Coloured and Canadian.

'O, Canada,' by Kwame Delfish

Last night, I just about broke out into hives reading  this essay by Alyson Renaldo, “Black Canadian Like Me,” over at The Root. The piece addresses issues that as a black Canadian, I have some familiarity with.  When I cross the border into the U.S., I prepare myself to be asked about my accent, if Tim Horton is our president, if I speak French. It isn’t uncommon for me to encounter people who are astoundingly ignorant about anything related to Canada, and I’ve developed a thick skin about it.

For Ms. Renaldo, the idea that black Americans may be ignorant of black Canadian culture was made clear when she attended a Jill Scott concert, and the singer riffed on the ostensibly universal experience of eating soul food.

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.

Unfortunately, Renaldo tackles these issues in a haphazard, disjointed way. She starts by expressing her disappointment that Jill Scott didn’t change her lyrics to make them resonate with her Canadian audience (“why Candied Yams and not Guava Cheese, Jill?”), and relates this to the (apparent) dismissal of black Canadians’ experiences.  She then makes an untidy segue into her life of otherness as a young black woman dealing with “White Canadian apathy toward black Canadians,” and her expectation that she wouldn’t have this otherness reinforced once she moved to the U.S., a country that is “remotely aware of its minority population” (an expectation that’s pretty naïve).

And then, the article goes terribly awry.  She describes growing up with “West Indian sensibilities”, and then proceeds to make some pretty broad based erroneous assumptions that the rest of black Canada shares not only her upbringing, but her sentiments, as well.
Someone wasn’t paying attention in history class. Black Canadians – like black Americans, or black Brazilians, or black Africans, or black West Indians – are not one homogeneous mass of curry-goat-eating, soca-dancing-reggae-listening people. George Elliot Clarke describes Canadian blackness as an identity “rich with contradictions and fissures.”  But Renaldo is using the experiences of her particular social circle (middle class, well-to-do Caribbean folk) and morphing them into her own approximation of the total black Canadian experience.

Black Canadians are not all West Indian Immigrants. They are also descendants of Black Loyalists in Eastern Canada, and descendants of the fugitive slaves that escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad , and the first and second generation Canadians whose families immigrated from Continental Africa, and diasporan immigrants from South and Central America.  Many don’t live a “middle class existence”, either, and for the 1 in 4 black Canadian families classified as low income, life certainly isn’t “idyllic”.#

She feels marginalized, and I get that. She feels misunderstood, and confused that the Utopian America that existed in her mind, where all black people love each other and get along, isn’t a real place. She’s pissed that she’s been asked in the past to be the mouthpiece of a people she doesn’t even understand herself. Fair enough.

But Renaldo’s article (and the ensuing vitriol in the comments section) is indicative of just how dangerous such a myopic, narrow imagining of blackness is. In her bid to define her own sense of belonging, she pieces together a sloppy narrative of black Canadians that effectively excludes the stories of so many people she supposedly represents.

Stephanie Okola is a Kenyan-Jamaican law student who lives in Toronto.

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  • I’m a black Canadian living in the US. People misunderstand my background and my upbringing on a regular basis. If I’m asked if I speak French one more time I will scream. Do you speak Spanish fool! Sorry, I digress. I understand and forgive these moments because they misunderstand us as much as black Canadians misunderstand them. Growing up and finally getting BET in Toronto who would have thought that all New Yorkers weren’t walking around wearing throw back jerseys with a pending rap contract. Television corrupts the mind and the images we see are not always based on fact. In the end, we must learn to understand and appreciate our differences, celebrate our diversity and practice patience with each other when our ignorance overwhelms. Black is black in the long run and it is beautiful across all countries.

    The Super Sistah

  • Thank you Alyson. I live in Toronto. I’m a hyphenated black Canadian who doesn’t like listening to a whole night of soca music. (Hi Qalil! I imagine you all saying).

    When I read her piece I wondered who she was representing.

  • RB

    I too found her piece a bit disjointed. I appreciate your perspective.

  • Kimberly

    Thank you for your piece. There was a lot of criticism in the comment section on her piece on the Root. I wanted to be open minded. As a black person in America I know that not every black experience is the same. So I’m always interested in other people’s experiences. I was looking forward to an interesting article about black canadian identity in general. Instead she criticizes Jill Scott for expecting her fans to know the lyrics to her songs as an example of black american ignorance. Sadly, most americans can be ignorant about Canada and many other countries and cultures, but that isn’t the case with everyone. And as far as the song goes, I’ve never driven my Chevy to the levy with some good old boys to drink some whiskey and rye, but I still know all the lyrics to American Pie. Not because I learned all about a culture but because I loved a song and memorized the lyrics. Something most fans do when they go to a concert. You sing along and you know the lyrics. You don’t laugh at the singer because she doesn’t know what you serve at your dinner table.

  • MH8D

    I really disliked this article. I thought it was really self-righteous and kind of stupid.

  • MH8D

    To me, it came off as if this woman had intended for some time to write an article about the superiority of Black Caribbean-Canadian culture to Black American culture and Jill Scott’s show was just something she was able to stretch into a reason to do so.

    By her own admission, this woman didn’t know much about American culture and operated on a set of poorly informed assumptions, but she lambastes Jill Scott’s ‘cluelessness.’
    How clueless and self-absorbed is it for a person to grow up wishing to be a part of America and its black community, but make it to adulthood having no idea what soul food is?

    She harps on her parents’ strong Caribbean cultural identity and how they came to Canada for opportunity, ‘not to reinvent themselves.’ Newsflash: the black people she’s comparing herself didn’t come to America for opportunity OR self-reinvention and there was no choice in the matter…
    It is a tired old sentiment that I’ve heard before: from Africans and West Indians with regard to Black Americans, and also from white Europeans with regard to Americans in general… We have no culture and no breeding, we should be ashamed of ourselves… Right.

    This lady’s dubious veneer of victimhood can’t cover up the outright snobbery of her actual thoughts..

    • Scipio Africanus

      “It is a tired old sentiment that I’ve heard before: from Africans and West Indians with regard to Black Americans, and also from white Europeans with regard to Americans in general… We have no culture and no breeding, we should be ashamed of ourselves… Right.”

      I’ve heard this nonsense too. The ridiculous part about it is that it only gets applied to the US, not to any of the other non-Native American cultures of the Western Hemisphere, which are roughly all the same age as the culture here in the United States (about 400 years old, give or take 50 years).

      I always read this as an underlying envy of American hegemony throughout the world. The idea being “sure, the US has the strongest military, biggest healthy economy, pop cultural sway, etc, but they’re not ‘authentic’ at a deep cultural level like WE are.”

      It’s silly for a few reasons:

      – groups of human beings everywhere and in all times have culture. Their culture is their set of beliefs, practices, music, food, religion, etc.

      – it ignores the many subcultures that exist here and is really just referencing the topmost Leave It To Beaver, Growing Pains sort of face of American culture that even we joke about and sort of downplay amongst ourselves.

      -it’s actually quite harmful to people from other cultures as well. To use the original author as an example, it plays into the noble savage concept a little bit – the idea that *in Lovey Howell voice* people from those hot, wild jungles of the Caribbean and Africa, or the mystical Orient are so very compelling and interesting, aren’t they? So vibrant and full of life, you see. *end Lovey Howell voice*.

      I hesistate to take it to a personal level, but I’m wondering if the original author is under 30. Based on what she mentiones in teh article, seh seems to eb basically intelligent, but still wrapped up in some misguided stuff, which can happen to smart young people who haven’t really challenged their own beliefs yet.

      • haiba

        “I’ve heard this nonsense too. The ridiculous part about it is that it only gets applied to the US, not to any of the other non-Native American cultures of the Western Hemisphere, which are roughly all the same age as the culture here in the United States (about 400 years old, give or take 50 years).”

        I think that gets applied to Canada, too. I’ve found that so many people have a hard time conceptualizing Canadian ‘culture’, usually because they only thing they know about Canada is really superficial – beavers, maple syrup, hockey, bacon, Celine Dion – that sort of thing. So many people aren’t actually *interested* in learning more, either. Canada frequently gets labeled as the US’s baby sister, or imagined to be a cheaper, colder imitation of America. As a Canadian, I (unfortunately) frequently find myself defining Canada to people in comparative terms to the US.

        With regards to the author, I don’t know if it’s so much a function of age as it is closed-mindedness. I know quite a few seemingly intelligent and educated people over the age of 30 who make the same sorts of assumptions all too often.

  • J

    Seems to me Renaldo has assimilated into America quite well. She’s figured out how to play the age-old model minority card. Can’t knock the hustle. It’s worked for many before her. It got her published!

  • Chocobabe0

    First, I appreciate this response written from a black Canadian. Second, it is assumed that Canada is just a northern US (less violent and waaay nicer people). And if Hollywood was located in Toronto I think this would be a different discussion. We would know everything about Canada. Third, as an African American, I speak to black people from all over the world. And for some reason you are supposed to be “conscious” of everyone’s culture. I try to take in as much worldly culture as my little brain can hold, but I cannot know everything. We are a race full of unique stories. Everyone’s story is different, all you can do is slowly learn one at a time and appreciate the similarities and differences. Lastly, she crossed the line going in on Jill Scott, it’s Jilly from Philly. Beyonce doesn’t go to Korea singing “I don’t think your ready for this Kimchi”!!!

    • April

      Beyonce doesn’t go to Korea singing “I don’t think your ready for this Kimchi”!!!

      Haha! Good one.

      That Jill Scott anecdote made her post DOA for me.

  • Cecily

    Try being a Black American who also has Canadian citizenship. I’m apparently not black enough to be read as American, and because I’m not from the Caribbean, I’m not authentically Black Canadian.

  • I can ‘better’ that, Cecily. Try being conceived in Jamaica, born in Canada, abandoned at birth and then being adopted by white folks and growing up in rural Ontario. Same thing….I am not authentically Black enough for many of my fellow Black Canadian citizens because I’m not from the Carribean, I do not speak with a mock Jamaican accent, hate Reggae, Soca and Curry Goat.

    I commented on the post over at The Root and was mildly embarassed for the writer. I hope (while some of the comments were pretty awful) she reads them, so she will grow up and learn how culturally myopic she is. As someone who travels to the US quite often, I think that there is more cultural bigotry within Black Canadian communities than issues between Black Americans and Canadians. We have our head so far up our asses that we just don’t see it.