Conversations Beyond the Performative

“The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.”
– bell hooks, All About Love


In the spirit of a nation that must be bridging, talking, and healing together, we have decided to launch a Blue Engine conversation series that we are calling Conversations Beyond the Performative*. Over the coming months, we will share a set of deeply personal, honest conversations with members of our Blue Engine community about their experiences with race, privilege, and power. By elevating different individual journeys, we aim to show what the journey looks and feels like for different members of the Blue Engine community–the gritty, messy, non-linear path of evolution. Our hope is that you will hear different perspectives and perhaps see yourself somewhere in this project; that you’ll reflect on your own mindsets and actions; and that you’ll join us in dialogue about the ways in which racist ideas permeate our institutions, lives, and classrooms. 

Transformed individuals are paramount to the kind of change and justice our country’s youngest generation so deserves. And transformation comes from learning, listening, and proactively working to change yourself, alongside the system. We have to be radical truth-tellers if we want the world to become a more just and equitable place for all of us.

The project launched on November 13, 2020 and will run through the end of the year. Check this page for new perspectives or join our mailing list to receive updates directly.


I’m tired of teaching white people about their own racism

Q: Who are you?

My name is Ray Cañada and I identify as Filipino-American. I grew up in New York City and was surrounded by a lot of diversity.  I grew up as a First generation North American and was raised by my parents and my grandmother. They really impressed on me the importance of assimilation, and as a result I don’t have a strong connection to Filipino culture (outside of the food experience and understanding of my parents dialect, which is completely different from Tagalog – the Philippine National Language).  Part of the complexity of race is feeling connected to the box one checks off.  I often struggle to identify as Asian because the Filipino culture I experienced does not feel the same as other Asian groups.

 

Q: When did you first become aware of your own racial identity?

I have always been aware of my ethnic identity.  Stepping into my household as a child was like stepping into another country.  The food, smells, language and various customs were different from the world outside my home.  At school, I was the only Filipino kid other than my brother, who was in another grade. Back when I was a middle school kid, I was often embarrassed about how different my family was from what I perceived was the normal “American” family.  

This continued until I was in college where I learned about internalized racism and was able to put to words what I have felt for a very long time. As an adult, I often struggle with how I identify.  I don’t feel fully embraced and part of “American” culture from a racial/ethnic lens.  I do feel as if White Eurocentric identity is what it means to be “American”.  One example of this is the fact that the tilde above the n in my last name is always a challenge to include in a typed format (let alone pronounce).  I frequently tell people my name is “Canada” just like the country to avoid the lengthy series of questions about the spelling and the background of my name.  

I also don’t feel connected to culture in the Philippines.  As a young adult I traveled there and it was such a strange feeling to no longer be the visible minority and look around and see faces of folks who look like me.  However, my inability to speak the language made me feel like an outsider.  As a parent of two bi-racial children, I struggle with how to affirm both sides of their identities when I don’t feel connected to either of them.  

 

Q: What does affirming both sides of their identities look like in your household? 

In terms of the affirming of the Filipino side, a lot of it is interaction with their grandmother. When they spend time together, they talk, engage in experiences of food, and my daughter is exposed to parts of the culture. She learns to say new words in Filipino. Part of the struggle of affirming the Filipino identity also relates to the options of children’s books and programming that exist.  While I struggle to identify as Asian, the limited number of books and programming  that have FilipinoAsian characters are the closest thing.  We have a book that contains narratives of Asian American historical figures and there are about three pages dedicated to Jose Rizal.  Currently we live in Pennsylvania, but it was far easier in New York for us to affirm this aspect of their identities. Even in a new town, it’s still important for us to nurture friendships with other parents of bi-racial children. In our family, we explicitly talk about the identity markers of the people around us. 

In terms of the white side of their identity, the everyday norm of American society automatically affirms it. She is automatically affirmed. We try to note for our daughter that the way she speaks is different from her grandmother who has a thick accent. We intentionally name for her that Lola speaks English, but she does so differently. In fact, she speaks more than one language. We explain to her that when Lola grew up, English was not her native tongue. We want to provide context as often as possible when differences arise. 

Bringing our daughter into the room to watch Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speak was a big moment. It was important for her to see the first woman Vice President who is also bi-racial, and for us as parents to name how amazing that is. We have to make a much more concerted effort to affirm her filipino identity. It’s a subculture within the umbrella of Asian, and there is no abundance of literature for us to go to. 

 

Q: What is your earliest memory of seeing, hearing, and/or experiencing a racist idea?

I remember being on a bus with my friend who was Korean and an older man got in his face and said, “Get to the back of the bus, we won the war!”  This was in the 90’s and at the time I did not realize the racist charge behind the statement.  At the time, I recognized that my friend was publicly embarrassed by a random stranger.  I also began to distance myself from Asian students at the time and did not want to be associated with this group and be the subject of humiliating remarks.  

 

Q: How is your understanding of racism, and what it means in the United States in particular, changing?

Racism is an extremely difficult thing to talk about across lines of difference; specifically people of color to white people. It is an emotional rollercoaster that I have found myself on throughout my whole life.  In 2008, after seeing Barack Obama elected President, I felt like there was so much progress made as a nation. Ten years earlier, the killing of Amadou Diallo and the officers being acquitted of all charges of his death made me lose hope in our country’s value of justice for all.  The fact that we could elect the first Black U.S President had restored my hope in who we are as a nation and that possibly changes in our justice system would follow. Twelve years later, I see the senseless killing of Black men and women and how there has been no change in our justice system from the time of Diallo’s death (and even before my birth). I find myself extremely upset and often powerless in this battle for equity in the justice system.  I work to channel this energy to working toward an equitable education system that will serve Black and brown communities with the same educational outcomes as white, affluent communities.  

 

Q: Let’s talk about what you named as the difficulty in being a person of color talking to a white person about race. It seems like the prevailing message these days is that we all just need to stop being so divisive and talk to each other. I want to invite you to say more about why this topic is so difficult to discuss with white people, from your vantage point.

Foremost, the challenge I see is a lack of empathy and an unwillingness to develop it. Something I’ve heard repeatedly throughout life is “where are you from?” and that’s a coded question. I am not being asked what state I grew up in, I am being asked about my ethnicity with the assumption that I am some outsider not from the U.S.  There is a disconnect of how and why a question like this would trigger a negative reaction.  Dominant white culture would respond with statements like, “Don’t be so sensitive.” I think it’s this point of disconnect on the felt experience level and blindspots about how an interaction might make someone feel. 

Also, I’m tired. As a person of color, the number of aggressions that I’ve experienced and witnessed…it’s just tiring for me to go through the emotional rollercoaster and then have to engage in the conversation that will trigger more emotional responses to have to navigate around. I’m fatigued. I’ve had these conversations repeatedly over and over again—old circles, new circles—and it’s tiring to engage in the same conversation my entire life. To what extent is there progress being made? I think about the idea that ignorance is bliss. How profound it must be to not have to race-splain just to get through the day.

Something else that makes conversations with white people about race so impossible is that it’s often difficult to know to what degree a person is aware of where they are in their own work. If I choose to engage and offer my time and experience and emotional labor, what if they respond with something like “I don’t see race, I see people.” When I hear that, I immediately understand that now it’s my burden to teach them, probably from step one, the flaws in that way of thinking. I’m saddled with this feeling that the only way to make progress is to teach, and I’m tired of teaching white people about their own racism. The burden of explaining oppression should not be on the oppressed. 

I think part of my exhaustion stems from this idea of moving through the world as a person of color in an active stance, versus a reactive stance. I actively have to understand dominant culture in order to operate within it and navigate my way through it. I have to understand nuance and subtext and what all of that means for my safety and success. I have to constantly try to pull clues from language and behavior about who to engage with and who to avoid. It’s draining to experience life as a chess game. White people, broadly, get to operate however they want. They don’t need to labor over understanding the rules of operation. Dr. Beverly Tatum uses the phrasing “dominant vs. target.” Dominant culture doesn’t need to know the experiences of target culture in order to operate in the world if they identify as white. If you’re dominant, you have a million poker chips. If you make a mistake, the penalty overall is small. If you’re a member of a target group, you are constantly losing poker chips and you don’t have many to give away to begin with. The incentives and motivation to put those chips forward is low, but you can’t opt out and it’s draining to constantly be calculating how to navigate every interaction.

 

Q: How is your thinking and sense of identity evolving regarding what it means to be “not racist” versus anti-racist?

Dr. Kendi’s definition of being anti-racist as actions from moment to moment has me thinking about how my actions consistently align with my beliefs.  I find myself struggling with consistently confronting racism as a person of color when I see it from white people now that I no longer live in NYC.

 

Q: What is it about moving out of the city that has changed the way you do or don’t confront instances of racism from white people? 

In New York, I was primarily engaging with people who are actively working to advance their ability to be an ally. There is an openness to engage in conversation about their various privileges. Another element layered on is that in New York City, there are less overt examples of racism through symbolism. I see more diverse sets of folks, I see LGBTQ+ flags, I see people interacting along lines of identity markers. 

Moving out to our town in Pennsylvania, we are now in a predominantly white environment and I simply don’t have access to the same kinds of circles in the same way. For example, seeing Trump banners and flags in almost every yard in the neighborhood—that’s something I never would have seen in my neighborhood in New York. It makes it difficult at times to be here. People are willing to put these signs in their yards, and many people view this as a symbol of hate, yet they do it anyway. It’s a powerful symbol, and it telegraphs a particular set of values. Displaying that yard sign or banner is so much more than participation in democratic process, it’s sending a message about a set of values and beliefs that is in direct opposition to mine. It’s a great relief to me when I see a Black Lives Matter poster or a Biden sign. I really don’t have many interactions with people here. My only touchpoint to DEI is through Blue Engine, and now we are working remotely. 

Before schools shut down, I was particularly worried about my daughter. She was going to school every day while Trump was on television using phrases like “China Virus” and I was very concerned that kids at school would call her names as a result. This rhetoric of hate from the President is not something she can control. It’s one thing for me to be the recipient of racist aggressions, but the idea that my daughter would be treated badly because of racist language used by the President is intolerable. 

 

Q: Each of us plays many roles—parent, leader, family member, educator, colleague, congregant, neighbor, etc.—in our daily lives. What does your anti-racism practice look like in each of the spaces that you occupy?

When I fail to act, I get down on myself.  It is easier to hold other people accountable when I know they recognize that racism and implicit biases exist. I merely ask what they mean by the statement they made and flag the impact of what  is communicated  through the lens of bias and racism.  This is not the case for people who don’t recognize that racism continues to exist.

 

Q: What is next for you and your anti-racism journey?

Development in my ability to address bias and racism in others as a person of color for groups that may not believe that racism still exists today. I often have this experience where I want to hold a certain belief, but that belief is difficult to put into action. I walk away feeling pissed off that I didn’t do something, but also in the long-run I have to consider how engaging in certain conversations may or may not have a resolution. What if that creates a wedge in my relationship with my in-laws, for example. I want my daughter to have a relationship with them, and they are helping us by caretaking so that we can work. Someone who is close to 70 is going to have a particular perspective on the world and maybe it’s a skill gap on my part. I don’t yet have the skill to engage in difficult conversations with white people about race without damaging important relationships. I see that as something very concrete for me to work on. 


*Participating in this project requires energyto reflect on ideas and personal experiences centered on race, power and privilegethat we acknowledge and appreciate. We specifically recognize the emotional labor involved for members of our team who identify as Black and/or People of Color; this reflection process is fundamentally different and perhaps more laborious for them than for our white colleagues. The unrestrained honesty, sincerity, and vulnerability is much appreciated and grounded in the collective belief that, by sharing these reflections, each of us will see ourselves, reflect on our own mindsets, join in the dialogue, and commit to actions and that will ultimately lead to justice and equity in our institutions, lives and classrooms.