by Rema Tavares
When two sources of water come together to form one body, it is called a confluence. This is a place where two distinct sources of water crash and tumble over each other, churning and frothing. Here, a new river is born that cuts through the terrain as a single system. Some of these amalgamated rivers are rough and rocky, others are smooth and calm; however most consist of intermittent turbulence and serenity until they meet their final destination: a lake or an ocean. This concept stems from an analogy shared with me by a great friend and colleague, one with whom I often discuss my Mixed-race identified experience. So how does this relate to racism and privilege? And how does this fit into my story? Arguably a more pressing question for the reader: Who am “I”?
Born in the 80’s, I am the daughter of a Jamaican-Canadian immigrant father of African & Sephardic heritage and a European-Canadian mother of Irish & Italian descent. I grew up in a village of approximately 1000 people in rural Canada. This country was colonized by Europeans, not unlike the U.S., and the legacy of colonialism can still be felt by people of colour (and infinitely more so by Canada’s Aboriginal population). With respect to the African Diaspora however, Canada is often stereotyped as “the good guy” and the haven beneath the North Star. I am proud of that aspect of Canadian history; however this is by far not the whole story. Recently Afro-Canadian scholars have been working to broaden the narrative to include some startling facts. Perhaps one of the more jarring historical omissions is that the Underground Railroad was originally put in place for slaves to escape from Canada’s slavery system*. Other stories detail Afro-Canadian villages from coast to coast being razed down, the communities displaced, and further disenfranchised. Canada has also had some outrageous immigration policies which implied that people of African heritage were not inherently “well suited” for Canada’s cold climate, in order to discourage immigration. This is of course not an exhaustive list but it allows me to set the stage for the first river: racism.
My experiences with racism span from my time in the village and continue in my life now in Canada’s largest and most ethnically diverse city, Toronto. Sparing the long list of “microagressions” I have encountered over the years, some of my most recent confrontations cut through right to my genes. After interrogating my ethnicity, I have had strange men (yes, plural) tell me that I should “warn my husband because one of my children might turn out Black, and he will think I cheated on him”. One even went as far to imply that “Blackness” was comparable to some kind unsavory genetic mutation that is “carried on the female line”. While it would require an altogether different essay to deconstruct these statements of the varied layers of Eurocentrism, sexism, heteronormative assumptions, etc; it is a stark reminder of the perception of the Diaspora in this country. However, it is also an equally distressing reminder of my privilege: which brings us toriver number two. These men and others who readily share outright racist sentiments about Black people with me presumably do so because I can pass for White. The underlying message is clear: “Who would want to be Black when there is a ‘choice’?”
Choice – especially around identity – is a fascinating subject in and of itself. How we choose to identify is intensely personal for many, and perhaps particularly perplexing for some Mixed-race identified people, as it inherently calls into question our notions of “race”. Having said that, I can only speak for myself, and I have chosen to identify as Black-Mixed. Although how I have identified in the past has evolved, and will most like continue to do so into the future, I have always held my Blackness as the centre of gravity – the place from which all my many other identities flow. There is so much to be proud of, as our diverse yet uniting histories are replete with beautiful forms of music, science, art, folklore, architecture, dance and more. Furthermore, despite the unspeakable atrocities that our Diasporic and continental predecessors have faced – we are living proof of their tenacity, perseverance and inconceivable capacity to survive.
I say all the above knowing that race is not scientifically real, only experienced socially (and even physically resulting from these same social conditions), which further plays into my identification as an act of solidarity. To some though, holding race as such a central identifier may seem odd or even destructive, as opposed to gender, sexuality or nationality for example; however, choice and identity are acutely related, and we all choose to identify in one way or another (regardless of whether we are conscious of it or not).
This brings us to my place of confluence, where my twin rivers meet. I know that I have the privilege of “choice” and the uncountable privileges that come with my ethnic ambiguity. I am cognizant of the various other forms of privilege I posses, like speaking English as a first language, being able-bodied or having a Canadian birth certificate to name a few. Regrettably, despite my best efforts and deepest empathy, I am also conscious of the fact that I will never truly understand what my darker skinned brethren experience. Such is the painful result of colonialism. Yet, I also experience racism, albeit in much more palpable forms like “microagressions” or “unintentional” racism. These are the two streams, privilege and racism, which collide to form the river of my life. This place of confluence is both delicate and uncomfortable, although conversely it is also a place of great learning and amazing camaraderie for me. And so, although at times it is turbulent and other times it flows smoothly, I wouldn’t choose any other river.
* Dr. Williams, Dorothy. The Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal. Vehicule Press, 1998.