This post was originally published on my previous website on January 12, 2018.
Dear Mr. President,
First thing first... I’m Canadian. You’re not my President. Yet time and time again, you’ve dragged all of us—women, people of colour, advocates, allies, global citizens, Kingdom people—into this through your comments and your actions.
Yesterday, you called the homes of millions of people a term that I struggle to repeat on my blog. You—the man that holds the most powerful political office in the world—used a vulgarity in one of the highest offices in the world that many, if not most, people rarely to never dare to use in their own offices, schools and homes. That alone is an abuse of your power.
But this letter isn’t to tell you to watch your language—you should probably know that. This letter isn’t even to tell you that I’ve been to Haiti and that it’s beautiful, or that one of the most precious girls in my life is from Africa and that she is beautiful. Plenty of people are doing that, and I will let them speak on behalf of all of us who work every single day with the resilient, beautiful, incredible people of the Global South to breathe beauty and love and wonder into this messy world.
No, this letter is on behalf of children of colour who live in America.
You see, in this season, I’m trying to work on giving people the benefit of the doubt. I’m trying to work out of the overflowing grace of Jesus in the way I respond both privately and publicly to events, people and situations in my life. So even though the cynical side of me absolutely does not want to, I’m going to try and approach your comment under the assumption that you are simply ignorant. That your racist comment comes because as a white man that grew up in America, you are simply ignorant to the experience of people of colour in America / North America, and you are ignorant to the ravaging effects that your comments have on young, impressionable children of colour.
So, I humbly ask you to hear me out for a few minutes as I explain.
I grew up as a first-generation Asian-Canadian in a primarily white neighbourhood just outside of Toronto, Canada. I was privileged to have some exposure to cultural diversity, since Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. But my primary experience was one where whiteness was default and everything else was Other.
It starts innocently enough. Maybe it’s Remembrance Day (that’s Veteran’s Day, for you) celebrations at school. The history class that goes along with it is about the trenches in Europe and the men and women that fought those wars—for freedom, for liberty. The assignment that goes along with it is to see if your ancestors fought in those trenches. My classmates go home, and come the next day with stories of their grandparents who are war heroes. Their ancestors are celebrated for their contribution to the peace and freedom that we enjoy here in Canada today.
But my ancestors did not fight in those trenches. So these little doubts enter my mind: Are my ancestors weak? Does my family not contribute to making Canada peaceful and free?
Then maybe it’s a trip to the movies. Maybe it’s every trip to the movies I ever took throughout my childhood and youth. The main character is always white, by default. Their experience is always one that white people have, or at least “default Americans” have, so why not just cast a white actor, since, remember, whiteness is always default in the world I grew up in. It’s the same story when I turn on the T.V. or read books.
There are never people of colour in those stories. Definitely no Asians. Definitely no Asian heroes. So those little doubts are reinforced: Is the experience of people like me not worth depicting in the media? Is my experience always second to the default of whiteness?
Then maybe it’s a few innocent enough comments I heard ever so often. “Your dad says that word funny.” “Nothing’s more Canadian than summers at the cottage and winters at the ski resort!” “I love Chinese food. You’re so lucky, your mom must make Chinese food every night for dinner.” “Can you say something in Chinese?” “There are terrorists in the Philippines, right?” “I would never go to China.”
But I’ve always understood my dad, even when he enunciates every syllable in comfortable as if it’s a Filipino word. My family has never had or wanted a cottage, and we’ve never been skiing. And so on. And those little doubts start screaming: Is there something wrong with the way my family operates? Is there something so exotic or different about Chinese food and language that makes people so interested in it? Is there something wrong with the countries that my family is from?
Are the places I’m from sh*tholes?
I’ve come a long way, Mr. President. I am so proud of where I’m from. I am so proud of the diversity that I and my fellow people of colour bring to this country, and the stories we can start to tell.
But yesterday when I heard about what you said, my mind immediately went to the black, brown and yellow kids all over North America who have had those little doubts bouncing around in their minds all their life. And I was bowled over with grief at the realization that the most powerful man in the world had just validated their deepest, darkest doubt by stating that the places they're from are sh*tholes.
I know it’s hard for you to understand because you’ve never experienced what I just described to you. But I hope you can try.
I hope you can start to listen to the experience of people of colour in America.
I’ll end off with this:
To my white friends... This isn’t about anti-whiteness. This isn't about discounting who you are, what you contribute to this world, or implying that your whiteness is wrong. I want you to know that from the deepest parts of who I am. What this is about is recognizing that people of colour experience a wildly different America than you do, especially in times like the one we’re in now. And we want you to hear our experience so that you can begin to link arms with us in change. It’s not just about the way we teach history, or represent in the media, or the passing comments we make... it’s much more systemic than that. But we can start to change those systems of oppression when we hear each other, hold each other, and build each other up.
To those from Haiti, countries in Africa, Mexico, El Salvador, and other countries in the Global South, and especially first generation kids in North America... I know for many of you, it will be a long time—maybe never—before you get to see the place you’re from again or for the first time. And based on what you see in the media, sometimes it’s hard to believe that those places are beautiful. But they are. They are not sh*thole countries. They are even so much more than “very poor and troubled”, as the President put it when he tried to rescind his vulgar comment today. They are places that were created by Creator God—just like you. And even in the midst of messiness and brokenness, that same Creator God has a deep desire to reconcile and redeem and restore and because of that, the place you are from is home to many beautiful, wonderful, divine stories of hope and restoration—stories just. like. yours.