“You’re the whitest Black person I know.”
“But you’re not like Black Black. You may as well be white.”
“[Insert name of white girl who loves Wu-Tang Clan] is way more Black than you.”
I got this a lot growing up. The words varied, but the message was the same — there’s a right way to be Black, and I’m doing it wrong.
Growing up in Alberta as a Black, second-generation Canadian was isolating and confusing. With the exception of my siblings, I was surrounded by white kids. I felt pressured to distance myself from anything that felt like Blackness, and cling to everything “Canadian.” Fall in love with hockey? Check. Regulate my voice to rid it of even a hint of my parents’ Nigerian accent? Check. Acquire the approval of a white boy? That was a hard one, but check.
When I was 11, I remember being singled out by a girl at camp. “You know you’re the only Black person here, right?” I was shocked, because I honestly half expected people to see me as white.
“I feared I was too Canadian to be Black, and too African to be Canadian.”
It was then I realized that I didn’t have a blueprint for embracing my Blackness. From my observation, there were two distinct paths available to me: I could lean into my traditional Nigerian culture or I could be what I saw celebrated on TV — African American. The latter felt like my only real option.
Whether I was watching a movie with a token sassy Black woman or settling into “Coach Carter” for the fifth time, the portrayal of “Black culture” in the media I consumed was terribly consistent. If you were Black, you were funny, you had a tragic yet redemptive life story, and most importantly, you sounded Black. But that wasn’t me. My great grandparents weren’t slaves, I didn’t speak African-American Vernacular English, I didn’t understand grape drink references, and for me, fried chicken wasn’t a thing.
The Americanization of the Black experience had become so deeply rooted in me that I felt like I didn’t have a home within Blackness. One way I compensated was diving into American hip-hop. Memorizing every line of a song made me feel like I was doing something right, like I was performing Blackness “properly.”
Lacking stories about people like me — people who were born and raised in Canada — I feared I was too Canadian to be Black, and too African to be Canadian.
Connecting with a distinctly Canadian Blackness
The year 2020 was a big one for all of us, and it was a really big year for Black folks. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement was an especially powerful moment, but its American roots once again had me questioning my identity.
Countless times, I saw this graphic breaking down white privilege in my friends’ Instagram stories. It provides statistics about systemic racism… in America. Then there’s this graphic, which shares the statistics around employment, education, surveillance, wealth, justice, health and housing… in America. I can’t tell you how many times Facebook served me this video of Kimberly Jones discussing the economic history of Black communities… in America.
So as I watched my white Canadian friends uncover their anti-blackness, commit to unlearning and join the call for justice (... in America), I wondered how my own identity fit into all of this.
What I didn’t see in my feeds was how hiring discrimination is actually worse in Canada than the U.S., or how pervasive systemic racism is in Canada’s education systems. I have firsthand experience of both. Despite worldwide protests, I was hard pressed to find mention of the #EndSars campaign on my social media feed, a campaign that called for supporters of Black Lives Matter to join the fight to end police brutality in Nigeria, my parents’ home.
My daily experiences of racism in Canada and my family’s suffering in Nigeria seemed to have no place in this global movement, despite it being the face of Black struggle in 2020. It all seemed to suggest that there is one kind of Black experience that people care about, and that’s the American one.
“Did my experiences even matter? Or was I just the wrong kind of Black?”
Part of the dilemma is the lack of representation of Black Canadians in media, education and literature. In his frequently quoted essay “Borrowed Blackness,” André Alexis says, “It sometimes feels as if no one, Black or white, has yet accepted the fact and history of our [African Canadian] presence, as if we thought Black people were an American phenomenon that somehow crept north, or an African one that has migrated.”
In his poem, “How Black?”, Edmonton-born-and-raised rapper Cadence Weapon also explores Black conceptualization: “The gradients of Civil War black and Kenyan black and Alberta black.”
To me, “Civil War Black” was Black America, Black Lives Matter — a Black that the global community wanted to see liberated. “Kenyan Black” was Nigeria Black, #EndSars Black — a Black that the world felt comfortable being silent about. And then there was “Alberta Black,” Black Canada — a Black that was altogether ignored.
Did my experiences even matter? Or was I just the wrong kind of Black?
Determined to find an answer, I started connecting with other Black Canadians and engaging with Black Canadian history through art and literature.
I started reading the Black Prairie Archives, and Cheryl Foggo’s words about being stared at in downtown Calgary made me feel so seen. I also discovered Michele Pearson Clarke, an artist who’s piece, Suck Teeth Composition, pays tribute to West Africans living in Canada. Clarke describes the piece as “an expression of the anger and pain that many Black people often experience living in Canada, where we are always assumed to be better off, if not completely free of racism.”
Foggo and Clarke both illustrated such uniquely Canadian experiences, and for the first time, I felt like my existence wasn’t a deviation from Blackness; it was a part of it. Seeing myself represented in literature and art told me that I could be me and be part of Black culture at the same time.
When asked what is unique about Canadian Black identity, Canadian rapper Shad describes the wide range of cultural identity that exists within Canadian Blackness: “What we have here is fairly unique. Because of waves of immigration, we have these different cultural identities that are brand new in the world.”
Hearing that was such a great reminder that, especially in Canada, there are so many different ways to be Black. And being a Black Canadian, by definition, means that you don’t fit into a box.
For me, what started as a painful year turned into a beautiful opportunity for discovering myself. I connected with other Black Canadians and helped build a media collective dedicated to amplifying Black Canadian voices in Mohkínstsis/Calgary — no tropes, no tokens, no borrowing from the African American experience. We talk about our struggles to belong and how our music taste doesn’t make us less Black, and there’s so much healing in that.
Over the summer, I wore my natural hair without any chemical straighteners for the first time in my life, something that would have made me feel way “too Black” at the beginning of the year. I also decided it was time to start owning the fact that I was once a diehard fan of Hedley and Marianas Trench, something that always made me feel “too white.”
I am starting 2021 with a better understanding of who I am and how I fit into Black Canada. Most importantly, I stopped modifying my Blackness in order for it to make sense to the rest of the world.
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