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The Fork and The Chopstick: A Tale of Two Privileges?


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fork and chopstick

I was recently having Chinese food with a (white) friend of mine who has known me for a long time – and is aware of my sensitivities towards race.  After we had selected our food choices, the waitress brings out our cutlery.  Chopsticks for both, a larger than usually plate (no bowls), and puts a fork in front of my friend.  My friend was very offended, and started expressing his anger that he was being discriminated against because the waitress assumed that just because he was white, that he needed a fork.

We immediately got into a very heated argument over his reaction.  I even scoffed at first, saying, “well, now you know how POC (People of Colour) feel everyday: We get Othered, stereotyped, objectified, all day everyday.”  He replied, “It would be like going to the Spaghetti Factory, and the waiter offering you chopsticks”, to which I replied, “It would only be the same if every white person in Vancouver knew how to use chopsticks.” – and this went on and on.

After we cooled down, I really did some serious thinking (in that awkward moment of silence where we were both fuming).  What was I doing?

Sure, it’s true that as a white person he occupies a form of social mobility that I don’t have (read: white privilege), where his skin colour is the norm, his culture is the norm, his language is the norm, and his choice of cutlery outside of this establishment is the norm.  And sure, POC experience all day, every day, exactly what he is experiencing at that moment, and that he is taking his white privilege for granted…but what use is it for me to negate, and push down his experience of being Othered at that moment?  Who am I to invalidate his experience of race?

I called him the next day and actually apologized.  I told him that I felt bad about silencing his experience of racial discrimination.

In reflecting on this experience, it has reminded me of a really long journey that I have had to go through (and continue to go through) as a feminist.  I think as anti-oppression feminists, we often have the desire to call out everything.  We are so disciplined (this is a good thing) to check privilege, analyze power and “call out” oppression, that we often don’t take a step back and check our own positionality – in each and every one of our own interactions with people.  I’ve really learned to ask my self, in terms of when I choose to take action against something – especially in this moment of The Fork and The Chopstick – is it useful?  In this moment, is it actually useful to call out white privilege, in a moment where he was feeling discriminated against?  What is the work I am actually trying to achieve, and by silencing his experience of race – am I “doing” the work? Or am I just being oppressive?

If I could go back in time, I wish I would have, in that moment, chosen love and solidarity.

In love and solidarity,

David Ng

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One Comment

  • Ok, first off, I feel so sorry for your waitress! A fork is a kind gesture, not discrimination. Your honky buddy just had a choice. Had he not been given chopsticks, that would be a different story, and sent a message of exclusion. Your waitress made an assumption that you didn’t need a fork, and your friend might, based on race. Surely some assumptions based on appearances are fair, and in fact compassionate. Had the fork been omitted, that would be unkind also, as in, let’s watch if the white boy struggles with his noodles! The most equitable would be to lay each plate with a fork and chopstick! It is perhaps when we assert that we are all the same, when clearly we are not, with differences visible and invisible, that we risk silencing real discrimination. Racism limits people, puts them in a box, and takes away choice. Recognizing and respecting differences is not racism. As in, I see that you come from a different place from me. What is the world like for you? I will not judge you, but respect you for your differences, which may or may not be apparent to me. I have no idea what journey it took for you to get to this place, which we are in together. For example, what sort of opportunity and privilege, or lack thereof, did your waitress have in her life, compared to yours that she is serving you food and you are criticizing her choice of utensil.

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