When I was a kid, I was taught early on (and often) that racism means treating people badly because their skin colour is different from my own. I was taught that this is wrong, and I should never do that. And though this was a good thing to teach, it falls dramatically short of teaching children what racism really is. Instead, it taught me what prejudice is, and that prejudice is bad. I worked very hard to avoid being prejudiced. I had no idea how much work I still needed to do.
As a young adult, I dated people of colour occasionally, but believed with conviction that other white people were my “type”. I even remember feeling very uncomfortable, on more than one occasion, about individual dark-skinned people being romantically or sexually interested in me. I remember this being a complex experience to navigate, both within myself and with the other person. I didn’t want to think I was being racist, simply because I wasn’t genuinely reciprocating feelings towards these people who happened to be many shades darker than I am. But then I recently rediscovered an old online dating profile I had created way back when I was 18, and I learned that among the available options to select potential matches I was interested in based on race/ethnicity, I had selected “white”. And only white. Here I had spent years trying to figure out how it is that the noticeable majority of my peer group, regardless of which subculture I was attracted to at the time, was white. And in my own head, white was all I was interested in. I even remember at times opening up to individual people of colour I had met by chance through at least one of these subcultural communities, about how white-dominated our entire subcultures are, before openly challenging this as a conspicuous and unsettling fact about our communities. It probably suffices to say that this did not make me well-liked.
Then I enrolled in college in my mid-twenties. I remember attending classes where discussion of structural racism was routinely facilitated. My first reaction to these discussions was to be an attentive listener, because I had been taught early on how prejudice is harmful, and so I was already invested emotionally in being open to hearing about people with experiences that are different from mine. I often sought to engage with the diversity of these experiences, but also looked for common ground with my own. But not very long into these discussions, I started to shut down. Then I started to feel bored with it, because I had heard so much of this content before. And not long after, a sense of anger crept up from within me. I felt like listening to these narratives over and over again was tired and the opposite of constructive. I wanted to move on to something else. And the longer I sat with this feeling while the discussions continued on, the closer I approached to an outburst of some kind—passive aggressive if I was more invested in how I was perceived by everyone around me, or out loud if I didn’t care. I was behaving like a terrible person when what I should have been doing is listening.
I continued for about a year to resist that these narratives represented different faces of a universal truth that added up to structural inequality. I even resisted the narratives themselves, in direct retort in my writing, submitting blistering rants that were deliberately composed as the antithesis of the teaching that was obviously being given to me in these classes. I would receive poor grades, and it would make me even angrier. But then that class would be over, and I could move on at last, promising myself never to take another class with that instructor again.
Until that is, I couldn’t move on—until all my classes centered the subject matter of structural racism in one way or another. I started to become open again to this teaching. I stopped behaving like a terrible person every time I got tired of hearing about it for the umpteenth time, and started looking at myself. I let a lot of my defenses down, and started to learn. But a renewed sense of anger soon came coupled with this experience. I felt like I had been cheated out of meaningful and important perspective over the entire course of my lifetime up until this moment, and the cost this impairment had on my relationships with people (especially people of colour) started to add itself up in my head. I was angry with myself, but I was even angrier with institutions and people who had systematically deprived me of the tools I needed to foster meaningful relationships and grow as a person. Oh, how ironic and tediously self-centered.
The more I listened to people who have experienced racism, the more I learned that there is a very literal sense to its structural nature. When white colonists came to the shores of North America, 100 million indigenous peoples were forcibly displaced, starved, raped, and murdered at gunpoint and with intentional spread of fatal infectious disease, in order to create the space for our societies to be built on top of their mass graves. Those colonists trafficked captive African slaves across the Atlantic ocean, keeping them shackled in chains and stacking them on top of each other in ships like they were simultaneously unable to stop moving and inanimate at once. They were whipped and caged like animals, raped, murdered, and their bodies discarded, in the words of actor and activist Jesse Williams, “like rinds of strange fruit”, while these societies were built with their labour at their exclusion. Those colonists entered into the Middle East and the south of Asia, writing back home to their continuously multiplying nations about how silly and backward these poor people were, suspended in time, while raping their way across cultures they outlawed and decimated. When people crossed the Pacific ocean from the south of Asia to escape the effects of colonisation by the same nations that had colonised North America, they were turned back to the sea to die. When they came from the Asian coast, they were handed bottles of nitroglycerin and bets were placed on whether they’d be the one out of every three who were blown up walking into a mountain with it. The effects of treating human beings like this continue to cause ripples to this very day.
I was filled with anger at the injustice of being deprived of this education until I was willing to enter debt to obtain it. I was angry that instead of being told the truth, I was repeatedly fed romanticised narratives about these very violent genocides. I was angry that at every turn of my public education, the viewpoint of the coloniser was prioritised while the lived experience of the colonised was erased or ignored. I felt ashamed of how inadequate my education had been, that I was so ill-prepared to listen and learn more by the time I entered college alongside the living descendants of so much of this history.
But beyond the past, there was also the present. The present is this space where indigenous peoples continue to be treated as functionally extinct while struggling with intergenerational trauma from residential schools and foster scoops; where they are both reviled as backwards or primitive and fetishised as inherently “natural” (as if white people are inherently unnatural); and where their men are slaughtered in police cars and police stations while their women are disappearing from the streets and highways, never to be seen again. The present is this space where Black men and women continue to be treated as not fully human, while being held to superhuman standards of behaviour; where they are still told to do two things at once that contradict each other, and are punished no matter which way they choose (or if they simply freeze and fail to choose); and where they can’t walk down the street or even exist anywhere without being perceived as threatening enough to refuse them service at the least or assassinate them in the streets at worst. The present is a space where people from all over the Middle East are fighting to be heard by virtue of their own voices, over the sound of bombs being dropped on their homes, hospitals, mosques, and schools, while white people refuse them into our countries and invade the relatively few spaces they have carved out within, to shame them and tell them how to treat each other—as if our own example is in any way exemplary. The present is a space where, instead of putting unstable explosives into the hands of every Asian person on what we call “our home and native land”, we export our slavery back to their homelands, and watch from the technologies they produce as they suspend nets below factory windows to prevent wage-slaves from committing suicide, and as they self-immolate in protest over land and agriculture.
I committed myself to learning, and soon felt responsible for teaching other people (especially white people) what took me tens of thousands of dollars in loans and years of full-time study in college to gain exposure to. I became angry that nearly every object I touch and every piece of food I put in my body comes from human suffering somewhere else in the world, and I felt incensed that people could be my same age or older and still have not even begun to comprehend this for the first time. I learned that it was quite possible that the normative course of human cognitive development could have prevented me from seeing this reality until I reached a certain capacity for seeing the world outside myself, but I could not continue to excuse other people who were, like me, years past that and yet still unable to perceive it. I wanted to use my anger to break down the barriers our shared experiences of the public education system erected.
I started to see that structural racism is like the air we breathe. We can’t see it, but it is virtually inescapable and, given the involuntary nature of breathing, we depend on it for our very survival. I began to question how anyone over 25 could fail to see that we are all racist, for we are all breathing the same air. I became angry with white people in particular whose view of the world was so intentionally narrow and finite that they would refuse to engage with the structural nature of racial inequality while continuously benefiting from it and taking that for granted, every single day of their petty and meaningless lives.
And then, either because being this continuously angry is exhausting, or because witnessing it is and people slowly drifted away from me, I soon realised that the anger would be all that I have left in the world if I didn’t learn to let it go and try to meet people where they are at. I realised that all this anger moved me in a meaningful way for a period of time, but that period was finite. I saw that my anger was no longer constructive, but alienating. I had to find another way of being if I wanted to survive this. And that is where I am at now. I still have triggers, and I still get, as my brother would say, “mad out of ten”. I understand now, what is happening, when I see someone else going through it too. I can reach out to them, and I can hear them when they most need to be heard and validated. And maybe that’s all I can do. Or maybe I can still do more. But I can’t do it with anger any more.