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The Secret to Becoming a Real Agent of Change

It's all about the people you surround yourself with most.

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illustration of 3 women sitting on couches and talking
Monica Garwood
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In my experience as a biracial woman, friendships in midlife appear to be with those who are most familiar when it comes to both cultural and socioeconomic status. This does not serve us well, however, and deprives us of transformative conversations and growth opportunities.

My mother is Filipina and my father is an Ashkenazi Jew — and I grew up in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood. During my childhood, people chided me for my brown skin and Asian-shaped eyes and excluded me from clubs because of it. It stung, so I stubbornly tried to fit in and deny my ethnicity throughout my childhood.

I attended Catholic schools from first grade through Jesuit college, and most of my friends were white and devout in their religion.

At the University of Virginia School of Law, my friend circle expanded significantly, with persons of different races and cultures, most of whom are still in my life today. Some of my friends from those days with whom I remain close are Black, and they increased my awareness of microaggressions, which I had felt myself, in my youth — and did not have a name for — and still at times, feel now.

As an attorney. I suffered a bigoted joke in silence during a meeting at one of the biggest law firms in Washington, D.C. A partner, nodding in my direction, singled me out as their "Filipina hire," his nod to "diversity" — though I was the only brown or black face at the table. I did not know what to say at that time. But I eventually became better at speaking up and calling out people making personal slams and/or engaging in discriminatory conversations.

Being proud of my multi-cultural heritage grew as more lawyers and judges appeared at our law firm and in our justice systems. Beyond my birth family, the family I birthed is also a mosaic of cultures — Filipino, Jewish on my side, and my children’s father, (we are divorced), is a white American of Danish descent.

People frequently ask me where I am from, since I appear ethnically ambiguous. I am most often mistaken for Mexican, though I have heard it all. A cab driver once grinned when I entered his car, as he assumed I was from his home country of Ghana. People speak to me in Spanish almost every day, whether it is in a store or a restaurant or on the street. I do speak Spanish so that does help, and I never did learn Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines.

When I travel to a country where the people are brown-skinned, they assume I am from that country, which sometimes is to my benefit. In Nepal, for example, I could enter museums without paying, whereas Westerners were charged an entrance fee.

If I say I am from the United States, I can see the confusion in people’s expressions. I have friends of color who reply to "where are you from" with “Earth,” and respond to the "what are you" question with "human."

Over the years, I have evolved to going beyond talking the talk, to truly walking the walk in celebrating diversity and inclusion. I joined a remote-working organization last year and spent months in various cities in Latin America with Millennials and Gen Zers, becoming friends with all sorts of people, of varying cultures, ages and economic backgrounds. I am grateful for the perspective-expanding experiences I have accumulated, and for the acceptance I now feel for who I am.

In retrospect, I wish I had raised my children in a more diverse neighborhood than a mostly mono-chromatic suburb outside of Washington, D.C. Though, my daughter fully embraces her Filipino heritage and my son is fiercely celebratory of his many levels of diversity — as an Asian American and member of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as a leader in the mental health movement.

His voice against injustice has significantly changed views and lives, having garnered more than 11 million followers on TikTok — and he is the subject of a recent feature story in Vogue Philippines.

“Having a diverse group of friends provides exposure to different cultures, points of view and ways of living,” says Washington D.C.-based psychotherapist Anita Gadhia-Smith. "It is the micro equivalent of travel. The more diverse your friendships, the more well-rounded and educated you become about people, life and relationships in general.”

Practicing inclusion not only broadens our circles and perspectives, but it is also beneficial to society at large. Familiarity with "the other" increases comfort levels, as well as safety, for us and marginalized people. When my gay friend adopted a Filipino boy, I proudly accepted his invitation to share my culture with his son, to whom I serve as his unofficial aunt.

I am mindful of the fact that diversity can extend beyond race and culture to sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, nationality, age, socioeconomic status, disability status and political viewpoints. And speaking out does give those engaging in biased language pause to think about the wounding nature of their words. We all need to call people out when we hear divisive language as those words have power that perpetuates prejudice.

I still bristle when someone uses the word Oriental to refer to persons from Asian cultures. The word Oriental can be used properly to describe rugs and art, not people — the latter is considered offensive. I am an Asian-American.

At the age of 60, I am still learning. My children criticize me when I use incorrect pronouns for their non-binary friends. And I appreciate their continued efforts to help me — our kids have so much to teach us about opening our circles and hearts to all people.

I love to cook, and often I use food to open the door to sharing my culture. Yesterday I brought homemade lumpia, a Filipino pork dish wrapped in cabbage, to share with guests at a Latina friend’s party. I took the opportunity to share stories about my mom’s cooking and our cultural cuisine. We bonded in Spanish, as we shared anecdotes about our mothers and our traditions.

All of us can be agents of change by widening our circles and becoming better, multi-faceted citizens in the process.

Do you consider your friendship circle diverse? Let us know in the comments below. 

Follow Article Topics: Relationships
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