I was singled out on the job because I was the only female person of colour

This First Person article is from Jessica Lee, a Chinese Canadian photojournalist and writer based in Winnipeg. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

In the summer of 2021, I moved from Toronto, the city I’ve lived in for most of my life, to Winnipeg. 

I moved to start a rare (in Canada) staff photographer job at a Winnipeg newspaper — I believe I’m the first female photographer of Asian descent at a major Canadian daily. 

I was excited to start the job and proud to be breaking new ground. Here was a chance to bring my perspective to mainstream news. (A 2021 demographic report by the Canadian Association of Journalists says 75 per cent of staff in newsrooms across Canada identify as white.)

In my second month of work at the paper, I was sent to photograph professional hockey. It was a low-key, media-only event. They checked our IDs and vaccination cards at the front door and I headed to the media gallery to photograph.

A few minutes in, a security guard walked into the media area and asked for my ID. When we photograph hockey, we usually only have an hour or less to do so, because practice only lasts that long. I became agitated that the guard was bothering me. I hadn’t yet been able to take the photos that my editors were expecting — what I was being paid for — and I didn’t know how much longer the practice would last.

A lifetime of small slights can make you feel unwelcome, as if you don’t belong to a country you were born in.– Jessica Lee

I told him that my ID had been checked at the door already, but he persisted. Annoyed, I showed him my ID and he finally walked away, leaving me to do my job.

I expected him to check everyone else’s ID too (there was a freelancer without a media badge beside me) but he walked away. I later asked other journalists if they had been questioned by security for being there. They hadn’t. 

I was the only female POC (person of colour) in a crowd of white male media, at a hockey event in the Prairies. What was I supposed to expect? The security guard saw someone he thought didn’t belong in that space and, unprompted by anyone, he singled me out.

When I first moved to Winnipeg, I went with a reporter to photograph a company event.

My white male reporter colleague was given a parking pass by security, though he arrived late and I arrived first. I wasn’t given one. We parked in the same place, beside each other.

Before leaving to go to the event, security asked us to move our cars, but the media co-ordinator said it was fine for us to stay there. Security reluctantly agreed.

Jessica Lee on regular experience with racism: ‘Though these are small incidents — microaggressions — they are something many people from marginalized backgrounds unfortunately have to deal with day to day.’ (Submitted by Jessica Lee)

We came back from the event an hour later and there was a parking memo from security on my car saying I could not park there. My colleague did not receive the same memo. 

The note didn’t mean anything. I don’t owe a fine and there are no tangible consequences. But it panicked and then angered me. 

The reporter with me that day didn’t have to deal with these same feelings, because he’d been given a parking pass. He probably filed his story, went home to his family and didn’t give another thought to what didn’t happen to him.

This incident is small, and probably something that I would have brushed off my shoulder as a misunderstanding had I been the only person there that day.

During the security screening that day, when I showed my ID, I was asked if I was a permanent resident. My white colleague was not asked this question. (We were both born in Canada.)

It made me wonder, if this is the treatment I receive, how much worse is it for newcomers who may not even speak fluent English? 

I hope for a Canada where all feel welcome one day.– Jessica Lee

Though these are small incidents — microaggressions — they are something many people from marginalized backgrounds unfortunately have to deal with day to day, making their lives less easy and more frustrating to navigate.

When I was younger, I met older BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) Canadians who had chips in their shoulders whenever the topic of race came up. As someone raised in the ’90s, when anti-discrimination teachings were part of the curriculum in school, I didn’t understand why older BIPOC Canadians were that way then. 

I do now. Discrimination doesn’t have to be overt. A lifetime of small slights can make you feel unwelcome, as if you don’t belong to a country you were born in. 

Though I know many more discriminatory situations will come up, I cannot ignore that my white, male colleagues received completely different treatment than I did. My colleagues went home unaffected. Meanwhile, I was fuming and grappling with what happened, wondering if I should do anything about it and asking myself all kinds of existential questions:

Why did I receive different treatment? Is this racism or sexism? What kind of person would I be if I didn’t speak up? Am I being too sensitive? Do I tell my editor about what happened?

In the end, I decided even if I didn’t speak up for myself, I wanted to speak up for others. I sent a note to both those organizations, urging them to do better for those who come after me. I want to use my position and voice to make their lives easier. 

I volunteer as a mentor with two organizations that aim to bring more underrepresented voices to Canadian media, Room Upfront and BIPOC Photography Mentorship

In the end, I’m glad these discriminations happened to me and not someone else. 

I’m privileged, in that I grew up in a community where, when I spoke, I was believed and taken seriously. My background has given me the confidence to use my voice and speak up when something isn’t right. 

I can only hope others with privilege who encounter unfair situations use their voices to speak up too. I hope for a Canada where all feel welcome one day. 

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