Black Canadian Like Me

It took a Jill Scott concert in Toronto to show that when it comes to black Canadians and black Americans, there's a lot more dividing us than a border.

Still, I would be flat out lying were I not to confess that growing up in Canada, in terms of the standard of living, bordered on idyllic. For the most part, Canadians live a middle-class existence; even struggling individuals can access basic needs because of the nation’s government-driven mandate of social responsibility. Essentially, Canada is invested in seeing its citizens obtain bootstraps so that they will be afforded the opportunity to pull them up.

Caribbean Above All …

I remember big, beautiful parks; ketchup-flavored chips; and a freedom and security that to this day I have not been able to replicate anywhere else. And yet when it comes to my sense of self, I am Caribbean, first and foremost.

As a child of West Indian immigrants, I clearly remember my dual development: When I stepped outside, my whole world was white, with a smattering of minorities, but when I returned home, the inverse was true. My entire socialization mirrored black and West Indian sensibilities, training that took place exclusively at home. All standards of progress were set by West Indian ideals. None of this was explicitly articulated so much as explicitly modeled.

It could be reasonably surmised that, as a community, we were invested in privacy and distance from the majority. Our parents interacted with the country’s white majority as one would a friendly co-worker. Caucasians were not our parents’ superiors — nor were they subordinate. They were just people with whom our parents were expected to spend significant amounts of time. Granted, if, while using this model, they forged friendships, that was cool, but it wasn’t even remotely necessary or solicited. Also, it goes without saying that it was not considered wise to bring one’s “work” home.

… and Not African American!

Interestingly, I cannot remember a particular example of when I really realized that black Americans grew up processing race and community differently than I. But when I moved to the States, I remember figuratively standing in front of a fire hose of silly questions, and it was from such experiences that my understanding grew.

From blacks Americans I heard, “It’s African Americans up there?” (Actually, no. “African American” is an American catchphrase; it is not applicable anywhere else.) “Ya’ll pretty much speak French up there, right?” (Are we not having this conversation in English?)

From black and white Americans, I heard endless laughter as they mimicked what they believed was our use of the intonation “eh.” It occurred to me that I was not really being asked about “me” or my country as much as I was being expected to reinforce stupid assumptions. Ironically, my stupid assumption of America as the place with a welcoming black utopia was quickly being exposed as nonsense. It was during this time that my actual identity as a black Canadian of West Indian heritage solidified itself and felt real.