically diverse people front and centre. … and inviting people to do the same.
I’m very lucky to have safe spaces where dialogue about this is encouraged and welcomed. I encourage you to seek out or create those safe spaces (outside social media, where it’s too easy to shout people down).
Keep learning, keep listening, keep sharing.
Consider this my invitation. You are welcome in this “room”. I hope this has helped you, and that the resources I have shared help you. And if they do, please share them with others.