What is the Problem?

­­­­­“What can we do to make you feel safe and supported?”

Safe and supported?

What does that even mean?

Two years ago, I was standing at the sample cart at Teavana, and two businessmen walked by me. One was white and one was of mixed race. As they walked by, I asked if they would like a sample, and what did they say?

“Como estas?”

When my expression changed, they knew they had done something wrong. So I asked them again, “Would you like a sample?”

What was the response?

“Oh, I’m sorry. Ni hao?”

So… fix a racist situation with a different form of racism. This was their solution. I thought I’d be witty and respond in Mandarin to which their final words before completely ignoring my initial question were, “Oh, so you’re Japanese?”

What is the point?

It’s not secret that Starbucks has been in the media lately because of the recent sensitivity training. In fact, we were told not to talk to the press about what was discussed, and I couldn’t help but start speculating why we weren’t supposed to say anything.

What if it didn’t work?

What if it backfired?

There were so many routes this could have gone, and my first response to realizing I was attending this was, “Why do I need to go to this?” I’m one of two minorities at this location. What are we learning that I would benefit from? What was this going to do for me in a lifelong situation that could never end because people don’t just change because you tell them to? But this was my opportunity to tell people about what I’ve seen and the things I’ve heard. This was my open window to let everyone know that no one is safe from experiences like this.

The training wasn’t a waste of my time, but I could think of a few ways that I would’ve rather preferred. We were asked questions like, “When did you first realize your racial identity?”

My… racial identity? You mean when did I realize I was Asian? At birth. I never had an epiphany about that, but was I supposed to? What are these questions even supposed to do? Why would I need to be asked this? My racial identity is not in question here.

Why are you asking me about my race when you should be asking why other people treat me differently?

Let’s start a dialog, I realized, there were things that these people did not know about me.

So I talked.

I talked about my experiences and things that, honestly, I did not realize people had not ever known. The issue here was that Starbucks is such a large company that not everyone could listen to what the minorities had to say.

“I learned so much about –”

You learned about another white person. You learned about what someone within your ethnic group has gone through, and your ethnic group is not the minority. Look, we’ve all gone through shit, but not in the way you think. Learning about another majority and his life was not the point. That was far from the point.

So what is the point?

We don’t expect you to understand.

We would never expect you to understand.

Understanding isn’t the point. The things we’ve experienced growing up are scenarios I’d never wish on anyone. Growing up feeling ashamed of who you were or even being embarrassed to bring food from home into school because “That looks weird, why would you eat that.” Is this something you want to understand?

Are you capable of understanding it?

Are you capable of understanding how people will simply look at me differently because I was born with this face? Can you even begin to understand that even within our own communities, there is bias?

This was the point; Starbucks wanted us to understand that there is a bias here. They wanted us to understand that we may treat people differently based on appearance. But what good does that do if you don’t know what you, yourself, are doing?

I don’t want you to understand, I need you to know that these things happen, and they happen all the time.  Whether it’s you who does it it or someone around you who does it—these things happen all the time. You don’t need to understand why because what is the real reason why?

Even we don’t know. We just know it happens.

You want us to understand each other better—but what do I need to understand about you? Why do I need to understand you when I’m one of you? I grew up in America; I was raised on American standards and my ethical structure was based on American standards. But because I look different and I haven’t let go of my roots, I must be treated differently and with more sensitivity. I must be able to tell you all that “I feel safe.”

Do you even feel safe?

I feel like everyone is missing the point.

I don’t want to be treated differently than you. I don’t want to have a standard set to me by someone who doesn’t understand that my culture alone gave me standards from the second I was born.

You asking me if I know a certain dish because I’m Filipino doesn’t make you culturally sensitive or aware. You acknowledging that you have another Filipino friend doesn’t make you culturally diverse either. Do you want to be culturally aware? Treat me like you would anyone else. If you don’t like me, it better be because I’m a bad person and not because of my ethnicity. If you give me special treatment, it better be because I’m having a difficult time with things and not because I’m the minority.

This is the point.

Stop treating us like we’re looking for protection. The strongest form of protection is to just stop assuming that we need it and act the way you would with anyone else. You would defend a friend who is being treated differently without reason. Why can’t you do that for anyone else? If you just did that, then we wouldn’t need to have things like sensitivity training. We wouldn’t have racial bias in the media.

They even asked us what we would tell people about this training. What did you learn?

My first response would be that it was bullshit. Not a surprise, but any other minority who asked me about the training today already assumed it would be bullshit.

My second response would be that there is no correct answer for that. I can’t tell you what I learned because I honestly learned nothing. I told you my story, but I’ve told this story hundreds of times and there are so many people in the world whose stories you haven’t heard. I did not need to learn things about you. You were supposed to learn about me and what it is like living as someone who is unlike you. I can’t change the way I act because I treat you all like I would anyone else. But all of you—and I mean all of you—need to show me what you learned by treating everyone with the same amount of respect you expect to receive. And I need all of you to use the one aspect of your life that I will never have.

I was not born with the voice you have.

And I will never earn it for as long as I live because I can be an American for years and years and years but I will never let go of who I am.

I will never have the voice you were born with, but would I let go of my culture just for that voice? Hell, no. Are you proud of your roots? Do you know what your parents went through to get you where you are? That’s the difference between my culture and yours. I grew up knowing that things would never be handed to me. I had to work for it. And every little bit of my life that I have worked for is something I earned, but none of it will be mine until I give back to my family.

So I am treated differently—I can be told “Wow, you’re so white” because I grew up in America and adapted. Why is it that I’m either too American or too Asian? How is it that you can define me when I don’t even try to identify myself?

But with that voice you were born with, you can say whatever you want, and because of that, I expect you to act when you see racism. I can be as tough as I want because I need to compensate for the color of my skin, but when someone challenges my right to live in a place I was born into, sometimes there isn’t anything I can say to defend myself even if I am saying the right words. You, as the majority, can say exactly what I said, but it will impact the world more than I ever could. Why? Because you aren’t Asian.

Because you aren’t Latino.

Because you aren’t African American.

You aren’t what you deem as the lesser of the world.

I’m a proud Asian American. I am proud of myself for knowing where I come from. I can proudly announce that I am Filipino. I’m proud of everything I was given and everything I earned because I learned that things can’t always be easy for me. I am proud to say that I am Asian. I’m from the place that some of you idolize and some of you despise. I’m proud to represent a people of color who work until their fingers bleed just to make sure their family will never suffer. I’m so proud, and I will never let go of that pride. The pride we are born with is something we can hold on to, and it is the only thing that you will never be able to take away from me.

Where are you in this box that you can’t see that you will always treat me differently? The saddest part is that this is something that most of us have just come to expect.

We, as the minority, understand that we may never be treated the same as you.

That is the point.

Why is it that we understand that you will never understand us, but you can’t understand that you are incapable of understanding us?

We understand.

It’s time for you to learn that being “color brave” doesn’t make you a hero.

Seeing me as a human being is the simplest thing you can do.

Can you look one of us in the eye and ask what we’ve been through?


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