Women, Ethnic, & Queer: A Dialogue

This is an excerpt from a real-life dialogue between Tania Hossain and Tania Cheng – two ethnic and queer women working in the nonprofit sector who also happen to share the same name.

TH: Hey Tania!

TC: Oh, hey there Tania!

TH: So…I’ve been meaning to speak to you about this recurring issue, and it kind of bugs me even though we are well into the 21st century.

TC: Sure. What’s going on?

TH: Well, not too long ago, I was part of this working group comprised of mostly women. During one planning session, we had started sharing our ideas for a project. The women started talking over each other to get their points across, and it went on for five minutes straight. I thought it was never going to end…until guess what?

TC: What happened?

TH: One man spoke and everyone…I mean everyone… went silent. They were accepting, eager to listen, and created a space for him to talk. They all celebrated his idea – an idea that another woman lightly touched upon earlier in the meeting which somehow everyone forgot about.

TC: Wow. I’ve been there. Sometimes, it seems like a woman’s voice does not hold as much ground as a man’s voice in group settings.

TH: I wish this was a one-off situation. I’ve been part of panels, leadership forums, and boardrooms where I’d face a sea of older, white men. To be respected as an equal and give my voice the same credibility as a man’s voice, I would feel the need to know more and do more.

TC: Same here. I’ve also noticed a greater acceptance of qualities traditionally associated with masculinity. A few years ago, I was exhausted after working eight consecutive 10-hour days delivering youth programming. After a particularly stressful incident, I started to tear up in front of my colleagues. I was later advised by a male supervisor to better “manage my emotions” in the workplace.

TH: That must’ve been difficult to hear. You know, being a woman has made me more aware of these power dynamics and how our gender identities impact us both in our professional and personal lives. It makes me wonder how a woman’s success, her creativity, and the potential that she sees in herself is affected by society, placing more importance to a male voice over a female’s whether it be consciously or subconsciously.

TC: In my case, being a Chinese Canadian can compound the situation because I feel like I have to work against the stereotype of being quiet, reserved, and obedient. How does the intersectionality of identities impact you in your work, Tania?

TH: It definitely adds another interesting layer of experience being an ethnic woman and queer. I remember my first week at a job. I was told by my boss that it was completely fine to identify with the LGBTQ community so long as I was not too “public” about it. They said it could impact their client relationships. Coming from a traditional South Asian background, I have had my fair share of being silenced due to my queer identity, but then to face it again in a workplace, especially in the nonprofit sector, left me feeling vulnerable. What has your experience been like?

TC: For the most part, situations where I’ve felt discriminated against have been subtle. Subtle as in you know that there is something off, but you just can’t put your finger on it. Like the fact that I’ve always had to be careful about disclosing my sexual orientation at the workplace…just in case. Even when I worked at an organization that openly promoted social justice values, it took a full year before I felt safe enough to come out to my colleagues. I knew they would accept me, but it wasn’t part of the everyday dialogue so there wasn’t a space to talk about it. I only noticed the difference between tolerance and true inclusivity when I started working at an organization where one of the leaders openly identified as LGBTQ.

TH: How did having a leader who shared your identity make a difference?

TC: It happened subtly and informally. For example, she would bring up her partner and family in informal office conversations, talk about attending LGBTQ events, and gradually, identifying as LGBTQ at work felt “normal” for me.

TH: That goes to show how powerful diverse leadership can be for creating a culture of inclusivity and the important role we could play as leaders within the nonprofit sector. It’s not always easy juggling the various identities, but I can say that they have made me stronger when confronting difficult situations and learning to persevere through it all. If I could sum up in one word, the positives of having multiple identities, it would be – perspective. I get to see the world in a different light than anyone else can. I carry that with me everywhere I go and get to share it with others which is exciting and empowering at the same time. When I sit at a table discussion or walk into a room full of people, I know there is a bit of colour I can add to the conversations – no pun intended. What about you? What are some positive things to having these unique identities?

TC: They give me street credit! Just kidding. Having multiple identities helps me empathize with others better and be more open to different perspectives and experiences. I am also attuned to how power and privilege dynamics play out in day-to-day interactions, so I try to create informal spaces where every voice is heard.

TH: That’s awesome that you try to create those informal spaces. Often times in our sector, there is a need to create a formal space or set aside a time slot to talk about diversity and inclusion, which is great, but change happens from the ground up. Our diversities, our day to day lived experiences, our very own identities isn’t just a one-off chapter or a special extra reading material in a textbook that can be skipped over. Neither is it that obligatory one-time workplace training that everyone has to go through. If our sector really wants to move the needle on the topic of diversity and inclusion, then we need to have real and authentic dialogue about our lived experiences.

TC: Like this one? 🙂

TH: Exactly. By the way, you know this conversation is going to go public right? Like published on the Internet for the whole world to see? I don’t know…we’ve disclosed some personal stuff in here. Is this too risky?

TC: Maybe, but I’ll take it. If we’re serious about promoting diversity and inclusion we have to put ourselves out there and talk about our experiences, even if it makes us vulnerable. What do you think?

TH: You’re right, let’s do it.

TC: Thanks for keeping it real, Tania.

TH: You too, Tania.

Diversity and Inclusion should be a topic ingrained in our day to day lives. We all have traits that make us unique and a part of the everyday dialogue around diversity. A first step in being more inclusive is for us to be more self-aware: to understand our needs, our emotions, our identities, etc. The more we know about who we are and what we need, the more we will be able to help ourselves, raise our voices and also in the process, empower others.