We need to look in the mirror before we can authentically ‘show up’.
Written By: Jessica Borich, Founder and Principal Strategist
My heart has been heavy for weeks as I’ve been trying to process the injustices happening to the Black community; the profound inequity and racism. Sadly, none of this is new. Racism is still very much alive in our communities and our daily lived experiences. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and hundreds of others are not.
Let me be clear, this piece is not intended to be yet another article or email companies write to garner positive PR or act as lip service to demonstrate they’re ‘doing the right thing.’ We have all received those messages, similar to the ones we received at the beginning of the pandemic where we’ve forgotten when or to whom we’ve given consent to by being on their mailing list. No, I wrote this piece because I realize that in order to show up authentically in the world and to actually make a lasting impact on the world doing the social justice work with my clients, I need to pause and reflect to begin my personal journey of reckoning.
This is my attempt to create space for understanding and dialogue; for communities to come together and be allies, accomplices and advocates. I am holding up the mirror, to come to terms with my identity and want to have a tangible way of contributing to dismantling structural racism. I realized I need to not only listen and learn, but unlearn so many deeply rooted, systemic beliefs that were imparted onto me from the generations before me.
I am a BIPOC, first generation Canadian, and the eldest daughter of five. My experience is not too dissimilar to many immigrant family experiences, but no two are the same. Growing up on the Prairies (in Saskatchewan), even though I never saw myself as an Asian girl (often, I was the only one) amongst the white and indigenous community, I often felt I was ‘other’ and never quite ‘fit in’. As one might expect, I spent the majority of my childhood trying to be less ‘Chinese’ and to be more ‘White’.
Even within the Asian community, I didn’t fit the ‘mould’ of a ‘Chinese’ girl becauseI have lighter porcelain skin, my voluminous curly hair was not blond and my eyes were not blue.
People would question which ‘Asian ethnicity’ I am, their first guess is often Japanese. I never understood why my parents sometimes told me I should be happy as people viewed as having fair skin is a mark of beauty and indicator of social and economic status. But, what I didn’t also realize was this is an example of colourism and how white culture has permeated ideals. What I also found interesting was that when people of other ethnicities meet me, they would often ask where I am from and I would respond, ‘I am Canadian.’ They would ask, ‘No, where are your parents from?’ To which I would respond, ‘They immigrated to Canada from Asia.’. But what I wasn’t telling them, was that my parents were refugees from Vietnam (they were also known as the Vietnamese boat people). I was always told by my parents — ‘You’re Chinese. Not Vietnamese. There’s a difference.’. As a result, I always struggled trying to explain to people how I am of ‘full Chinese’ descent and not ‘Vietnamese’. You see, I didn’t realize how my innocent response has underlying racist tones and generational judgement. Most Chinese would never allow someone to mistake them to be Vietnamese because they are commonly regarded as a ‘lower class’ of Asian. Unbeknownst to me, much like other cultures, there is hierarchy and class even amongst the Asian cultures.
What I need to unlearn: The systemic views that were inherently racist and more importantly recognizing them before I impart them onto the world. I need to do better and be proactive in finding ways to unlearn and dismantle these stereotypes and judgements as well as break down stigmas so I don’t continue to inadvertently instil them.
I have always been someone who is curious by nature, but combined with my creativity where I am constantly seeing things from different perspectives, I often found myself needing to filter my questions and thoughts. It wasn’t until a few years back, when I was trying to understand why I was holding myself back from advancing my career doing the work I love, that I had my ‘ah ha’ moment. To be an effective strategist and designer, I need to be curious and ask relevant questions in a creative way to be able to offer solutions. Instead, I found myself waiting for the appropriate time to speak up, or when I was asked or given permission to do. As I applied my problem diagnosis technique to my own challenge, I discovered that it was because from a young age I was always told the following: ‘To keep my head down and not draw attention to myself. I already stood out and people judge my family by the colour of our hair and skin. I need to mind my own business and not speak up unless asked. Don’t cause trouble. Always be agreeable. Don’t own the stage. People expect us to fail. Hard work will equal success. By working hard, I will gain the respect of others and in turn, this will earn me power and privilege to not have others judge me.
As I write this, intuitively I know this thought process doesn’t make sense. But, these were the lessons my parents instilled in me. Not because they were bad parents — far from! They were trying to protect me because they had to learn the hard way their ‘place in society’. They fought their way to freedom to provide my siblings and I the privilege we were born into. My parents, like most immigrants, so desperately wanted to fit in and assimilate. They dealt with racial injustice the moment they stepped off the boat. They were judged and mistreated because they didn’t speak ‘the language’. As a result, they saw themselves as a ‘lower class’ and didn’t want our lives to be challenging like theirs.
What I need to learn: Culturally, I was not equipped to deal with racism. I need to use my voice and power to be able to stand in solidarity with the Blacks, Browns and other races. Our struggles, while not all the same, are interconnected. We cannot be divided. If we don’t take a stand now, no one will be safe. It’s only a matter of time that other groups who are marginalized, vulnerable, and oppressed, will be targeted and there will be no one left to stand for anybody. We are all fighting against the same unfair system that prefers we compete against each other.
These thoughts and feelings are ones I have been trying to unpack and come to terms with since Reconciliation Canada Week in 2013. I knew that in order to be a responsible and accountable human, I had to understand my own heritage and cultural beliefs before I could truthfully stand in the light. There is the saying: ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’. I knew this work was not going to be easy, but believe it is important to allow me to show up in the world and do the authentic social impact work for the communities I care about. But most importantly, in order for me to be a good parent, I need to do it for my son because he is the next generation of change leaders.
What I am committing to: I need to take responsibility for my contribution to White Privilege; for preserving the comfort of white people by brushing off racist behaviours and ignorance rather than challenging their fragility when speaking about race. In addition, I need to use my power and privilege to speak up to my family and friends, to educate them on our own cultural micro-aggressions and encourage them to start their own journey of unlearning and unconforming to the dominant culture. I also believe there is always ongoing work in being proactive to identifying my biases (conscious and unconscious) and committing to not let it overtake my judgement and behaviour.
We must evolve. We must do better — and it needs to start within ourselves. This is a lifelong journey where I will always carry my upbringing and experiences with me. These are among the first of many life lessons around identity, race and culture. Inevitably, the lessons will be difficult and uncomfortable but I’m certain it can be worked towards by choosing to give myself and others empathy, compassion and grace. I am unapologetic for my culture, skin tone and hair colour. I am not sorry if you feel uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is the 1st step to learning and changing to allow us to be our authentic selves and build a more just and equitable world.