Perspectives of diversity from Eric Wong

Eric Wong with his daughter Leilan and his son Gabriel

Eric Wong with his daughter Leilan and his son Gabriel - Photo courtesy of Eric Wong

Eric Wong has dedicated his entire life to diversity and human rights, and in November of 2011 he was recognized for his efforts with a Honourable Mention at the 2011 Cultural Harmony Awards.

After thanking numerous people, including his son, he did something unexpected – pressed play on an old tape player.

What came out of those two tiny speakers was the voice of Bobby Taylor singing Does Your Mama Know About Me?, a song about an interracial relationship between a black man and a white woman.

The song was originally written by Tommy Chong about a Chinese fella dating a white girl. However, as Wong told the audience, it was changed because that concept wouldn’t fly with Motown.

The audience was captivated, not only by the rarity of hearing music in the council chamber, but also by the message Wong was conveying – that even though a lot of work has been done to integrate people of different cultures, more work is still needed.

Wong is no stranger to standing in front of a crowd as he has a long track record of educating people on issues like diversity and human rights.

He has worked with organizations such as the Vancouver Police Department, Canadian Auto Workers Union and the First Nations Education Steering Committee.

Since he is well versed in what can make for a harmonious existence between people of all nations, the Source Newspaper asked him a few questions.

Source Newspaper What can people do in their everyday lives to build bridges with people from cultures other than their own?

Eric Wong Be open to new and different circumstances and at the same time, seeing the commonalities that unite us. We too often see multiculturalism as a concept focusing on our differences when in fact it also invites us to embrace our similar values and beliefs. We may have different communication styles but we all want to be treated with respect and want to treat others with respect.

SN: What is your number one pet peeve when it comes to dealing with multiculturalism?

EW: I worry every time there is a news item aired where someone of immigrant background is depicted in a “negative” way. We can, unfortunately, allow our minds to get lazy and can therefore easily get trapped into conjuring up a stereotype. There is also the notion that endures with too many people, that multiculturalism is about accepting practices, behaviours or values that are contrary to those we embrace in Canada. The threshold for welcoming and valuing diversity has always been our laws and traditions for human rights and the principles laid down in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

SN: What do we need to learn in Vancouver about being truly inclusive, and not just tolerant?

EW: I personally don’t mind starting with “tolerance” [because] it’s a much better place to be than “intolerance.”” But I strive for inclusiveness, which embraces the concept of celebration. It is like the music my wife likes to listen to. I admit to “tolerating” it at first hearing it, but in time my appreciation for her music has grown. We are much happier having something we can mutually celebrate. I think this road requires a great deal of patience, being open minded and generous. Aren’t these some of the virtues we see as being truly Canadian?

SN: What is your opinion of Richmond being what some people call an “urbanized ghetto”?

EW: Here is a good example where continuous work and conversation about a contentious issue is very much needed. One important question to keep in mind when having this difficult conversation is how can we welcome different languages in our community and have it be an element that adds to the richness of our diversity and not become a barrier to inclusion?

SN: What role will/can the indigenous people play in our society?

EW: All of us who are of immigrant background must keep in mind of our collective role in the colonization of North America and the cultural genocide of indigenous communities that was so integral to the assimilation policy of Aboriginal people in Canada. We need also to be mindful about how this legacy continues to be a force in Canada and counter it by acknowledging the legitimacy of self-determination for Aboriginal people.

SN: On a multicultural level, what would you like to see happen in Vancouver in 2012?

EW: It would make a good start to the year if we had the courage to refrain from engaging in conversations where we see only “right and wrong” and would participate in these difficult conversations with a greater degree of kindness and respect.