Michelle (msagara) wrote,

Please don't tell me how I should feel oppressed, thanks

I've been writing posts that are, roughly, about family - or rather, about mine. Today, I am writing about me. And about my interactions with race.

I am: a cis-gendered woman (for those who don't know what this means yet, it means someone who is comfortable being the gender to which they were born), straight, PoC (person of color).

Have any of the boxes in which I have just put myself caused me difficulties in my life? Yes. In various ways, some personal, some public, yes. But you know - it's the hand I was dealt. I can't change the hand I was dealt - my job, if job is the right word, is to play that hand for all it's worth. Or more. Some people will see little - or no - value in the hand I was dealt. Sometimes they will try to make that my problem. Sometimes it's tricky, and sometimes it's annoying. When I say annoying, I mean enraging, but: I've met a lot of people in my life, and the operative word in that phrase is: sometimes.

I am married. I have a house. I have two children. In most aspects, I struggle to maintain the middle-class existence I've chosen. It is a pretty mainstream existence, although my guess is the neighbors hate the weekly jungle that is our lawn.

I have a much easier life than my parents did. My parents, being Japanese Canadian, lost their homes (and in my father's case, his family, because both parents died, and there was no left who wanted four Japanese kids who could afford to take them) to the internment camps of the second world war. Their life was very, very hard. Most of my aunts and uncles did not finish school because they couldn't afford to: they needed to go out and work at whatever jobs they could find to feed their family. There were nine children.

I look at their lives, and I know my life has been so much better, in part because of the work they did, in part because of the changes in the society around them.

I am not telling you any of this because I want your sympathy. Sympathy is good - but I don't really feel that I need it. I don't generally ask people not to comment, because I like comments, but if I can ask one thing from commenters on this post, it's that: Please don't offer me sympathy for being who I am. Don't offer me sympathy because my parents were who they were.


When I was just out of high school, I went to see a play written by a rather well-known playwright. It was Song of an Issei Fisherman, a play about Japanese-Canadian men of a certain generation, whose lives were pretty much destroyed by the internment and its after-effects.

I watched the play. I watched the play with a growing sense of incipient rage. Really, rage. But it was not because of the internment or because of the effects on this man - things I had known since early childhood, things I accepted as normal. It was because of the way he treated his wife. He was a perpetual, terrified, insecure child, and even when his wife was dying of cancer and all but begging for his help, he folded up into his own fear of loss and insecurity - and although he was her husband, she died alone.

And then he cried.

What the hell?

I have seen similar men, and similar situations, and I have seen similar women. And - I was angry on behalf of women everywhere, because her adult husband had done nothing at all, although of course he "loved her".

So. We went to dinner after the play. We went to dinner, and the author of the play was there, and one of my cousins asked me what I thought of the play. I think the hope was that it would help us to understand our parents' generation better. It certainly did that.

I am not - I have never been - a person who knows how to give a casual, pleasant answer to a question when I actually have an opinion. I told the entire group, probably loudly and emphatically, exactly what I thought of the play.

And I was told: "You can't say that."

Beg pardon?

"You can't say that. This isn't a feminist issue."

How not?

"It's about racism. It's about the horrible racism endured by our own families. You have to understand the point of the play. It's not about men vs. women; it's about us. We need to present a united front."

(I learned later of the word intersectionality).

And you know, I understood the point being made. And I rejected it utterly. I did not need someone (male) telling me that what was important about the difficulties I had suffered in my own life was my colour. That the fact of being female - which half of the world was - didn't count in comparison to my colour. I'm not even certain that he understood what had made me so angry.

But I was not going to listen to someone tell me to shut up and toe the line for the good of everyone. Because everyone can toe their own line, thanks. I'm not going to be turned into one of those silent sacrifices that lined the play in support of other people's causes. Even if those causes are valid. I have causes of my own.


I was younger. One could possibly say: younger, more selfish, solipsistic in the way that we are when we can only see our own experiences or reflections thereof.

The difference thirty years has made is this: I could now answer the question politely. I could now watch and understand the ways in which the loss of face, the profound loss of sense-of-self, could emotionally cripple a generation of men; that that emotional scarring and stunting could cause the type of marriage that is so dwarved and stunted.

But that's the only difference. I could be there, I could be sympathetic. I could watch without rage. I could not, however, discount my experience and my sense that for these women, it's not their race, but their gender, that was their profound trap.

I am myself. I have had my experiences. I have poured time and energy into the things that matter most to me. Many of those things will not matter to anyone else. Nor should they. We each have things to which we must attend; things that shape us, change us, even break us. I try hard not to judge where other people spend their time, and on what.

I do not want, however, to be told how to experience my own oppression. I'm sorry. I don't.

Actually, no, I'm not sorry. I try hard to own my own life, and I try to understand the many things in which that life is rooted, and from which, therefore, that life has grown. I make choices. I live with the consequences. I do not - ever - want to be told how I should perceive my own world.

I am happy that other people speak for themselves and speak of their own experiences. Where my experiences join theirs, where I can be of help, I will. I will listen. I will learn.

But I will not be told what I should be saying. I will not be told how I should feel. I will not be told that there's a way I should be acting that proves that I am a person of colour. I am a person of colour. But I am also myself. It's part of who I am. It is not all of who I am.


When I was in university, I worked as a summer student for a large corporation. I worked on their customer support line. To do that, I spent two weeks in training (where by training I mean: working through every page of the support manuals and their exercises).

My manager called me into his office on my third day there. He told me, bluntly, that I had two strikes against me in the business world: I was a woman, and I was not white. In order to overcome these, I would need to be three times the employee that someone who had neither of these strikes was. He was much older, he was not white, and he was offering me his experience.

I accepted the offer - right up until he then added, "And in order to do that in a corporate environment, you need to be able to socialize, to get along with, your coworkers."

I said, "I get along with my coworkers." (Day three, remember).

He said, "Where are they now?"

"At lunch."

"And where are you?"

"On chapter twenty-seven."

"Go to lunch."


"Go. To. Lunch. Eat with them, talk to them, be friendly. You need to understand that lunch is the time you cement your interactions. Go to lunch."

"But I just want to finish this--"


I went to lunch. There were five summer students on the support line, and three full-timers. The summer students were all young women; two of us were Japanese Canadian (JC), three were white. One, an engineer, had a charming habit, after a phone call, of saying "I couldn't understand a word, it's like she was speaking Chinese." and "I wish some of these people spoke English like the rest of us." It wasn't intended to make the two JC workers feel bad; she was just thoughtless. I neither liked nor disliked her.

But the other JC woman felt very uncomfortable around her, because of these offhand, constant comments. She said, "Doesn't it bother you?"

And I said, "No, she's an idiot. Why should what an idiot says bother me? She's not trying to make me miserable."

Does anyone remember J. Phillippe Rushton? A professor who essentially said that intelligence was a racial characteristic, with mongoloids on the top?

It was utter crap, of course, but it hit the mainstream in a loud way, and everyone was aware of it. Let me repeat that for emphasis: IT WAS UTTER CRAP. It was thoroughly discredited.

So… one day at lunch, because my fellow JC worker was uncomfortable about these constant, offhand, snipes, I said to the group at large, "Have you guys heard about Rushton's theory?"

They had.

"I think there must be something to it. I mean look at me and (JC co-worker). We're the only two people here - including the full-timers - who are willing to take any of the difficult calls (about the database & reporting system)."

One of the other (non JC) women started to laugh. She almost fell off her chair; she was so red by the time she stopped, because she could barely breathe. She knew what I was doing. She understood instantly, and understood why, and she thought it was hilarious. The second woman was possibly slightly uncomfortable, but continued to knit. The woman who consistently complained about all these Chinese people? She said, "I think that's really racist. I'm not comfortable with this."

I smiled. "Waiting for facts to the contrary. You have them, right?"

Throughout this entire exchange, the other JC worker was staring - at me. She was arrested, but she did not say a word. She was utterly silent throughout that exchange. And after lunch, we talked. Both she and I had been raised in an environment in which it was absolutely essential that we not draw attention to our differences from the dominant culture. In any way. I had, at lunch, not only pointed them out explicitly, but appeared to enjoy doing so. She had never - literally never - seen anyone do that in a mixed environment. I was the first.

"Don't you care? Don't you care what they think?" She asked. She admitted that she was surprised at the discomfort it had caused the other woman - but she was not, in the end, unhappy, because…it was exactly what the other woman often thoughtlessly did.

And I said, "No. No, I really don't. Look - I used to. When I was five, I wanted to peel off my skin and discover that I was blonde and white. I wanted to be a princess. Or a warrior. But - I was five. I'm over twenty, now. And this is what I am. This is what I will look like for the rest of my life. It's not going to change, and so, I accept it. I'm fine with it. Do not, on the other hand, run home to make mochi for me, because I hate red bean paste."

I understood what many of the unspoken -- and spoken -- rules were. They were the rules she tried to live by. But…it meant a constant sense of self-consciousness. It presented like an apology for the friction of otherness, of difference, from the so-called norm.

I couldn't live like that. Many people, who are stronger in ways I'm not, can. I can't be one of them. I needed to learn to be comfortable in my own skin, in order to be comfortable in the world. And I did not tell my co-worker that she had to be me.

She watched. For a week, for two, she watched. She waited to see what the consequences of my unfortunate lunch joke were. And you know what they were? The woman who always complained stopped complaining. She actually started to pay attention to the words that fell out of her mouth. No one treated me differently. The office did not turn into a playground.

I had broken a cardinal rule - and nothing bad had happened to me. It changed the way she interacted with the world. I did not - at any stage - demand that she change. I couldn't. She wasn't me. Had she continued her self-effacement and invisibility, that would have been fine with me as well, because: she was not me.

And that's the thing: We each have our way of dealing with the difficulties the hand we're dealt throws our way. We each have to come to terms with it. I have come to terms with much of mine, and if it's a struggle sometimes - we all have to struggle.

So I don't want other people to tell me, at this late curmudgeonly stage, how I should feel and behave with regards to my own visible differences. I cope with them the way I cope with them. They are part of who I am, but not all of who I am.
Tags: no true way
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