The Sunday Edition·Point of View

'By telling our own stories we displace the self-assumed heroes and their supporters'

It’s never easy to point out the insensitivity of people who think of themselves as your ally. But Sabreena Delhon finds it even harder to just nod and smile politely when she’s being patronized. Her essay is called “Mustn’t Grumble.”
"Most of the adults in my world had an alternate professional identity. Something to equip themselves with to move through the white default world relatively unscathed. A burden to be relieved at the end of the day when you could go back to being yourself," writes Sabreena Delhon. (Gelek Badheytsang)
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My dad had a white name he used at work. Its purpose was to disguise his race on paper and to demonstrate an effort to blend in. Surinder might be have been the right man for the job but Sam had the right "fit."

I didn't give this much thought growing up. Most of the adults in my world had an alternate professional identity. Something to equip themselves with to move through the white default world relatively unscathed. A burden to be relieved at the end of the day when you could go back to being yourself. 

I thought I would be spared these kinds of acrobatics. With hard work, skill and a healthy ambition I wouldn't just advance — I would belong.

One evening I joined a circle of esteemed women at a work event. Their bold jewelry and severe haircuts declared a fondness for progressive ideals. The kind that fit perfectly on a ballot but never quite made it into interactions with their staff. After cursory nods in my direction the women returned to their spirited discussion. "Feminism," one proclaimed, "is done!" The other women heartily concurred and ticked off the female occupied offices that proved the feminist project complete.

I thought I would be spared these kinds of acrobatics. With hard work, skill and a healthy ambition I wouldn't just advance — I would belong.- Sabreena Delhon

I held my laughter for a beat and then realized this wasn't a joke. I scanned the room for someone to make knowing eye contact with. I came up short.  

I had spent the hours leading up to that moment scrambling to secure childcare for my daughter, having been asked to attend the event at the last minute. Eager to show my commitment to the job, I had raced around, sending frantic SOS text messages to friends. Throughout all this, I'd had many thoughts about feminism, particularly for brown women like me. I can assure you — the completeness of the venture was not one of them.  

These women were rightfully proud of their accomplishments. Who was I to inform them that their glass ceiling wasn't universal? That there were thicker, tinted ceilings still very much in place for other women. In spite of being self-appointed champions of the so-called "voiceless," I knew better than to share any aspect of my experience with this group. My role was to recede, to avoid bursting their bubble.

Still, invisibility has its advantages. When you're conspicuous you're a target for all manner of questions. Not 'help me grow' questions but more 'confirm what I've decided' questions. I've had superiors pop their head in my office to quickly ask if I've ever experienced racism. My reply, "does this count?" was met with a confused expression. Similarly without notice, I've been peppered with: Why do you celebrate Christmas when another Indian person I know doesn't? Why do minorities marry white people? I ate Indian food the other day and used my hands!

I've tried to be honest and respond with "I don't know," "I'm not sure" or "how have you been eating sandwiches?" but it never goes over well. In these instances I'm being asked to sign off on a magical reality. I'm meant to bestow a brown feather for what they think is a progressive cap.

My voice caught in my throat as I explained how as the sole brown woman and also a pregnant one at the time, I was conspicuous enough. I couldn't endure further exposure. The silence was heavy.- Sabreena Delhon

Usually I can sense who the real allies are but occasionally I misjudge. I was at a dinner with colleagues following a long day at a conference about how to effect meaningful social change. All women, we had spent hours politely listening to what appeared to be variations of the same man speaking in elementary terms about topics that we were in fact experts on. Our dinner had been anticipated as a chance to blow off steam — until one of those men joined us.

He had played a key role in planning the event. Although we were all friendly with him, when he asked the table for feedback there was much squirming. Eventually someone raised — ever so timidly — concern about the all male speaker list. The man was genuinely astonished — he hadn't noticed the omission and was quick to minimize what he saw as a mere oversight. Of course the table was eager to give him the benefit of the doubt but I couldn't. 

So I committed the ultimate transgression in these sorts of spaces. I pushed the envelope a little further. I brought up race. How the glaring absence of diverse leaders and speakers hindered progress in our work. How omitting a range of perspectives amounted to considerable lost opportunities. Stunned, he told me to take my concern above him — all the way to the top. He nodded enthusiastically, warmly, as if encouraging a precocious young pupil. 

A sense of relief began to flow over the table. And then I asked if instead he could use his privileged position to draw attention to the issue. My voice caught in my throat as I explained how as the sole brown woman and also a pregnant one at the time, I was conspicuous enough. I couldn't endure further exposure. The silence was heavy. 

We're not supposed to ask more of the people who see themselves as good guys. By telling our own stories we displace the self-assumed heroes and their supporters. It's disruptive to cause chaos like that. 

It's scary and exhausting. Worse yet, it's not nice.

But because there is always the chance of a shift — I also have to count it as an act of hope.   

Click 'listen' above to hear Sabreena Delhon's essay.

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