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For as long as I can remember, I have been very aware of the challenges that come with my complexion. It hasn’t been good enough to be a first-generation Canadian. When people look at me, the first thing they see is my Black face, for good or bad, but mostly bad. I think they call it bias.
My mother raised me to be proud and strong, while also warning me that the older I got, the less cute and innocent I would be and the more threatening and menacing I would appear. She was right. I’ve been stopped by the police driving while Black more times than I care to remember. I see white people tense up when I enter an elevator and I notice when I am followed around a store. This is a part of my lived experience so when people ask me how I am doing, what do I compare it to? Living in a racist society is all I have ever known. I do note though, that when I have travelled to the Caribbean or Africa, there is a different vibe – it’s decidedly lighter, more relaxed and less tense.
I was five years old when race became an issue for me. One day, I came home from school and declared to my mom that I wanted to be like Brian. My mom asked me why. Brian had blond hair and blue eyes. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I just had a sense that he had an easy life – not to say that mine wasn’t pretty sweet but Brian’s seemed sweeter. My mom wasn’t having it. She sat me down and gave me a lecture about racism, the struggle, slavery, the need for self-love, the sacrifices. She talked about all the people who had fought for the freedoms I was enjoying and how proud I should be to be Black. I should wear my colour as a badge of honour since a lot of the struggles we face is because of how gifted we are, which creates jealously, hatred and racism. I saw how distressed my mom was at my desire for blond hair and blue eyes. I never made such a request again. I think they call it self hate.
I remember that in my Grade 8 yearbook, I was voted most likely to have a child. I laughed it off at the time. At 28 years old, I am not a father, one of the last among my peers to be. This is sometimes surprising to strangers, especially potential suitors, who are impressed at my fatherless status. I think they call it stereotyping.
When I started driving, my mom warned me of the risk of being stopped by police for no apparent reason. She begged me not to drive the vintage Jaguar she had bought for herself as a birthday present one year. Stick with the Corolla, she would say. And she told me to be on my best behaviour, to be as polite as humanly possible when the police knocked on the window. I got the routine down to an art. I even took a college level course on police community relations so that I could be up on my rights. “Good day officer, how can I help you today? My license and registration? No problem. Do I have your permission to reach for my wallet?” A few minutes would pass and he would come back with my documents. Nothing in the system. Clean record. I’d then tell him to have a nice day and to be safe out there. I think they call it racial profiling.
When I entered the workforce, I noticed that most of the people who looked like me worked on the front lines, in mostly service roles, especially in call centres. Some of the people I worked with were curious about where I learned French. My name isn’t French and I don’t look Haitian or West African. I couldn’t possibly have studied it in school (I did) so I had to explain that we spoke both languages at home and that my stepfather was French. I think they call it the racism of low expectations.
I share a penthouse condo with my nana. I noticed that I would get glaring looks from other neighbours when I’d come home in sweat pants after a game of basketball or from the gym. I started consciously dressing better and wearing my work badge. One day, I ran to catch the elevator and put my hand in the door so that it wouldn’t close. The elderly woman already inside told me that I was making her scared. “I am so sorry ma’am,” I said. “That was not my intention. I hope you are scared from the sound of the beeping elevator and not from the colour of my skin.” She was surprised that I would confront her like that and so she got off at the next floor. That’s one of the key lessons my mom taught me. When faced with racist incidents, try to confront it in a respectful way. Once I visited a friend at a posh condo downtown, and as I entered the lobby in my dress shirt and blazer the security guard asked if I was there for a delivery. I think they call it micro-aggression.
More recently, I can see how the pandemic is bringing out the worst in people. Acts of racism are all around us, there’s no escaping it. No city, town or village is immune. I’ve been called a criminal for trying to use my brother’s discount card to buy dinner because he was in self-isolation after travelling outside the country. When paying for gas, I’m asked to enter my PIN number instead of tapping my card (even though the customer before me tapped) because the attendant didn’t like the look of me. I was recently asked to risk my health and provide fingerprints as part of a screening process for a job, with no consideration of how traumatizing that request could be. I’ve seen people watch me nervously as I enter stores with my mask on. Imagine the double jeopardy of being Black and wearing a mask in public.
At the end of the day, when you see my Black face, all I ask is to be given the benefit of the doubt. Treat me with kindness, dignity and respect, in any order. I think they call it being inclusive.
Daniel Reid Newell lives in Scarborough, Ont.