My Experiences with Race, ‘Blackness’, and Self-Identification

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A few weeks ago I was sitting at a table at a restaurant for a friend’s birthday. I was among the first to arrive, so I sat within a small group of open chairs and waited for the others. Eventually the chair to my right was the only spot open, and a tall, black male with dreadlocks walked in and was invited to it. Someone in the group made a comment along the lines of “Alright, let’s keep all the black people together!” to a few chuckles. The comment was lighthearted in nature and intent, but the experience got me thinking. Was I OK with the comment? Was I offended? I honestly wasn’t sure.

I first learned about race (and racism) at a very young age. My parents, a black Bahamian father and white Canadian (of Greek descent) mother, had and raised my sister and I in The Bahamas – a predominantly black, Christian nation. Here, I would first learn that I was “mulatto”, a term used to describe a person of mixed white and black ancestry. I knew I was different in that sense but, in my eyes, I didn’t really look or feel different. I was “black”, or so I thought.

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Fam-jam, circa 1998.

Things would change one day while I was sitting at my desk in grade 2 or 3, flipping through my composition notebook. I had accidentally left it behind the day before, and was surprised at what I found. Many of the pages had been defaced in black ink, with terms like “Phillip is a bitch”, “sissy ass”, and “white boy Hatcher”º scribbled all over them.  I remember being more concerned at the time that I was running out of pages (I was a studious kid), rather than feeling upset or offended over the slurs. The event did, however, leave me with a lot of unanswered questions. Was this genuine hate? Or was it just some child taking the piss because he/she had to stay behind after school? Was it because I was mixed and lighter-skinned than them? Or was it simply a rebellious act with no hate or evil intent behind it? I couldn’t be sure, but the events would lead me to question my identity for some time.

High school would come and go, and it wasn’t until I moved to Canada in 2006 that I had my first real tastes of the racism and stereotypes that I had previously only seen in the media or read about in books. I enrolled in an Engineering program, studying Computer Engineering at York University from 2006-2011, and was frequently the only student of black descent in my courses (in fact, I was one of two black Caribbean-born students graduating from the program in my year – shout out to Leonard Lewis). It was also around this time of my life that I learned that a black man could be turned away from professional and academic opportunities, not for lack of qualifications, but simply for being black. This is something I still struggle to wrap my head around today. It is extremely difficult for me to accept that, not in 1817 or 1917, but in 2017 this fact remains true.

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High school grad., 2005

Being the only black face in an academic or professional setting can be daunting, and makes for some pretty interesting experiences. I remember walking into the first day of a third year Calculus class early and having the professor ask me if I was sure I was in the right room. As a joke (and partly to avoid awkwardness), I said “Oh wait, this isn’t Contemporary Black and Urban Music for Non-Majors?” (not sure if that course actually exists, it should though). I followed that up with “Nah, Vector Calc’ right? I’m good.” I am sure the professor was just trying to be helpful – we actually got along very well after that and I did fairly well in the course – but the incident would leave a sour taste in my mouth for a while.

A few months after I graduated, I started my current job. The following day or so after a department wing night, one of my coworkers said in a huddle, “Did you know Phil talks white at work?” – in reference to my tendency to speak more naturally (I have a Bahamian accent, especially after a few drinks) outside of a professional setting. I wasn’t offended by this comment (in fact, I think the term ‘talking white’ is hilarious because I don’t really know why “white” means “professional”), I just thought it was an interesting way to phrase that I was being articulate and well-spoken in the office.

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Me, 2016.

My experiences with racism and stereotypes didn’t stop at university, unfortunately, and were not just limited to corporate meeting rooms. Once, I joined a soccer team in my neighborhood in an effort to get back into sports. I ran track, swam, and played several other sports in school, and had always enjoyed being active. One game after a breakaway in which I scored, someone on the other team made a comment along the lines of “Wow, that guy’s fast.” A teammate of his then said “Come on, he’s black…he’s supposed to be.” I wasn’t sure how to react, so I didn’t. Yes, it’s true, black people tend to be more predisposed to being athletic. To me, though, I wasn’t fast just because I was black. I was fast because I spent hours on the track and in the gym, and that comment seriously undermined the work I put in to get there.

One time after that, I was having a discussion with a friend about a topic I can’t remember, and it got a bit heated. I ended up raising my voice and moving my hands in efforts to hammer my points home, and was met with “Alright, now you’re getting all black on me.”

“That’s interesting, so the minute I get passionate and expressive about something I believe in…I’m too black for you.”, I responded. I was tired of not being able to react, to be emotional, to be outspoken without it being attributed solely to my being black. Their response was “I’m sorry, I’m just not used to it. You understand.”

No, I don’t.

On another unfortunate occasion, I was texting back and forth with a friend in a Whatsapp group, and he mentioned a female friend of his “liked black guys”. Already taken aback (I’m usually very wary when someone says this), but keeping the mood light – I responded with “Sure lol, send her a pic I guess.” Her response both angered and surprised me.

“Oh no. I like classy black, like Michael Ealy or Jessie Williams black.”

Oh, alright. So you “like black guys”, but only if they’re lighter-skinned, lighter-eyed, soft-spoken, non-threatening heartthrobs. Sounds a lot like American media, right? Noted. I don’t remember what her background was, but she wasn’t that attractive, anyway *Kanye shrug*.

If you’ve been following me so far, that means I’ve been black, too-black, not-black-enough, and also not “classy black” – which I’m pretty sure isn’t even a thing.  If it was, I’d be classy black as fuck…just ask my coworkers 🙂

You can also add one more thing to that list, and that’s being unapologetically black. While I have struggled with my sense of self-identity in the past, I love being black and of black descent, and that won’t change anytime soon. While I am also Canadian, being black is one thing I’ll never say sorry for. You understand.

 

º “White boy Hatcher” is a derogatory term used against the main character in the 1990 film “Marked for Death” – that pits former DEA agent John Hatcher (played by Steven Seagal) against a ruthless gang of Jamaican drug dealers. Great bargain-bin movie if you can find it.

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