Being Black in Canada is a four-part Black History Month article series from SHIFTER editor Kevin Bourne
In my first article in the Being Black in Canada series I talked about the difference between hate and prejudice and how they can both be harmful.
In this article I want to take the time to address some myths, assumptions and comments I’ve heard over the past few weeks and months surrounding race.
MYTH #1 – Shouldn’t all races be celebrated, not just Black people?
Absolutely, all races should be celebrated, but that doesn’t negate the fact that certain groups have had more traumatic experiences than others. In fact, there are no two groups who have experienced more loss than Black and Indigenous people in a North American context.
Think about the millions of Black and Indigenous people in Canada, the United States and the Caribbean who have names like Johnson, Jackson, Smith, Williams, Jean-Baptiste, or Pierre-Charles. Those are all plantation names or names that can be traced back to colonialism. Personally, I love my last name because I got it from my father and his family, but what this indicates is that Black and Indigenous people have experienced a loss of ancestry not experienced by other groups in North America. When was the last time you met a Chinese person with the name “Smith” or an Indian person with the name “Jackson”? Never.
Black and Indigenous people are also the only groups who’s families were intentionally broken apart by the government or those in commerce. We are the only ones who’s native languages have been pretty much wiped out. Chinese people speak their native languages of Mandarin and Cantonese. Indian and Pakistani people still speak their native languages. The same can’t be said about a lot of Indigenous people and most Black people of African-American, African-Canadian and Caribbean descent.
Once again, what this points to is that Black and Indigenous people have experienced a sense of loss (of identity, ancestry and sense of place), not experienced by any other groups in North America, and it was intentional on the part of those in government and commerce; it was policy to make us more white and to forget our history.
Before we talk about this being in the past, to this day, Black and Indigenous people are the only people in North America who are still being told their natural hair isn’t acceptable in places of business and education. Again, there are kids in the United States who have been denied the opportunity to walk at their high school graduation or participate in sporting events until they cut their hair.
So while all ethnicities should be celebrated, and we as Black and Indigenous people should find ways to be empowered and help ourselves, our problems were intentionally created by the government and the business community (and in some places it’s still happening), so as a result there is some responsibility to be taken.
As a parent, when my older son used to hurt his little brother we’d remind him to say, “I’m sorry”. After a while we realized it wasn’t enough because after the apology his little brother was still hurt and would respond, “You don’t even care!” So now we encourage our firstborn to go beyond just an apology. Make sure he’s okay. Get him some ice. Get him a band-aid. Don’t just say you’re sorry, show him you care.
MYTH #2 – Slavery has been over for a long time. It’s time to get over it.
In recent years, Kanye West has gotten a lot harder with Black people. I’ve gone in an opposite direction. I used to get down on my fellow Black people about our victim mindset and constant protests. I used to wonder why we still let slavery impact us. I took a very tough love approach to the Black community. And to be honest, there are still some areas where I don’t agree with other Black folk.
But in recent years, especially over the past few months, I’ve been shedding a lot more tears for the Black community. I’ll watch the news or listen to a podcast and I’ll just start crying. While I personally consider myself a very empowered person and the total opposite of a victim, and there are individual success stories like Barack Obama we can point to, on a macro level Black people still have a ways to go despite the positive changes over the past few decades.
Slavery may seem like it was a long time ago, but it really wasn’t. Slavery in my family started four generations before me. A Scottish tailor and plantation owner had multiple children with a Black servant. The dark skinned children grew up with their mom and the light skinned child grew up on the plantation with her dad. That was my great grandmother. Two generations later, her grandson (my dad) still looked bi-racial. He was light skinned with straight hair, and some of those traits have continued down the family line.
The other day I turned to my wife while we were driving and said, “Our daughter is light skinned with almost straight hair and a British last name”, despite her mom being dark skinned with kinky hair. It boggled my mind for the first time. I contrasted that with the “slavery happened a long time ago, get over it” sentiment I sometimes hear.
If my daughter is still light skinned with the hair texture of a bi-racial person, was slavery really that long ago? And if there are physical traits still present in my daughter five generations removed from slavery, is it that far fetched to think there could be mental and emotional traits passed on as well? That’s just my family; there are others like mine.
Now, I’m not one of those people who are angry about the uglier parts of my ancestry. I embrace the fact that a few generations back I’m part Scottish and hope to make a trip there in the future. It could explain why Braveheart is my favourite movie and I love the bag pipes. But I still can’t help but get offended when I hear someone say to get over slavery as if it was that long ago and isn’t still affecting people today.
MYTH #3 – Obama was elected President so racism isn’t much of a problem
This is an odd one for me. Does one person getting sober mean drug addiction is no longer an issue? Does one person, or a few people, beating homelessness mean it is no longer a problem? To point to the success of one person, or even a few people, as an indication that an issue no longer exists is ridiculous.
Let’s look at the facts. There’s currently only one Black city councillor in Toronto out of 45 seats. Back in 2017, there was only four Black CEO’s in the Fortune 500. There are only six non-white principal team owners in three of the four major U.S. sports leagues combined. As of last October there were five MPs out of 388 seats in the House of Commons. Whether you look at Blacks, Asians, Arabs or Latin Americans, the number of seats they have in the House of Commons is below their percentage of the Canadian population.
How much progress has really been made?
MYTH #4 – I have a Black friend, I’m not racist
A few of my close white friends have said some stupid and insensitive things over the years without knowing it. I just didn’t correct them at the time.
Going on some rant about Black people before stating, “Not you, you’re one of the good Black people” as if that’s supposed to make it acceptable. Friends who rant about white people now being the minority (which I’ll cover later). Friends petting my Afro like I’m an exotic animal or coworkers being surprised that I talk properly or “sound white”.
The cousin of “I have a Black friend, I’m not racist” is “I have black staff, I’m not racist” for those who are executives and business owners. Some people have absolutely no problem having Black people as a worker. Think about the racist NBA and NFL owners who have been outed in recent years. They have no problem having Black players on their team. The field or court is their plantation.
It’s one thing to have a Black friend or Black staff, but how would you honestly feel if the shoe was on the other foot? The person owning the company and signing your cheques was Black? You watched the news and there was only one token white person and everyone else was Black, Asian or Latin American? You looked at the House of Commons and it was 80% Black, Asian, Latin American or Indigenous? You looked at the list of the wealthiest people in Canada and not many people looked like you? How many of the “I’m not racist, I have a Black friend” crowd would now have a problem?
MYTH #5 – White people are becoming the minority
This isn’t true. The problem is that as a society we’ve lumped every non-white person into this large group called “coloured” or “visible minority”. What it has done is create two groups―white people and everybody else. Just the fact that we group all non-white people into one group called “coloured” or “visible minority” is racist.
Now let’s do a demonstration. If you have five people in a room―two white people, and one each of Black, Asian and Latin American―the people that see all “coloured” people as the same will say, “The sky is falling. We’re the minority” because there are three “coloured” people in the room, not realizing that when you look at each individual ethnic group, they still have more people in the room than everybody else.
When you look at the census data for most Canadian cities, white folks still have a larger percentage of the population than any other ethnic group.
MYTH #6 – Only white people are racist
Lest we start piling up on white people, it’s important to address that all races have racist people. I’ve been on the receiving end of racism from people of all ethnicities. Even Black people make fun of each other for being too light or dark.
I remember when I was a kid, a group of my parents’ friends sat me down and had a conversation with me about why I shouldn’t trust white people. Keep in mind, this is a generation that grew up in the Caribbean under colonialism so they didn’t have a great view of white people. Luckily, my parents never raised me that way, my best friends in elementary and middle school were white, and I just had sense, so I didn’t listen. But passing on racism is this way is harmful.
MYTH #7 – We hold all white people responsible for racism
I remember when I went to go see the movie The Butler at the theatre, I was surprised at the number of white people in the audience. It was funny to see how uncomfortable some of them got during the overtly racist scenes (which is a good thing). A few of them looked around at me during those scenes with a slight grimace on their face as if to say, “I’m sorry”.
Whenever we talk about racism it feels as though a lot of white people get defensive as if we’re holding you all responsible for what happened in the past. We don’t. All I personally ask is that you do better than they did, understand that Black people are still in recovery, be aware of how your prejudices might be subconsciously hurting people today, and overall just care. Other than that, let’s be friends.
By Kevin Bourne