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August 20, 2020

The Subtle Art of Racism: What I Realized Because of BLM

Sai Cook

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©Sai Cook

I am not Black and I have never experienced violent racism in my life. But I know what it's like to be treated differently because of the color of my skin.

Everyone's talking about racism. But from my experience, when people talk about racism, they are talking about extremists. About the neo-Nazis, the far-right political parties, or your local xenophobic drunk.

Basically the people we don't want to be friends with, and the people who aren't on our newsfeed. They exist in a faraway land that has nothing to do with us.

Where Is the Racism?

However, since George Floyd's death and the rise of Black Lives Matter protests, more people are starting to realize that racism doesn't just exist among extremists. They are starting to realize that it also exists in a much more "subtle" way. (Subtle to those who are not affected by it.)

It exists in our institutions, policing, housing system, juristic systems, and even our healthcare. People are also starting to realize that, in some ways, they may have unknowingly gained certain advantages in life from this systemic racism.

As for myself, I've been having a lot more uncomfortable, yet important, conversations with my friends. And especially with my husband, who is white. We've always talked about racial issues and my experiences with racial discrimination. But never this intensely. It's an ongoing process for sure and it's been amazing. And emotional.

Racism and Microaggressions

I'm also looking to myself and my role as part of an Asian minority. Looking at the possible negative impact that I may have had on the fight against racism, by "ignoring" or minimizing the experiences I've had.

To me, my discovery of the word microaggression was quite important. It helped me to articulate a lot of my own experiences that I couldn't quite categorize before, as overtly racist or sexist, or often both. Now, I'm starting to realize that they are more harmful than they seem.

They come in so many forms, often as "compliments." "Oh, your English is so good!" Or "You must make really good Kimchi." Kimchi is a Korean delicacy. I am not Korean.

Or "How can you be bad at maths?!" Or the most common one for me is men shouting across the street, or even whispering in my ear as they walk past, "Nihao." Nihao is "Hello" in Chinese. I am not Chinese.

Time to Stop Brushing off the Comments

None of these comments seemed exactly harmful but they always made me feel "icky." I often ignore such behavior, especially when it's from men that I don't know, which then makes me very disappointed and angry with myself.

And I've come to realize that, by ignoring these comments, I am trivializing them and could actually be doing more harm than good for my community. So now, at least when it comes from people that I know, I will always respond to it – while still fearing being accused of "overreacting."

I don't want to bring down the mood of the conversation, so most of the time, I will try to keep things light-hearted. But it's hard to win in a situation like this, hard to manage your boundaries. You're the only one carrying this emotional burden. I think that's why most of the time people just brush it off, not acknowledging its impact on them.

Hide - or Have Pride in My Race?

I do think that, as an Asian minority member, I "get off" more lightly, as we are usually seen as less threatening and more submissive.

The generalized view of a stereotypical Asian is usually more positive than that of other ethnic groups. We are, as some say, "the model minority." This, though, brings about its own issues.

One being that this is a completely flawed comparison and ignores the centuries of Black enslavement. It also greatly minimizes the role that racism plays in the persistent struggles of other minority groups.

However, saying all that, for a long time I still tried to make myself as "white" as possible. From my school, to university, to my workplace, I would do my best to assimilate and not act "too Thai."

I've actually had a lot more experiences with sexism than racism. A lot more. It took a lot of growing for me to realize that I should embrace my difference rather than try to hide it.

Tackling Racism at Its Roots

The Black Lives Matter movement makes me feel both inspired and disheartened at the same time.

The widespread show of support helps reaffirm my faith in people. However, the fact that there even needs to be a BLM movement today makes me so angry and sad.

However, I do feel optimistic about it. BLM is not only trying to tackle overtly racist acts, but is also challenging the more subtle acts of racism, and the system that allows them.

More and more people are willing to look at themselves and question whether "not being racist" is enough. I really think it's opening up a lot of people's eyes, people who have always thought that racism doesn't exist anymore.

The best way to fight racism for me would be an uncensored education in schools about race, racism and the history of racism. Or even history lessons that don't see through rose-tinted glass.

Teaching kids the right way to not be a racist. And to celebrate and embrace different cultures and religions, instead of trying to be color-blind. I think for racism to be eradicated, it needs to start from early education.

White Lives Matter Too

You are really missing the point here. The BLM movement came into existence not to say that other lives don't matter, but to say that Black lives matter too.

The BLM movement has to make these statements because of a history of discrimination, violence and subjugation. A history that they've had to endure due to the color of their skin.

A history that should have been, as it says, history. But sadly it's still very much prevalent in the present day, even if it comes in a more "subtle" form.

Black Lives Matter was born because White Lives have always Mattered and Black lives have not.

Sai Cook was lead designer for the new Emerald Works brand.

What’s your experience of Black Lives Matter? What impact has BLM had in your workplace? Add your comments below.

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9 comments on “The Subtle Art of Racism: What I Realized Because of BLM”

  1. You have to be a bit careful as many situations you try to state as in some way racist and involving what you claim to be microaggressions e.g. people complimenting you on your ability, or on the type of food you might cook, were potentially nothing of the sort. Plus white people also get exactly the same back i.e. you're white so you must like...., or you're white so you must cook....you're white so why don't you...? In other words it's exactly the same in reverse, but as you're not white you don't see it either.
    It's the intention of what people say that really determines whether or not it's racist, otherwise we'll all be scared to even say 'hello' for fear of offending people e.g. if we say it in English it might be offensive to someone who doesn't speak English, yet if we try to say it in their language they might instead be offended because although we might be trying to meet them halfway (which is actually very considerate) we might then be perceived as presuming they can't speak English and therefore offending them anyway.
    Do you see the problem here and what a minefield it creates if people take everything so much to heart? We not to stop presuming racism, sexism unless ut is actually happening otherwise people will stop talking to each other completely.

  2. Thank you for your candid perspective. I have to address Paul here. Racism is ignorance. This means it exists even when we don't realize it. Racism is uncomfortable. Irradicating racism will never happen when people get offended for calling people out on it. When we take the time to consider walking in someone else's shoes to see things from their perspective instead of strapping up our own shoes tighte (getting defensive) we can then open up the dialog to understand our differences and begin to heal . All races have stereotypes.. many are offensive. Is it okay to be sensitive to them? Absolutely. If someone has a problem with the way they are viewed based on the color of their skin, they have a right to address it in a respectful manner. This article highlights very well the plight of racism; not just for blacks, but for everyone perceived as "different". I appreciate the candor and it makes me think first about my words to ensure that I am not offending anyone simply because of my own ignorance. That's all...let's just open up the dialog so we can learn more about each other rather than assuming. After all, we all bleed red, don't we? Thank you Sai, for sharing this very enlightening perspective.

  3. You bring up some interesting ideas; however, it is a fact that racism does exist in America and minorities are subjected to institutional racism. One problem is when the individual in the position of power is a racist and they can use their influence to impact the quality of life for others.

  4. Thank you, Ms. Cook for sharing your experience as a way to provide enlightenment about how implicit bias informs our behaviors and impacts people we engage with. Until we are made aware of the impact (no matter the intention) can we interact with empathy and build an inclusive, safe, and respectful society.
    Mr. Ferber, your comments represent the type of attitude and misinterpretation of Ms. Cook's comments that prevent us from addressing systemic racism head-on. Until we are willing to recognize our own implicit bias these systems will not change. It is not a minefield unless we allow ourselves to continue to operate with blinders on.

  5. The statement says "Black Lives Matter". It doesn't say "Black Lives Matter Too". Racism cuts across all demographics. If this offends you, then don't search for Truth!

  6. Thank you for this Blog. I understand what you mean and agree wholeheartedly. It can be difficult to explain the situation fully and the subtleties associated with common forms of racism. Part of the difficulty is when people don't recognise the racism that's there. For example, a person may not have intend to display racism or sexism and so they don't recognise this in the actions they've taken. Significant harm can still be there even if the racism isn't recognised or wasn't intended. I think it's a good thing that conversations around racism are happening more often now. It's an opportunity for all of us to think about the issues and take action accordingly.

  7. I'm assuming Paul is British. I am in California. Reading comments on YouTube I first came across UK opinions on diversity that we don't get to have face to face. From what I understand, there is diversity across the pond, in the form of immigrant communities from India and Africa, as well as no doubt various European and Asian countries.
    Where I live, we too have neighbors that with different shades of skin and physical characteristics, up until recently falsely classified by the scientific community as signifiers of a made up conception of "race". For the record, according to the human genome project, which was completed in 2004 and completely mapped human genetics, there are no genetic differences among human beings based on either melatonin or geography or any other ascribed physical characteristic. There is in fact ONE race: the human race, according to biology. Just to be clear.
    Having said all that, where I live in the Bay Area we enjoy diversity of all kinds, as observed by human senses, from international cuisine to massively skilled artists and progressive politics and unbelievable wealth inequality. It's all present and accounted for. Among the different skin hues, there is a minority population of immigrants, many second and third generation Americans, including African Americans, whose ancestors blood, sweat and tears investment in this land predates my own Irish ancestors' arrival.
    I say all that simply to establish that I hear and understand what you are saying. And I have years of first-hand experience and contemplation that has gone into my answer to your protest. Your protest that a person of color should not bring attention to or talk about microaggressions based on the reasons you list is in fact a pretty offensive attempt to silence her with baseless complaints of "reverse racism." Trust me Paul. It is a natural stage of denial most white people go through on the path toward empathy and understanding.
    The first thing to understand is that no one is accusing you of being racist or having racist intents. This knowledge will hopefully empower you to stand up beside people like the author and support them. If for no other reason than it does no harm to make sure she feels safe and respected, while the opposite: fighting for your right to express any sentiment with good intentions, regardless of how it is received, has the potential to be very hurtful. I suppose it is a matter of weighing whose rights are more important, She asserts a fact I have had time to realize is true, and that is that historically, and via often violent and deadly force, white people's "rights" to speak and be heard and respected has never been in doubt. The same is not true for minority communities. Not in the U.S. and frankly ya'll in the UK did an impressive job being the minority and at the same time imposing your version of "civilization" through violence on colonized countries. And so does America, in fact, even to this very day. Speaking of taxation without representation: Puerto Rico. And there are plenty of other examples of foreign interference by the U.S, government, so I am not trying to judge or point fingers, And again, what the government does is a different matter from what I choose to say or do or believe.
    Speaking of individual experience, I am curious. In defense of making race-based comments, you claim that white people suffer the same public assumptions and it's no problem. But I notice in the several examples you offer, you never actually give examples. So ... what exactly are you referring to? We must like .... what? We must cook ,,, what? I'm white so, why don't I ,,,, huh? I am honestly drawing a blank. Additionally, my friend, claims of "reverse racism" fall flat because they are devoid of the weight of decades and centuries of legal oppression and culturally sanctioned violence that, again, to my shock and horror, are still present today in America. Literally. With lethal violence as a backdrop, race-based comments are if nothing else at the very least in poor taste.
    The onus of responsibility is not on people of color to stop complaining about their hurt feelings in order to give white people, who benefit from centuries of advantages and privileges, the benefit of the doubt on top of everything else. In my country, the intergenerational trauma they carry with them makes such a demand simply cruel.
    Instead, if our intentions are truly good then we can prove it, not by being reckless with our speech and demanding others take it in with good spirits, but by showing enough care and respect for different communities that we are willing to listen before speaking. And that's it. Hear them. Believe them. No reply or arguement needed.
    Right now you might not understand, but trust me, The future you will look back approvingly if you take my words to heart,
    Having walked in your shoes and seen the evolution over time of diversity in my area, I can tell you from first hand experience this is a message from the future: Your concern that people will throw up their hands and "stop talking to each other completely" does not happen due to POC being free to speak and white people respectfully listening and making adjustments so that every community is heard and safe. White people do not lose emotional, mental or physical safety no matter how many stories we hear about minority experiences. We even inconvenience ourselves, for example by creating laws that require public and business places are accessible to those with disabilities. This costs time and money too. When I am sitting on the bus, and I am running late, and suddenly the driver stops the bus and moves passengers back to lift seats, and lowers the stairs, all so a person on a wheelchair can board, it must take a full five to seven minutes! Just enough time for me to check myself, realizing how ungrateful I am for the full range of rapid mobility I enjoy every single day. And what an ass I am for resenting someone who is exericising their right to ride the bus in a wheelchair.
    I know it sucks to hear that you benefit from white male privilege. You did not choose your gender or color or how society views those arbitrary facts.
    Nor did the author choose her ethnicity or gender, but the fact of those attributes does not justify rudeness and harassment. Making comments to her about random Asian countries makes as much sense as talking to me about Irish or Scottish cultures just because I have red hair. And yes, men who don't know her whispering in her ear in the street is overt sexist harassment. I would hope I don't need to break that down and explain it to you as though you a child. Even if you were to take it as a compliment and feel flattered, if slap your ass and say, "Hey there sweet cheeks, looking good!" as I pass you on the street, I am still being disrespectful and out of line. Even if my intentions are great! i am just giving you positive attention! An attractive (most likely drunk) woman flirting with you, what an ego boost! Cheeky, so to speak, ha yes funny. (And right there I'm calling you on TWO counts of stereotyping: just because I have Irish ancestry, don't assume drunkenness and hilarity. Right?) *sigh NOT really, but you get my point.
    There's no harm in being TOO respectful and considerate. But there is very easy to make a poor impression on people by insisting they be considerate to YOU. I don't know if that makes sense, but suffice to say the onus of responsibility falls on the ones who already enjoy so much ease in the world to put others at ease.

  8. Readers who found Sai's blog interesting might also like to read our colleague Jeffrey's blog, here.

  9. I am white, was raised poor, have had plenty of undeserved issues with law & have a slightly higher then most level of intelligence. ( or so i like to think).
    It seem to me that alot of the "racial" issues are ingrained into children from birth by their own families and friends long before ever having contact with someone of a different race.
    Building insecurities that aren't based on as much fact but assumptions, feeding into resentments & fears that they feel like they can & should monopolize & use to act in disrespectful, racially motivated negative ways to, with or because of their pre concieved beliefs that dont actually have grounds. Life is Hard for most ppl of all races, Bullies will pick on anybody they can no matter of race, sex, or feelings. theyr bullies. where i live in Louisiana i as a white person get treated like trash if i want a job or ask questions at a store that seems to have predominantly black workers.
    I have Started feeling ways i never did before because of how they've acted twards me without knowing me. & Go to any neighborhood that is predominately black. here it used to be the fich side of town. beatiful homes. Now those homes have bars on the eindow and falling apart because THEY HAVE NO RESPECT for homes they "just rent" or allow & cover for the gangs recruiting and getting our kids killed or killing. Those bars arent to keep me out! i think the PROBLEM is individual ACCOUNTABILTY not race. if anything its about money. If u dont have alot of money and dont have ties with anyone important u r nobody. Peace

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