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Want to be an ally? Start by listening to our stories

April 15, 2021By

It’s weird coming to a company blog and reading about something like this, right? Don’t worry. That makes two of us.

For so long, organizations have been putting distance between themselves and the socio-political issues going on around them. As if to say, that’s not our business—or, we don’t want to get caught up in anything controversial. But the thing is, organizations are made up of people. People who are very much entrenched in the social-political issues of the day. So we’d be kidding ourselves—and actually doing ourselves a disservice—by not addressing the things we think about when we’re not thinking about Salesforce.

JEDI explorations: making the universe a better place

As a people-first organization, Traction on Demand’s Impact initiative includes a discussion series we call JEDI Explorations (JEDI being the acronym for justice, equity, diversity, inclusion), and let me just say, I’m a fan. Just when I thought I was done thinking about anti-Asian hate, having participated in a Jewpanese (yes, you read that right) healing circle over the weekend, my colleagues have come together once again to facilitate another thought-provoking session.

I previously wrote about the first JEDI Explorations dedicated to the topic here: Start Having Difficult Conversations at Work to Combat Anti-Asian Hate. While the first session focused on the anti-Asian history of North America, this most recent one focused on the lived Asian experience through the eyes of three Tractionites, which I’ve included in this post.

Do or do not, there is no try

If the first session was more about learning, this session was more about, ok–where do we go from here? And what I was heartened to see was the vulnerability and honesty of my non-Asian colleagues. There was a feeling that listening to these stories opened them up to a world they didn’t know before or had previously perceived in a different light.

As one participant said, 'I’ve been a part of the problem and I see that… They (the stories) are hitting me in places they need to go.'

A saying that popped up during the session was, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” meaning you don’t know what kind of knowledge gaps you have. It’s only by attending these sessions and listening to these stories that you can really learn and change your point of view and behaviour. One participant pointed out that by listening to these stories from people we know, they become more relatable, allowing us to more readily identify injustices when we witness them. And this is where the actionable part of allyship kicks in.

Start by listening to our stories

So just start by listening to our stories. No matter how uncomfortable they make you. No matter how unfamiliar they are. Or conversely, how familiar they are and realizing that you were complicit in being rude or being racist or perpetuating stereotypes or, or, or...

Just start listening. Because it’s by listening to these stories, especially from colleagues and friends whom we like and respect, that these experiences become more real to us.

JEDI Explorations provides a safe space for all participants to contribute to the conversation. While the sessions are never recorded to protect the privacy of the participants, I have received permission from the main panelists to share their stories*:

Debbie’s story: not Asian enough, not Canadian enough

“I immigrated from Taiwan when I was four years old. My parents said we were going on vacation to Canada and they forgot to mention we weren't coming back! My dad stayed in Asia to work. He had a very large extended family to support. My mom raised three kids here. Not being able to speak English terrified her. I never understood why she would give up everything she knows to come here. But only recently I learned it was because of rising political tension in the region.”

I toggled between cultures—like having an on and off switch. I grew up as a typical first generation Canadian, eating Lunchables and watching Much Music. I also ate the dumplings my mom made for lunch but I started eating in the parking lot because the kids would complain about the smell. It’s like I didn’t belong to either camp. I wasn’t Asian enough. I wasn’t Canadian enough. But I’m learning it’s ok not to belong to either.”

Vince’s story: it was a different time

"I was born in 1977 to parents who came from Hong Kong. I grew up with traditional Chinese values where the focus was always on work ethic. Keep your head down, work hard and you will achieve your goals. My parents shielded us from experiences that were hurtful. They didn’t want anything to get in our way and never let us believe we were playing on an uneven playing field. And so my sister and I grew up with this attitude, which I think has shaped us into the people we are today.”

“I went to an all-boys Catholic school. My friends were all White, and they are some of my best friends today. But I did experience and witness a lot of things that would not be so cool today. Thing is, everyone has to understand it was a totally different environment. We didn’t have the education back then. There was constant blurring about what was right and wrong. What we watched on TV formed a lot of our opinions, and what was right and what was wrong was heavily influenced by what was out there.”

“Growing up, I learned to cope and form my own ideals by combining the values I learned from my family and the things you learn from just going through hard knock experiences.”

Samantha’s story: fighting my own prejudices

“I'm a second generation Chinese Canadian. My great grandpa worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway. My mom was raised in Saint John, New Brunswick, and her family owned the only Chinese restaurant in town. My dad immigrated to Toronto from Hong Kong. They raised me with the privileges and experiences they never got to enjoy themselves growing up, like going to the cottage, camping, skiing and making regular trips to Disney World as a family.”

I was in for a rude awakening when I went to university. When attempting to combat racist interactions, Asian stereotypes and jokes, peers would often excuse their behaviour by saying, 'It's just a joke.' This normalization wore me down over time and discouraged me from speaking up during my time there. Experiences like these made me want to disassociate from other Asians. But I’m learning to unlearn and fight my own prejudices.”

“I’m hoping to grow by educating myself and finding an appreciation in my Chinese Canadian family, and value it as my strength instead of my weakness.”

We have to unlearn to relearn: start by listening

Everyone seemingly wants to see change, but no one really knows what to do. It’s a paradox that’s paralyzing. It’s like we’re all chomping at the bit, ready to lunge out of the starting gates, but something is holding us back. And really, what can we do about racism that is so ingrained in society? The problem seems so huge. Where do we even begin?

I’m ready to admit, I need to unlearn to relearn too, like Samantha. I’m so incredibly ashamed thinking back to how embarrassed—actually, how absolutely mortified—I was when my mom or grandparents who flew across the world once a year to see me—would speak to me in Japanese in public. I would briskly walk ahead of them, hoping no one would make the association between us. How dare they “other” me so brazenly, I thought. Of course, I grew up, stopped taking myself so seriously and the world also changed in that time, so I think of that scenario much differently now. I’m sad that I ever treated my family that way.

But I’m also practical and know that we can’t undo the past. All we can do now is look toward the future. It’s going to be eye-opening, it’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be confusing, it’s going to be sad. But there’s going to be other stories–funny stories, even–in between. Like how my dad used to bark at me to come to the kitchen to translate one of the many Japanese sauces we had in the fridge (really, dad? You haven’t figured it out yet?) But you just need to start somewhere. Start by listening.

I’m slowly taking my blinders off.

Turn around and I’ll help undo yours.

*Note: stories have been edited for length and clarity.

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