Someone recently asked me in a comment if I consider myself African American or Afro-Canadian. I cheekily replied ‘no’, because the option is not so binary as that. However, in light of this morning’s post, I suppose the question deserves a more detailed response. As I have laid out before, I call myself ‘black’ despite having one white parent. I tend to use that label when I am talking to a white audience – among other black folks where the racial signifier is superfluous, I identify as ‘Caribbean’ or ‘Guyanese’ when discussing my background. That being said, more than being a black Canadian or a Caribbean Canadian or a Guyanese Canadian, I am a Canadian.
As we can conclude from our discussion this morning, ‘black Canadian’ is not a particularly useful term. While it is true that all groups enjoy an important amount of internal diversity, this is particularly true of black Canadians, who are from radically different cultural backgrounds. This can be contrasted against African-Americans who, overwhelmingly, descended from slaves and can thereby claim a domestic pedigree far more than the majority of black Canadians.
The great shame of this reality is, for black Canadians at least, that the majority of black scholarship on race and race issues happens within the United States. Those of you who have paid particular attention to my posts about race will notice that most of the journal articles and peer-reviewed studies are from the USA, with very few from Canada. While I do try my best to feature Canadian race stories, it is somewhat slim pickings to find authoritative and compelling items to feature. This flies directly in the face of the fact that black Canadians are very different, historically speaking, from black Americans.
The cultural barrier between Canada and the United States is very leaky. Living in the figurative shadow of the American juggernaut is kind of like sharing a bench with someone wearing really strong perfume – it becomes difficult to distinguish your own stink from theirs. Representations of black people in popular media are therefore inextricably coloured by the American experience. Insofar as life imitates art, much of ‘black culture’ in Canada is similarly infused with Americana, despite the vast differences between their (our) ‘authentic’ experience.
I myself learned a great deal about my own expression of blackness from hip-hop music, even though I didn’t actually make it to New York until my late teens. It is more or less an inescapable fact that learning what it means to be black (or, perhaps ‘do black’ is a better term) is based on the experience of Americans, with whom I share very little otherwise. One may simply retort that it is unnecessary to ‘do black’, and that I should just ‘do me’ instead. I am well aware that many of the things I do in my life fall well outside of black stereotypes, but insofar as I am still a black viola player, a black epidemiologist, a black atheist, it is helpful to have some context by which to relate to other black people.
This is the crux of the self-contradictory reality of black Canadians. We are not a unified cultural group, and our individual constituent groups (however finely or coarsely you wish to subdivide) do not exert enough influence on the Canadian cultural landscape to meaningfully offset American portrayal of the black experience. Our fellow Canadians (of all races) take in these images and incorporate them into their schema for ‘black’. Consequently, this foreign portrayal becomes part of the domestic reality. Non-black Canadians consider black Canadians according to the only way in which they’ve seen us portrayed, and black Canadians take on the American cultural cues for the same reasons.
The odd part of this is, of course, that insofar as black Canadians are ‘a community’ in a very de facto sense – that is, we are identified by outsiders as such without being a unified group – we are also culturally defined by outsiders. Those outsiders are black, and face many of the same issues that we in Canada do, but they are more removed from us in many ways than white Canadians are. When the intergroup frictions between Canadians of Caribbean descent and those of African descent, or even cultural diversity within the Caribbean/African communities themselves, are taken into account we end up with a far more tangled skein of intersections than the imported American depiction can reflect.
This post should not be construed as a complaint or an admonishment – the fluctuations of culture are organic and complex. For every negative aspect of American racial/cultural hegemony leaking across the border, there is a positive one to balance it out. Black Canadians can look to black American heroes and icons for inspiration, often without having to deal with the same level of discrimination faced by black Americans. We can identify with and celebrate the successes of black Americans without necessarily sharing in their failures/downfalls. We are free to cast our search for a distinct identity in the same mould as white Canadians seeking to distinguish themselves from Americans. We can express solidarity with our cousins, even if we do not share all of their experiences.
Black Canadians are simultaneously distinct from and similar to African Americans. We do not share the same history of slavery, and our struggles were not their struggles. However, our stories do run parallel insofar as those of us who have been here for generations faced racist attitudes that mirror what was seen in America, and those of us who have come here more recently must deal with the historical detritus of that discrimination. The relationship between our two ‘groups’ is incredibly complex and, in many respects, self-defeating. While my response to the person asking me the question was a dismissive brushoff, the reality of the reason why “African American” and “Afro-Canadian” are far from an exhaustive list of possible labels requires far more than two letters to fully describe.
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