The challenges of telling your story

I was met with silence when I finally found the guts to open up to my significant other about the painful experiences I had growing up with racism.

The moments crawled by as he sat there, still with seemingly nothing to say until I couldn’t take it anymore and blurted out in an obviously shaky voice: “Forget I said anything. It’s not a big deal.”

I felt stupid for saying so much.

(Mei/Special to The Ryersonian)

(Mei/Special to The Ryersonian)

Of course it was important, but I felt an urgency to downplay it.

The silence stretched on so long after I confessed everything and I couldn’t take it.

It takes a lot for me to open up about these experiences and emotions. I’ve downplayed them for most of my life, especially when I know my audience probably hasn’t gone through anything similar (and in this case he hadn’t because he is a straight, white, Canadian-born male).

I was born in Manila, the capital of the Philippines and moved to Canada when I was six years old.

Despite living and going to school in the country’s capital and often travelling to its surrounding areas, which have a population of around 12 million people, I had no concept of race.

At the time, I’d only been exposed to three different “types” of people – native Filipinos, Chinese people and Indian people, many of whom have been there since pre-colonial times.


Before the age of six, I’d never felt like people would see me differently because of how I looked and my background.

I was part of the middle class, the racial and ethnic majority in the Philippines, something that came with great privilege in a developing country.

Like many middle-class Filipinos, I had nannies and servants, attended private school and went on vacations with my parents every few months.

I was a picky eater, often sitting at the table for hours after everyone left, since my parents wouldn’t let me leave until I cleaned my plate.

I could afford to be picky, while many barefoot children younger than me weaved in and out of rush-hour traffic.

They would ask drivers with open windows, stuck in the sweltering heat, if they could spare some change or food.

But when my family immigrated to Canada, the situation flipped completely.

(Courtesy of Debbie Hernandez)

(Courtesy of Debbie Hernandez)

I used to be a talkative child, surrounded by a huge extended family, but I lost that support when I moved. I knew how to speak English, but I didn’t understand the culture and I couldn’t fit in with my classmates or teachers. As my parents struggled to make ends meet, I felt more and more alone.

I was lucky enough to have one person though: A school bully who decided I would be her special target.

Samantha was about twice my size, with curly blond hair and a wide, chubby face.

But what I remember most of all were her big hands.

The big hands she used to rip up my dress on picture day, a day less than a month after I moved to Canada.

I went to the bathroom after that, freaking out over how I would hide this embarrassment from my teacher, my class and, most of all, from my mom.

Samantha called me names I didn’t understand back then, but now I know it was because I didn’t fit in, because I didn’t look like everyone else.

The other girls in my class excluded me, except when they wanted something from me. After a traumatizing year in Grade 1, I grew solemn and quiet. I had no friends except for the characters I met in the many books I took out from the library. I would experience more racist attitudes, mostly in the form of micro aggressions, throughout elementary school and high school. I internalized the hurt I felt. I told myself I was being too sensitive, making too big of a deal about my friends’ and classmates’ behaviour towards me. I put myself down for letting it affect me so much, but at the same time, I let them feel like I wasn’t worth anything because of my race. I retreated into myself even more.

I’m also deeply afraid that the person I’m opening up to will suddenly see me in the same way others have seen me – as inferior because I’m not white.

I know that it’s important to talk about race issues with my friends – white or not – because they might not be aware of how much it affects visible minorities to this day, especially in subtle ways within their own social circle.

But when I finally decide to tell my story to someone who hasn’t gone through anything similar, like I did with my boyfriend, I feel weak. I want to stay strong because I feel like I should be, after living and learning from my experiences. But I’m still unstable and far more likely to explode: I’m reliving the intense hurt I felt. I’m also deeply afraid that the person I’m opening up to will suddenly see me in the same way others have seen me – as inferior because I’m not white.

It’s an irrational fear because I know the person in front of me now is not the same as those who have hurt me.


But I’m gripped with anxiety, upset that sharing my story might make them see me as worthless, like the people in my past did. I know that it’s important to use my own life experiences as an example of how much racism affects visible minorities, especially with people I’m close to.

It could be more enlightening and effective than any statistics or studies they could ever read. But I’m also vulnerable and sensitive to whatever reaction I might get. And I’m worried this will show, maybe through my uncontrollable tears or anger.


When I’m telling my story to a white person, especially a white man, I’m worried. I’m worried they will suddenly share the opinion of so many other white people who have made me feel that my life, my accomplishments, my body, my emotions or anything that I hold dear, is less important. I’m worried they will do so, simply because I am not white. For the most part, I feel a sense of belonging with my significant other or my friends, whether or not they are white.

But when I share my story of how worthless racism has made me feel in the past, I feel like I’m drawing attention to experiences they might possibly never understand. I feel like I’m emphasizing how different we are from each other.


By drawing these lines of difference, I’m scared that I’ll lose the sense of belonging.

It is the same sense of belonging I struggled to achieve for so long after my difficult childhood, largely because of the racism I’ve experienced.

I’m also worried that I’ll be seen as a victim, or as victimizing myself, if I talk about what I’ve gone through, especially if I can’t stop my emotions from overflowing as tears.

But we have to understand the reasons behind why some people choose not to, and respect the difficulties and complexities behind sharing these stories.

If I end up crying or shaking as I relive my traumatic experiences, I’m afraid this will undermine the credibility of the issues I’m fighting so hard to stress the importance of, especially to a white audience. I care deeply because they could be potential allies, but they have nothing to gain from fighting a system that favours them.

Yet our society grants them the most power to change the tide – more than me or anyone else racism affects the most. Of course it is important to talk about your experiences with racism or any form of marginalization to those who’ve never gone through anything similar.

But we have to understand the reasons behind why some people choose not to, and respect the difficulties and complexities behind sharing these stories.

We relive those emotions with every retelling, and some of us experience fear, anxiety and vulnerability when we’re in front of someone who might not ever be able to understand what it’s like.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian on March 25, 2015.

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