Perceptions On Belonging Project 2021 Revisited

A year-long endeavour to stimulate dialogue and understanding of racism and anti-racism in Vancouver, British Columbia with a small but committed group.  Susan Ruzic, Sandy Murray and I united in trying to make a positive, pro-active difference with the grant money received from the Human Rights Internet.  We talked.  We read.  We listened.  We interviewed.  We solicited feedback.  Thanks to Jason Bring, Karen Chong, Alex Gangues-Ruzic, Anthony Hondier, Bindy Kang, Kanwal Neel, Sandy Murray, Nate Sheibley, Isaiah Smith, and Gale Yip for the stories and perspectives that enabled us to create 20 iMovies to stimulate learning and dialogue. We shared out these results with friends, family, colleagues and interested people on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.  In the process, we have learned so much.  We engaged in conversations about race and anti-racism with friends, family and colleagues, sometimes for the first time.  We also reconsidered our assumptions, our biases, and our privilege over and over and over again.  And we continued the conversations.

It was clear early on that even within our small group, our terms or reference were different. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) is a term with a fair amount of traction in the USA. This is also the case with LatinX. It has been embraced by some groups in Canada and distained by others. The terms “equity” and “inclusion” has referenced students with additional needs in the Special Education world for decades but is now being used in a more generalized way. Selma Smith, long-time advocate for equity and inclusion, has pointed out the complexity in finding a word that Canadians will embrace. She articulates how a term such as “BIPOC” can be problematic because it lends itself to attributing one experience to all people included under one umbrella term. As a First generation Canadian of Mexican descent, Selma references herself as a racialized person. This term resonates more with many Vancouverites engaging in the conversation.

There was also a lot of discussion of the term “white passing.” It seemed to be used interchangeably with white privilege, yet it didn’t always reflect skin colour, but how much the person had adopted traditions and ways considered to be “more Canadian”. For example, the South Asian educator wearing a turban experienced more discrimination than the South Asian educator who did not wear a turban and whose family immigrated to Canada over 100 years ago. In discussion of this, Jason uses the term “racially ambiguous” to explain people’s difficulty in placing him a racialized category.

Karen Chong adds another layer to the conversation by pointing to the Canadian census.  Canadian are asked to identify as Chinese or Japanese, or other categories attributed to visual minorities.  Yet her Italian friends she grew up with East side Vancouver are not given an “Italian” box to distinguish themselves, even though their cultural roots heavily influenced their lives and ways of being.  She points out that understanding different cultural viewpoints is helpful but dividing people out as “different” is not natural and often problematic.  She uses the example of young children differentiating between other kids as “friends” or “strangers.”.  Once they are introduced and allowed to play together, the stranger becomes a friend.

This conversation extended to the discussion of affinity groups.  In some situations, people may gravitate to groups with the same experiences and that may be helpful.  However, any assumptions about grouping people based on skin colour is quite simplistic.  Nate Sheibley has white skin, yet his Indigeneity creates a dynamic where he might be more interested in discussing cultural identity with someone who shares a common Indigenous heritage.  Bindy Kang may want to discuss her identity as a Sikh with Kanwal Neel, more than Jason Bring, because their upbringing has more similarities.  Anthony Hondier expresses his greater feeling of belonging with the French community, because he doesn’t know how to speak Tagalog like his extended Filipino family.  Certainly, we can see that there are many colours of skin and that being white brings privilege.  You only have to visit any store in China to see the range of chemical concoctions to whiten skin.  Clearly, we all see colour, but in a racially diverse city like Vancouver and it’s surrounding lower mainland, having matching skin colours is not a prerequisite to friendship.  Many of us adhere to affinity groups that are based on factors such as gender, sexuality, jobs, interests, experiences or circumstances.  

There was no scientific process in choosing volunteers to participate in this project.  We engaged in conversations with people in our circles and interviewed the people who expressed the most interest.  It incorporated our friends, our colleagues, and in some cases family.  All of the people in the group sharing their stories and perspectives are racialized Vancouverites.  Nearly all of the people involved in the project have one, two or three university degrees.  Most of the people are students, teachers, educators, and/or parents.  Four of the people in the iMovies are 30 years old and under.  The other six are over 38 years old.  Two of the people grew up in the United States.  Clearly the perspectives of participants have been shaped by their experiences.  Alex Gangues-Ruzic is studying journalism in university and is interested on continuing with the interviews with a younger demographic. I’m excited about this because the younger participants have brought distinctly different perspectives which are quite hopeful.  

Anthony Hondier states that there are a lot of “mixed kids” like him in Vancouver which makes it normal.  When he is asked for his opinion, he feels it is valued.  He believes the school system has done a good job of teaching kids that racism is wrong.  Yet, most of the participants did not experience overt aggressive acts when they were growing up in Vancouver.  However, all of the participants have experienced or witness microaggressions, racist statements behind people’s backs, and discrimination.  Isaiah Smith talks about the difficulty of trying to access educational opportunities like teaching when you’re just trying to survive and do not have the luxury to volunteer or the money to participate in enrichment experiences such as music and sport.   Participants share a common understanding that the discrimination by being denied an opportunity or entry into school, or a job is difficult to prove and to provide an appropriate response.   It just leaves you at a loss.

The organizing committee and participants in the group are all committed to actively engaging in anti-racism. It made the conversation about how to be an ally, particularly interesting. Bindy brought up a time when she was called a “twisted nigger”. Her first response was to see who was being attacked so she could stand beside them. Unfortunately, she was the target and there was no one to be her ally by bearing witness, standing in solidarity, calling the other person out, or dialing 911. In some cases, being an ally may mean ensuring that fair and equitable entrance and hiring practices are put in place. It may be ensuring there are practices that support people with divergent perspectives and approaches. Bindy makes the point that “being an ally isn’t something that deserves a medal. It’s just something you do. “And when we do it, we end up with more respectful, equitable, and inclusive spaces and places. Anthony does a nice job of summing it up: “I’m not asking a lot from an ally…. Be open to others. Don’t judge…Express yourself and be kind.” And so, the work continues.

“We must now unearth other narratives that have remained hidden from view, buried, and unarticulated.”

Anita Jack Davies (2019)

Queen’s University:  Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Indigeneity Advisor

Note:  You can access the 20 iMovies on YouTube:  Channel – Carrie Froese:  Perspectives on Belonging