How to make friends and influence change in the fight against racism

Protesting does have a place, but I am a firm believer in connecting with the opposition on a personal level

I grew up in an apartment building in the Jane-Finch corridor, where I played frisbee in the hallways with other kids of different colours. My babysitter was East Indian, my best friends were Black and white. 

As a Vietnamese kid, I actually didn’t have many Vietnamese friends. I met my best friend, Mark Simms, when he walked over and asked to join our soccer game. That was the original “friend request” before the days of Facebook. We’ve been lifelong friends ever since. 

Whatever stereotypes existed out there about the different races, ours was a neighbourhood that forced you to see the truth in a person.

Not everyone has the opportunity to live in a diverse community, so some people can grow up with racist attitudes or even be unaware of racism. I’ve had friends who are convinced that racism doesn’t exist in Canada – they tend to be white or live in a homogenous community. 

But I don’t blame them. They are merely unaffected in their own experience.

With the recent events in Charlottesville and local incidents, racism seems more prevalent these days. With social media sharing and the rapid news cycle, everything gets magnified exponentially. 

It’s nice to have more folks join the battle against racism, but the supportive comments, thumbs-up signs, and likes online aren’t enough. The solution is simple, really: don’t just be an ally, be a friend.

For me and my friends from a community like Jane and Finch, racial stereotypes didn’t result in hurt feelings. We had no time for that. But racism does affect people economically and socially, and their ability to improve living conditions and realize their potential.

The biggest threat to me wasn’t a random driver calling me a “chink” when I was crossing the street, or a guy shouting “nigger” at my best friend while he was jogging. The real threats are the people in power who can cut off opportunity.

I have been volunteering most of my life with the goal of breaking down racial stereotypes, and have quietly overcome many roadblocks and injustices. Protesting does have a place, but I am a firm believer in connecting with the opposition on a personal level.

Whether it’s a manager at a job interview, educators, news media or the police, we must do our best to be friends with each other because real change will take a long time. 

Next time you receive a friend request from someone different than you, accept it. You might be surprised.

Paul Nguyen is founder of He was among the recipients of the Governor General’s Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers at City Hall last month. | @nowtoronto

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