“A Curious Confluence: Where Racism & Privilege Collide”

Written by on December 19th, 2012 // Filed under Journal

 

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.

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Rema Tavares is the founder of Mixed in Canada

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9 Responses to ““A Curious Confluence: Where Racism & Privilege Collide””

  1. Hello,

    Nice piece…! It was nice to hear more about an Afro-Canadian experience. I have personally done a good amount of research about the history of Black People from around the world. When one knows their history and has fully embraced it in their core being. I find that there is no need to back peddle or walk softly when dealing with issues of race. For it was not us who made it the topic that it is or us who keep it at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness But like all things in this life on earth, we are meant to finish it. Because as Black People we are the source of all mankind. Lest we forget we birthed humanity into existence and were the first to do… It was the Moors who ruled in the Iberian Peninsula for 800 years that brought knowledge and learning to the Europeans. It was the Moors who gave Columbus the maps and sailed with him to the “New World”. That’s why the Portuguese and Spanish became world powers after the year 1492. That’s when Columbus sailed and it’s when the final expulsion of the Moors took place. Armed with knowledge like that, how could anyone ever question the significance of their Blackness? Or make allowances for other’s left-handed jealousy and ignorance…? Knowing that it is your people who showed the way…? It is also common knowledge that Black Genes are the most dominant of all peoples. So yes, those of you who are mixed, are Black because of Black gene dominance. It is the European and others who want to identify with them that should be moving and shifting to fit in with us..! Not the other way around… Because we are the source, not them or anyone else. Abide in this knowledge and I promise you, there will be more clarity and ease in your existence…

    Posted by RashaanReply
  2. Rema, you’re a fool to call yourself “black.” A white identity is best for people who “look white.” “White” is also multiracial and not racially “pure.” By calling yourself “black,” you are only confirming the alleged inferiority of “black” genes.

    Posted by A.D. PowellReply
  3. Having an immigrant Sephardic father and a mother whose family came to this country in the 1500s, and appearing to the world as the liliest of lily white – I hear you sistah.

  4. “I am also conscious of the fact that I will never truly understand what my darker skinned brethren experience.”
    Why on earth do you feel that you have to wear the responsibility for what darker skinned brethren experience?
    Of mixed parentage and secure in that identity, I grew with a majority of Guyanese of African heritage as well as those of Indian heritage..all brown to dark-skinned individuals. At no point did I consider them in need of sympathy because of race. They were normal, hard-working and accomplished persons and capable of fighting their own battles. It’s one thing to work to eradicate injustices on any front, e.g. access to education, but to feel that people of African appearance need racial sympathy from others, is to see as them as less than. They are fully formed humanity and can fight for their issues without this level of condescension, however sincerely felt. Enough of this idle chatter of “privilege”. Nonsense. Everyone has to work for their place in the world and history is a tale of discrimination against many races and groups of people worldwide, for any reason one can choose to give. Read some history.

    Posted by J. S.Reply

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