Black is black is not black


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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Comments

  1. Pen says

    Since it is still Black History Month (in America), here’s a quote from last October’s British installment:

    BS: Obviously, when you look at American history, you can’t look at it without black people. You know that almost without any real education. Here it’s a lot more vague, and if you don’t have the education you could easily think that Windrush was the beginning. Going back to my school in the 90s, whenever we looked at black history, it was US-centric and we knew about particular American figures, mainly from the civil rights era, which seemed to me to be a populist view – something kids were into and could relate to. It’s led to someone like me being a young person who considers themselves an intellectual but who doesn’t have a lot of education of black history in the UK. It’s what I’m looking for from BHM, but not what I’m getting.

    He’s right, and it’s sad because Britain does have a long and specific black history but the American influence still somehow dominates us.

  2. says

    Interestingly, Canada’s and Britain’s black history, at least in the past century, are linked. As British immigration policy became more restrictive to blacks, Canada opened its doors a bit. Your ‘loss’ was our ‘gain’, so to speak. I don’t have the book on me right now, but it had something to do with changes in the Commonwealth Act.

  3. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    That being said, more than being a black Canadian or a Caribbean Canadian or a Guyanese Canadian, I am a Canadian.

    You say that like it’s a good thing. :-þ

    Seriously, there are significant distinctions between the US and Canada. I go to Canada and I get lulled into “yeah, just a few surface differences but it’s really like home” until something, usually a political or cultural contrast, hits me.

    Canadians tend to be more socialist in their leanings. A lot of this has been traced to the harsher climate and the low population density. For instance in the prairie provinces, electricity and telephones only spread to the countryside after their governments set up special crown corporations after World War II.

    The rural nature of Canada also leads to a larger sense of people having to take care of each other. It’s no coincidence that socialized health care came about first in Saskatchewan, a predominantly farming province. A Canadian first was Equalization Payments from richer to poorer provinces to provide a basic level of social services across the country.

  4. says

    A lot of this has been traced to the harsher climate and the low population density

    I’ve always suspected that many of the biggest differences between Canada and The United States have to do with our different foundational stories. We didn’t fight a revolutionary war against a foreign ruler – we just asked nicely and they let us have a country. We don’t stand in defiance of government rule, we use government as a tool to improve quality of life for everyone. I don’t know how far back this attitude goes, but it’s something I’ve noticed in my own life and dissection of our various political speech.

    For instance in the prairie provinces, electricity and telephones only spread to the countryside after their governments set up special crown corporations after World War II.

    I’m almost positive that this exact same program took place in the USA. (Edit: Yes, it happened under FDR)

  5. Rod says

    One of the basic tenets of US citizens is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (I apologise, I don’t know the source of this) whereas our parallel quote is “peace, order, and good government”.

    Sorta outlines some of our different views.

  6. says

    I go to Canada and I get lulled into “yeah, just a few surface differences but it’s really like home” until something, usually a political or cultural contrast, hits me.

    We also have a different history, a different literature, a different musical tradition, a different collection of relationships amongst ourselves and with other countries, a different slate of celebrities, a different self-image…all in addition to the imported culture of the southern behemoth.

    I would imagine that black Canadians of Caribbean descent have more in common with Hispanic Canadians from Central & South America than they do with black immigrants from Ethiopia or Somalia. And perhaps, in a lot of ways, the experiences of blacks in the U.S. are mirrored more by that of Aboriginal Canadians than by any black immigrant group. [/speculation of a mostly white Canadian whose most recent immigrant ancestor was my maternal grandfather, who was brought here from England as a baby]

  7. josh says

    For those who may not know, (or care) about US institutions: “Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” is mentioned, as Crommunist says, in the Declaration of Independence among a list of “inalienable” rights which the English government of the time was alleged to be violating, along with various more explicit grievances. The D. of I. is a formal announcement of rebellion from England.

    I see from Wikipedia that “peace, order, and good government” is used in Canada’s constitution. You might compare the preamble to the US constitution

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preamble_to_the_United_States_Constitution

    Admittedly, it’s not as snappy.

  8. Broggly says

    I’ve noticed this as well with the immigrant Africans here in Australia being very influenced by American black culture. There haven’t been Africans here long, and the views white Australians generally have of them are usually similar to those of Middle Eastern immigrants (out of a presumption that they’re Muslims) so it’s probably more about the whole strength of American culture in general.

  9. Desert Son, OM says

    Another interesting component in the cultural perception of the United States is basic geographic size, which leads me to wonder if cultural perception of Canada has a similar relationship relative to landmass (I also wonder if Australia, Russia, China, Brazil, etc. have this).

    Despite the best efforts of U.S. entertainment/cultural media, the U.S. is actually more than just New York, southern California, Florida, occasionally Chicago, occasionally Washington, D.C., and sometimes a monolithic South in which North Carolina is largely indistinguishable from Louisiana (or the variant in which the Midwest is essentially one giant cornfield).

    Does Canada get similar geographic oversimplification, often characterizing it as largely frozen tundra dotted sporadically by Toronto and the Seattle suburb of Vancouver? (That last one is kidding in the finest traditions of gentle affection.)

    Still learning,

    Robert

  10. Desert Son, OM says

    Of course, for clarification, I should have said, “The U.S. is actually more than just New York City, southern California . . . ” etc.

    Still learning,

    Robert

  11. says

    Does Canada get similar geographic oversimplification, often characterizing it as largely frozen tundra dotted sporadically by Toronto and the Seattle suburb of Vancouver?

    Well, yes and no. The Canadian stereotype is a slurry of snowy memes from French and Atlantic Canada, situated in Toronto. I don’t know how much Vancouver factors into that, aside from the post-hockey riot last summer. We don’t have nearly the domestic cultural diversity that the USA does, though. English-speaking Canadians have, by and large, the same accents and attitudes. There’s a bit of a change from the western provinces to the central provinces, but that is nothing compared to Cali vs. Texas vs. the deep south vs. new england vs. the midwest vs…

  12. nm says

    That’s a fascinating consideration of the effects of USian blackness on Canadian blackness. I had never thought about it before. Thank you.

  13. jolo5309 says

    I think you are wrong on the accents, Newfoundlanders (coming to Canada in 1949) have a much different accent than Maritimers, who have a much different accent than people from the Prairies. I find talking to my family in New Brunswick exasperating, as they talk much slower then me, and well Newfies are sometimes incomprehensible…

    My father is from Newfoundland, and somedays I have no idea what he is saying.

  14. says

    I didn’t realize the Newfoundlander accent was that much different from the mainstream Maritime one (which just goes to show how little time I’ve spent out there). Although I have heard these from PEI: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EDZMkrkGn0 (these are glorious)

    Anyway, from Ottawa to Victoria, there is pretty much uniformity of accent if you’re an Anglophone. There are definitely phrases that differ, but I’ve never noticed ‘accents’ like I have in the States. I took a bus from Boston to NYC and it was like going to a different country.

  15. clinton says

    great post, great series for the month and thanks for getting more into the heart of the ambivalence of racial identity in canada (i was the mixed-race canadian bloke who you mention in your post with my questions about how you racially self-identify)

    my dad offended my black neighbour from nova scotia when he met him for the first time by asking him which island he was from. he (the neighbour) felt more authentically canadian than the recent immigrants and could trace his canadian ancestors back for four generations, he resented being confused with the modern influx with whom he shared nothing but the same skin colour. being on already shaky ground as a visible minority, he wanted distinctions made between himself and the newcomers. i imagine first generation canadians whose parents are white feel less threatened by these probing questions, feel more ‘canadian’ and are probably never questioned about their authenticity such as he was. invisible minorities are probably less likely to develop this paranoia than visible minorities and it’s important for those within the cultural hegemony and benefiting from this white privilege to recognize this and try to combat it as we move towards more racial inclusion. while i was living abroad, self-identifying as a canadian was rarely questioned. only on returning home do i get that follow-up question, similar to the one my father asked, “but where are you REALLY from?”. my answer depends on the tone of the questioner: if it’s friendly, i relent and point out the source of my visible but somewhat irrelevant difference, “my dad’s jamaican”, or if they seem to be doubting my initial answer, i forcefully reassert, like the beer commercial, “I AM CANADIAN!”

    here’s a link to a nice discussion on black canadian culture which strangely enough, like you mentioned, gets sidelined into a discussion about american blacks http://ww3.tvo.org/video/172960/being-black-canadian-culture

    i have so much to say on this and i’ve written and deleted this post about 5 times, perhaps this is a sign that i pursue should these studies more, thank you for bringing these topics to light and keep up the good work

  16. says

    hey crom,

    much of what you’ve posted is uninformed academic jibberish! a few points:

    “That being said, more than being a black Canadian or a Caribbean Canadian or a Guyanese Canadian, I am a Canadian.”

    the identity construction selection here is fascinating.

    Black or caribbean identities are presented as fluid, optional and complicated, yet a national one – which is every bit as fraught as those other identities – is presented as stable, fixed and unchanging. why does it get that privilege?

    particularly when it is quite possible that you’d have more in common with an afro-american or afro-caribbean than a person – of any race – living in iqaluit?

    and generally, what out side of trappings of state apparatus and the accidents of geography makes one `canadian’?

    national identities are just as crazy and insecure as ‘racial ones’. yet these constructs, which black people typically do not control, have more cache than cultural ones (that we do control, sort of). the selection seems particularly strange.

    “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.”

    you reference a dearth of black canadian scholarship, yet some notable afro-canadian scholars, namely walcott and clarke, prefer the term ‘black’ canadian. they use it explicitly. it points to the supposed ‘indigeneity’ of african people to canada. this is in reaction to the ‘where are you from’ question that immediately places us as outsiders.

    further, ‘black’, they claim, speaks to a position of opposition or resistance to white-only claims on the nation, and not just to `skin colour’. it is a political designation opposing a history of erasure, not catch-all that presumes a goose-stepping uniformity.

    the vast majority of afro-canadians descend from enslaved people. most of us, like you, are of caribbean background. the caribbean was a slave society. simple.

    many afro-americans to have carribean ancestry or connections: brooklyn is more caribbean than the caribbean in some ways. even the black canadian loyalists enslaved people.

    “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.”

    well yes and no. afro-american populations in some cities rivals or surpasses that in the islands – and there are tensions between cities – or as gang culture shows even within boroughs. there’s also sharp class divisions and north vs. south rivalries. those certainly have parallels to the `so-called’ caribbean conflicts.

    there’s plenty more, crom, but that’s all i have stomach for today. might be around to troll you later. good day!

  17. says

    Ugh. My eyes!

    Black or caribbean identities are presented as fluid, optional and complicated, yet a national one – which is every bit as fraught as those other identities – is presented as stable, fixed and unchanging. why does it get that privilege?

    Read in context, I am talking about the way in which I view myself, not the way in which all people must view themselves. All group identities are fluid, all group identities are fraught with exceptions and misinterpretations, all group identities fall apart under close scrutiny. My point is that, when someone asks me how I identify, I do not usually hyphenate my national identity unless it is contextually appropriate (i.e., if I am trying to distinguish myself from non-Caribbean Canadians or non-Guyanese Caribbean Canadians).

    you reference a dearth of black canadian scholarship, yet some notable afro-canadian scholars, namely walcott and clarke, prefer the term ‘black’ canadian

    I also prefer the term ‘black’. I use it almost exclusively, and for precisely the same reasons. I have been explicit on this point in several places on this blog. However, since the concept of “blackness” is fraught with difficulties (particularly when dealing with ‘mixed-race’ individuals like myself), my point is that ‘black Canadians’, more so than ‘black Americans’ do not share a origin history/myth. Most black Canadians have been in the country for less than two generations – most black immigrants have been in the country for less than two decades. Yes, there has been significant post-Emancipation immigration of blacks into the United States, but outside of enclaves like Miami, NYC, and presumably parts of places like LA, black Americans have been there for multiple generations.

    I am aware that the Caribbean was a slave society. I assumed that I would not need to explain the distinction between descendants of American slaves whose families had been there for generations, and those who were former slaves in other countries and then immigrated as free people decades (or centuries) later. My fault was in underestimating the internet’s appetite for pedantry.

    there are tensions between cities – or as gang culture shows even within boroughs. there’s also sharp class divisions and north vs. south rivalries. those certainly have parallels to the `so-called’ caribbean conflicts.

    This is important, and it was certainly short-sighted of me not to be more explicit about this. It is only from an outsider’s perspective (which, arguably, mine very much is) that any black community can be viewed as a uniform whole. While there are elements that black Canadians share with black Americans, the purpose of this particular post was to note that one cannot simply paste the issues facing one ‘group’ on the other ‘group’. Of course, the whole idea of ‘groups’ itself is a fallacy, which is what makes this topic so difficult to write about. I am certainly going to make missteps and errors in language, so thank you for taking me to task on them.

    might be around to troll you later

    Looking forward to it.

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