I vividly recall having this thought for the first time at the age of seven. I had fallen in love with a popular white boy in my Grade 2 class. As the months progressed and my friends and I shared our crushes, it became apparent who everyone thought should marry whom.
Whitestone School prided itself on being a model for post-colonial Zimbabwe. Black, Indian, coloured and (mainly) white children all attended school together, united by their mutual respect and shared values of nondiscrimination. As we sat side by side in our favourite tunnel in the playground, we reflected on our chosen soulmates:
“Mandi and Nicholas
Chantal and Jonathan
Megan and Jack
“Nyasha?” I asked the ring leader. “I love Jonathan, not Nyasha. I want to marry Jonathan,” I announced defiantly. “Well you can’t because you’re black,” she said matter-of-factly. “You can marry Nyasha instead.” That was it.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t know I was black before then. However, the incident was the first time I became aware that this thing, this “blackness” could prevent me from being equally considered for opportunities. As the years went on, this disconnect manifested itself through fantasy and child’s play. My sister and I donned brightly coloured head scarves that we called our “hair” and fought over who got to play with the blonde, blue-eyed barbie. My parents responded calmly and began buying different kinds of dolls. When my dad returned from a work trip with one black and one brown barbie, my sister and I spent the night fighting over who got the lighter-skinned one. As the younger sibling, I won and named my “Indian” barbie Monique. Although she was not white, she was lighter than me, and I knew that meant she was better.
I started having dreams about the older version of myself. She was smart, successful, tall and…white. Back up a second, what child dreams about growing up to be white? Perhaps one who had been obsessed with Michael Jackson and thought people could magically grow up to be a different race. One day, puzzled by this repetitive dream in which I took centre stage at the MTV Music Awards, my long brunette hair flowing down my back, a twinkle in my (blue) eyes and a firmly gripped microphone ready to serenade the audience, I asked my mother if I could be like Michael Jackson. She laughed enthusiastically and said luckily, I would be black forever.
I’ll give you $10 if you can spot me in this photo
Somewhere along the line I moved to Toronto: a hub of multiculturalism. A city as diverse as sugar is sweet. I became much more comfortable in my blackness and began to believe it was more than okay. I noticed in Canada an excessive politeness where the topic of race was concerned (read: “I don’t see race, I just see people” and other pathetic arguments). I saw a willful ignorance about race politics and a need to make comparisons to its failing neighbour, the US. Meanwhile, similar injustices are happening on our very own Canadian soil.
When the grand jury delivered its verdict in Ferguson, many in my social circle expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision not to indict Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown. Many ask us not to focus on race, but rather class when examining issues like the militarization of the police. Whatever the case, it reified the sentiment that many of us have been fighting not to internalize all our lives: black isn’t good, therefore black lives don’t matter.
Earlier, I read a powerful piece on Medium about white supremacy and the privileges afforded to white people. While I am not an advocate of “white guilt”, I believe white people being involved in meaningful racial dialogue is crucial. I have many friends and acquaintances who do not engage on these issues, not because they don’t have opinions, but for fear of being branded racist at the extreme or horribly misinformed at the very least. To that, I say we welcome and need your participation. If you are worried about how to begin, try THIS APPROACH before choosing not to share your views.
Most days I love being black. I love my dark skin and my newly natural hair. I am proud of the short, afro-haired, black woman I have become. When society shows us we are not worthy and the system meant to protect fails us miserably, it can be hard to believe in our worth. In times like these, I call on a personal favourite and I rise.