Friday, January 25, 2008

Too bad for you because we're taking over the world.

I'll tell you a little story about me today.

I'm at Yonge and St. Clair and I go into the subway station through some revolving doors. No one else is around. No one that I notice at least. All of a sudden I hear a woman's voice mumble quite casually: "I don't like Chinese or Indian people." I am so confused. I'm not sure why this is said because I haven't done anything. I didn't even see this person coming but there she is. Some random lady insulting me because of my appearance. Not because of my actions or behaviour or words because I haven't acted, done or said anything. I feel doubly insulted actually. She doesn't know this, but my parents were born in India so I have a special connection to the Indian culture. I turn around to see who it is. She looks at me and stops. She moves to the other revolving doors. I suppose she wants to avoid me. I don't think she expected me to turn around. But I'm not going to let her off the hook so easily. I meet her at the other entrance.

"What did you say?" I ask her.
"I said, I don't like Chinese or Indian people," she replies. She doesn't seem angry or upset. Maybe slightly embarrassed now because I'm confronting her, but for the most part, she says her words very matter-of-factly.

I'm appalled. Completely and utterly appalled. I start following her and talking out loud. My voice is steady. "OK. I'm not really sure why you would say that. It seems like a really bad, mean generalization to make but I guess if that's how you feel I can't really do anything about it. But wow. I was just walking along, minding my own business and you have to say something like that to me. I don't know. I guess you can say what you like but wow." We walk through the TTC turnstile. I go first. She again moves to the other turnstile. I wait to hold the next set of doors for her. I'm not trying to be nice. I'm waiting for her because I feel like something more needs to be said. I'm starting to feel desperate. I need to know why this woman feels this way. I need to expose her to the fact that she shouldn't feel this way. Most of all, I need to gently stalk and berate this woman because I feel like she just gently berated me.

"Don't hold the door for me," she says. I do anyway. She walks through (because there's no other option) and I continue with my even-toned rant.
"I just don't know why you would insult me like that when it is so clear that I'm Chinese," I remark.
"Well, that's too bad," she replies.
"Yeah. Too bad for you," I rebut.

I follow her down the stairs. I want to get on the train with her. In my head, I have this image of me pointing at her to other people and saying, "Do you know this lady just told me she doesn't like Chinese or Indian people?" But then I realize I'm on the southbound platform and I need to go north. Silently I'm upset she's not heading in the same direction as me. I need more time. But I finally give up. I decide it's not worth it anymore so I go back upstairs and across to the northbound platform.

This incident kills me for a few reasons. I have many thoughts swirling around, trying to make sense of the situation as I ride home. First, she's a black woman in about her mid-30s and fairly well-dressed. I take this as a sign of middle-class education and prosperity. I figure, OK, white supremacists not able to handle racial diversity, yeah. Not that it excuses a white person to say the same thing. Or someone who is poor and therefore poorly educated - I get that too. But a black person?... Someone who probably has at least an elementary education? I guess I expect more from a black person considering how much discrimination and exploitation blacks faced in history and still face today. The second thing that kills me is I really want to talk about this to someone as I'm on the subway, because it's fresh and raw and is searing through my blood and bones, my entire being. I really need to hear someone else say, Hey, this lady is crazy and close-minded. Don't listen to her. But I start to worry. I think, Here's this woman living in one of the most diverse cities in the world and she is willing to completely disregard 1/3 of the entire global population based on what exactly? But before I decide I need to create a forum of racial discussion on the subway, a fear sparks inside, What if I talk about this to a random stranger and that person agrees with her? What if this is the day where all of people's subtle prejudices come out and I end up bearing the grunt of it? I can't deal with that. I can't possibly deal with someone agreeing with her, or making an excuse for her, or simply not caring. Instead of being numb, I would be in a blind rage if something like that happens. And the other thing that kills me is it's not actually true what I said. I'm only clearly Chinese to me. Some people say they can easily tell the difference between Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other Asians but I know I can't; so what if I wasn't Chinese? Would she tell me she doesn't like any Asians in general then? Thereby disregarding 2/3 of the entire global population?

I know I'm very lucky to live in Toronto. I haven't experienced racism to the degree I hear about in the United States or some European countries but this type of subtle, matter-of-fact racism still kills me inside. It's been over two-and-a-half-years of my university education and I feel extremely grateful for the type of post-secondary schooling I've received so far. I definitely feel like a more enlightened person when it comes to how society has been formed and why these cultural tensions exist. But if there is one thing I was taught in my elementary education that I've carried throughout my life is the basic idea of not to generalize.

Could I have possibly enlightened this woman from the time it took us to walk from the street entrance of the subway station to the train doors? Could I have given this woman a 60-second education on why as human beings we need to be respectful of one another and unlearn the discriminatory practices that seem to be embedded in our minds?

I don't think I could have. It may not have been the most clever or eye-opening retort, but that's probably why the only thing I could leave her with was, Yeah. Too bad for you.


Anonymous said...

Don't waste your time on people who are not capable of changing their opinions of other cultures.

Heather said...

I understand your sentiment but I suppose I'm learning to become a more active person rather than a passive one. I see that I am responsible for myself and for my own actions, but I don't think I can stand idly by anymore even for an incident that may seem as insignificant as this. And I think it is important trying to broaden people's minds and get them to open a little bit more even if the prospect seems futile.

Although it wasn't a very positive experience, I am proud that I was brave enough to face this woman because even seeing that bit of shame on her face when I confronted her... It may not be enlightenment but at least it's a sign that she does recognize what she is saying is wrong.

Anyway, thank you for your comment.