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.
We were literally "Guyanese" -- or "Jamaican and Trini," if our parents hailed from two different countries. It was absolutely unheard of for anyone of my ilk to claim Canada. After all, what, really, was being Canadian? Yes, you were born here and lived here all your life, but everything -- absolutely everything, from your table etiquette to your family pride -- was figuratively imported. There was no anchor here, nothing to claim, at least not the way our parents claimed "back home," or the way the white majority claimed, well, essentially everywhere. We Canadian-born blacks were not established; therefore, we had no reason to feel pride -- or so it appeared.
Living Multicultural -- and Not in the Melting Pot
I remember that shortly after I arrived at school in Los Angeles, I met a black American bus driver. He told me that he really liked Canadians because he had met two who treated him as though he were white. Wh-aaa-t?! Was he serious? White?
Wait. That's desirable? Why? Black Americans have their own schools and self-sufficient communities … and … "Hmm," I thought. Maybe the sanitized TV images of a multiracial American haven that we watched growing up were not entirely reflective of Americana, white or black. Perhaps my generation's parents knew what they were doing when they insisted on raising us as West Indians first, rather than Canadian. It meant that we could live within a white majority but not be defined by that majority. This is how our parents ensured our solid foundation, which was and remains an immeasurable gift.
Of course, I've felt the effects of white privilege and agenda; no question about that. However, when those situations occur, I mentally file them under the category "intensely irritating," as examples of that community's issues with race. Which have nothing to do with me.
Would I have had that clarity if I'd been raised somewhere else? I do not know. What is certain is that my nationality and my heritage were both necessary in fostering my reliable core, one that I fear the bus driver was not as lucky to have.
Just recently, I was invited to a gathering of white Americans. A famous black female stand-up comedian came on television. I was asked to "translate" every second joke. I couldn't believe it. They needed a foreigner to explain the lingo of a fellow American? It sat on my subconscious for days before I finally put it together.
I thought about Jill Scott's cultural cluelessness. The continual shock at the concept of "black" outside the United States. The expectation that I should be comfortable with being mocked because I spoke differently. And finally, at the party, witnessing the disconnect within this supposed American melting pot. I realized that these were all manifestations of the American cultural norm of self-absorption, a trait to which black Americans are not immune.
Black Americans have long been oppressed, so it was startling to me that they would ever be the source of dismissive attitudes toward another black community. However, what I had completely forgotten is that black Americans are still Americans, a nation firm in its resolve that no person or thing on this planet -- or in the heavens -- matters as much as they do. Undoubtedly, it is that fundamental belief that has led them to be the global force that they are, regardless of how skewed that belief structure may be.
America is a melting pot, while Canada is more like an hors d'oeuvre platter; I'm fortunate to have sampled both.
Experiencing America up close deepened my appreciation of my own culture and nation, and for that I am ever grateful.
Therefore, respect to de West Indian roots dem -- and to my beloved Canada, I will always stand on guard for thee.
Alyson Renaldo is a freelance writer and actor living in Toronto and Los Angeles. Her first screenplay is scheduled for production in the fall. Follow her on Twitter.