I EXPERIENCED RACISM AND I DEALT WITH IT
Everything was all going so well until 2014
Even though I kind of anticipated this, it really did hit me for six.
I experienced racism and dealt with it. That's pretty much the short of it.
THE LONG OF IT
I love spending time with all kinds of people and the more radically different from me the more peaked is my curiosity. I am super at ease with novelty, I have one of these naturally hyper-liberal personalities but backed by those functional conservative values that match well across the world's cultures. The kind that has helped many other immigrants like myself thrive in relatively deprived inner-city environments of the kind I grew up with, in Brixton, South London.
An upbringing rich in variety nevertheless, we would frequent among every class culture and creed. I guess you could call it That–small 'c' catholic–Life. It truly was a privilege to be a first-generation immigrant African-British millennial Londoner. Even if comparatively poor, always rich in values. But still, I never did find life to be all that challenging in a massively prestigious opportunity-rich alpha city.
CALL TO ADVENTURE, TO BE VULNERABLE
I relished the opportunity to be an outsider again to learn grow and understand something not exactly catered for me, so I decided to join my partner, Yoni, a Taiwanese national, on a journey. She was an early victim of immigration restrictions (below a very high-bar financial threshold) by Conservative UK governments occurring about a decade ago. This, however, should not signal an end to a budding cross-cultural relationship so I became an immigrant once more – joining her in the other direction to Asia. I answered the call to love adventure and hopefully towards a better understanding – to live, study and work in this fascinating part of the world with Yoni and her wonderful family.
Whilst we see ourselves as no different than others it became obvious that our union and the self-directed nature of our decisions were in fact rare, and thankfully a welcomed rarity for the most part. So here I was recruited to teach which I absolutely love and did so whilst juggling a busy schedule including full-time language lessons. Everything was bliss, I had everything one could ask for and a challenge a purpose that seemed to give more to others than to myself. A story for love. And I loved the work. Working flat out as Jordan Peterson says, it's what a young man should gravitate towards at that stage in life developing competencies intensely. Everything and everyone seemed so accommodating. Come to think of it now, here we were in Taiwan riding that second Obama wave of optimism.
COURAGE AND DOUBT
But I have a tendency to overthink things, which gets the best of me, I suddenly thought it was all too much too soon to emigrate, besides it's not as if things were bad in the UK. So I went back, leaving Taiwan after only 18 months. Back in England I got lovesick and realized long-distance relationships are horrible in practice. There I came to the conclusion that I never really gave Taiwan a chance, we lived far from the big city we didn't live together alone and I missed participating in competitive sports. We spent much of our time here together saying yes to everything, yet never considered crafting a work-social-family-leisure life balance that would maximize our talents.
In the UK I was delighted to receive many offers to return to teaching in Taipei this time with various organizations vying with each other to have me placed at their location. That record of achievement the solid work and teamwork contributions in the previous 18 months had not gone unnoticed. My previous company fought hard to sign me again. I picked one. So after a Christmas back with family in London, I reunited with Yoni in Taiwan.
EVERYTHING WAS GREAT UNTIL THAT MOMENT IN 2014
Oral warning! First.
Written warning! Second.
In succession barely 2 weeks apart.
And it was just me, by the way, with a whole team of newbies most with not a single bit of experience. I was flabbergasted. How does one go from having a stellar record in the company even being head-hunted overseas and selected, and performing above and beyond the standard even supporting the new hires, how does one go from all that exemplary standard to a forced sacking?
I wouldn't say I blamed myself but I immediately upped things and just did what I do best which is to be the better teacher for everyone. It helps to forget about it. But the nitpicking and passive-aggressive warnings to be fired simply escalated. It didn't dawn on me what was happening until I stepped outside the ex-pat bubble for a moment and sought counsel from locals. It was then I was told the blindingly obvious by everybody native and everyone more experienced and more senior, that this is just what happens when they wish to remove someone for superficial reasons. And by 'superficial reasons' it's again really my discomfort from spelling out the harsh reality; that it was, as a matter of fact, stone-cold racism.
I didn't want to believe it but apparently, there was "a racist parent" influencing others. I put this in scare quotes because it could be oh so convenient for a racist staffer to deflect the blame in this way. Anyhow, I kept it professional, I was warned and instructed not to talk to any parents. It was heartbreaking. I am being terminated just as soon as I arrived because a parent realised I was black, or rather "some parents are complaining", oh so went the narrative. The silence was frustrating for everyone and to be fair multiple parents did approach me the only time they could feel free enough to do so, like after a successful Mother's Day performance which I spent time and effort to choreograph with my classes. It was at this brief pause of defiance with one mother where we realized the problem wasn't 'the parents' plural as per their group chats. Furthermore, the problem wasn't me. In fact...there really was...no problem at least not with us, and she could see that I was indeed helpless.
Concerned parents were more shocked than I was:
"This makes no sense."
"Why are you leaving, Teacher Ikey?"
"My dear son loves your classes."
And more to this effect. Like being sentenced with no rights no free speech to defend myself. It was torture. I had to compose myself every morning and afternoon before common room gatherings. The tears were frequent, restrooms weren't private enough so the basement garage became a refuge. It doubles up as a theatre for open house days and performances. Here I could sit for a minute alone in the darkness staring into an empty stage where my heart and soul once was. My classes my mutual affection with the students my rapport with parents. All of it ripped apart by racism. Alone in the basement was the only place I could find to build up the strength to go back up again and give it my all once more every day hiding what I was being put through.
I pretended everything was great to give the same quality of teaching. All the while my management and supervisors pretended everything was great and normal. I realised a valuable lesson that some middle management roles are really there to ease the process of whatever decrees are set in place, and not necessarily an advocate for better practice or well-being. To keep face I did what I always do – work hard everywhere and solve problems for others. I found struggling schools and substituted classes I steadied a few ships, I became known for doing those unfashionable 12-hour split-shifts, and I continued doing so for 2 years putting all of this behind me. In the end, I saved up enough money to finally go on a holiday with Yoni, who was equally striving in her domain of professional life.
TAKING ON THE RESPONSIBILITY
Trying to be all the people all the time was exhausting but I was young and I have never wanted to be in a position whereby I hate a particular person or hate a broader group of people. Hate may be too strong a word so perhaps 'misunderstand' may be better. I dislike that feeling where I know I'm willingly misunderstanding a people and which may in-turn cause me to direct some animus, animus which may have originated from my inner demons left unchecked. Once I understand then I can at least move on. People are complicated and we are just as bad as we are good.
After it all, I received the Teacher of The Year Award for my region, which could be seen as vindication. But increasingly I came into contact with people who didn't have my optimism my energy and pragmatism but who've experience regularly what I dealt with in 2014. Some have faced a lifetime of this normalized racism and they cannot simply just Deal With It. A small seed of guilt was growing in me that I could pretend it away it through overwork whilst others still suffer as it affects them more. Indeed, it's not as if they could lose themselves in overwork when the racism affects them getting the very work in the first place.
OPENNESS TO IDEAS
I realised I needed to know more. More and more people, everything and everyone all of the time. I was intense. My social media usage skyrocketed my friends and colleagues shocked at my energy levels when the whole world could see just how long I spent at 5:03 am taking a thread well past the 'see more' comments. I would engage with absolutely any perspective on these matters. A sponge for information I refused to have my sole viewpoint or my natural allegiances cloud any logic to solve the issue, or if indeed it was a serious enough issue at all to be solved. I got to studying it theoretically I read...everything... spoke to all demographics including the genuinely racist and proud people from every direction. I listened to and wanted all of the truth even the uncomfortable ones. Less of a snowflake and more of a snowball picking up every piece of snow on its path.
I wrote essays to myself to understand and came across a working model broadly generalized of The East and The West. To see the value placed on harmonious order by being more Hierarchical, Insular and Conformist. A stark contrast with the chaotic order of Egalitarian, Altruistic and Individualist thinking found in countries formed by North West Europeans. This isn't to blame people or place ethnocentric value judgements but to understand in the best way possible all the perspectives at play and the optimal way to not just call it out but maybe to transform it for the good. All the while I kept a photo essay of visible advertising and marketing campaigns in Asia, what brands are open enough to use us: where those brands originate from and how effective, how original, how cool, desired and influential, are these brands.
OPENNESS TO PEOPLE
After a trip to the USA, once again spending time like a fish out of water amongst a unique sector of America that do not have as much access to my demographic. But I found it totally normal to be the only straight male, the only black person (and dark-skinned black at that), amongst a tight-knit community of gay East Asian Americans and East Asian nationals. And all of whom were members of what Richard Florida once called The Creative Class. A class distinct from me, a class above according to some. I was happy once more to be able to bring joy and to connect in real life and understand. I am happy and confident amongst people. And these are people, they are my people.
For Yoni and I, it was around this time of our peak of societal acceptance when it dawned on us that we have this unique effect on people and we don't wilt to negativity. That we could and perhaps should be doing more to bring people together and to share in our joyous personalities. To take everything more seriously than others, to not take yourself too seriously, and for God's sake don't look so serious while you're at it. These are all my own words and I've subconsciously gone about living in such a way.
IT'S MUCH MORE THAN THIS
In 2014 what I experienced was some of the worst ways you could treat a person. But like I've said, one resource I can lean on from my culture and upbringing for such cases–mandatory in such cases–is that you never want to be in a position whereby you hate a particular person or hate on a broader group of people. We are inculcated with the belief that in those dark times it's still on you. To kill them with kindness is one phrase. 'Forgive them father for they know not what they do,' is another. But the latter never seemed to ring true to me because they did know. So...what if they know that you know they know. They just don't care enough. They know, alright, and they just don't care enough. Because it doesn't matter in their world.
SO WHAT DO YOU DO, THEN?
I had admired East Asia as a young teen. From being born in Africa and raised in Europe but now having spent most of my adult life in Asia, far from being a rootless cosmopolitan I have my strongest sense of affinity for the salt of the earth: the local. Seeing how much hard work and working smart and being organized, seeing how these functional values have worked for generations of Koreans, Taiwanese and Singaporeans. But I wasn't naive. I knew about racism. As a child growing up in the multicultural poorer parts of London pre-gentrification it didn't afford us much time for naivety and fantasy. Everything was just far too real.
SO, WHAT DO I DO NOW?
Growing up we never had anything, and now I want for nothing. I thought about those postcolonial generations of my father's, of all the early optimism followed by disillusion. I have nothing but fond memories of my father, I remembered how devoted he was how he always made sure to come home from work with a bar of chocolate for me and my sister. I felt loved at that moment and I felt content. But now that I think of it, I've always struggled in this department: gifting. We never really had birthday presents we never truly celebrated Christmas with presents, but were all content and positive nonetheless. And as an adult, I tend to over-think all-things gift-related, that it will all end in disappointment, that I've never needed any tokens of appreciation to be happy, that how can I possibly match a gift to one's tastes and desires, etc.
TO SOLVE A PROBLEM, YET MORE PROBLEMS
Yoni has a similar calling towards production and service what we like to call 'The Doing' in reality of the more abstract 'The True The Good The Beauty'. Racism seems to be too big a task but we've never stopped noticing oddities and illegitimate norms. For example, in Italy we saw many Italians with their bodies and their homes adorned in Italian wares, Germans likewise in Germany having a pick of local world-beaters, and a France famously devoted to local craftsmanship even as these local names have gone massively global. The British too, despite our cosiness with The Global Anglo Hegemon, still hold dear to many marques made here in the UK. And last but not least a Japan and Korea too. Yoni and I couldn't help but notice in the fashionable districts in Taiwanese cities: the amounts of Off-White hoodies, Under Armour tees, Y-3 and Yeezy, Apple AirPods and Balenciaga boots. And the slow but steady takeover of Teslas on the road. All this whilst watching the NBA or the English Premier League. Gorgeous looking people made up in Chanel and Shiseido.
And yet in all of these brands, it isn't just the fact that none of these cool brands are Taiwanese it's also the fact that all seem to rely on heavy usage of black people in their marketing and advertising. I mean, if you think about it, this makes logical sense for visual effect – the greater opportunities for contrast colours with a darker skin tone, the ability to create strikingly bold campaigns are obvious. I won't even go into the cultural power aspect and the aesthetic of a particular kind of Black Cool. Nope, although that is even more (mis)understood everywhere, except Taiwan, or so it seems. Yet, few startup brands and fewer still legacy brands and organizations in Taiwan dare to put black people front and centre.
I would ask myself the obvious childlike question, well, if so many of these local companies are comparatively struggling to charge premiums on their products lacking eye-catching narratives and branding and design, then why don't they observe what local people in Taiwan are already patronizing. It seems such a no-brainer, why don't they see how the market reacts, and then diverge from the decades' long unwritten rule of 'White Is Right' – which results in the common industry standard of flying in mostly teenagers from Eastern-Europe to monopolize advertising campaigns. I did touch on this issue in greater depth in my private unpublished essays of how–having people who are otherwise considered to be of lesser status be pushed to a higher status would complicate matters in cultures where a need for Hierarchy is preferred–because, harmony!
Western diversity and the variety of elite status will just have to remain a cool and aspirational thing for western brands alone to profit from, but not for Taiwanese firms. It seems okay for Korea's Samsung to incorporate us and has always been okay for Japan's Uniqlo and Sony. But not even to be cynically adopted in Taiwan for marketing purposes. Not even that. But I have to say – I really like what Gogoro has done with the electric scooters, and Taihu Brewing too has emerged in the same timeframe as us, also Giant Bicycles are phenomenally respected and cool in their own right. To name but a few of the many genuinely cool and aspirational brands that have emerged recently. So it's not all one-way traffic.
OPENNESS TO AESTHETICS
So back to the abstracted 'The True The Good The Beauty'. I was obsessed with using beauty as a workaround towards the good since some of the willing Bad is itself helpless in the presence of True Beauty. I can carry on creating beauty but in service to affect what we all know is true. Again, constantly having in mind all the people all the time. I'm amicable in the flesh but anything social online gives me anxiety so I wanted nothing of the trendy internet space no social media fame nor infamy, please. It has to take on multiple arrows coming in from disparate paths but all heading straight for something truly good, and not just beautiful as an adjective, but The Beauty as a noun. It took time to form. It starts off abstract then more of these arrows more of these confirmations, came together in form, a cohesive pattern for us. It came together in the pattern of chocolate.
BUT I COULDN'T MAKE CHOCOLATE
My anxiety with gifting came back to haunt me. It became so true and so good and all that was left was to make it beautiful. I've been quite attuned with aesthetics my whole life but this meant much more than my artwork or my words my essays. Meant much more than Yoni's designs or our dress-sense, meant much more than my curation my music, much more than her beauty. So I just figured out I had to relax and let the learning process play out. Yoni has an equally high aesthetic sense and we set aside a year for both of us. She took time off work and travelled extensively, back and forth to Europe and took a few classes. We took everything about it more seriously than others whilst not taking ourselves too seriously, mind you, and with the faith to do it all with joy not appearing so serious all the time at it. Because this chocolate was to be our baby, it is a 3rd of me, a 3rd of her, and the rest is strictly catered for you.
ON HAVING GREAT TASTE
I looked at where I'm weak at – food taste, (thankfully, Yoni is phenomenal in this department) I looked at what for me had always been so personal so touching. And that was the answer. I had to struggle for some time to give people something that was truly my everything. My soul, my culture, my spirit, my years of joy and sorrow. This is what I'm good at. Giving people an inspiring experience making it less abstract. It's a shame some are too quick to dismiss under racial grounds but I persist regardless. I can only give them the joyful experience that experience they previously preferred to ignore. Now they know. But not because they care about it – which initially I thought would be my true goal, – but because I cared about it, I cared about them. That's the real reason they love our chocolate, Yoni and I cared enough about them, yes we cared about the racists, we cared enough to research to learn and to give everyone the equal same amount of joy.
The taste and the experience. I wanted to serve everyone, all the people all of the time. It started with teaching but I cannot keep overworking myself, there simply isn't enough time in the day. We needed the chocolate store we needed the store space we needed to scale. The hardest part was convincing landlords to give us the freedom with a space to have artistic events bringing in music fine arts and theatrical performances around our chocolate flavour launches. We aren't just doing retail sales it's a product and experience and service. After all, we incorporated in Taiwan as Ikey's House and a house isn't for an exchange of goods, it's where we develop where we hope to become better. Allow me to dream for a moment, to dream that that stuff that happened not just in 2014 but every day, allow me to dream that we are in some way making things better. With the way the world's been stuck at home for so long, so allow me to dream that as things get better we'll be some way towards having a new IKEYONI concept store.
KEEPING THE FAITH
It may be obvious to you by now that I was raised in faith, faith not dogma. Faith provided me with that harsh‐but‐loving upbringing, which nurtured my ethic of personal power. And as a result, I'm lucky to have deep meaningful perspectives to draw inspiration. I love this country like I love my country like I love all countries. I don't mind being a minority of a minority I may even thrive because of it. But I also love the majority I love the other, it was one of the first instinctive attractions. We are so different but together we are similar and that ability to craft beauty from something so rare. A positive-sum life. IKEYONI Chocolates and Events was born. We set about hosting boutique events with our chocolate at the core to bring people together. It caught on fast! Soon we were co-hosting with GQ Magazine, William Grant & Sons' The Balvenie whisky, and curating luxury experiences for Harper's Bazaar Hearst Publishing. Most satisfactory of all was being in chance encounters with people all over the country carrying a bag of our chocolate, and me asking them, "what is that, may I see, so where do you buy such a thing?" That's the joy, that's the real vindication.
We have seen how good our chocolate brand can be in a society with norms that to us may appear racist but we've seen how it can be overcome and picked apart at its foundations. We want to continue to do more. To do that – all the people all of the time – thing. But first, we need to know who is willing to join this journey who really cares. We need a core group of committed funders to give us the financial confidence to take this back on the road and build a new store home, wherever home will be.
And with a smaller donation, you'll get a luxury hamper of all our current chocolates and some special editions sent to you! Higher tier donations will receive this as well as an invite to our grand reopening. Gratitude for making it happen.
So, hopefully, we can say 'everything all started to go well again in 2021'.
Love Chocolate, Hate Racism.
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