The other day I got on the bus at the station ready to go home as any other, when behind me sat a couple of high school kids. They must have been fifteen. They were talking about the usual boy subjects, trying out their newly deepened voices as most fifteen-year-old boys. They lived along the same bus route as me, but as I noticed from their conversation, they did not go to the same high school I went to. One went the the private school and one went to the French immersion school. A topic of conversation between the kids that came up was that the school district was considering adopting a new program called Mandarin Immersion, for the growing Mandarin speaking population. This was seen as a negative as they said that those Mandarin kids already speak their language at school anyways and they will only talk to other people from behind their electronic dictionaries. The boys said that if they (Mandarin people) didn’t know English, then they should not be allowed to live here. There were intonations surety in their voices as both seemed to come to an agreement on their views of a possible new program. The subject changed and they were building good feelings between each other; I could feel the warmth of their conversation as they were kindling a friendship. Meanwhile I felt hot from what I’d just heard.
Not finding a right time to interject to the two, they continued talking as the bus passed the high school I went to. Almost home, I thought, almost home.
Like the start of most friendships, they started talking about common interests. Gym class came up as one complained about doing a Military week at his school where they trained like soldiers. Today they had to crawl through the grass after each time they ran around the track. He liked his teacher. His name sounded familiar, but being in my own thoughts I wasn’t sure I heard properly. As chance had it, the other had this teacher before and that’s when I caught it, “Yeah, I really like him, too. Mr. Le’s my favourite teacher.”
In Grade 7, our teacher hurt her knee rollerblading over the weekend when at a teacher development day, doing a team building exercise. As a result, we were given a substitute teacher. In Science, we were in the middle of studying tectonic plates and the geological events that happen because of them: earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. Our main assignment for Science was to make a storybook of how natural disasters affect cities.
My substitute teacher’s name was Mr. Le. He grew up in Vancouver and was Chinese like me.
Testing my identity and my newly deepened voice, I chose to make a panel about a tsunami off the shores of a West Coast city called Hongcouver, nation capital of Japanada. I thought it was hilarious. I was confident in my choice and the laughter and recognition I would get from my peers.
Mr. Le didn’t think it was so funny. He said those terms were derogatory. He took obvious offense to it.
I was confused, I’d really liked Mr. Le. I thought out of all the times we’d laughed in class, that this joke he would get.
Racism does not commonly manifest itself as overt discrimination in Canada these days. It is internalized, subtle and often invisible. Racism hovers around the fuzzy border of a private joke between friends and the misunderstanding and ignorance of well-intentioned colleagues or acquaintances. It is systemic and personal. But even though it is not always identifiable, it is no less real. Our challenge is to remember that it exists, and to act when we see it happen, by speaking up when we hear someone say something racist because we take offense to what they said, not who they are. Racism exists and the danger is when we pretend to be small and shrink from it, letting it go unseen and unheard.