The organization I work for is gigantic and is consequently comprised of a great diversity of workers. When I say ‘great’, I’m not implying that we have a necessarily positive diversity. I just mean to say, yes, there are a lot of different type of people. So, I guess as logic dictates would be true, much like the larger populous, some of these people are completely shitty assholes. They’re stupid, ignorant, and very vocal (a strange trait that frequently accompanies the first two…the U to their Q if you will).
Now, since this is a large and old organization, time has taught it to equip itself with certain strategies to appear more inclusive. One of these strategies is to have a committee of ’employment equity’ which is obviously almost exclusively comprised of white folks. Now, to maintain in its tradition of pretending to care about equality, it throws certain events from time to time. This time around, they advertised a ‘lunch and learn’ with the added bonus of trying various world teas. When I saw this event, I became mildly excited and decided to sign up. This is the closest thing that my workplace offers to a topic that elicits passion in me. It is an hour long session on a random Wednesday afternoon and is also meant to swallow your 30 minute lunch break.
So arrives the fair Wednesday afternoon. As I make my way to the session, I’m a little nervous. At first, I attribute this nervousness to my uncertainty about obtaining and consuming lunch for the day (God forbid I have to skip lunch cause in that case, fuck this session! I’ve already lost breakfast to an extra 15 minutes of sleep.) but then I realize that it is actually because I feel that in sharing this space with people from work, I will allow them in to a more private part of me. Not to say that I have ever been silent or ambiguous about these subjects, but they will know that out of the plethora of different events that the organization hosts, this is what we all went out of our way to attend. It would be like a silent, shared revolution. I was also very excited to see faces of people of color who I might have never seen or noticed before and who may share my worldviews, or more importantly, people who I know already but can upgrade to the category of badass G’s who I fucks with.
As I arrive at the room, I see mostly white people. First and foremost, I battle my own preconceptions and prejudice. I notice that some of them are people with disability. I also realize that it may be a good thing that white people are exposed to ideas concerning equity, specifically employment equity. It is commonly a hot topic within the federal government and people generally have a lack of understanding as to why equity is important. When I say people, I mean an ignorant herd of white males.
My next concern are the speakers: the handouts provided prior the the presentation indicate that we will be hearing from an Assistant Professor from the Department of Sociology at Grant MacEwan University and I think yay! This is good. This is going well. There are 6-7 different types of teas to choose from and they all look excellent. I grab myself a nice hot cup of some oolong blend and run into some friendly colored faces and get seated.
The presentation begins. The professor begins by addressing the fact that majority of us hold at least some racist attitudes and beliefs. Then she goes on to explain that the first response white people typically tend to have to these ideas is that of defensiveness and denial. I’m very happy that this enlightenment is being bestowed upon my coworkers who desperately need it. She explains that even as a Sociology professor, she constantly has to check herself for the racism that makes its way in her repertoire through mass media and the like. She goes on to explain that historically, though there has been a hierarchy even within white people (e.g. Ukrainians were less desired migrants in comparison to the English and were given a much more difficult land to cultivate), people of color and especially indigenous people in North America have been disproportionately disadvantaged (not only could they not own aforementioned land, but also endured other blatantly destructive atrocities). A part of me is also disappointed that most of the conversation seems targeted at white people. It is meant to help them recognize their racist attitudes, and explain the history of why employment equity is necessary. Okay, so I won’t directly benefit from this or gather the resources that I had hoped for, but I’m glad that many of my white coworkers have this avenue to learn. I also have the infrequent opportunity to refresh/add-things to my pre-existing knowledge base and that’s something I cannot complain about having in an otherwise soul-sucking corporate environment.
The second speaker is Aboriginal and shares with us her culture pre-colonization and talks about reclaiming her identity. It turns out that she is a survivor of residential school. She also educates us about the wounded state of her community, their consistent struggle to remember who they are, and the principles that guide her community (kindness, honesty, sharing, and strength). I appreciate this very much. I fight back tears at the mention of residential schools and convince myself that it would be embarrassing as hell if I let ’em go. I avoid eye contact. My fear of showing vulnerability distracts me for a few seconds. Then I re-focus and revel in the moment.
Once the speakers are done speaking, they urge us to ask questions. The room is completely silent and we are all aware that pressing further on these topics will educate us too deeply about each other’s thoughts. The three organizers feel the need to participate so as not to make things awkward. One of the white women goes up and says, “I feel that racism is on the rise. Every time I turn on the news, I feel like there’s all this racism and it’s everywhere. What can we do at the agency XYZ to improve things?” The professor decides to respond to this. She begins by saying, “well, firstly, I’d like to point out that racism is actually not increasing. It has always been there. We are just now able to record it so it’s more visible. You may have not paid attention because it didn’t affect you directly. Secondly, I feel that these type of events are something we like to call in the academic community, ‘sushi and samosas’. So essentially, white people like to eat foods from other cultures or drink different teas, however, they still don’t want people of color living in the house next to them.” And I’m thinking, “yesssssss, what a ballerrr. Luv it luv it luv it.” I leave the venue feeling good and engage in some meaningful discussions with a coworker of color. At this point, I’m completely in the dark about what’s to come.
Later that day, the same white lady who asked the question (let’s call her E for the purposes of this conversation) is in our ‘lunch-room’ packing up the teapots in which the tea was served. My close friend is hanging around waiting for me as I warm up my lunch. He remarks to E, “oh wow, that’s a lot of tea pots.” E responds, “yup, just coming back from this lunch and learn about employment equity.” She hasn’t taken note of my presence yet. My friend responds, “Oh yeah? What did you guys talk about?” I should also mention that my friend likes to pull these stunts where even though he has prior knowledge of the contents of the event (in this case via me), he pretends that he doesn’t in order to gauge the untainted perception of other attendees. I’ll break down the rest in an easier format:
E: Well, it was interesting. It was about racism and stuff. I asked this question to the presenter and I thought her response was quite funny.
Friend: I see. What did you ask?
E: I asked what we can do at the agency XYZ about racism and she responded telling us about this thing…she called it ‘sushi and samosas’. I thought that was pretty funny. She said it encourages racism.
Friend: Wait, what do you mean? Encourages as in it helps racism increase or decrease?
Naive me interrupts: No! Increase. She meant to imply that sharing cultural foods is not necessarily helpful in issues of racism.
E: No, no. I meant decrease. She meant it like helps racism. Cause if you think about it, it’s true. That’s how we learn about other cultures and it’s great. I mean I’ll eat samosas…. and sushi too. I like them.
As you can imagine, I am completely baffled. What in the what?! This brings on a two-fold depression within me: 1) that people I work with are not only racist, but have this magical ability to manipulate educational information and construe it into what they want to hear, 2) I work around idiots and this lady makes more $ than me. Another part of me, the part that is purely writer and nothing else, finds this absolutely hilarious. I partially find comfort in the knowledge that I will use this anecdote to mock this person in many conversations to come. In that same day, as I chat with my mother, she reveals that the lady who sits beside her (who was also present at said session) explained that the session more or less consisted of an Aboriginal lady claiming that, “this is basically our land”. Sighs.
The next really extraordinary event happens a few days later when one of my friends sends me an email, telling me that one of the white, male attendees who has shown an inability to grasp these issues in the past, is wanting to file a grievance with the Union. He is grieving on the basis that he feels that he was being oppressed at this conference. So, I think, ‘hahahaha, what?’. But it gets better. He also wants to use me of all people, me, to provide a statement that would substantiate his claims. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH.
HAHAHA HA HAHAHAHA
On a complete side-note, while searching for images to ‘feature’ on this post, I came across this one, which I eventually selected as a winner for reasons that will soon become obvious (DISCLAIMER FOR POC: DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME [OR WORK]):
This was titled, “Tactfully Handle a Racist Boss – Step 3 – Call him out on his remark tactfully“. Apparently, step 3 is just to ‘tactfully’ tell him, “wow, that was racist”, after which, I can’t really imagine what step 1 and 2 could be. Also, wow, I continue to learn everyday the type of things that white people can get away with and never cease to be amazed.
I think this is incredible. First of all, this session was entirely voluntary. In fact, the spots were quite limited so one would have to go completely out of their way to participate. So, not only does this man have the nerve to occupy a spot that could have been used to benefit a minority instead but he also then wants to claim that this was somehow infringing on his rights?! This man is BUTT HURT that he was not the center of this conversation. He makes claims such as, “they used the blanket statement ‘white-man'” and “I just wanted to enjoy some tea because it said that’s what would happen but instead I was insulted” and “I felt oppressed”. A part of me thinks this is the funniest thing, truly. But a more serious part of me understands why this is so goddamn depressing.
At the end of my day today, the day following my dramatic run-in with my racist co-worker(s), I encountered an indigenous woman in the streets accompanied by a white man. It sounded very much like she was on some drugs, but she was loudly and repeatedly exclaiming, “I hate white people. They just don’t understand. I can’t deal with them anymore. Only brown people understand. I just hate white people. They’re not nice. They always treat us like this. I’m not talking to them anymore. I only like brown people.” And I thought…this. This is life in the prairies.