Melanin moments

Race is in the news again this week. An American story, of course. Occasionally we hear of a problem in Toronto. Those of us in the rest of Canada sit back, fold our self-righteous hands, and shake our heads at all the elsewhere issues.

But we are fooling ourselves.

My husband Min was staying at an Edmonton hotel this spring, where he was a keynote speaker at a conference. The evening before his first presentation, he popped downstairs to check out the room.

Next door was another conference. And as Min left his presentation room, a woman emerged from next door and said, “Oh, thank goodness! There you are. We need to move the tables…”

Min was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. But for some reason (??) the woman assumed he was hotel staff.

Now, Min is a friendly, funny guy and he grew up as one of the only two Burmese kids in all of Surrey. So when stuff like this happens to him (once a month or so), he tends to say things like: “Are you assuming I work here because I’m brown? You know all brown guys don’t work at hotels, right?” And he somehow says all that in a friendly, funny way.

But that doesn’t make it okay.

It’s a low-level, background racism, like the buzz of fluorescent lights — so subtle, we forget to think about it. We neglect to talk about it. Which means that my daughter is only confused when someone says to her: “When we travel, people know we’re Canadians. I wonder what they think you are?” She has no idea what they’re talking about.

But that doesn’t make it okay.

On the streets of Vancouver, we may not be assuming that Asian men in hoodies are criminals. But maybe we are assuming they’re custodians, or conservative parents, or Buddhist sex experts (that’s a whole other Min story), or bad drivers. I think we need to have a long, hard look at the assumptions we make in daily life, north of the border as well as south.