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Our grandson Noah, who is 3, could hardly wait to make his announcement.
“My daddy is Canadian!” he continued.
The waitress at the sleepy country diner smiled, a little puzzled, and readjusted the pencil over her ear. “Yeah? That’s nice.”
“But my mommy is Rwandan!” he added, and before the waitress could respond to this second piece of unsolicited information, he followed up with the punchline: “And I’m TWO – Canadian and Rwandan!”
Noah punctuated this proud declaration with two light-brown fingers forming a triumphant V, his brown eyes sparkling as he waited for her affirmation.
The waitress’s tired face broke into a smile; few can resist Noah’s charms. “You’re lucky,” she said, running her hand over the top of his close-shorn tight curls.
And we had always thought so, too, until we watched the rising tide of resurgent racism bleeding into print headlines, nightly newscasts and social media postings.
Telling ourselves that “there” is not “here,” that Canada is different, seems increasingly flimsy protection against the ever-more-blatant examples of racial fear and hatred. We would like to think that the London, Ont., area, where we live, is far removed from the events of Minnesota or Louisiana, but we are beginning to understand just how vulnerable our biracial grandchild is.
Earlier this year, we were outraged by racial slurs shouted in the streets of London at black actors starring in a play about Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time, however, we didn’t see these incidents as indicative of a growing trend toward publicly expressed racism. Rather, they were annoying and unsettling, but surely uncharacteristic of our corner of Southwestern Ontario. Now, we wonder if there is more hatred just under the surface than we realized. Will Trump-inspired “us-versus-them” rhetoric and Dallas-fuelled backlash reveal racial harmony to be a thin veneer that’s easily peeled away? Will some people feel they have been released from paying lip service to respect for diversity? Will a less civil discourse around race and privilege become the norm in our community? These possibilities threaten to poison the nurturing environment in which we’d assumed our grandson would grow up.
The Obama presidency has schooled us in the hard truth that there actually is no place for Noah’s self-proclaimed category of “TWO,” at least not in the United States. President Barack Obama, biracial son of a white American mother and a black African father, raised by white grandparents, is irrefutably considered “black.” His presidency bears the full weight of the history of slavery, emancipation, segregation, civil rights and now the Black Lives Matter movement. A quick scroll through social media postings reveals how, in these waning days of his presidency, Obama is painted as the symbol of either all that is wrong with America or all that could ever be right. In vilification or beatification, however, he remains solidly, exclusively black.
As a toddler in Canada, Noah has had more shades of identity available to him so far. At the age of 2, he began to talk about skin colour.
“My mommy is brown,” he said one day.
“And what colour is your daddy?”
Of course. Strange though that sounded, it made a certain kind of sense.
“What about you, then? What colour are you?”
No hesitation: “White.”
Um, not so much. In fact, not at all. But I will wait until the world teaches him that, or until he decides to revise his original determination.
Currently, he likes to sort the people in his life by their hair. When told a man was coming to visit whom he hadn’t met before, his first question was: “Is his hair like mine?”
“Yes,” said his mom, “it is.”
He nodded knowingly. “So he’s Rwandan!”
As Noah works out the confounding details of identity and place – who belongs where and why – I am so thankful that his Tutsi heritage does not carry for him the grisly death sentence meted out to his maternal grandparents in Rwanda in 1994. Time, history and geography have afforded him a much safer place.
Nonetheless, each day’s news brings me a double sadness. I mourn for those who have lost loved ones, and grieve over the hatred that burns all those it touches – the haters and the hated. But on a more personal level, it saddens me to think that our precious grandchild, is, perhaps, not lucky to be “TWO.” In fact, unless we can heal the fissures that divide people in our North American continent, Noah may not even have the choice to vaunt his remarkable heritage as “TWO.” He may not be able to identify himself as white, or pink, or brown, but only as black.
Though far removed from the madness of the Rwandan genocide, he may grow up in a world where he shouldn’t wear a hoodie, drive with a broken taillight or ever reach into his pocket when stopped by police.
Kim Cechetto lives in Mount Brydges, Ont.