I remember being a little girl growing up in London, Ontario. One of a handful of Asian families in the city – notable in high school because there was another ‘Lo’ family with lots of kids, and we were all interchangeable. I remember being called a ‘banana’ – yellow on the outside, white on the inside – and really identifying with this label. I started introducing myself as a banana – proud of my ‘internal whiteness’ and ability to be, act, and sound Western.
I knew early in life that my job as a good Chinese-Canadian daughter of immigrant parents was to be successful. And putting on my mask of “Whiteness” would help me achieve that.
Only recently did I realize it was a mask. My entire identity was tied directly to dominant Western culture and traditions, and my perception of an ‘overly strict Chinese upbringing’ made me reject my own Asian-ness. I wore my ‘exoticness’ as a badge when it benefitted me, and laughed when my friends told me they ‘forgot I was even Chinese.’ I took it as a compliment.
This mask had crystallized so completely that when my first real experience of racial tension showed up at Hollyhock, I didn’t know if I belonged in the POC (People of Colour) caucus or the White caucus. Don’t bananas exist somewhere in between?
My DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) journey of the past 15 months has been a swift current. I have benefitted from mentors and Wise Ones along the way — Jada-Gabrielle Pape, Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Akaya Windwood and my sisters in the New Universal — and I heard time and again that self-examination was to be the first step on one’s own learning journey, and on the path to collective liberation. So I cracked myself open, examining my unconscious biases and my own painful complicity with perpetuating systems of power and oppression. I sat in circles with BIPOC folks (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), listening to stories of harm and good intent — and how both co-exist, repeatedly and often. I confronted my own defensiveness, blindspots (is this word acceptable?) and fragility, to reveal the truths in the discomfort beneath.
The subtext to all this was my own internalized racism, which resulted in the painful (and harmful) rejection of my own Asian-ness and the upholding of white culture as dominant and superior. I have observed how a culture of whiteness transcends the presence of POC who may work in that system (especially if the POC are bananas). And how naming our privileges is not enough when our behaviours continue to uphold old colonial power structures.
In a highly impactful training this past year – Conscious Use of Power, by Inner Activist – I learned about Leticia Nieto’s work describing “agent” and “target” skills models. I began to more fully grasp the concept of intersectionality – that most of us are made up of a composite of privileged and marginalized identities. I am a woman, and I am a person of colour. These are “target” or marginalized identities I am also middle class, educated, and straight. These are “agent” or privileged identities. I began to notice my own ease with which I reference my marginalized identities. How quickly the conversation can devolve into some form of “Oppression Olympics.” But how real growth and learning came from the illumination of my own blindspots as an agent. Moments when I have realized my education and class privileges that have made these systems invisible to me, as someone who has benefitted from them – systems that give access to a few at the expense of many. How we don’t all start from the same starting line. How we are all both the oppressed and the oppressor. And how each of our liberation is tied to one another.
We don’t all start from the same starting line. We are all both the oppressed and the oppressor. Each of our liberation is tied to one another.
My challenge to myself, and to people reading this post, is to consider the ways in which you may be complicit with systems of power. How you may have received privilege or access because of your gender, class, race, ability, age, sexual orientation (or any other dimension of social rank or diversity) – and rather than feeling defensive or fragile about this privilege, or defaulting to explaining how you have also been the oppressed, consider that we are all part of a larger system of dominant culture. And if we are to re-imagine a world of true equity, access, and inclusion – it will require a dismantling of all such systems, which will require all of us. This is not a black, brown, or white issue. It is an everyone issue. As Akaya Windwood has memorably taught me, ‘we are all kin — cousins, sisters, boyfriends, pals.’ Liberation will require love between us, above all else.
So with that, it is time to shed my ‘banana’ label. It was an identity that served me in its own way as a young person, but I think it’s time to throw it in the compost now. It will become seed for something new… Owning my Chinese-ness has never been an option before, and feels incredibly revealing and vulnerable. So if I introduce myself in circle with you as Lo Ka-Ling, ask me to repeat it again. Ask me to repeat it slowly if you really want to learn to say it. Call me ‘Ling’ for short. I like the way it sounds a whole lot better than ‘banana.’
Photo Credit: Amanda Mary Creative