“Why Racism doesn’t Make Sense”
Denise Young, WIL National Diversity and Inclusion Advisor and CEO and Consultant of Tiger’s Eye Advisory Group, a people-focused business solutions company that values collaboration and empowerment.
Denise believes in empowering people to be their best and is a strong advocate for Diversity and Inclusion. She creates collaborative work spaces where “everyone is at the table”. She has a Bachelor of Management and a Masters of Arts in Communication and Technology from University of Alberta.
She started the Women in Leadership (WIL) Chapter in Kelowna, BC in 2017 and is the Chapter Chair. She currently is supporting WIL National in the development of WIL Diversity and Inclusion Program.
July 22, 2021: A few years back, I was shocked to learn that my actual level of understanding of my bias was lower than I thought. I was teaching and supporting an organization in Diversity and Inclusion at the time, I felt like a “failure” and was asking “why am I in this position?”. I came to the realization that self awareness is one of the most effective things to do as a leader and that we are all human and this is part of the journey. A bigger shock during this assessment was that I had bias against my own race.
This article will cover personal experiences of racism and why racism doesn’t make sense from an approach of looking at what separates race from culture and ethnicity.
I am of mixed race of which 50% is Asian (Chinese). I was adopted and grew up with a Japanese mother, White/Caucasian father, Indigenous brother and my sister who is my parents biological daughter. I had the privilege of growing up in a multicultural family, this was my normal. I see differences in people but I don’t understand how people can make racist comments against people, based on what they look like.
When I was younger, I was called derogatory Chinese names by a couple of family members and classmates. Of course, I did not address this as I did not realize what racism was and that this was “microaggressions”. It was still hurtful but I thought I was just being “teased”. This could be part of the reason why I was against my race. I am embarrassed to admit, growing up, that I did some inappropriate things to mock Chinese people as a way to “push” away my race that I was embarrassed about. I thought “I am Chinese so I have a right to do this”. Of course today, I understand the implications this would have had on any Chinese person that may have overheard this. Unfortunately today the asian race is still being attacked, especially during the pandemic. As a wiser adult, I know that this needs to be addressed and is not acceptable. Last year I was sitting with a group of people and they were verbally attacking Chinese people. What did I do? I checked in with myself, as I was angry and hurt but lashing back was not a solution nor did I want to ignore the comments. These are friends of mine...I sat there in disbelief and thought “I am sure they know I am Asian, why would they say this”. I felt uncomfortable but knew it had to be addressed, especially as I teach about equality and about standing up for others. I said, “I am uncomfortable with this conversation as you are blaming an entire race which is inappropriate but also did you forget that I am Chinese and these comments are hurtful?” The response that I receive as in times before is “but you are different”. I questioned why this is a response that a lot of people provide as this is not only in this specific example, it is to other marginalized groups. How am I different, are they confusing race with culture and ethnicity?
“When you distinguish what separates race from culture and ethnicity, it becomes apparent that racism, apart from being hurtful, just doesn’t make sense”.
Difference of Culture, Ethnicity, and Race
These terms are defined differently yet people use them interchangeably. "'Race' and 'ethnicity' have been and continue to be used as ways to describe human diversity," said Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist and palaeobiologist at The Pennsylvania State University, who is known for her research into the evolution of human skin color. "Race is understood by most people as a mixture of physical, behavioral and cultural attributes. Ethnicity recognizes differences between people mostly on the basis of language and shared culture."
Culture is learned behaviours – thoughts, beliefs, values and customs – that you learn as you grow up and this is something you choose to adopt or leave behind as you get older. You can have cultural elements and influences from various places, and in general, it’s your choice. I learned about different cultures yet today I chose to adopt Indigenous and Latin culture thoughts, values and customs.
Ethnicity is a cultural identity, which is based on common ancestry, language and tradition. The distinction here is heritage. In general, you don’t choose this yourself (although you may choose the specificity). My ethnicity is Chinese and White/Caucasian.
Race is a biological classification, based on DNA and bone structure. This is mainly based off your appearance and to some extent ethnicity. Race is usually much broader groups to try and categorise all people into just a few boxes. The exact racial groups differ from place to place (e.g. ‘Asian’ in Australia means something different to ‘Asian’ in the UK) but they’re nevertheless broad categories. In general, race is a distinction that’s placed upon you that you can’t change. My race is Asian and White/Caucasian.
An example with all three based on myself would be, “I’m racially Asian, ethnically Chinese, but grew up in Canada to Japanese and White/Causian parents, so I have cultural elements from their home countries, USA and Japan.”
So why are these distinctions important?
“Race and ethnicity are often intertwined. Especially for minorities, you’re often racialised before you can come to properly identify with your ethnicity. In this case it’s often easy to identify more with your race than ethnicity. E.g. African Americans come from a variety of countries, but are racialized as “black” in the US, and so that often becomes more of their identity rather than their ethnicity”.
So Why Does Racism not Make Sense:
The idea of "race" originated from anthropologists and philosophers in the 18th century, who used geographical location and phenotypic traits like skin color to place people into different racial groupings. That not only formed the notion that there are separate racial "types" but also fueled the idea that these differences had a biological basis.
“That flawed principle laid the groundwork for the belief that some races were superior to others — creating global power imbalances that benefited white Europeans over other groups, in the form of the slave trade and colonialism. We can't understand race and racism outside of the context of history, and more importantly economics. Because the driver of the triangular trade [which included slavery] was capitalism, and the accumulation of wealth," said Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe, a medical anthropologist at the Center on Genomics, Race, Identity, Difference (GRID) at the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI), Duke University.
Race doesn’t tell you anything about what a person is like. Because race is more grouped by appearance, one can look a certain race but have a culture that is very different from their heritage. I am of Chinese ancestry but did not grow up in China and I do not speak a word of Chinese. Additionally, you can’t ascribe non-physical traits or characteristics to a racial group. This does not consider the many cultures and characteristics individuals may have. I have many traits from multiple cultures (Japanese, Africa, and Indigenous) but I have ancestry from two different areas.
Especially in times of a crisis like a pandemic, it’s easy to let fear take over and to marginalise an entire racial group, but it’s important to remember that just because someone looks Chinese to you doesn’t mean they have any connections or even cultural values linked to China, nor that the racial group as a whole is necessarily responsible for the crisis.
“But even more than that, when we examine the genetics of different racial groups, there’s more genetic difference within any one racial group compared to the average between them, and yet amongst all of us, we are so remarkably similar (99.9% alike in fact). Yes, there may be some value in grouping people into racial groups, but at the end of the day, we have much more in common with each other than we don’t.
What can We Do? Here are a few suggestions based on personal experience
Research and educate including the below articles that this article is based on
Conduct free implicit bias assessments on yourself to discover unconscious bias and then use this to delve deeper as to why these biasexist (where did you learn them from) or more in-depth assessments such as:
Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI®) Great for organizations as will do a confidential individual report and a combined work team with suggestions of what can be improved.
Disarm any racist comments, including any microaggressions. If in a group, steer the conversation away and then approach the person individually as to the impact it might have had on someone.
Do not enable the behaviour, have the courage to speak up. If you choose to be silent, you have sanctioned the behavior and you have inadvertently become part of the problem. Why... because your inaction informed them that you agree with them. You validated the harm and are, in fact, perpetuating the racist behavior. In being silent, you are centering your own comfort and safety over that of the comfort and safety of others.
Be curious. Avoid making people feel less than and do not lecture. Believe that everyone has good intent and not out to offend people. Do what is in your control and let them know why their comment may have offended someone and then let it go. They may ask you more, or storm off. Either way, know that you did the right thing and their behaviour is not in your control.
Be flexible and seek to be open. We all say things that may be inappropriate and may offend someone. Therefore if someone calls you out, seek to understand the impacts and how you can deal with it so it does not happen again.
Connect with Denise:
LinkedIN: Denise Young
Facebook; Tigers Eye Advisory Group