Academic Arts & Keepin it Light

Originally posted on: 2012/11/05

“A family member once told me that on the day I was born, they were praying that I didn’t turn out like some “wood chopping nigger”. Had I been born a boy, I was to be called Nigel. I have been told many times that it means “dark one”, which is generally followed by laughter. It is interesting that this is the way my story starts. Is our first story a microcosm of the rest of our lives? I think for some it is. And so it goes, I was born bright Lilly white with a shock of black hair. Black versus White.  I’m a mixed girl born in the 80s to a Jamaican father of African and Sephardi Jewish decent & an Irish-Canadian mother.”


This is the beginning of an essay I wrote (albeit poorly) for an academic writing class in the summer of 2011. Full of naive ambition, I was going to walk into this class and blow everyone’s minds with my hard-hitting, real-talk piece, retelling my experiences inhabiting the world as a black-mixed woman. I specifically chose a teacher who identified as white-mixed and the class was populated solely by women, which I thought would significantly improve my chances of accomplishing my goal. I was going to walk out a hero (or at least a great writer lol).

Re-reading my piece today for the first time since this class, I am reminded of how bold I really was, especially for someone who characteristically went out of their way to avoid conflict. There are a lot of problems in the piece, besides my cheesy & cliched style, as this was before I began to voraciously read material that could help me articulate my experiences. Surprisingly (read naively), it was not the style of my writing that came under fire. Lead by the teacher, the small class of white women (and one Arab woman) began attacking my anger and lived experiences!  It was literally a volley of racialized assaults for what felt like an eternity, as I sat there in total shock. Even my body language changed as I shrunk down in my chair and would have hid under the table if I could have. Here are some of the points they took issue with and their reasoning:

  • This “exotic” does not mean palm trees and sunshine. This exotic means temptress and mistress and object-that-I-will-use-but-never-marry-and-sully-my-pure-genes-with. I have been told many times by men to “be careful, because one of your children might turn out black and your husband will leave you because he’ll think you cheated”. According to one, I had to be especially careful because “black” is carried on the “female line”. Why? Because “no-one would actually say that, I must have made that up.” Yeah, that’s right. Making up racist experiences for attention, that’s something I’m into slash have time for slash am that creative…sigh.
  • Living in a country so afraid to speak about race, I too am afraid of what people will say for making them uncomfortable. “This is progress! Mixed people will save us from racism and one day we will all be brown” people tell me. We are perceived as fetishes upon which the world can lay their desperate, grappling hands to pray for the forgiveness for their predecessors sins and pin their hopes for the future. Why? “Because mixed people ARE the end of racism, you’re just jaded, look at Barack Obama!!!”
  • It is not a coincidence that most of pop culture’s “favourite” black women happen to be light-skinned and with (distant or recent) white ancestry. For exapmle: Halle Berry, Beyonce, Tyra Banks, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, even going as far back as Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandrige, Josephine Baker and so on.  Why? “I have 2 words for you: Oprah Winfrey! Are you saying that Oprah is ugly?” *Literally* the teacher said this to me, I kid you not. 
  • Just this week Psychology Today posted a “scientific” article titled “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” by Satoshi Kanazawa which they quickly took down without an apology. Sometimes it seems that phrenology is simply reinvented. Why? “Psychology today is a reputable magazine and if they published it, it must be true.” Again, this is the teacher speaking. 
  • Is it because they think that no one in their right mind would “choose” black over white? Or is it because I can get away with passing for white and that I should date white men? Again as Toi Derricote writes “And perhaps they are mad because they feel betrayed. If somebody who could be one of them doesn’t want to be, maybe being white isn’t as great as they thought.” Why? “You are reading too many negative writers who are influencing you to be nihilistic.” 

This is only a sample, there was much more, including being compared to an “angry Indigenous woman” they had once met “who can’t get over it”, but it’s not worth hashing it all up as the point has hopefully been made. One of the more sympathetic women asked why I wasn’t defending myself, but I was totally speechless. Luckily our lunch break came and I went directly outside and cried my eyes out in some shady corner of the building. Once I had gained some measure of composure, I called my longest-standing black-mixed supporters, namely my maid of honour & my dad, and they did their best to console me as I sobbed into the phone. They were kind, as they could have said something like “it is your light-skinned privilege to think it would have gone any differently”, however instead they said things like “what would they know?!” and “if you’re going to keep telling it like it is, you’re going to have to prepare yourself for more situations like this” etc.  They then shared stories of racism they encountered as fellow black-mixed folks which was incredibly validating.

My next challenge was to either do what I always did and run away, or march back into the class with some visine in my eyes and my chin up. For one of the first times in my life, I chose not to run, and strutted back into class. The final exercise of the course was to “unpack” a key aspect of your piece, so I chose to “unpack” why I didn’t defend myself. I wrote about how my experiences had impacted my ability to articulate myself and so I often chose “flight” (physically or mentally) instead of “fight” (at this point I was totally unaware of the systematic silencing of marginalized voices). To my surprise, they all clapped when I finished reading it, which felt nice but a little “too little too late”. However, I was proud of myself for finally attempting to speak the truth, even if my voice shook, as the saying goes.

As I mentioned, it took over a year for me to be able to read the piece again and I cringe at some of the things I wrote. It is uncritical, it is full of light-skin privilege and even some ridiculous stereotypes. However, it was where I was at, and I was trying my best to tell my story in a pro-black perspective. I’d also like to think that it introduced my classmates to some of the rage people of colour feel about the racialized Canadian experience, as it was clear that most of them were totally unfamiliar with hearing personal narratives around race and racism. And while I wish I had had more training at that point, it was a key element for the birth of this site. As a final push, I sent the class a video about shadeism and racism by CNN, which was once again rationalized. Win some, you lose some.

To conclude, below is part of the closing paragraph, which is a clear demonstration of how systems of oppression can make you feel totally insane:

 Having said all this, is it that I am just too sensitive, seeing something that isn’t really there? Very much like how Toi Derricotte’s explains in her book The Black Notebooks I can never figure out what is real, what is imagined, and all the perceptions that lie in between “Am I dreaming they hate me?…Is this whole world my evil dream?”

The truth is, this is why Mixed in Canada is so important to me. Racism is real and affects all people of colour and Indigenous people in Canada and I never want anyone to feel the way I did that day. Mixed in Canada is how I found my voice and it is my hope that this and future generations will have the ability to confidently articulate and defend themselves through this and other platforms, as we do our best to help each other to survive.

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