Thursday, October 18, 2012

Thoughts - Casual Racism

Thoughts - Casual Racism

I grew up in Calgary, which we affectionately call the 'Texas of the North'.  Truth is that I grew up a Chinese Canadian, a son to immigrant parents and for a long time didn't speak (and still don't read) Mandarin.  I had to bridge two cultural worlds, Chinese which I always felt I disinherited until I had left home, and being a Canadian.

It wasn't until I was in grade school that I became aware of race.  It first began to prevade into my life in terms of limitations.  In that way that schoolchildren will bully and ridicule, being Chinese meant I couldn't do some things.  Being Canadian meant I couldn't do some Chinese things.  It was as though race and culture were at cross-purposes to the things I wanted in life.

Skin colour is one of those fascinating, terrible things.  Like a number of things in our lives, we really have no control over it.  We're born into a race, and a culture.  We can embrace or reject it, sure.  And many of us do, to be fair.  But that particular book cover, you can never quite escape from.  I find it incredibly hard to describe to my friends who think of themselves as being caucasian solely.  Of course there isn't just that, but for those who have rejected their culture / race, they find it completely othering that I try to follow mine.

The real thrust of this post anyway, is that since moving to Vancouver I've encountered a sort of...fascinating freeing of certain stereotypical bias.

I'm not talking about active racism, which is unto itself in my opinion a different and harsher beast to deal with.  But instead about casual racism.

Casual racism is a certain pre-conceived bias, generally negative in most respects.   I've encountered it a lot in Alberta, as a general.  It's the sort of thing that when a Chinese young adult walks into a Parisian bakery, there's a tacit "what is he doing here?"  I suppose a portion of it may have also come from working in a predominantly Caucasian industry.  Theatre as a whole, both from the industry perspective, and being a patron of performance art, are both very white-centric.  African, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures are not very traditionally represented at Western musicals, Shakespeare or Improv comedy, to name a few.  Going to a performance of Beauty and the Beast as a member of my demographic garners more than a few turned heads and quizzical looks.

Similarly working on opera, I found myself often being questioned by others, what made me do it, why pursue westernized music?  Why couldn't I have been more traditional and followed a history of Chinese opera?  (I did do some Chinese operas by the way, just not professionally).  It was, and I would even venture to say is, a medium steeped in a certain amount of racial stereotyping.  The stories rely on racial stereotyping, the 'negro' servant, the 'coolie' vendor, so on and so forth.  Not that any of my peers have ever been 'overtly' racist to me, it is always a case of casual racism.  The kind you can laugh off, shrug away, joke about.  It's the kind that we poke fun at.  And then privately, hours after the fact you wonder if you should have done that.

Since moving to Vancouver, I feel like that shroud is lifting slightly.  Maybe I'm just too exhausted, or have my head in design more of the time, but I do feel like amongst my peers and the city in general, the idea of racism is fundamentally different.  Not to say that overt racism doesn't happen here, assuredly that is still alive and well.  But casual racism...totally different.

I'm going to ponder on this more.