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

Perspectives On Belonging 2021

Kanwal Neel – Career Educator, public tv “Math guy” and respected member of the Sikh community

As with any project, The Perspectives On Belonging Project 2021, has been far more about the learning than a final product. Of course the framing of the project was far too grand in scope to accomplish within one year during COVID. I can take full responsibility for that. I am a BIG picture person. The pairing down emerges as I engage in the process and determine what is most important. Our committee has not created a feature length documentary pulling together the voices of a large group of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour representational of the racial and age diversity of people living in Vancouver, British Columbia and the Lower Mainland. However we did want to use our Human Rights Internet grant to do something meaningful. It has been for us. We created 23 iMovies that have been shared on the Carrie Froese YouTube channel under the Perspectives On Belonging playlist.

My personal aspiration was to step up as an ally, engage as an anti-racist, and create a model for facilitating conversations about racism and anti-racism to create more inclusive communities. Susan Ruzic honed in on the merits of amplifying BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) voices, particularly at this point in time when people are open to listening. Sandy Murray helped our committee to understand the feelings raised by the focus on “other” rather than the human need to belong. Alex Gangue-Ruzic brought a different style of approaching the task and the perspective of a younger demographic.

The project unfolded as a culmination of our background knowledge, a considerable amount of reading, listening, conversation and exploration. In the end, the technology, the lighting, and the sound equipment was quite simple. The taping was done outside in light of COVID using an iPhone, a microphone, and a tripod. Only two clips were distorted for some unknown reason. An iPad, Keynote and iMovie were used to edit and create the video clips.

I am relatively new to YouTube. The Carrie Froese YouTube channel has only been used for one other playlist – Ms. Froese Reads. The purpose was to connect with the students at my school during COVID by reading aloud picture books. Many of these titles focused on creating a sense of belonging in the school community. Most of these read aloud were shared through Office365 Teams so I do not have many subscribers. Although I initially created a different channel for this project, I discovered it was easier to locate and share it as a separate playlist on my original Carrie Froese YouTube channel and Tweet it out.

There has not been a systematic approach to selecting people to tell their stories. The volunteers have come out of conversations with people within the orbit of committee members who expressed interest and willingness to participate. Interestingly enough, they have provoked conversations that we have never had before. It has been fascinating. Kanwal Neel raised the interesting point about how perceptions of people and interactions change over time. By the time I met Kanwal, he commanded a huge amount of respect within the educational community at Simon Fraser University. Bindy Kang teases out the dichotomy of belonging with her reference to Maya Angelou: When you feel like you belong, you simultaneously experience a sense of not belonging. Nate Sheibley communicates the impact of his Indigenous heritage and the frustration when it is not valdiated as a result of his “white passing” appearance. Jason Bring communicates his connections with the queer community creating a greater sense of affinity than race due to the fact his family has been in Canada for over 100 years. Gale Yip and Karen Chong effectively communicate the quest to belong in their peer groups and frustrations when they are treated like the “other”. Anthony Hondier talks of the feelings of belonging in Vancouver with its’ multi-ethnic reality and the shift when travelling to other places in British Columbia that have largely white populations. Isaiah Smith, who made a deliberate move to Canada to escape overt experience with racism of the United States, expresses his frustration with the structural racism that exists in Canadian institutions. All of the people sharing their stories, talk about the overt existence of racism, but the difficulty in addressing it.

Anita Jack was featured in the Queen’s Alumni Review Issue 3, 2020, Volume 94. Thanks to my daughter, it arrived in the mail last year. Dr. Anita Jack-Davies, MEd’07, PhD’11 was named the EDII (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Indigeneity) Advisor at Queen’s in 2019. She writes with a strong voice. In fact her voice is so strong, that I can hear her words in my head when I’m reflecting and would love to sit down and have coffee with her. She shares how her grandparents told her that if she studied hard and “became something” that racism would disappear. We’re still waiting. As with the others interviewed for this project, she comments that racism is difficult to prove and it is often not safe to speak up about racial discrimination.

“When I speak about race, I am accused of “playing the race card”, even though that card is always in play, each and every day, in each and every moment of your life, whether you care to admit it or not. To speak about race opens me up to scorn, ridicule, and rejection.” p.20

Dr. Jack-Davies calls on the Queen’s Alumni to “…unearth other narratives that have remained hidden from view, buried, and unarticulated.” That is ultimately what we have started to do with this project. It is a beginning. Perhaps people will listen and share out the work with their networks. Perhaps it will create a paradigm for other groups looking to create a greater sense of belonging within their communities by teasing out and actively listening to the untold stories. Perhaps it will form the idea for a MA thesis, a PhD, a documentary or a book. Perhaps it will prompt other questions about the impact of background knowledge, or experiences, or age on perceptions of racism and anti-racism. We are sending it out into the universe.

To listen to the 23 iMovies sharing stories on belonging, racism bias, racism, inclusion, and antiracism, go to:

YouTube Channel – Carrie Froese

Playlist – Perspectives On Belonging

You can also search Perspectives On Belonging Project 2021 on YouTube

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

Maya Angelou

Special thanks to all of the participants in this projects who provided their stories, their critiques, and perceptions. Thanks is also extended to Sandy Murray, Susan Ruzic, and Alex Gangue-Ruzic for their work on the Perspective On Belonging Project 2021 committee to make this project happen.