August 21, 2015

What Portland Taught Me About My Race.

A couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I were watching a TV show on Netflix. I was really enjoying it, until a specific scene played.

It showed two white male characters in a seedy massage parlour, the kind of place that offers "happy endings". Then the female masseuse came out. She was of course, Asian, and spoke with a heavy Asian accent. She was the kind of stereotypical character you'd expect to say, "Me love you long time!"

A year ago, I would have felt mild irritation at such a played-out, one-dimensional trope of a character, but then continued watching the series anyway, swallowing the lump of irritation.

But something had changed for me.

I was angry. Furious, actually.

My anger had, at its root, disgust. I was disgusted by how non-white people are portrayed in such an insulting, limited way all the time. I couldn't watch the rest of it the episode, and I in fact stopped watching the entire series all together.



Why couldn't the Asian woman be one of the lead characters? I know lots of smart, funny Asian women who have interesting lives of variety - just like I know lots of white women like this. But in the media, white women get to be multidimensional lead characters - and Asian women get stuck with these stupid "love you long time" roles.

I talked to my boyfriend about my frustration at this, and he asked, "But those Asian massage parlours actually exist... They're real places - so it's not entirely inaccurate, right?"

"Yes," I said. "But why is it that we are only shown this part of the whole spectrum of Asian women over and over again? In the media, we see the whole spectrum of humanity in the variety of white female characters - but for Asian women, we only see these ridiculous roles. Why can't we see an Asian woman just play a regular person, the way we see a white woman just play a regular person?"

And I could see that he immediately got what I was saying. Since then, he's said that he's started to see ridiculous racial stereotyping a lot more in day-to-day life, and in the media as well.

Once your eyes are opened to how pervasive racial stereotyping is, you can never un-see it. 

I was so, so, SO tired of non-white people in movies and TV being portrayed as one-dimensional stereotypes, while white characters were always portrayed as unique, individual, multidimensional characters.

Anyone non-white was relegated to a sidekick role, or to playing a stereotypical character whose ultimate purpose was to either amuse or serve the white characters.

(We see a similar theme in the news. When a white person shoots up a church or a theatre, they're "mentally ill", or "a lone wolf". When anyone who's not white commits an act of violence, they're a "terrorist" or a "thug". The white person gets examined as an individual - the non-white person gets blanketed by society's general characterizations of their race.)

This has always irritated me, but it was something that I'd just accepted as a shitty reality that, while changing, seemed to do so at a glacial pace.

Over the next few days, I started thinking about why something that had only irritated me before now filled me with incredible anger.

It came down to one major change that had happened in my life:

I'd moved to Portland, Oregon.

I used to be just my Race.

One thing that has always happened to me with regularity has been the dreaded question:
"Where are you from?"

"Alberta, Canada”, while truthful, never seemed to be a satisfactory response to the asker.

Yep, that's a brown guy there.
I'm a brown guy - so I MUST be from somewhere else, right? The line of questioning would then probe into:
  • my ancestry, 
  • my parents, 
  • Sri Lankan culture/food/etc., and finally,
  • "one of my friends is Sri Lankan!"

It always felt like I'd have to give the asker a "teachable moment" all about Sri Lankan culture.

They’d walk away feeling educated and pleased with themselves for broadening their knowledge. I’d feel diminished because me, the actual person, had just been pushed aside.

What's irritating about this is that I'm Canadian. I really, really am. It's in my blood, it's in how I think, how I see the world, how I live my life - everything. While my Sri Lankan ancestry is part of me, it's a small part of who I am as an overall person. The connection I have to Sri Lankan culture is the connection I have to my family. And beyond that, my knowledge of Sri Lankan culture is more academic and book-based rather than experience-based.

I am more likely to connect deeply with someone who has a North American rural upbringing than someone who has a very Sri Lankan upbringing. I am more similar culturally to the former than the latter.

Being immediately asked about my Sri Lankan heritage rather than being asked about who I am as a person is maddening because it tells me that the person asking doesn't see ME, a person named Ruban who has his own life experiences and character...

...all they see is my race.

They push aside who I really am while they feel entitled to me giving them a "Sri Lankan Culture 101" teachable moment.

It was something that I'd just resigned myself to dealing with for the rest of my life.

And what happened was that I'd internalized the idea that all I ever could be was my race - regardless of who I actually was. Deep down, I internalized the idea that I could only ever be seen as Brown - but could never really be seen as Ruban.

America, the Land of Contradictions.

America is the land of contradictions and extremes.

It’s a land of the most amazing parts of humanity, but then also the absolute shittiest parts of humanity. Both ends of the spectrum are extreme, too.

It’s a land that’s known for its racial tension, yet it is in the US that I, as a brown guy, began to really feel acceptance and inclusion in society as an actual person rather than always being seen as just my race and nothing else. I’m still trying to comprehend how and why this has been my experience.

Three years ago, I started traveling into the USA for work on a regular basis. I was at first apprehensive about it, because as everybody knows, race relations are hot, sticky mess in the U.S.

By contrast, Canada has an image to outsiders as a place where there's very little racism, and it was something people always said around me as if it was gospel truth. So I figured if I was dealing with the dumb question of "where are you from?" in Canada often - I'd be getting it all the time in the U.S.

But that's not what happened. At all. I was in South Carolina, Minnesota, and Massachussets for extended periods. And I think in all that time, only one person asked me "where are you from", "where are your parents from", "oh, you're Sri Lankan, tell me about that," etc.

People seemed to talk to me as a full-spectrum, individual person. And people seemed to be asking where I was from because they were curious what STATE I was from - not whether I was from India or Sri Lanka! They seemed to see me as someone who was clearly from here, not the “other” from somewhere else.

It was something I'd never experienced before on a consistent basis - being seen for someone who is from HERE. People would ask me what Canada was like, what Alberta was like, or what Toronto was like. And you know what? I was happy to talk about this forever because it was all what I'd actually experienced!

How living in Portland changed me.

When the opportunity to move to the USA presented itself, I decided on moving to Portland, Oregon because it had everything I've ever wanted in a city to live in. Although my experiences in the U.S. had been great so far, I was still apprehensive. Portland is one of the whitest cities of the major/well-known cities in the U.S. When I moved there, I braced for getting asked about my ancestry all the time, and for that all-too-familiar feeling of knowing that I’m being excluded from society’s reindeer games.

But it never happened.

I've been in Portland for almost 10 months now, and I can't think of the last time I was asked about my Sri Lankan heritage immediately upon meeting someone. It just never happens here. Ever.

I actually find myself talking about my ancestry of my own accord because now I get to talk about it when it feels right for me - rather than when it's demanded of me by someone else.

I am treated like an individual person in Portland.

When I began meeting people in Portland, they would ask about ME. I got to talk about my interests, my work, my hobbies, my cars, what books I'm reading - I got to talk about things that are a real part of my life on a day-to-day basis. I wasn’t pressured into talking about my parents’ culture as if that was all I was.

I began to feel like, for the first time in my life, I was being truly seen for who I am on a daily basis.

I got used to it, and I developed an entitlement for it - an entitlement to being treated like an individual person, rather than just my race.

"Entitlement" is a funny word. It's most often used in a negative sense when we describe a person's relationship with something they actually shouldn't have. But some entitlements are good, too.

And entitlement to being treated like a person is a good, healthy type of entitlement. 

Now that I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to be treated and interacted with this way…

I will never go back to internalizing the idea that all I am is my race when people try to box me into my race.

One step back, Two steps forward.

It wasn't long, though, before I got a strong reminder of how I'd been treated for most of my life prior to now.

In April, I went back to Ottawa, Canada to begin the process of shipping my Mustang down to Portland. She's an old girl though, and had some troubles. I ended up having to get her towed to a shop to get a minor repair done.

When I got in the tow truck with the driver, we had a pleasant conversation for a while. And then he asked me where I was "from". Then where my parents were from. He also asked for clarification if I was black or not. I was annoyed, but I didn't let it show, for two reasons:

  1. I didn’t have the energy or desire to get into it with him.
  2. He had my Mustang! I’d better treat this guy nice until I get my keys back, and my car fixed!

I felt like I’d been pushed a step backwards from what I’d learned in Portland…

…But it didn’t matter - because while I’d been pushed back a step, I took two steps forward.

Instead of stewing in frustration and internalizing what had just happened, I disengaged from the conversation and went back to working on my computer while we drove to the repair shop.

After experiencing in Portland being seen daily as a real, individual person rather than as a Brown Person who was obligated to push aside who he is to give people cultural teachable moments... I had lost patience with this tired old routine.

I didn’t need to engage in the conversation anymore. And I don't need to play this broken record anymore. I won't.

Being treated like a person in Portland, while amazing, made me feel very angry for a few months.

I was angry because I felt like I'd been shown the lie I’d been told my whole life about who I could be.

In overt and subtle ways...

I'd been told by society that all I was, and could ever be, was my race. 

It this reinforced daily when people would conflate who I am with my ancestry - and ultimately only care about my ancestry. It was reinforced daily by the media. It was reinforced by the gay male community, and by my experiences in the dating world.

But the truth is that I’m a person - just like anyone else. I can finally put aside all the shitty limits I’ve internalized in my life because of my race.

Sometimes I’m reminded by my mother, indirectly, that it's radical as a non-white person to say, “Fuck you, society - I’m going to be whatever I want!” She does this occasionally when we’re out and about doing something where there are predominantly white people around. She’ll stop and ask me quietly, “Are you sure we’re OK to be here? Are they OK with brown people being here?”

It makes me feel sad because it reminds me that my parents are a product of 400 years of European colonialism, and their experience of incredible racism when they came to Canada. It reminds me that I am not at all far from that. It saddens me because I don’t think my mother will get past this in her lifetime.

But it tells me that I must keep going forward. Perhaps by showing my mother through my actions that I feel entitled to be treated with respect as a person - maybe she will eventually start to wonder why she doesn’t allow herself the same entitlement.

Race relations in a place like Portland are complex, and they’re far from perfect. My experience is but one person’s experience here - but I can say that my experience here has been life-changing for me.

So now - I don't have anymore patience for media that portrays non-white people as playthings, or amusements, or as one-note characters. If you’re a producer or casting director and you do this, I will turn you off and disengage from you, while sticking my middle finger up to you.

I don't have patience for people who reduce me to my race anymore.

And I finally feel free to be myself after being lied to by society about who I could be for my whole life.