We created the BE ME collection inspired by Michelle's tattoo [BE ME] written in her mother's hand writing
The first time I was made aware of being “different” I was 9 years old. We had moved to Spain, from Mexico City, and I heard someone call me and my brothers “sudacas” which refers to “people of the south”, a pejorative term for all Spanish-speaking countries outside of the “Motherland”. My oldest brother got in a few fights and the name-calling stopped.
I had a different approach, I learned the accent to perfection, and blended in. So much so, the parents of my school friends were shocked to learn I was not a local kid. And that’s how I learned to “disappear”. See, there is a huge portion of people that are not “dark enough” to be a part of the conversation, but not “white enough” to get the advantages or privileges that come with being lighter.
When I moved to Canada twenty years ago, I was regularly at the receiving end of micro-aggressions and fetishizing. But of course, I had no idea. My discomfort was usually met with brush-offs and the minimization of what I was “perceiving.”
"You are too sensitive!; (s)he didn’t mean it that way!"
"What do you mean? I didn’t notice; are you sure it’s not just getting lost in translation?"
"(S)he meant it as a compliment!)".
When I dated my first Canadian boyfriend he asked me
"Is this your first interracial relationship".
I was so profoundly confused!
I asked “Did you mean “inter-cultural”?”
He replied, “No, I mean of two different races.”
I went home and asked my mom to again explain to me the whole race thing in the history of the world. My mom Italian, extremely well educated, cultured, definitely well travelled, and the diplomat that she was, also seemed blind to my being "different". Even though she was present when there were jokes at my expense in my family, particularly at the hand of my older brother. He would tease me about when my grandmother saw me for the first time and said
“Oh..... just like her father....” - NOT a compliment.
I was dark and covered in hair, just like a "baby monkey!"
Another favourite was
"You were picked up from the dumpster in Tijuana"
since I didn't look like him: he came out redhead and white as bread. It turns out there are Austrian genes in our pool, and he got them all.
As I grew older, I got lighter and more similar to my mom. In Italy, I wasn’t treated differently, other than always feeling out of place because people’s view of the world seemed too narrow and limited.
Then high school came. Back in Mexico City again. And so the hell began.
The bullying included racial slurs, broken eggs in my book bag, my clothes dipped in the toilet and thrown atop the locker room huge neon lights, sticky notes on my back with all kinds of insults including the equivalent to the n-word since I’ve always had 'big lips'. But see, it was puzzling because one of the cruellest girls was someone darker than me. And so it was all thrown in the “mean girls” bag. Explanations dismissed instead addressing what was being said.
This most recent wave of civil rights turmoil has allowed me to really dive into what it all means. I also found the validation of having cut off my cruel brother a few years back and deciding to choose differently the people in my life. I don’t need to make excuses for aggressions (micro or macro); I don’t need to be afraid of rejection when I am the one saying ‘that is NOT ok’; and I am finding my own voice, demanding to be seen and heard as a Person Of Colour.
I have found an overwhelming amount of loving support and unmistakable allies. They are all around us people! And they want to do better. I know it is not our job to appease their conscience, and I know is not our job to explain ourselves to them. But after weeks of crying and emotional exhaustion, I re-emerge restored and I am available, again, to rebuild. With renewed strength and recharged batteries.
This will not go away. It is time to stand for change, and we need to work together to paint all the colours of what this newly imagined world will look like.
LES WOO Artistic Director and Diversity Advocate
Photo by: Anthony Taylor
We created the BE ME collection inspired by Michelle's tattoo BE ME written in her mother's hand writing
I know I am not the only one who has had a lifelong struggle with feeling comfortable in their skin. I know some of us can remember the exact moment when the world shifted from blissful ignorance to crippling insecurities. At least I can.