Over the last 18 months, Janice has struggled emotionally with the barrage of racism-related world events, news stories and incidents. As a visible minority and immigrant to Canada, these incidents of intolerance, violence, discrimination and racial targeting are a frightening and distressing reality to confront. It’s not that these are new phenomena, but that they’ve been widely publicized and pushed out through media against a backdrop of a global pandemic which has everyone already on edge and vulnerable. Janice took a voluntary leave of absence from work in order to work through her emotional exhaustion and fatigue.
Janice immigrated to Canada from China when she was 8 months old, and grew up in Vancouver in a traditional Chinese household. She’s a proud millennial and a visible minority.
Fatigue at work
Some of the fatigue she experienced was a result of her efforts to drive change in the workplace towards more tolerance, diversity, inclusion and fairness – addressing some of these sensitive issues. As an agent of change, she was met with resistance from some groups or individuals – which is yet another source of friction to overcome. It’s worth really reflecting on this – how these incidents of racism can affect a person to the extent they need to take time off work to recuperate. What news would you need to hear to feel you needed an extended period of leave?
Racism and bullying
Janice has felt bullied over the last year as it relates to her being a visible minority. She believes that racism and bullying are connected and share some common characteristics. Both are an act of ‘othering’ someone, making people feel like they don’t belong or there’s no place for them. A bully or someone who is intolerant of someone based on race may also share a common characteristic of feeling afraid, threatened, vulnerable, hopeless or generally bad about themselves. They target others to make themselves feel better, more superior, more in control.
Being an optimist about the situation, Janice is grateful to have gone through some of the experiences she has struggled with as it opened up possibilities and fuelled passion to take action. Also, she thinks that awareness of issues by the general public has really expanded over the last year which is a positive beginning step to taking further action.
racism is still taboo
However, on the flip side, there has also been some contraction since then, especially in some workplaces which have either policies or unwritten social rules that state you shouldn’t talk about diversity, inclusion, social purpose in the workplace. My interpretation of why this might be is that workplaces are not equipped or willing to handle the potential conflict or spirited discussion that could arise as a result. While it may be true that people become emotionally charged during such discussions, the act of people coming together to have the discussion is positive. Closeness, openness and transparency ultimately creates trust, understanding and empathy. While keeping a division or rift in place stokes further conflict, even if it’s not as apparently visible. It still simmers beneath the surface leading to resentment, passive aggressiveness, fear and stress. It undermines the spirit of a workplace, and erodes its effectiveness over time.
The pandemic brought renewed awareness
Racism has existed for a long time, and as Janice mentioned earlier, it’s positive that there’s more awareness and action being taken to address it today than in the past. However, we are perceiving that there’s been a rise in the visibility of it recently. Anti-Asian racism specifically has been highlighted in part due to the pandemic. In an effort to find a scapegoat or someone to blame for the COVID virus, the messaging from the US and others was to point at China. Whether this is fair or not, it attaches an immediate stigma to people from that area to the world. Much of this is on a subconscious level for many people, but as emotional beings humans will often act on their feelings. Sometimes this behaviour can get extreme. Sometimes it can be subtle.
History of anti-asian racism in Canada
There’s also a historical precedent for anti-Asian racism. There was a Chinese head tax in the 1800’s for any Chinese person who wanted to come to Canada – a fee to pay to enter the country to discourage immigration. The history of this still carries residual emotional impacts, and perhaps lingering system-level biases. It’s important to understand the history and acknowledge it. Then, we can focus on the present day and make a decision about how we want to act, behave and treat people going forward from here. We have choices to implement measures, to change systems, and decide to go in a different direction than what has happened in the past.
In terms of anti-Asian racism compared with racism against other cultures or skin colours, you can’t really compare the subjective experiences people have. Racism is destructive and causes negative impacts on any group who are targeted. However, there are definitely important differences and characteristics with each culture or group of people that warrant sensitivity. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 was meant to keep people out, whereas the Indian Act of 1867 was meant to separate the indigenous community from everyone else. These acts of racism had different ‘purposes’ and nuances but the resulting negative experience of each group of people are equally valid.
Language use is a key factor
The language we use is a key factor in issues of racism. The definition of racism is that different groups of humans possess different behavioural traits corresponding to physical appearances, and is based on the superiority of one group over another. It also means prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different ethnicity.
In the English language, we try to summarize and distil large concepts into very simple words. Emotionally charged words like ‘racism’. But, it’s not that simple. These issues are not simple and – it’s all the shades of grey in the middle between the two ends of a spectrum. If people are camped out at one end or the other, they’re missing extremely important information. One can spend a lot of time getting curious and learning about the nuances affecting different cultures and groups of people. I think it’s important to have an awareness of these realities, but the expectation is not that everyone needs to be an expert on everything – just that people are willing to listen and learn with an open mind when communicating with others.
Language reduces and simplifies complexity
In terms of the over simplification of concepts, I really love what Janice said at one point in the interview – she was talking about “Imposter Syndrome”, but then corrected herself by saying “What we reduce to call Imposter Syndrome” – having acknowledged the fact that there is a lot of detail and nuance under the surface of what it means to say those words. A reminder to stop and look beneath the surface, and take care about making assumptions and generalizations.
Feelings and emotional boxes
When experiencing a racist act, Janice mentioned she would often first feel a sense of shock. This can transform into anger, then helplessness, hopelessness, fear, sadness. But, it’s important to deal with and experience these emotions. Putting them in a box and forgetting about them doesn’t make them go away. They fester and affect you in other ways, and eventually can build up and lead to some kind of crisis event, burnout, anxiety, stress etc. Janice said that when she’s able to deal with all her ‘emotional boxes’ she is then left with a sense of compassion. This compassion really came from an eventual understanding that a person who did something offensive simply couldn’t see or comprehend what they were doing and what impact they were having. She says she’s grateful that she has the ability to see the intangible, to see the impacts of racism where others can’t. It’s like the saying ‘violence begets violence’ – that someone who had something negative or traumatic happen to them may turn around and unconsciously inflict something similar on someone else. This isn’t to say everyone behaves this way, but often times, perpetrators of racism may be affected in these ways. Again, there are only shades of grey, so generalization doesn’t capture all the details and scenarios.
To work through these ‘emotional boxes’ as she calls them, it’s incredibly challenging. This is why many people use avoidance mechanisms and push them deep inside and try to ignore them. In our society we seem to put a lot of focus and attention on physical well being (exercise, eating healthy) and on thinking and skills development (cognitive function), but not much on understanding emotional development and regulation. And yet, emotions are the primary driver of behaviour.
How to manage emotions
Janice shared some tactics for dealing with emotions. One was to ‘observe’ her emotional state as if she is a third person looking in. She recognizes the emotion, doesn’t put it in a box, observes that she’s feeling shock right now and how that manifests in her body. She also does journaling to express an internal dialogue and allow thoughts and feelings to flow naturally. She welcomes negative emotions, sort of like a friend or person she doesn’t like too much visiting. She’ll sit with them for some time and have a conversation with them. The emotions are a form of protection meant to help us survive or flee. The key is to form a relationship with these emotions so when they show up, it’s less daunting, less shocking when they do show up. Then, there’s a better chance of dealing with the situation is a calmer and better fashion, and of making good decisions.
Guilt and shame are common emotions that many people tend to feel when bullied. Janice also commented that feelings like this can arise when a person who is targeted begins to believe what is being said about them. A person may start to question their sense of self-worth, and start saying things to themselves like “hmm.. maybe I really don’t belong here” or “there must be something really wrong with me” or even “I’m beginning to resent my own culture and who I am” – clearly very damaging thoughts.
Healing rifts, closing divides, coming together
In order to begin to heal rifts caused between groups of people due to explicit or implicit racism there needs to be inclusive dialogue. Whenever there’s a boundary, rift, division or wall separating things – friction, and conflict will occur. A good way to remove boundaries is to open lines of communication. Saying things like “we’re not supposed to talk about these issues” creates a boundary which allows friction to build up. But, if there are designated safe places and times to have inclusive and open dialogue, healing can begin and rifts can narrow.
Because people are a critical variable in the process, and because emotions are a critical factor – some conflict, disagreement and debate is to be expected. But, I like to think of this sort of process as a very similar process as one would take to work through one’s own emotional baggage. Like someone who is bullied may need to work through unpleasant feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anger etc. – a group of people also may need to work through unpleasantness together. And as we know from many individuals on this podcast, the process is painful, but necessary to find peace and balance in life. Likewise, it can be expected the process of open dialogue is also uncomfortable but the future benefit will be way better than doing nothing, ignoring and letting it simmer. An important point when having dialogue is that each participant is given space to expand on their viewpoints, and given space to explain and defend their positions while others actively listen.
Social media and dialogue
On the topic of social media, and global conversations – many thought that it would be a great thing to be able to have dialogue with many people all over the world and this could bring people together. Unfortunately, in many cases there is no dialogue. There’s no connection or conversation. We go and post our opinions, thoughts or ideas – and others respond with their own rebuttal. It’s more of a race or fight to be heard than it is a dialogue and sharing. The anonymous nature of it, being able to hide behind a screen removes the personal element and creates an environment that is not conducive to open honesty, transparency and vulnerability.
Instead of sitting in a room with other people who have opposing views and working through things with dialogue, now we get the phenomenon of ‘cancel culture’. It’s easier to just remove the controversial concept than it is to work through it. It’s taking the easy way out. And nobody benefits.
The word “Racism”
In my opinion, the word ‘racism’ carries a certain amount of emotional charge with it, and that is rooted in the varying contexts people give the word as they hear it. Those contexts may be based on their individual experiences, fears, beliefs or thoughts. I had asked Janice if she thought the word itself may be acting as an impediment to addressing the challenges associated with, in her terminology, “what we reduce to call racism”.
Her take was that the answer could be both yes and no, a bit of a grey zone. In our society, racism has become a bit of a taboo subject, not to be openly discussed. That in itself creates some impediment to opening it up and digging through it. She suggested that if a person was to have an adverse feeling to the word, where perhaps it invokes a level of discomfort in the mind, body or emotionally – then it would be responsible for them to ask themselves exactly what is making them feel that way.
Everyone has a choice about how they will respond to a situation where they’re not entirely comfortable. One can get curious, and experience and embrace the discomfort to explore it and move through it to learn more about the topic. Or one can remove themselves from the situation if they’re not mentally or emotionally ready to go there. It’s important each individual makes that decision themselves based on their own limits, but at the same time these feelings can act as a signal to indicate further thought may be warranted as there’s something stirring beneath the surface that may be worth uncovering and confronting.
It’s the first step to creating open dialogue between others as well, once the individual confronts their own discomfort and decides it’s manageable and worth exploring further. Then, they will be better able to have a good relationship with their feelings, and converse with others who may have opposing views without the fight or flight response taking over their rational mind. Self-awareness is a critical skill here. Introspection about the nature of our emotions can really help us feel a sense of peace within when things are confronted and demystified. The fear, uncertainty and vulnerability associated with it is no longer a looming shadow.
What is anger?
Janice made some enlightening comments about the word ‘anger’. She mentioned reading a book that had looked at anger as a kind of deep compassion for the world and others. That sounds counter intuitive, but it’s another way of conceptualizing the emotion. Rather than feeling anger at a specific person or group of people, Janice says she would often feel anger towards things like the situation, the lack of awareness and understanding of it, and the notion that other people involved are not able to see what she sees. The anger is directed towards a frustration of not being able to solve a problem that if solved, could create positive feelings and experiences for others.
What keeps racism alive today?
When asked what is one of the important causes of racism that keeps it alive today it – Janice struggled to pin down one particular aspect of it. As she admitted, it’s a very complex and multi-faceted issue. However, generally speaking the fear of other groups of people, and the ‘othering’ of them (placing a division between them and another group) are main factors keeping racism alive.
Another key point that Janice made is many behaviours which may be subtly or explicitly racist in nature can be modeled from adults to children. Whether that’s parents, role models or people in positions of power – kids are always listening, absorbing and forming their own world views. Being exposed to an adult’s comments and language is a risk in that the child will interpret these comments and perhaps use them to model their own behaviour as they look up to their role models for guidance. Adults should be aware of the language they use and actions they take around children.
Finally, she commented that a simple lack of awareness and respect for the complexity of the situation drives a lot of the negative impacts as well. This could cause someone to unknowingly provoke negative feelings and be interpreted as racist.
In my opinion, this is a two way street. If we create an environment where people are always on edge and paranoid or nervous about accidently doing something to be perceived as racist, we create an additional problem of simmering fear and vulnerability. As we’ve seen in our discussion so far, that will not lead to great outcomes either. The understanding of how emotions are experienced and triggered needs to be looked at from multiple angles. Not from ‘two sides’ but from all sides. This further reinforces the suggestions from earlier to promote collaborative and inclusive dialogue and conversation which flows in multiple directions.
Who is responsible for racism?
I asked Janice where we should focus first – in terms of where racism originates. Does it come from individuals, or does it come from group or community dynamics, or does it come from external systems? She said all of the above are important, however; individuals make up and participate in communities, and also create systems.
I think this is something people should look at more closely. If the tendency of some people is to point fingers at other people, at other groups or at other external systems with blame, it just becomes a never ending cycle. In a way, if you think about it, since individuals are at the root of all these things, then people are really just pointing fingers at themselves. An individual has power and control over their actions, and nobody else’s. Therefore, aren’t individuals the real agents of potential change? Isn’t that where the challenge lies?
What can each person do to make a difference?
Janice has a few recommendations for what every individual can do in order to starve racism of the fuel it needs to survive. One suggestion is to do some reading – get curious, ask questions and learn more depth in terms of other people’s cultures, beliefs, history, perspectives, and feelings. This doesn’t mean looking on some social media posts, reading media headlines, or watching YouTube videos. Social media has a way of selecting for information that has mass appeal.
To get more valuable insight, you’ll need to dig a bit deeper and use your curiosity to put some of the pieces of information you find together. Don’t let someone else synthesize and distil out the meaning of information for you – if you want to be in control and have freedom of mind, then it’s important to synthesize the information you gather (robustly) into your own thoughts and opinions. This may also mean looking in ‘uncomfortable’ places – for example to understand in a robust way the perspectives of those on the extreme ends of the spectrum, or of those who you strongly disagree with. It’s a challenge. It takes effort and work. You have to ask yourself, does anything of true value come easily, or for free?
Another thing to do is work on what she calls ‘inner work’ – some of the introspection, mindfulness and confronting of challenging emotions we mentioned earlier. Only when we’re comfortable with ourselves and who we truly are can we begin to cultivate empathy and compassion for others, and have the energy necessary to project positivity out into the world.
How do we feel about “white supremacy”?
I wanted to dig into a few emotionally charged terms and ideas that are commonly referred to in the news and media, but are often not explored in detail. One of these is the term ‘white supremacy’. It refers to the implied superiority of a person based on having white skin, and includes a lot of both historical and current examples. We didn’t get too much into the complex meaning and specific examples in this discussion as it could comprise an entire podcast episode on its own. Instead, Janice outlined some of the approaches a person can take to come to a more robust understanding of the term and the feelings it invokes.
When people use the term, or hear the term without the context being framed for the situation it’s being used in, it can create unintended friction and emotional triggering. This is especially true if it’s used as a blanket statement or generalization. As we’ve discussed before, we reduce the complexity of meaning into a single term and this leaves an opening for individuals to fill in the blanks based on their own experience. Therefore, it is constructive for an individual who feels uncomfortable to really think about what it is exactly that’s making them feel this way, and evaluating how the term pertains to them in their current situation. It’s also important to recognize how other people may feel about the term and what it means to them.
Feeling uncomfortable with something is an opportunity for personal growth. There’s a decision to be made – either become curious and work through some of the emotions you’re feeling to expand on understanding, or remove yourself from the situation to avoid emotional defense mechanisms from creating a combative response. Once a defense mechanism becomes activated, the fight and flight mode takes over and it’s really difficult to create progress and collaboration. This sort of phenomenon is quite evident in many online ‘discussions’ or social media posts and comments. Instead, genuine curiosity and asking questions could lead to some real insight about the meaning of a term to an individual in a particular context.
What does privilege mean?
Another term that can be divisive in discussions around racism is privilege – and specifically white privilege. Janice made the differentiation between the two, stating that we all have different kinds of privilege just by nature of being a human living on this planet within our society. Whether that’s food, water, shelter, education, a job, a house, a family etc.
How it relates to racism is when we do not take inventory of what privileges we have, and then perhaps unconsciously making comments, taking actions that almost highlight those privileges in the face of others whose privileges may be negatively impacted in some way by issues of racism. By acknowledging what we are privileged to, and also acknowledging that some others may struggle with things which we take for granted, it demonstrates a kind of empathy that highlights an awareness of issues being faced by others. The awareness is an important first step to take corrective action. Demonstrating awareness also demonstrates a caring intent, whereas demonstrating lack of awareness creates a feeling of hopelessness that nothing will change.
why is “colour blindness” offensive?
Another term we covered is ‘colour blindness’. People sometimes say they don’t see colour, they don’t see race, they only see ‘humans’ for example. Often, people think this is a positive thing, but others say it’s a negative thing. Janice commented that colour blindness is a way that people demonstrate denying the truth. The truth being that we are indeed all different in some ways – in terms of culture, beliefs, skin colour, customs, world views etc.
Even though we share a lot as humans, to deny the differences is to also deny the challenges that arise due to racism, since those challenges are directly related to those differences. It’s almost like denying someone else of their own unique existence, to imply that they’re exactly the same as you are. It’s like you’re denying to see someone else for who they are. Again, it comes back down to reducing the complex meaning of something into a simple term.
Janice reiterates that the world isn’t black and white, it’s not binary. People tend to get caught up in that – they think they need to either be all inclusive 100% of the time, or that others are simply divisive all the time. But this is a “yes, and” situation – both can exist at the same time, in balance. Differences and similarities can exist at the same time.
How does it escalate to violence?
Differences between people are not something that needs to be divisive – they can be beautiful, and can enrich a person’s life by learning about and sharing these differences together. However, in some cases differences can be threatening to people or create fear. In some extreme cases this simmering feeling of fear and anger can eventually lead to criminal behaviour like assault and murder. So the question I pose is how do we go from ‘we are different, and that makes me uncomfortable’ to something like murder?
Janice thinks that generally we are not taught to confront or sit with our emotions. We aren’t used to dealing with them head on and instead they become suppressed, and eventually they add up and grow to become consuming. Most of the time we don’t even realize this is happening. The emotions just sit in the box, and keep piling up in there. These emotions in a box eventually drive your behaviour without any thought. Janice’s description made me immediately think of freedom – that a person isn’t truly free if they aren’t in conscious control of their behaviour. Freedom isn’t simple the ability to move freely and to participate freely in the world in a physical way – there is also freedom of the mind. Freedom to choose how to act, to choose to be at peace and to be happy. Boxed-up negative emotions can rob us of that kind of freedom over time.
We are each individually responsible
Ultimately, Janice believes that it’s the responsibility of individuals to solve issues of racism. It’s not a situation where we can make a bunch of noise, point some fingers and have some person, group of people, or government solve it for us. Each individual has the unique ability and power to make decisions, to think, to take action and hold themselves accountable for their impact on this planet and in society.
While this does sound like a burden, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Nobody is perfect, and what is important is that there’s an effort to be curious, there’s an effort to understand (not only oneself but others too), and there’s an effort to develop empathy for others. Accountability for our emotions is critically important – as when we keep them piled up and hidden away in boxes, that has an effect on our behaviour.
Those behaviours may be involuntary, and essentially we lose control of ourselves sometimes. Then of course, we want to say ‘it’s not my fault, something made me angry’. But taking accountability of our emotions means that we face them head on and work through them, sit with them and get to know our inner selves so that we can retain control of our behaviours at all times. This is good for us, good for our happiness and is also good for others at the same time.