Photo from “Your Asian Isn’t Quiet”
Recently, my black co-worker called me out for making a racist remark. It was a moment of restorative justice for both of us.
Having been someone who has encountered white fragility far more times than I’d like, I knew this was a moment to practice what I preach by owning up to my shortcomings. The few moments in my life when I’ve had the courage to call out present-day subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) racism, I was met with defensiveness and excuses, which led to greater frustration and pain for me.
Remembering my own frustration with well-intentioned white folks, I reminded myself that the best way to respond to when someone calls you a racist is to listen. Because you probably did do something racist and the right thing to do is learn how to do better next time. Because not everyone will always be so willing to walk you through your racist shortcomings.
The week before, I shut him down after listening to him vent about our jobs on our subway ride home. We were barely a month into our job and he’d spent several commutes venting about his struggle to understand our work. These conversations grew increasingly exhausting for me as I faced my own struggle to understand my new role and felt the pressure to perform well especially as a young millennial professional. So I gently told him that at some point, he needed to stop complaining and figure it out.
From his perspective, he needed a safe venting space with someone who could understand his work frustration. The practice and language that comes with facilitating restorative justice circles is new to him. He was simply grappling with the discomfort that comes with having to adapt to a new environment.
Seems like a simple perspective misunderstanding, right? Well, there was also an incredible racist irony to the situation that I didn’t realize initially.
Pre-venting session, he was sharing his previous encounters with Filipinx folks during his days as a nurse organizer to point out the anti-black sentiment of Filipinx nurses. Apparently, there is tension between many Filipinx nurses and black Caribbean nurses in hospitals. Why? Filipinx nurses often label black nurses as lazy for taking on the bare minimum number of patients. Meanwhile, Filipinx nurses tend to take on more patients than they are asked of (I’m guessing this is a product of intense parents who drilled the importance of hard work, even at the detriment of self-care). To the black nurses, they are doing their jobs well enough to deserve their paycheck; why kill yourself when you’re not going to be paid for taking on more work? To the Filipinx nurses, taking on more patients could get your work noticed, resulting in a salary increase. Therefore, to the Filipinx nurse, the black nurse is lazy. And to the black nurse, the Filipinx nurse is a crazy workaholic.
I had agreed that the Filipinx nurses were exhibiting anti-blackness. Yet, I myself just moments after exhibited anti-blackness. My tiredness manifested in a dismissal of my colleague’s need to vent. It was unintentional but the impact resulted in him feeling like I was being a racist MOFO.
We reconciled because I was able to admit that the impact of my actions did not equate with my good intentions. This genuine admittance of my fault helped him to be open to understanding my selfish rational for my actions…which was that I was so exhausted from being new and feeling the pressure to perform as a young professional that I couldn’t take anymore work talk.
It was a beautiful moment for both of us.
I pride myself in ending anti-blackness and working to live in solidarity with black folks. But learning to understand what living in true solidarity means is a process that we must learn to be open to. We must learn to own up to our faults and for me, that’s a constant internal battle of fighting an unconscious anti-blackness sentiment. Where did that come from…?
My first encounters with anti-blackness were within my own family.
My mom told me to stay indoors during recess on sunny days. Of course, my first question is why. Her answer: “Because you’ll get dark.” I fought anti-blackness then too, by going against her wishes and playing in the sun anyways. I later learned that my mom’s reaction is a product of the deeply embedded colorism of the Philippines. Poor Filipinxs typically tended to the fields, which would lead to dark skin as a result of hours in the sun. As a result, dark skinned Filipinxs are traditionally looked down on. The result of this anti-blackness is stores full of bleaching creams, an onslaught of Filipinx celebrities with eerily fake looking white skin and my mom telling me to stay out of the sun.
Later, as I grew increasingly aware of the pain of the black community because of the Black Lives Matter movement, I also grew increasingly aware of the complacency of my own family. I asked, “Why is it that we do nothing as Filipinxs? We’re people of color too.” I’d get self-preserving answers like:
- “Because we can’t help everyone”
- “Because family is more important”
- “Because they brought it upon themselves. This wouldn’t be happening to them if they hadn’t been out late or didn’t talk back to that cop.”
I also witnessed…and participated in the cultural appropriation of black culture particularly music. I listened to rap mainly because my friends did but it didn’t sit right with me mainly because of the mysognistic language. I remember asking my friends, “Why do you listen to this music if it puts women down?” The response: “Because these songs have a catchy beat that’s fun to dance and listen to; why else?” Eventually, I learned that rap came out of the black struggle and I developed a deeper appreciation for it. I later discovered how Filipinx American and Filipinx activists were using rap and spoken word to speak of the invisible struggle of the Filipinx people. It’s an art that deserves respect because it has helped folks particularly black folks to resist in order to exist.
It’s taken me a long time to get to this point where I am willing to admit when I say and do racist things. It’s also been a learning process to learn how to be actively intentional about not saying and doing racist things.
Our society strips us of our humanity by conditioning us to not check ourselves and the bias we unconsciously carry. Naming / owning up to it is the first step. Handling call outs with grace, and not in a condescending way. Practicing authentic listening and being open to real dialogue. These are all necessary steps of the journey to get our humanity back.