This post is in response to an assignment for my Critical Race Studies course.
Prompt: Prepare a project assessing the racial dynamics or diversity of a particular group or institution that you belong to such as a campus club, etc. The idea would be to note what kind of systems are in place that either welcome or exclude people of diverse racial backgrounds. You could then make recommendations for improvement, if they are needed, or identify what’s working well, if you’re impressed by what’s being done.
And then the occasion arose when I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me (258).
- Franz Fanon, “The Fact of Blackness.”
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it…. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously… and then, instead of saying, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town…. (9).
- W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” from The Souls of Black Folk.
Having free access to bus rides is a novelty to me, so in my introductory weeks in Hamilton, I took advantage of it. After a while, I started having what I would call the opposite of a Rosa Parks moment. Why do people, who are not of your race, stare?
You are new to this country. The sounds here are light and high-pitched. People dress in plain, solid colours. They let expression flow through their hair – pastel blues, greens, pinks, purple. You feel adventurous, and since there are no restrictions of movement to you, you set out to explore. You optimistically take a seat in the bus. You have studied the map, so your destination is clear. If you get lost, you will not mind because, what is an adventure without new, unintentional experiences? Then you feel it – the unnerving attention that seems to settle heavily on your locks, your nose, your lips, and your complexion. You look up, and the four people seated across from you quickly avert their attention to nowhere in particular. Ok, strange. Maybe you are being paranoid. Canada is a neutral space, right? It is just like Jamaica (from what you have been told) – a melting pot of diversity. Canada’s motto could literally be “Out of Many, One People.”² Why would anyone stare at you? You are not supposed to be novel or exotic.
But then, after you have completed your adventure and you are back on the bus, it happens again. This time though, you notice an old Caucasian lady who is seated at the front of the bus, whose eyes trail you all the way to the rear. Even after you have been seated and you look directly up at her (just to ensure you were not hallucinating), she stares back. You cannot decipher that puzzled stare. You wonder, Does it feel at all unnerving to her that you have met and held her gaze, the way she is unnerving you? Is it just curiosity or is it curiosity conflicting with animosity? Is there, behind that stare, the calculations of a mind figuring out how to welcome you, should you meet again, or is she intentionally shoving you out of existence with her eyes? To avoid this annoying feeling, you decide henceforward to always sit at the back of the bus, back in the shadows where no one will risk hurting their necks to examine you.
One of the earliest conversations I had with my landlady was about whether there were other people in the community who I might become familiar with. She constantly made reference to ‘the neighbours’, but never said who these people were. Were they the ones beside us, or the ones across the street? Then she named one family in particular, who, for some inexplicable reason, I sensed was African. Maybe this was because she ensured she listed the name of the head of the household, the number of young people there, and even included the fact that one of them had moved. This, of course, would have been no help to me, since I would never meet that person. I later found I was right, they were Africans. Up to today, I have no knowledge of the names of the neighbours who live directly to the left or right of the house. These families are Caucasian. I have a good friend in my landlady, and I understand that she is also not as particularly close to the people beside us, as with the aforementioned African family. I do think, however, that this lack of introduction is a subconscious form of racial exclusion. Why then, would she have scrambled to let me know that I have neighbours who resemble me, who I can always spend time with? I could say that she is welcoming me in a way that ensures I do not feel alone. However, though not intentional, I was also shut out.
As long as the black man is among his own, he will have no occasion, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others…. Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity…. It does not impose itself on me; it is, rather, a definitive structuring of the self and the world – definitive because it creates a real dialectic between my body and the world (257-258).
Why do people stare at each other? It could be out of admiration, curiosity or even animosity. Specifically, why do people, who are of your race, stare?
The first week spent in Hamilton saw me curled away in the shadow of my veranda, watching the day wile; watching maple leaves flutter; readjusting sight to the kind of people I saw more often on foreign television than in reality. Amongst them were the occasional Asian and Indian. My school mate – who is staying in St. Catharines – and I, updated each other daily on whether we had seen anyone who resembled us, and how often that occurred. He had multiple sightings, but for my part, the only person who possessed familiar features nearby me, was me.
One day, while on the bus, some invisible force made me look up to see someone who resembled me, but does not. She looked slightly alarmed, maybe mirroring my expression. Finally, a sense of belonging.
The effect of racial exclusion is such that when one comes into contact with another who shares similar features, it is as if a void is stopped. Before that can happen though, there is a strange recognition of self in the other, even though they are strangers. This recognition, however, is not solely of physical features, but also of the feeling of isolation. It says to you both, You have been so lost amongst the crowd, you almost forgot what you look like. Each day when you return home and look in the mirror, you are also slightly stunned, having not met in your reflection, a semblance of what you have seen all day. It is a slight internal battle, the denouement of which is a relief.
Oxford, my god, I humbly come before you, robed A to Z
in the language you have graciously bestowed upon me
to (rudely, irresistibly) question your credibility and audacity
for injecting the blade of your word upon my tongue.
- Excerpt from “Oxford” by Shanese Whyte.
Hamilton is apparently no match for Toronto in relation to racial diversity. Jamaicans are here in Hamilton (somewhere), but it is very hard to run into one. In Toronto, I have been told (on too many occasions to keep record of), I would feel perfectly at home.
“There’s so many Jamaicans in Toronto!”
“You should go to Toronto.”
“Have you been to Toronto? You should definitely go!”
The first time I visited Toronto was on a trip with other students on exchange. That was also the first time I heard my language coming out of any other mouth but mine, and it happened as quickly as we stepped off the bus. The accent however, sounded alien, mangled. It was as if, for a moment, the two speakers were in their own world, one in which they were not self-conscious of how they might sound to those around them, so that the first few words they spoke were in pure Patois, with that familiar heavy, guttural tone. But somewhere in the midst of speech (maybe it was the cold wind which whipped about their braids that brought them back to reality), their words became halting, tripped over themselves to float up again, sounding light, practiced, and automatic. I too was awoken from my reverie, and saddened by it. So they had been accepted into society, but conditionally. That conditionality was the sacrificing of their speech, since they cannot ever physically resemble the people here. If they must stay, they must imitate the voice of the land, maybe on the premise of reducing confusion; maybe, of risking exclusion.
Have you ever had to repeat yourself three times so that someone could hear your words and not your accent? Not understand your words, hear them, because they did not sound like words of a language both you and the listener speak? I have now been in Canada for eleven weeks. Seventy-some days. People hear the words I say now. I have felt my tongue twist in ways I thought was an exaggeration when others who have come before me have described it. I speak lighter but not high-pitched. At least I am not frustrated anymore. So I did not expect (since my lingual transformation) to have one classmate literally stare at me the other day – mouth agape, eyes wide – and say, “I’m sorry what? I didn’t hear what you said.” She was watching my mouth all the time. I spoke slowly, carefully. I thought I was in.
Inherent in the lack of hearing is a sort of reluctance to accept the difference that colours what one is told. It is not until your ears have heard the familiar inflections that you welcome the actual words. In a sense, this psychological resistance to the variations in speech can stand as a symbolic representation of racial exclusion.
Within these cultures, stratified hierarchical social organization crystalized. The ancient civilizations developed imperialism, partly because of the very nature of cities. Cities are obviously population concentrations. Most importantly though, they are places that must import the material needs of this concentration… (87)
- “Spiritualism, The Highest Form of Consciousness” by Sotsisowah.
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions… (291).
- “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” Peggy McIntosh.
As the fall sets in, you gradually notice that, like the leaves, hair colours are changing around you. You were prepared for this. Back home, you often saw pink, purple, and blue-hued tresses on North American television. Seeing the changes up-close is exciting. You think, you are in North America now, and that overused cliché about being in Rome comes to mind.
Every day since your arrival, every Hamiltonian you have met has told you to go to Shoppers Drug Mart for next to any pharmaceutical need you might have. You have seen at least four Shoppers outlets on your journey to school – which is not a long one – so you think, Everyone must be right. You walk into the nearest store and head down the aisle labelled “Haircare,” all the time reminding yourself that you may not necessarily find the brand of dye you are accustomed to. Yet, considering that the brand is American, and you are now closer to America than you were in while Jamaica, why shouldn’t you find it here? All too soon, you actually do find it… in only three shades. One shade of blonde, one of bronze and the other, of red. Is that strange, given the variety you know this brand offers? While thinking, you look up to find that the sign above the aisle next to you reads “Hair Colour.” Wait. Why is this brand not shelved there? You walk over to that aisle to find this:
The three selections of dyes are pictured in the centre. Compare to the succeeding picture.
You notice that on this side, each brand has its black dyes in multiple shades, namely ‘Very Intense Black’, ‘Soft Black’ and ‘Natural Black’. You think, How very different can either shade be anyway? Is that necessary? You thought shades of black only applied accurately to people.
You also notice that it is not for lack of shelf space why the three scrawny colour selections with black women on them have been shelved separately. At this point, you are having an internal struggle, trying to give Shoppers, Hamilton and Canada at large, the benefit of the doubt. There is a good reason for this. You think, There is always a good reason applied to bad actions. You deliberate, and conclude that since you are the minority here, it would have a negative effect on business to make too much room for everyone, especially when the majority is so… major, with all its needs.
You decide to try somewhere else, so you head to Pharma Plus. Maybe “Plus” refers to that extra you failed to find in Shoppers. You head down the aisle labelled “Hair Colour”, hopeful. You are let down. There is not even one shade of the brand you were looking for. You almost give in to buying a dye whose chemicals might have next to no effect on your serpentine coils, until you think, What if? You search and find another aisle marked “Hair Appliances.” You are relieved of your paranoia – so far you can only see pomades, shampoos, combs and brushes. Then, three familiar boxes, advertising three familiar faces.
How do you feel?
This is an example of white privilege, which in itself is a form racial exclusion. The Caucasian, or anyone with straight hair, is privileged here, because they may walk in and enjoy the freedom of choice. They would not have to worry, in this case, about whether the chemicals supplied in these products are too mild for their hair type. By setting limitations on the products that are geared towards certain racial groups, while ensuring that provisions are made for another group, the stores say to the minority and to me, “Yes you may come in, but you still may not blend with us.”
In her essay, McIntosh also notes that she was taught that any work done to benefit others was meant to help those others become more like her race (292-293). In my consideration of this incident, I argue that in a sense, I would have ‘become white’ had I succumbed to using that which was not geared towards my race. That is not to say that there is something wrong with using the products available. However, had I done that, I would be symbolically denying and sidelining the physical features which make me diverse. The act of buying the product which has been made with my differences in mind, is not only a show of support for the producers, but a sign that I acknowledge who I am and what constitutes my genetic composition.
It is also a demonstration of hierarchical social organization of which Sotsisowah speaks. Usually, the group that is positioned at the heights of social structures will have access to a mode of life which easily satisfies the human need to have variety.
From these examples, one can deduce that the systems that are in place to exclude racial diversity are not readily discernible. Instead, a deeper psychological construct has been applied to [Hamilton’s] lifestyle. The problem is that there is no one person to blame for creating such a construct. The fact is that the process of moving forward from colonialism’s ideologies does not come with a manual that outlines how to reverse the damage. Truthfully, the matter can only be assessed as one in which the descendants of history – having remnants of the idea that diverse races have something inherently corrupt at the rear of the psyche – are hesitating to be completely welcoming of diversity, because they cannot tell what that ‘corrupt something’ is. As a result, a milder, but still influential form of racism now exists. It is manifested within the pretense of being courteous to one another, with criticism embedded in every “Good morning, how are you?”
This project does not mean to imply that racism or racist tendencies exist(s) only in Hamilton, nor that the city of Hamilton is substandard because of it. It does, however, speak to the sluggish pace with which racial exclusion is being eradicated. The ultimate question is, does the minority population – though they have been ‘welcomed’ – have a right to advocate against welcome’s inherent exclusion? Also, is that advocacy something that can be done without seeming ungrateful? With that said, I cannot wholeheartedly complain about the effort to welcome diverse races. However, if I am to accept the mere fact that this effort exists, I would be actively participating in my own marginalization. It is the acceptance of the “at least something is being done” which causes that very thing to revert, or cease to improve. The concept can be linked to Sostsisowah’s observation of property: “Property is an idea by which people can be excluded from having access to lands or other means of producing a livelihood…. The acceptance of the idea of property would produce leaders whose functions would favor excluding people from access to property…” (105). In my experiences, my acceptance of Hamilton’s welcome included within the package deal, a limitation on how much property I would be able to share. The property to which I am making reference, would be the intangible property of security in belonging.
There then remains the need for recommendations. Racism, however, as evinced by the instances outlined, is not something to which a ‘quick fix’ can be applied successfully. The best way I can think of initiating change is to advocate for education geared towards correcting the misconceptions about diverse races. The difficulty here though, lies in the possibility of counteracting ideologies existing within every household. I believe that children’s most important life-shaping influences are manifested within the home. This is off the premise that a child recognizes – perhaps subconsciously – that they are copies of their parents’ and other relatives. As such, they believe that they are destined to emulate the ideologies of those around them as well, failing to develop individual perspectives of the world.
Jack Mandora, me no choose none.³
‘Crick? Crack.’ – A method of storytelling in the Caribbean where the storyteller pulls the listeners in by asking “Crick?” The question is intended to both signal to the audience that a story is about to be told, while also inviting their participation in the telling. This has been suitable for my method of switching from the first person narrative to the second, effectively situating readers within the experiences recounted. It is also used here as resistance to instances of racial exclusion outlined, since race exists in tandem with culture.
“Out of Many, One People” – Jamaica’s national motto, meaning that the nation is a result of the fusion of the diverse races and cultures within.
“Jack Mandora, me no choose none” – Used here in conjunction with “Crick? Crack.” By starting and closing this project with these cultural terminologies, I have symbolically enclosed racial exclusion. According to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, this saying is “The first part of a formula traditionally used to end an ANANCY STORY: … the sense seems to be ‘this is not directed at anyone in particular’ – but with the implication that if the shoe fits, one may put it on.” (239)
Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Souls of Black Folk. Eds. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Terri B. Oliver. W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1999. 9-16. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. Eds. Les Black and John Solomon. Routledge, 2000. 257-266. Print.
“Jack Mandora.” Dictionary of Jamaican English. 2nd ed. 2002. Print.
McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror. ed. Richard Delgado. Temple University Press, 1997. 291-299. Print.
Sostsisowah. “Spiritualism, The Highest Form of Consciousness.” Basic Call to Consciousness. Ed. Akwesasne Notes. Canada: Native Voices, 2005. 112-119. Print.
——-. “Policies of Depression in the Name of Democracy.” Basic Call to Consciousness. Ed. Akwesasne Notes. Canada: Native Voices, 2005. 103-118. Print.
Whyte, Shanese. “Oxford.” ExpressMe!. WordPress.com, n.d. Web. Nov. 10, 2015.