At one time, I swore I wouldn’t work for a white supremacist institution anymore.
And then, they asked me to come back. Not to teach an introductory course on counselling as I’ve done in the past, but to teach on “Race, Faith, and Mental Health.” I changed the title to reflect what I think are the real issues surrounding race, and that is “culture”. And so, I’ve been busy for the last year reading in the field and composing a course on intersectionality, critical race theory, and how these relate to theology and mental health. It’s stuff I’m aware of and that I use every day when I’m working with clients, but it’s been a lot to take a deeper dive into it. People always say I’m “philosophical”, but I’m starting to see that label as “likes thinking.” When it comes to real philosophy, I’m just a guy hanging on for dear life. Still, the process of composing a course and getting a sense of the field was rewarding. I’ve grown from my searching, and it’s been a welcome opportunity to learn more about something I didn’t know much about.
As part of promotion for the course, I was asked to give a public lecture. Me? A public lecture? Have my vanity and ego stroked even more? Yes please!
I spent months preparing. My wife can attest to the hours I spent in honing the manuscript (my inner voice says, “be precise, Ed! Don’t ramble!”) and practicing my delivery (“be clear, Ed! Don’t mumble!”) My oldest boy asked to hear the whole thing and to his credit, sat through it– though with many politely stifled yawns. Shortly before I was to deliver the lecture, news came that the school had hired a South Asian man as their new history professor. Huzzah! Elation! And yet, as things apparently were changing at the level they needed to change, it had a somewhat mollifying effect on me. Would the disappointment and resultant anger I’ve been letting brew for the last few years now be sufficiently assuaged? Would a lecture geared towards indicating the evils of structural racism now just seem anachronistic? As the time ticked down to my turn to present, doubt in my perspective and experience began to creep in.
Until, of course, it came time to lecture. How shall I begin?
Perhaps with 2 days before the lecture, a colleague pointed out that the link I’d sent had indicated that the lecture was not on Wednesday, as my emails with the coordinator had told me. No, the date had apparently been moved to Monday, a full two days earlier. And everyone who needed to know about it knew about it, except for one person– the lecturer himself.
“Well,” I thought upon receiving copious apologies and confirmation of the date change from the coordinator, “Honest mistake.” I mean, sometimes the most obvious people you need to inform are the ones you miss.
And yet, I could not also help but notice that the date of the lecture had been moved to a holiday Monday in Canada. “Don’t worry,” I was told. “The college will still be open and everything will still be operating as normal.“
Fortunately, I was prepared. I had memorized most of the 20-page manuscript and had an idea of how I wanted to stress certain words and pace the lecture. Two less days to prepare wouldn’t significantly effect me, except that I had cleared my schedule on the day that I had originally been told the lecture would occur.
I arrived early as had been requested, and while chatting with one of the technicians, the first of what would be a series of unpleasant events occurred. Another man– who, it must be said, was white– interrupted my conversation with the technician to return a set of keys. Not only did the interruptor not apologize, it seemed as though he didn’t even see me. When the technician interrupted the interruptor to introduce me as the speaker of the evening, the interruptor glanced and me and said “hi.” The technician apologized as the interruptor, seemingly blissfully unaware of his rudeness, decided to chat on with the technician. I excused myself and went to the washroom.
It must be said, the technician apologized again after the lecture was done. And then, awkwardly, he offered me an ugly bouquet of flowers that was not presented to me up front (as “thank you” bouquets are traditionally offered), leaving me with the impression that these were somehow “leftovers” (such as the bread that was often “leftover” from local bakeries and donated to Regent College that I would pounce on when I was a student there), and not a token of appreciation.
Ah, well, at least I wasn’t the only token around that evening.
I had been told that, since the pandemic, these lectures were more well-attended online than in-person. I nodded, knowing that I myself would rather listen casually from home than have to make the trek up to campus. But the rather startlingly low turnout of maybe 15 people (despite the course having over 40 students) compounded my feeling of being tucked away in a corner where no one would see me. I like to think I’m not so egotistical that I needed hundreds and a queue to validate the importance of my message, but think: if you wanted to promote the idea that Regent is a place with a changing culture wherein white male supremacy is being torn down, then why would you stick your one of two evening lecturers-of-colour on a day when people were more likely to be down at the beach? Why make overtures on the importance of mental health when your lone mental health practitioner-turned teacher is scheduled for a day when what he has to share is less likely to be heard?
The man who was to introduce me asked me whether I would be doing any book signings afterward. To which I replied, “I don’t have any books to sign. But I could sign someone else’s book, I guess?” He did laugh, but the experience left me feeling that he who would feign familiarity with me actually had not done an ounce of research into the person before him. This was not helped by his also asking about my participation in a committee for having conversations about race at the school. “No,” I said, “that wasn’t me.” For the record, I have never been invited to join any formal committee on the matter.
The lecture itself? I invite you to see below:
I am not so worried about random cranks showing up and sputtering right-wing shaded nonsense (as happened that day). In fact, I anticipated it. I admit, I was more prepared to deal with objections to critical race theory as a whole and implications of intersectionality as “divisive” (as well as my sometime mispronounciation of “hegemony”). But this? Although I stated in the lecture that I was “not out to pick a fight”, I sure as hell am ready to finish one if it’s brought to me in the form of a pu pu platter (a more homophonically apt description of the man’s attempt to argue something with me cannot be imagined) of racist statements (“I always tell my friends that if you want to experience white privilege, you need to have been born Asian”– yes, he did say that to my face afterwards) and anti-government rants. Perspective over this man’s confusion was restored when I waslater reminded that he might not have been well. Ah, well, I suppose that does earn him a pass– though I daresay many people I have worked with who have been “unwell” have a great deal more cogency.
It did not help that no one who heard this man’s racist statements towards me lifted a finger to intervene, even when the man followed me out to my car. Thanks a bunch, everyone! But I had been your wife or girlfriend or daughter, would that have been all right? But then, I have long since come to peace with the fact that it is a fantasy to seek protection or help from polite white Christians.
But, in the spirit of what the discombobulated man appeared to want me to say, “not all white people.” There. Feel better?
I am much more worried that despite putting on a display of inviting a more diverse offering of teachers, the sum effect of the casualness with which I was treated indicates that change is far from a place I once loved. And, perhaps I do still love the place– which is why this angers me even more.
I make a clear call in my lecture that self-examination and deep awareness of one’s shadow side is one way of beginning to change culture as a whole. Clearly, the word was either a bit late in the formation of many who inhabit Regent, or it was simply taken as the fascination of an obscure therapist with some past affiliation. But hey! He’s a mental health professional and he’s ethnically Chinese! Let’s make sure he gets heard– but let’s also make sure to ignore him. Ears, be ever open but never hearing.
I am due to give a course in about two weeks. I cared a great deal in preparing the lecture and the course, and I’m going to teach my heart out for the benefit of the students. But I have, to coin a phrase, I am rapidly running out of fucks to give for a place that continues to disappoint me for its lack of ethnocultural acumen– or, attracts people who exhibit the latter. Now, you will almost never encounter explicit racism at Regent College, but with the abundance of microaggressions you’re going to encounter, it is a marvel to me that those who are aware can walk out with as much sanity as they do. True, all of these could just be misunderstandings and dropped balls are sometimes just dropped balls. But as a wise friend reminded me, those that have experienced racism often second guess their crazy-making experiences and are prone to apologizing for those that perpetrate them, putting the blame on themselves and their misinterpretations of events. And yet, when the sum total of events suggests that there is a definite lean in one direction, it may be time to trust your gut. I am exhausted from years of making excuses for others who are “trying to learn.”
So, no more. Fool, if you want to learn, you don’t get to learn from me for free. I am not your coolie.
I am aware that to be a person of colour with some “ins” to whites with institutional power means that you will always, to an extent, be a token. And though I am prepared to be tokenized if that means being able to speak, I made a promise to myself long ago that I will not be a tame house chink. I will speak as I am convicted and as much as my education, training, and experience will allow me to bring to bear. I owe that much to my forebears who never had this chance, who built railroads and worked at laundromats and endured slander of being rapacious, cruel, and dirty. And yet, I will not speak “my truth” as the vernacular loves to say.
I will speak ours.