Six years ago, a small organization focused on combating racial discrimination hired me for my project management skills. I had neither academic nor professional experience working in anti-oppression. Until that point, my social justice work had been about service: helping an individual by doing.
But anti-racism work is fundamentally different, as I learned through frantic late night reading, Youtube videos and one-sided conversations where I asked questions and stayed silent. It’s anti-racism, after all. To boldly declare “I don’t get it” wasn’t commonplace in this line of work. So, I listened … and I struggled. The insights, the knowledge, the questions— they slowly stripped away my identity and replaced it with something else that still didn’t fit.
Those of us who work in anti-oppression make the analogy: learning about racism is like Neo’s journey in The Matrix. To quote the character of Morpheus, “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
The red pill is an understanding of racism. And with it comes insights on sexism, hetero-sexism, able-ism. All of it. Like the movie, our “matrix” embeds the false understanding in our collective psyche that the oppression in educational, justice, and health systems are natural evolutions. And this understanding, like an undetected virus, is reinforced, disseminated and worst of all—normalized—in everything we read, hear, and see. The red pill catalyzes the conscious recognition that inequitable systems are created on purpose and designed to sustain themselves. And you can never give that red pill back.
The red pill changed my life in unexpected ways. Its biggest impact would be in my identity as a writer. Until that time, I had firmly planted my feet in the speculative fiction genre. Despite the fact that my favorite childhood fictional heroines didn’t have black hair, almond eyes, and rich brown skin, I still had no desire to create a narrative about someone that didn’t look like me. So, I had convinced myself that the only believable—marketable—story with an Asian heroine was one that took place on another planet and in another world.
The insights, the knowledge, the questions— they slowly stripped away my identity and replaced it with something else that still didn’t fit.
I thought I was a speculative fiction writer because I relished creating new worlds and exploring societal issues without being limited by reality. (That’s what all speculative fiction writers tell themselves). But, I also had started out in this genre because I had unconsciously internalized racism.
My other insight related to being the daughter of immigrants. I knew the history of Filipinos in Edmonton very well; I had written a piece for the Edmonton Heritage Council. The history of Filipinos settling in Alberta is tied, as in current times, to labour demands in Western Canada. The origin story of my community is based on fulfilling a need.
This narrative is similar to most economic immigrant communities. We carve a place in the Canadian landscape with the belief that if we work hard and earn our keep, then we deserve to be here. But as a second-generation immigrant, I hadn’t learned that the privilege of building a life in Canada is built upon the colonization of Indigenous peoples. Our opportunity comes at the expense of another nation’s oppression. Whether or not we are original settlers does not matter. We are still settlers. And as a settler, I no longer could safely distance myself from that identity and the responsibility it carried.
Those of us who work in anti-oppression make the analogy: learning about racism is like Neo’s journey in The Matrix.
The red pill enabled me to speak openly about race and racism and the freedom intoxicated me. But the new understanding of my identity also created the biggest challenges in my career.
To be an educator in anti-racism, I had to convince people of the existence of racism in the first place. The topic of learning was the validity of mine and others’ experiences as racialized persons. Although social media, Twitter and the blogosphere have enabled voices and digital witnesses to document an awareness of the “matrix” like never before, I continued to hear learners of all races excuse racial discrimination before they realized they were even doing so: “they didn’t intend it”; “it only happened once”; or “maybe it was a misunderstanding”.
I re-lived the anxiety and anger every time I heard those justifications. Racialized men and women consider and re-consider these possibilities before they courageously push through society’s expectations to stay silent. And it tired me to stay silent once again.
Because as an educator in anti-racism, I had to create space for others to learn and grow without judgment. When I witnessed the struggle and heard people work through stereotypes and misperceptions, I could not respond with how I felt. I had to respond with understanding.
I had learned that being an anti-racism educator meant I was not lecturing – I was liberating. The true work wasn’t through sharing theories of oppression or how bias is repeated and re-inforced. The work was in engendering empathy, not sympathy. It was in enabling others to understand that “the matrix” is built on the oppression of many and their job is to integrate that awareness, instead of turning away. It was a huge step for those learners in which my own hurt and impatience created only barriers, not supports.
So, I disguised my disbelief and my discouragement. I built an alliance with the learner, so I could help build a more equitable society. And I hoped that my true feelings weren’t apparent, otherwise that opportunity to move things forward was lost.
To be an educator in anti-racism, I had to convince people of the existence of racism in the first place.
I have witnessed many brave individuals of different races take the red pill and embrace all the discomfort that comes with it. It was incredibly rewarding.
But unlike other jobs, at the end of the day, I could not put my struggles on the shelf and leave it in the office. If a presentation or project did not achieve as much as it could have, I felt as if I had disappointed my community rather than my employers. I needed to re-calibrate and reconcile myself with the slow steps forward (or even backwards) that are inevitable in evolutions that take place over generations, not years. I left my job and work in research now.
But I’m searching for strategies to make anti-oppression work sustainable. I believe there is a way that joy and hope can fuel that undertaking, rather than frustration and fatigue. I suppose my exploration is an indicator that my journey in anti-racism work is not yet over.
Roxanne Felix likes to wear many hats – community advocate, public health professor, research evaluator, speculative fiction and creative fiction writer. Her short stories have been featured in a number of anthologies. She was born and raised in Edmonton, after her parents immigrated from the Philippines in the 1960s.
Photo by William Tham.