My earliest experience with race that I can remember was sitting in a pew in church in Kibera, Nairobi. My father was the pastor and a missionary family was visiting the Church. The girl had golden hair and she was sitting on the other side of my mother. I must have been three years old. She turned and my eyes met hers. I clutched my mother's arm.
"Mumee, her eyes are blue (in Swahili)" My mom smiled and replied in Swahili "Yes, white people (Muzungus) have peach skin, blue eyes and long noses. She would deny it now but I swear she that was her explanation. I remember also asking why my skin was darker than my sisters Flavia's, she told me it was bitter chocolate. I had tasted chocolate once or twice and I think to memory that is perhaps the prettiest I have ever felt. The bitter part didn't' really register, but at three years old, the world was mostly beautiful.
Walked up to the bus stop by the university last week, where I catch # 13
It was hot. He was standing in the glass bus shelter. We notice each other. I have never seen him before, but frankly we always notice each other. It's the blackness! It's a special kind that almost glistens in the sun's heat. Mostly you walk around completely oblivious to it, until you encounter it walking into a typically Caucasian restaurant in rural Ontario, or you bump into it in a bus stop, and the only question left to ask is: Where in Africa are you from? Because you know that this is the kind of blackness has not been diluted by slave ancestry, the intermingling of genes, or decades of separation from the Motherland. And so he asked!
Me: No….not Nigeria, Kenya! You?
Him: Me? Oh, me am from Ghana! But I have lived in Guyana for…15 years.
Me: Guyana, West Africa? (I was thinking of Guinea, like I said, it was hot)
Him: No, no, Guyana, you know, South America!
Me: Oh, by the Caribbean?
Him: Yes, yes!
Me: Black people?
Him: Yes, yes, and the…Indian, yes, but they speak English. But we are originally from Ghana!
Dark black as he may have been, He actually stood out more for his attire. Encountering my kind of blackness is still scarce but not all together shocking in my city anymore. Being the fourth largest receiver region for immigrants and refugees nationally, there has been an almost influx of newcomers from places like the Congo, and Sudan.
Talking about race [or my race in its particular shade] in this way almost feels a bit taboo and depending on the reader weird or unnecessary or uncomfortable. Or to others it might be even insulting; perhaps more so within black culture than outside of it, but it is anything but a "black" issue. I was darker than my sisters, not by much, but enough to feel it and hear about it in the playground. When I was little being lighter in tone, even by the smallest, slightest measure, was in fact being prettier. And of course for a young girl, prettiness is next to godliness. In my early childhood Nairobi, I may have been far from being the lightest girl, but I was not quite the darkest.
No such luck in South Africa 1995, we moved there when I was eleven years old. Understand this as a rule of thumb (proven by my personal observation not research): The closer in proximity to white people that black people live, the lighter they become over time. Such was my observation in Kenya society, people of the Kikuyu tribe, which had the closest contact with White Colonizers, happened to be demographically lighter skinned and the women had longer hair. So imagine the case in multi-racial South Africa, let's just say, we stood out!! It's really just a matter of biology, not magic. When we left South Africa, we settled in a small rural town in South Western Ontario, Canada. One of the whitest places on earth (except for the odd foster child) when my son was born, he was paler than his white father!
But going back to South Africa in the 90's, it was a special kind of psychological persecution for an eleven year old dark skinned Kenyan girl. Here we were in the new Apartheid free South Africa! It was a highly racialized South Africa. Nothing in comparison to my post-colonial Kenya; The only Whites I knew back home were nice bearded missionaries with spoiled children that gave us dirty looks [although we resented the children, it didn't matter much because the adults were always nice, they gave us candy, and gifts from America, and baked delicious cakes].
But S.A was a whole different thing. Like I mentioned it was a racialized society and even with Mandela in power, blacks were still low on the socio-economic hierarchy. And as for us, dark skinned foreigner blacks, we were at the very bottom. We felt stigmatization from White South Africans, Colored South Africans and Black South African's. We talked funny. We were untrained in the arts of living in proximity to whites in a way that I guess makes everyone comfortable, like hair relaxation. So we had what my current Jamaican hair lady would call a "wild woman" look. It was baptism by fire, but children have a way of catching things…they call it adaptation; in this case I call it something very different.
We were sponsored by missionaries to attend a rather privileged girl's boarding school in South Africa while my parents worked toward their doctorate degrees in Potchefstroom University. The School had recently begun enrolling black students but was mostly an English white school. We were day scholars as we couldn't afford the boarding school fees. I made one or two curious white friends, who were usually from the dork category or out-casted for some other pre-teen socially unacceptable reason.
The black girls on the other hand, would all but run in the opposite direction if they saw us coming. Sometimes they would snicker, or make comments about the hair. It was like we reminded them of something they much preferred to forget. I started to notice it too if I saw one of my sisters across the quad or at a parade, I thought to myself, is it just me or has Fla always been that dark? It too wanted to hide from it.
In S.A, I also quickly learned that whites are not friendly English speaking, bearded Muzungus with candy, gifts, and bratty children. From the perspective of an eleven year old they became mean Afrikaners, they became the woman at the store who looked at you mean for not knowing their language, the head mistress who embarrassed you at the school parade for not having relaxed hair, the group of teens on the other side of the fence who were rich and inaccessible, the boy on the bike who ran me down and called me a kefir (Afrikaans equivalent for niger) after spitting on me and the people at the Church who had us sitting in the back pews, and the woman who ran my small sister down with her car and didn't wait for help. When my nine year old sister was sent to Jo burg in an ambulance with a blood clot in her brain after the accident, we had some members of our Church who were also white bring us food, money, and sit with us. So it was never an uncomplicated and clear dynamic. But leaving South Africa in 1997 with my mother and sisters, I knew the world was something very different from what I had thought.
I learned something about race in South Africa, it was no longer a harmless or curious thing, it was a subtle barrier. I learned that society could be cruel.
While we lived in Kenya for 8 months after S.A, awaiting visas to join my father in Canada, I stole some change from a relative and went down to a canteen for a skin bleaching cream that sold for ten shillings. I remember rubbing it on my forehead at the age of 13 as if in some rite of passage into black womanhood. Looking back I now know that more than anything, in those two years, I had learned to hate myself…..to hate my blackness.
We board the bus. Like I said, it was his attire that made him stand out among the crowd of University aged students. It looked like a day's long work of general labor. He was at least middle aged. He sat on the same row.
Me: Are you going to watch the World Cup, we are cheering for Ghana.
Him: Yes, haha, we will see how we do; they went very far in Germany.
Life in Ontario Canada was far less racially tense for a young teenager, or so it seemed at least in the early years. We settled in the small rural town of Harriston, Ontario. We were a novelty and a curiosity more than anything else. Whenever we encountered ignorance it was more comical than offensive. We quickly transitioned into North American teenagers; we made frequent trips to the city to transform our hair into long braids. A boy I liked even once referred to me as Brandy from Moesha; this was to my great delight. To some rural teens we were a manifestation of a distant and enticing pop culture reality, some old folks were glad for the opportunity to recite their radical progressive ideas "why, I have no problem with Negroes, now my father was not too friendly with negroes, we once had a negro man from….now, where was he from…Jamaica, no..no…" [long pause...] "well…anyway, it wasn't Africa, I know he wasn't as dark as you…."
We would often nod politely and help them along, even affirm their warmth toward negroes, and then walk away in giggles. After all, these rural whites, with the crazy talk were a breath of fresh air in comparison to bratty missionary kids and mean South African headmistresses. So I grew up a bit more, accepting the social backdrop of a convenient interplay of happy ignorance, polite compliance. But Toni Morrison speaks truth when she writes that "All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was"
"The types of challenges facing newcomer youth are often grounded in socioeconomic disadvantage
and include such stressors as poverty, discrimination, and unemployment. The "at-risk" label is therefore a relative term, resulting from environmental as well as individual factors. The positive growth and adaptation of newcomer youth are dependent on the personal, social, and economic resources available to the individual, as well as to his or her family and community" (To Build Hope: Overcoming the Challenges Facing Newcomer Youth At-Risk in Ontario, Kilbride & Anisef, 2001)
My mother is dark skinned, she is tall and beautiful. We liked to watch her roll dough when we were children. My mother was the administrative assistant at a theological school when we were children. Her job was very busy, but she was always home to make super for us after school; even though we had Aunties living with us to help out with household duties. My mother always said that it was her job to bathe us and feed us. My mother was fourteen years old when she was told that there was only enough fees to put her two brothers through school. My mother worked as a house maid to put herself through night school. My mother loved to learn. My mother earned a PhD from Potchefstroom University in South Africa. My mother was told that her credentials did not transfer in Canada. My mother worked the night shift at the Campbell Soup Factory in Listowel for eight years. She was sleeping when we came home from school because she stayed up all day with my baby sister. My mother went back to school and got her Master's in Education at The University of Western Ontario, while working the nightshift. My mother was tired from working the nightshift and going to school when she was in a car accident on her way home. My mother could still not access the Canadian job market. She was told she needed to work on computer skills and communication skills because of her accent. My mother volunteered at the immigration agency in Waterloo Ontario. My mother applied for many jobs. My mother gained a diploma from Conestoga College to update her computer and communication skills. My mother called me on my cell phone. I'm driving home from school. It's my last year of undergrad and my first year of marriage. She had a job. A Christian Organization. I go home, my husband is sleeping, I get on my knees, I cry, I thank God. My mother is fired. They say that they can't understand her accent on the phone. They ask her if she has seen the movie Pretty Woman. She says no, she asks us about the movie. I don't know how to tell her it's about a prostitute. They tell her that although the lady in the movie had new clothes there is no way of changing who she really is. They tell her that she may have a PhD, but there is no way of changing the fact that she is from Africa. My mother is currently enrolled at Wilfred Laurier University, training to be a chaplain. My mother is dark skinned, she is tall and beautiful.
Me: Are you a student?
Him: No, no, I'm fifty-eight. I live with my daughter, my wife and I. I just came here; it's hard you know, a big (older) man like…to find work. I just work in the industry, you know, extra money, haha.
Me: Yes I know. The same with my parents.
Him: Yes, have to start over; I just get my license you know. G1! Then I have to get G2, G…..Agh!
Me: Did you drive in Guyana?
Him: Oh yes, haha, many years! They only take license from you know, England, Australia, they have arrangement. But we do what we can, haha, it's better than sitting at home. My wife and I, so we can give my daughter some space, get a place, you know. She has a family.
Me: I understand. I taught my father to drive. They didn't drive though when we came. But they had education; it's hard to get employment.
Him: Oh yes, a big man like me….you just come, do some work, make little money, go home. Haha. Waste of time, to try getting work. Now I leave that for my daughters, I have four daughters. One in the university. You go to the university?
Me: Yes, I study social work. My father also has five daughters
Him: Oh yes? How long you've been here?
Me: Almost ten years, first we lived in South Africa.
Him: I see. Yes I was a pastor, my church sent me to Guyana to do Church planting, you know. Have you been back?
Me: No, it's expensive.
Him: Yes, it's expensive.
Me: This is my stop coming up, it was nice meeting you.
Him: Yes, yes, thank you.
We shake hands. I alight.
I cross the highway toward our unit. My mind trails, Ghana…World Cup….South Africa…Immigrants…..my father still looking for a job…..I wonder if he can do childcare tomorrow…….My husband is not home yet....I wonder when he will return from work….he works hard, a bit longer, I will be done school, he can go back…..my little son…I wonder if he had his nap today, he has been teething…..My blackness talking on the bus.
Note: I use general language with regards to people groups to give an honest depiction of real childhood experience from childhood position/perspective/social location. Also in my journey I have benefited from loving community and friends of diverse racial/creed/lifestyle backgrounds.