“I Didn’t Mean It That Way”

“But, where are you really from?”

“It’s not that we don’t think she qualifies for the job, it’s just that people have a hard time understanding her”

For many immigrants and refugees, their families have traveled miles in search of a better future, taking their dreams in a suitcase and leaving without knowing whether they will return. They distance themselves from the land in which they were born –often leaving behind their life, heritage and people, for a dream that may or may not come true. For them, this sacrifice is worth it. Their children will get to experience a life filled with options and possibilities. A luxury they never had.

Arriving in a new and foreign country often involves the hard work of integrating to the dominant host culture in various aspects: learning the language, job requirements, mannerisms, and sometimes even choice of clothing. However, many newcomers express that despite the sacrifices made, they are still treated differently. They can’t seem to wipe away the misconception of olive skin, dark features, and curly hair, etc. No matter how hard they try, they still look predominantly different. Many describe constantly being aware of it, or made aware of it by others… Every. Single. Day.

In school you might have experienced racist comments about your physical appearances, and at times, even had to witness others treat your parents differently in parent-teacher conferences. For some, this made school years hard to manage, and for others it even pushed them to leave cultural values and norms behind in order to fit in. Unfortunately, for many, these experiences continue into adulthood. You may notice that the same people that were racist towards your heritage, cultural and religious practices continue to exist in the workforce – only now it may be more difficult to address or pinpoint.

Gaslighting: a tactic in which a person either denies something you know happened or manipulates the situation and makes you question your reality.*

When bringing your experiences of racism to light you might be told “we didn’t mean it that way”; “I am your ally” and terms like diversity, equality, and multiculturalism can become repetitive jargon. Being in environments where this is common can often lead to internalizing and accepting these negative messages as truth to your self-worth. Your psychological well-being is directly impacted by these experiences; which can lead to experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, self-blame, negative self-esteem, and overall psychological distress. So how do you manage a work or school environment that sees and treats you differently? And how do you deal with the hurtful and hateful comments that are being directed at you, sometimes in a very normalized or discrete manner?

First, we need to make it clear that it is not your responsibility to change people’s perception and views on racism or attempt to make people “less racist”. Raising your concerns when you feel comfortable and with the appropriate people may help bring awareness to some of the problematic behaviors or workplace cultures. However, first and foremost, it is important to attend to and acknowledge your emotional responses to racism- they are not weaknesses but rather a representation of your strength and resiliency. It is crucial to develop self-compassion and surround yourself with people that share similar values and who know your worth as a human being, regardless of your differences, or even because of them.

The sad reality is many school and work environments are systemically toxic or racist and cannot be changed overnight. But through our own self-reflection and support circles from various cultures and backgrounds we can take steps in the right direction. It’s a process.

*See article for more information



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