Let’s talk about race

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For years, I tried to downplay the role race plays in my books. Sure, at least half of my characters are usually Chinese Canadian, but I always pointed out how families from all communities struggle with poverty or isolation or expectations. This is absolutely true, but the fact of the matter is that race, or how race is written about in contemporary fiction, is a huge factor in why I choose to write stories that use Vancouver’s Chinatown and Downtown Eastside as springboards.

Like many Canadians, I really, really want to believe that we are beyond race, that race doesn’t matter when we’re choosing partners or realtors or caregivers for our children. There is a pool of Canadian-made Kool-Aid that we all continually drink from and that makes us mutter drowsily, Diversity is good. Diversity is wonderful. There are no racists here. We all know what the post-racial dream is. And we want to believe we live it.

The Trayvon Martin case is heartbreaking, but it’s also American, which means that we in Canada can look at it with outrage, but a detached outrage. The trial and the verdict were so big, so saturated with tragedy and the media’s coverage of that tragedy, that we were directing our fury outward–at jurors, at George Zimmerman, at the ways in which young Black men are portrayed as both villains and victims.

If there’s one thing I do as a writer (maybe this is a good thing or maybe it’s a bad one), it’s drawing readers inward. What do the blood and guts and motivations of a character look like? How do they eat breakfast or have sex? What are the tiniest things they do that are completely singular? Why not look at racism the same way?

Racism is easy to shake your head over when it’s obvious. When a young Black man is killed with a bag of Skittles in his pocket. When a famous television chef admits to using racial slurs thirty years ago. When someone shows you their great-grandfather’s Head Tax certificate. But what about the other, smaller things that prick the skin in the barest way? When your work colleague decides to enroll her daughter in private school because the public one in her neighbourhood is now too full of Mainland Chinese and she doesn’t want to feel like a minority at pick-up time. When you go to an open house and your mother-in-law complains that the walls smell like curry. When you tell people your husband’s great-grandmother was Cree and they say, “Oh, now you don’t have to pay taxes.” What about those moments?

We let them slip. Sometimes, we don’t notice them. But the more we let these moments pass without conversation or without questions, the more they will occur. All of these words–some hugely hurtful, some less so–add up. Every time a person of colour hears something racist, it’s another gouge in her sense of self. Eventually, those gouges become holes until that person hates her racial origins. Canadian identity is shaky at the best of times. Imagine it battered.

I’m not saying you have to walk around like a vengeful, racism-fighting superhero (although that could be awesome if you’re so inclined). But we’re missing opportunities for meaningful discussion, the kind of discussion that opens and lights and changes one thought in one person’s head at a time. This is progress. It’s not fast, but it’s progress nonetheless.

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