This online submission is an awesome personal narrative/ really great community organizing resource.
Find out more about Rema’s rad mixed-race community building endeavors here and here!
The Swan Song:
The Duckling Story of a Black Mixed Womanist in Canada
By: Rema Taveras
“The ugly duckling did not at first recognize himself, for he looked just like the beautiful strangers, just like those he had admired from afar. And it turned out he was one of them after all. His egg had accidentally rolled into a family of ducks. He was a swan, a glorious swan. And for the first time, his own kind came near him and touched him gently and lovingly with their wing tips. They groomed him with their beaks and swam round and round him in greeting… We all have a longing that we feel for our own kind, our wild kind.”
-Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves
Like the duckling, I have struggled to find my voice for over 30 years as an outsider. I feel that my greatest obstacle, if I can name one, has been the lack of language to contextualize my experiences. I often write about these experiences through Mixed in Canada (www.mixed-me.ca), a national cultural resource centre I created as a platform for mixed-identified Canadians. I consider this site to be one of my proudest achievements, but the truth is I often lie in bed awake at night wondering why it took this long to learn and understand words like “objectification”, “fetishization”, “exotification” among others? Where were the resources to help me develop as a woman of colour in Canada? How did it take so long to have the concept of privilege introduced to me and more importantly, to understand and deconstruct it? How many relationships, mistakes, and growing pains could have been avoided by having been prepared for what was to come? As a female-black-mixed-identified womanist, I continue to struggle to deconstruct what it means to move through the world in this body. However, by sharing my story, I will attempt to answer some of these questions and conclude with some recommendations & personal actions to help support our extended family who may also feel this way.
Growing up in an almost exclusively white village of 1000 or so people in rural Canada was not exactly fertile ground for a strong foundation. I was read as “Jamaican” because of my Jamaican-born father who is in fact black-mixed himself via West African & Sephardi Jewish ancestry. My parents separated when I was 3 years old and I lived there until I was 18 with my mother’s white Irish family. Race was almost never discussed in either of my parent’s houses, other than to say that it didn’t matter. This brings us to problem number one: neither of my parents had any black-consciousness or anti-racism training and assumed that because I was light-skinned, mixed and born in “racism-free” Canada, I would glide through life unscathed. Needless to say, there are many problems with this colour-blind paradigm; however this belief system tends to be normalized in mixed upbringings, if not celebrated for its “progressiveness” by popular Canadian culture. The fact is, Canadians experience racism, albeit in a different way than is stereotyped of the US by Canadians (ie racial-slur-slinging, lynching, KKK racist business). Somehow, by simply not being the US, Canada ended up as de facto “not-racist”. For a crash course in Canadian history, Canada’s racism began with it’s genocidal warfare to steal Indigenous land, and continued with African slavery, Chinese head tax, Japanese internment camps and outrageous immigration policies to name a few. Not surprisingly, these blemishes on Canada’s “nice guy” persona were quickly swept under the rug as hiccups in an otherwise multicultural friendly society. The education system, following government-created curriculum, shares the in fabrication of this myth by reframing them as: “Indigenous-European partnership and bartering systems”; reading Underground to Canada while avoiding our own history of slavery; and preaching about our history of “peace-keeping”. This oppression-denying storyline also follows for other marginalized communities, including women-identified folks, as sexism is also “a thing of the past”. This pattern continues until the average Canadian is prepped and primed to dismiss and vilify anyone who dares to cry fowl, which brings us to problem number two: it’s not ok to talk about racism in Canada, so there are very few resources for people to turn to.
While I had read Black Like Me, Freedom’s Children, The Glory Fields and pretty much any black history related material that I could get my hands on as a youth, it wasn’t until quite recently that I was able to find women wonders as the likes of bell hooks, Audre Lorde & Patricia Hill Collins, as well as our Canadian counterparts like Dionne Brand, Makeda Silvera & fellow mixed-identified Carol Camper. These and other courageous women of colour have never been on the curriculum of any University course I have taken, book clubs I have joined (and left), or any other mass media venue that may have reached me in a more rural setting. As I now know, the voices of powerful women of colour are so threatening to white supremacy that they are strategically marginalized. While they aren’t banned, these writers and others like them are not provided any kind of platform outside of the more radical circles, which are quite difficult to locate if you don’t live in a major metropolis. Until the creation and proliferation of the Internet, many of my rural mixed-identified peers and predecessors waited longer than I have to find a supportive community, and that’s if it ever even happened. I made my own journey to Canada’s largest city, Toronto, in 2007 which has drastically changed my life in this vein. However, this is where problem number three came up: I suddenly/finally had to confront my new-found privileges.
As I mentioned, having grown up in a racially unsafe rural setting, at no point in my childhood, youth, adolescence or even young adulthood did I feel that I was privileged in any way. While this statement actually magnifies some of my privilege in thinking that, it is true that I experienced many forms of racism, sexism, and classism in that environment. I was, as far as I knew, the only person (let alone woman) with African heritage in my entire school with the exception of a young boy who was in “special ed”. However, in typical Canadian style (read microaggressions), no one ever called me the n-word directly, but would for example tell me n-word jokes, make comments about my hair and my overall cleanliness (or perceived lack thereof) and would occasionally remark on how “fat and ugly” I was. While I am no friend of fat-phobia, I wasn’t overweight by any stretch of the imagination. What they did mean was that I had a shape that was not mirrored in my fellow blonde, blue eyed waifs that made up the majority of my peers. I was also asked if I brushed my hair and ridiculed for admitting that I washed it “only” once per week. Ironically, while being shamed for my ugliness, I was also the target of many sexual harassment incidents. For example, at a grade 7 dance, some local boys started throwing money at me because “I had big boobs”. Others would comment that I must stuff my bra and stick out my backside for attention. I was also the last of my peers allowed to shave my legs (at the ripe old age of 13) which did not go unnoticed. The classism, on the other hand, came in the form of living in a single woman household with half-siblings in the blue-collar, old part of town versus the white-collar families that live in the new part of town. This played out in a few ways, including who your friends were & what clothes you wore, among others. Layered on top of each other, these intersecting identities of class, gender and race played a major role in the worldview I developed as a youth, and has forever impacted my self-concept. However, my identities and experiences have evolved as I have matured and migrated to bigger and bigger cities. For instance, after puberty, the combination of my racialized & sexualized identities evolved from ugly to “exotic”. Yet this exotic-ness was compounded with shadeism, particularly because of my white-passing features. Unfortunately, by not understanding my new-found shadeism privilege as well as the wild, over-sexed stereotype of the “mulatto”, I was flattered by the change in attitude towards me. Like the prophetic ducking, I thought I had finally found a space to inhabit as an objectified “mulatto temptress” and I remained in that space for a long time - until I came to Toronto.
The radical community in Canada’s largest city completely shook my foundation with their brilliance, strength, and wisdom. I was greeted and “groomed” with love and tenderness – this was my swan family. It is here that I began laying the groundwork for what was to become Mixed in Canada. And it is here that I have been able to meet allies from all walks of life who have helped shape and mould me into the person I am today - one that I am much prouder to be. With this support, I am excited about what the future holds as I continue on this journey of self-identification and knowledge of self, now from a place of belonging. However, looking back from this place, I have regrets. I regret things I have felt, said or done that trivialized the experiences of other folks that I didn’t understand at the time because I was so focused on my own experiences of oppression. I regret not challenging other oppressive systems sooner as opposed to just going with the flow and trying to get by. Although it is unfortunate, regret is often a part of the process of deconstructing identities and especially privilege. Having said that, the important thing is that I’m here now, and we are all on a journey of self-discovery. We make mistakes, we learn from them, and do better next time. We also forgive ourselves, because this system was not created for us, we were never meant to thrive here (or even survive). I now have the privilege to check my “ally card” daily to find ways to support my more marginalized fam, and conversely, to call in my equally or more privileged peers. This, and Mixed in Canada, is how I try to do my part to fight oppression. The things that we can all do though, are work hard to love ourselves and each other, to support and uplift each other, to share and cry with each other, to fight for each other. In this way, we can welcome our swan siblings home, which, in my own experience, is the most radically loving thing we could ever do.