Having the Difficult Conversations


Having the Difficult Conversations

I recently had the opportunity to watch the documentary “But I Look Like a Lawyer,” produced by the Federation of Asian-Canadian Lawyers (BC) Society. (If you haven’t seen it yet, please visit faclbc.ca/documentary — it’s powerful, moving and educational.) In addition to sharing historical and data-driven information, the documentary includes personal stories of racism experienced by Asian-Canadian lawyers in law school, in their practices, and in court. It’s an important reminder of the continued racism — conscious or subconscious, overt or hidden — that permeates Canadian life and our legal systems.

It reminded me of an experience I had recently at an Ethics PD session. One scenario involved an older male making an overtly sexist statement, and there was some general scoffing from the male participants about whether that still happened in this day and age. It’s understandable, on paper, it seems ridiculous. But one by one, all of the female attendees shared stories of experiences that were similarly sexist, similarly overt.

These experiences were timely for me because they really grounded some fairly basic concepts I’ve been reflecting on recently.

We can’t know other people’s experiences. I don’t know what it is like to go through life in Canada as a man, as a person of colour, as a disabled person, or as a gender diverse person. I can try and imagine myself in another person’s shoes — and I have a pretty vivid imagination — and that’s important for developing empathy. But it is functionally limited: I can’t truly imagine for myself an entire lifetime of experience that informs who we are now, how we experience the world now, how we react to the world now.

We can’t define other people’s experiences. I can’t tell a person of colour that the way someone is interacting with them isn’t due to their race or ethnicity. Even if that’s not the intention, it can be the effect. I once had someone tell me that they experienced something I said as racist because it evoked a racist trope that I wasn’t aware of. My lack of knowledge, and lack of any intention to be racist, doesn’t change this person’s experience of it as racist.

I am reminded of the need to talk, to ask, and to listen. And to set aside our own egos and accept the experiences of other people. It’s not easy. Hearing a colleague I considered a friend tell me that they experienced something I said as racist was like a gut punch, a violation of who I try to be as a person. But I still want to hear it. How can I change the impact I’m having on those around me without them telling me when I’m harming them? Good intentions don’t absolve us of responsibility for the actual impacts of the things we say and do.

We need to close the divide between the people who say things like there’s no racism in British Columbia, and the statistics I found that said 43% of Asian Canadians experienced racism in British Columbia in 2020/21. Or that 71% of BIPOC residents of Victoria experienced racism between 2015 and 2020. Or that 82% of respondents to a 2017 survey who identified as visible minority had experienced or witnessed racism.

It doesn’t matter whether I would have identified all of these experiences as racism. Our fight is not about whether racism exists in Canada, or British Columbia, or our profession. Our fight is to have those difficult conversations, to confront our own thoughts and behaviours, and to make change. In the words of Nigerian-American writer Ijoema Oluo, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.”

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