Rising from the Ashes of Racism: A Lament and a Hope

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Olive Chan -A Lament3

“How is kindergarten?” my aunt asks me.
“Good,” I reply.
“How many other Chinese kids are in your class?” she continues.
I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know.”
It hadn’t occurred to me to pay attention to such things. My friends were in my class and that was all that mattered.

Eventually, I would realize that as a child attending a private German school in the suburbs of Toronto in the 1980s, I hadn’t noticed other Chinese kids in my class because I was one of only two.

***

It’s recess. My elementary school classmates singsong, “Chinese, Japanese…” pulling their eyes into upward and downward slants. I join in, not wanting to be left out. I feel a bit silly because I don’t need to pull on the corners of my eyes to get them to look that way. They aren’t targeting me in particular, but somewhere deep down, I get the sense that maybe they are making fun of me.

***

“Ch-nk!” the boys holler as they ride past me on their bikes, laughing. I don’t know what that word means but I can tell it’s not spoken in kindness. Later, I learn that the term is derogatory and I feel betrayed somehow.

***

Make-up Tips to Bring Out Your Eyes,” the words read invitingly. I stand in front of the bathroom mirror with the pamphlet on the counter and my small compact of eye shadow in hand, ready to learn how to make my teenage face prettier.

Step One: Use the lightest shade to cover your entire upper eyelid from the brow bone to your lashes.
Okay, I can do this.

Step Two: Brush the medium shade along the crease below your brow bone.
Crease? What crease? I don’t have a crease. Apparently my eyes are supposed to be recessed under the brows and applying a slightly darker shade of eye shadow along that indent makes my eyes stand out better.

I try it anyway and it looks awful. Confused, I look for instructions elsewhere. I search every single magazine and brochure I can get my hands on. Same elusive crease. I am frustrated and disappointed. I conclude I will never be beautiful like those models.

Too many years later, I come across a makeup tutorial for Asian women. Suddenly it all makes sense. Asian eyes don’t have that crease.

***

The Christian magazine for teen girls is running a contest. One lucky girl will get to be on the cover of their magazine. The qualifications are high. They’re looking for someone who is beautiful both inside and out. I feel unsure because all the girls featured have been white or, occasionally, African American.

Do I have what it takes? I labour over my application and mail it to the United States. I never hear anything from them. Maybe I’m not beautiful enough. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the eye crease.

***

I’m in my mid 20s, on a ferry off the coast of British Columbia. An older white man approaches me with an overly-enthusiastic smile.

Ni hao ma?” he beams. He tries to practice his Mandarin on me. I stare at him. “Where are you from?” he asks me in English.

“Canada.” I answer. “I was born in Canada.” I don’t let on that I am conversant in Mandarin. I don’t like the feeling of being a means to an end.

***

I’m 36 now and a mother of two young girls. I’m watching a video of three black women from the UK sharing about “micro-aggressions” they have experienced (“micro-aggression” referring to the casual degradation of a marginalized group).

Something stirs in me. They’re like me, I realize. They have been made to feel less purely based on their appearance and race. Their stories invite me to look at my own wounds.

I’ve been reluctant to address racism. I want to dismiss my wounds because I am not black. What right do I have to speak of racism against me when people of my race aren’t being killed unjustly and when my people aren’t being incarcerated at alarming rates? How does my voice count in a conversation that is predominantly black and white? Do my experiences even qualify to be named under the banner of racism?

On a grand scale, we all bleed red and our hair all turns grey. So why make a big deal about our differences? Why talk about these wounds?

And yet.

I think of my own kindergartener who comes home with a paper cut. It is small, but we still examine it, clean it, and tend to it so that it can heal. The severity of a wound does not determine its significance. I hear Love inviting me to take a closer look at how I have been hurt. So I set aside some time and sit in the ashes, recalling my own experiences with racism, welcoming my tears, and lamenting all the brokenness.

With God in the silence, I lament…
For the way we fail to see each other as entire persons.
For the destructiveness of generalizations.
For the pain of rejection.
For lost opportunities for genuine connection.
For our ignorance about other people’s experiences.
For seeing the world as us vs. them.
For all the times our deepest question of “Do I belong?” is met with No. Or Silence.
For the systems in place that perpetuate misunderstanding and violence toward each other.
For how blind we are to the glory of Christ in each person.
For how dismally short we fall of loving like Jesus.
For the sting of being judged based on appearances.
And for judging others.

I lament that my ego clamours so loudly for the evidence of inclusion and that I’m so insecure about my status as accepted, that I would feel slighted by others when they fail to affirm me. And I lament that our need to be accepted drives us to draw dividing lines in the first place.

Out of my lament arises a prayer that surprises me. It is a prayer of hope and freedom:

God, I want to be so grounded in my identity of being wholly beloved that I would neither exclude others because they are also wholly beloved, nor would I be disturbed when I am excluded because I already know I am loved.

Suddenly, I see a way forward in all of this. Suddenly, I can offer forgiveness freely.

“Why struggle to open a door between us when the whole wall is an illusion?” asked Rumi. His question makes me gasp. There is another way of being! Jesus, help me to see past the illusion. Help me to think beyond black and white (or yellow, in my case).

I realize we may never see the eradication of racism on this side of eternity. And even if we do, our core loneliness will still cause us to feel isolated or excluded for one reason or another. But if we can at least have moments where we are convinced in the core of our beings that we are unshakably loved by God, we stand the chance of living at peace within ourselves, and by extension, at peace with others. So now, when I pray for peace, I pray that each of us would live in the truth of how utterly, deeply, and entirely loved we are by God. Because that is where peace begins.

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Olive Chan
Olive is a friendly introvert and recovering perfectionist. In an ideal day, she would paint, eat chocolate croissants and take lots of naps. But she’s primarily occupied these days with her two lovely little ladies, Alena and Kayla and making sure her husband, Tim, does not have to eat McDonald’s too often. She has co-written two books with Tim and takes breaks from the little people by building websites with their small company, Coracle Marketing. She aspires to be a conduit of grace, rest and beauty in this hurried and chaotic world.
Olive Chan
  • Thank you … Thank you so so much for inviting us into this part of your story. You are a gift. Thank you …

    • Idelette, thank YOU for creating and protecting this safe space. Thank you for your insistence that my story matters. Xoxo

  • Nicole A. Joshua

    Your words have stirred me deeply. Thank you, Olive.

    • Thank you for being present with me here, Nicole. May you lean into those deep stirrings and may they lead you toward greater wholeness. Xoxo

  • Your beautiful words create a longing in my heart for the “not yet” of everything that God has promised. Could it be that this is the point of all good theology?

    • Oh yes, Michele! That longing for all the “not yet.” The “Come, Lord Jesus!” yearning. I hear you.

  • Tasha

    This is beautiful and your voice is needed. Thank you, Olive, for your honesty, your tenderness and your perseverance. I can relate to so much of this and I stand with you in that prayer.

    • Thank you, Tasha. Can you imagine if more of us stand in this prayer? If more of us were entirely secure in our identities as beloved? Gives me goosebumps. Blessings to you!

  • Heather Heaton

    This is beautiful, thank you so much for sharing.

    • Thank you for reading, Heather, and for taking the time to comment. It means a lot to me!

  • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

    So beautiful! Olive, I love your gentle soul 💙 Welcome eminates from your heart and draws people in and your his piece reflects that. I love how you are generous with yourself, how you give yourself time and space to feel and heal.

    • Oh Nichole… That word: Welcome… I so desire that my life would be about that. The world certainly needs more of it, too. Xoxo

  • Sandy Hay

    No matter our name or age or culture, being grounded in our identity with God is the best place to be. Thank you Olive 🙂

    • Amen! Thank you for your encouragement, Sandy. Xoxo

  • “I don’t like the feeling of being a means to an end.” – this is the part I related to, when you didn’t want to talk in Mandarin. I’ve had people ask me “to say something” so they can just hear my accent like I’m a performing animal! If you want to talk to me, then talk to me and you will hear what I say and the way I say it at the same time, but don’t ask me to talk just so you can be entertained by an accent.

    • It’s hard when people don’t see us for the whole of us, isn’t it? And yet, if I’m honest, I’m guilty of seeing others for their parts instead of the whole as well. Thanks for commenting! Know that you are deeply valuable beyond how you speak. Xo

  • How I long for the day when the New Kingdom will be a place free of sorrow, isolation, and living into the reality that we are completely and utterly loved. You know with that portion where you didn’t want to speak to that man in Mandarin, it made me think of times where people would try to speak to me in Spanish because I look it (I’m mixed, Mexican, Black, White) and it would cause me shame because I don’t know Spanish. Anyway I really resonated and am trying to accept all the parts of me and see all the parts of others. Thank you, glad you’re at the table 🙂

    • I, too, am trying to accept all the parts of me and see all the parts of others. And I’m learning that I have a place at the table. So grateful for your words of welcome, Juanita. Glad to share the table with you. 🙂

  • I need these words and I need words like them over and over and over again, lest I forget. I need so badly to never, ever forget, even for a moment, how differently people are treated exactly where I am. Thank you.

    • Beth, I am so touched by your desire to see. Thank you for being open and receptive.

  • Justine Hwang

    I could resonate with almost every single snapshot you shared of your Asian Canadian experience. It’s understandable how the Asian identity is on the margins of the dialogue on race, so this was refreshing to read your reflections. My heart especially appreciated your words of lament and prayer.

    • Oh Justine, my heart laments for you, too. There is healing in hearing the words, “Me too.” <3

  • Tracy Nelson

    YES, Olive!!!! So proud of you, doing the hard work. <3

    • Thank YOU, Tracy, for lending me courage. <3