Last week, Miranda Wayland, head of creative diversity at the BBC, offered some thoughts on the character the charismatic Idris Elba plays in the popular British television series Luther. When the show first came out, she said, “everybody loved the fact that Idris Elba was in there – a really strong, Black character lead. We all fell in love with him. Who didn’t, right?” But eventually, she reasoned, “you got kind of like, ‘okay, he doesn’t have any Black friends, he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food, this doesn’t feel authentic.’”
You learn something new every day. We in the Indigenous community have been wrestling with the concept of identity for a while now, and we never guessed it could be figured out so simply.
Now if that’s the accepted way of measuring something like this, I believe that quite probably would make me Black. Yes, I will say it, some of my best friends are Black. And to seal the deal, I eat Caribbean food.
Same principle could be said with Chinese (probably more Cantonese than Mandarin). Definitely Indian (the subcontinent kind, not the feathered kind). And Greek and Italian and so on. My point being I find such criteria – who is in your social bubble and what your Skip The Dishes dinner order contains – a limited way to evaluate a person’s connection to their ethnic heritage or race.
I am by no means an expert on African-Canadian, African-American or simply African cultures in general. If I am to read the subtext of the diversity person’s statement, there is only one kind of Black person on the planet. And they all hang out eating rotis and jerk chicken. If this is so, I have greatly overestimated the variety of Black cultures in the world.
I say this respectfully because, as a First Nations member, I am no stranger to this peculiar thread of logic, and it irks me greatly. Many people make the same assumptions with Indigenous cultures. We are all one mass of Indigeneity – dripping in leather, dreamcatchers and feathers and smelling of salmon rolled in baloney.
Once, back in the 1980s, a white producer I was working with on a documentary told me to my face that he didn’t consider me very “Indian” (as we were known at the time) because I knew too many statistics about Indigenous people., i.e. how many reserves there were in Canada, ratio of Native to non-Natives in the general population. Evidently he felt real Indigenous people didn’t care about such things. We only wanted to skin something.
A thousand years ago I was working on a documentary in Northern Ontario. The crew was following the life of an Indigenous woman trapper and her little girl, who had moved into the wilderness. The little girl, not really believing I was Native due to my eyes and complexion, asked me if I wanted some tea. Busy at the moment, I declined. She immediately cried in victory, “See! You’re not Indian. All Indians drink tea!” Had I been outed, I pondered. I wonder if Luther drinks tea.
When it comes to the varied and amazing world of Indigenous cuisines, there is probably more Indigenously specific food I have not eaten than I have eaten. To explain, I have had my share of bannock in most of the 10 provinces and a few of the American states. But I have not had any elk. I quiver deliciously at the thought of tasty corn soup, but I have not consumed East Coast eels. You cannot swing a dead cat on practically any Indigenous community without consuming moose stew/chili/burgers etc. (and no, we do not eat dead cats), but I have never tried caribou. Manoomin (wild rice) is a standard in my community, but I have never had the opportunity to devour oolichan oil (fish oil). And the list goes on.
Evidently, by this standard, I am not a very convincing Indigenous person. I do, however, have many Indigenous friends, which seems to be an important criteria, but I would hate to have my Indigeneity measured by who I may borrow money from or ask to feed my cat. So I relate very much to Idris Elba and his character’s dilemma.
Full disclosure, I have never watched the series Luther, and as a result, I don’t know how relevant his skin colour is to what he does and who he is. But for the head of diversity to comment on it, it must be pretty damn important.
I believe Luther is a cop of some sort. I am a playwright/filmmaker of some sort. Frequently I work in a predominantly non-Native environment. It’s the nature of both jobs. I am also aware that Luther is a fictional character and, in theory, I am a real person. But in this post-Joseph Boyden/Michelle Latimer era, it unnerves me to hear people passing judgment on who may or may not be what they may or may not be, be they real or not real. Make sense?
Identity is so complex.
Now I must inform my family that I just may be Black.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.