My friends and I attended a Jill Scott concert in Toronto a few years back. We were very excited. Her music was like an oasis of craft in a desert landscape of mediocrity. As Jill belted out those notes, we sang along and swayed. She led into her wicked tune "It's Love" by inviting the audience to think about "lovin', like, we do that good, down-home soul food, you know, candied yams, collard greens, biscuits and gravy, smothered … "
The audience went silent. I remember thinking, "Gravy goes on bread? Really? Candied yams, you say? You mean licorice and a chocolate bar belong on a vegetable? Wow. Oh, I get it — she's just setting up her experience in the song. But, well, not really, because she's asking us to reminisce with her, which means we're supposed to know about these strange food combinations, too."
One of my friends jokingly turned to the rest of us with, "I don't think they know there are others on the planet with them. Maybe she thinks the 'c' in 'Canada' really stands for 'Carolinas.' " We laughed. I chimed in with, "After the concert, let's go to Romania and talk love over curry and roti." We howled with laughter and went on enjoying the concert.
In truth, however, our comments were made not from humor but from disappointment, which we all felt but chose to ignore. After all, we were here to celebrate Jill's uniqueness and relevance. Her assumption that her cultural experiences should mirror ours, here, in a completely different country, suggested that she didn't value our uniqueness and relevance.
Ignorance (or dismissal) of black Canadians as a community was not uncommon to us, but what made this time a little more difficult to swallow was the source. Ordinarily, the source was Caucasians, not people of color, and certainly not black folks.
Could black Americans be as clueless about otherness as Caucasians can often be? Nope, no way; I couldn't believe that. After all, black Americans vigorously resisted marginalization of their community by speaking up, building universities and creating media outlets and businesses reflective of their sensibilities. They have a profound understanding of how corrosive marginalization can be. I didn't know what was happening with Jill that night, but I decided that it must have been a mishap. Or was it?
An Invisible Culture Within Canada
Growing up, I wished to be in a country remotely aware of its minority population, and from my perspective, that country was the States. So when I graduated from high school, I decided to make a stand against what I believed to be white Canadian apathy toward black Canadians: I decided to attend an American university.
I am a black woman, born and raised in Canada, a nation whose black population barely makes up 2 percent of its approximately 30 million people. I often felt that Canada was not aware we even existed. The mainstream media outlets pushed us to the margins. In the '90s, when I was in high school, MuchMusic, Canada's 24-hour video music station, featured R&B music once a week for an hour. The hip-hop show came on for half an hour on weekdays at 3:30 in the afternoon … school let out at 3:10.
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.
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.