Anthony McLean's mum is white, his dad, Jamaican. When he was three-years-old his parents divorced and Anthony moved to Aurora, where he was the only black kid in his class. " Some kids teased me," he said. "I had this yearning, I wished I was white."
But by Grade six, there was a shift. "Then, kids were saying I wasn't black – starting calling me "Oreo", he said. "It infuriated me. I was struggling to come to terms with my identity." Mr. McLean started reading books on Malcolm X and tomes on black history, searching for answers on what being black meant. One day he was playing basketball with a white friend, when his friend told him he was white because he pronounced the 'g' in walking, instead of saying 'walkin'. "I didn't have an answer for him," Mr. McLean said.
Sherien Barsoum's documentary Colour Me, screening at the TIFF Lightbox as part of February's Black History month, tracks Mr. McLean, now a motivational speaker, and six Brampton high school students on a five-month journey of self-discovery. Ms. Barsoum spent two years piecing together the 80-minute documentary – her first – playing the role of producer and director.
Mr. McLean said the struggle for identity is as big an issue for the kids that he mentors as it was for him growing up.
"If a 16-year-old black guy isn't in to hip-hop, and instead likes punk or indie music, he's made fun of," he said. "These issues are in your face... If you have to change who you are just to fit in – I mean, that's big."
Brampton is one of Canada's fastest growing, ethnically dominated suburbs. Visible minorities represent 57 per cent of Brampton's population: The largest group is the South Asian community, whose population represents 55.6 per cent of all visible minorities. They were followed by blacks, who represent 21.7 per cent of all visible minorities.(In 2008, blacks represented 12 per cent).
But for most newcomers, the place they call "Flower Town" is the white-picket-fence dream.
Mr. McLean said youth in Brampton are living in double-storey homes with two-car garages, and sleep every night in their own bed. "They're not living in the ghetto, they're not living in 'the hood', but they have a ghetto mind state – that's what we are seeing at the moment," he said.
And that's what he's trying to change. Fletcher's Meadow high school is the backdrop for the film. With a population of 2,000, 70 per cent of its student body is black. For the past five years, the school's academic performance has ranked in the bottom 30 per cent in Ontario.
The students in the film all have their own issues: Summer could be the next Canadian prime minister, but must confront her own blindness to the fact that she's living the stereotype; Jevaun lives up to his own low expectations; David has been teased about his skin colour, called "dark as tar"; Justine is boisterous and gets into fist fights; Narraine helps her mom make ends meet by working at a salon every weekend; and Demar has lost count the amount of times he's been called "Oreo."
Sitting in one of the classroom at Fletcher's, Mr. McLean asks the students about their grades. All of them were averaging 60 per cent or lower, and, in some cases failing. "Why aren't you averaging As? Why aren't you on the honour roll?" he says. "You guys are meeting the stereotype." (Mr. McLean later confesses that he was a high-school dropout and averaged 27 per cent in his final year.)
Narriane Whittingham, 19, was born in Toronto, lived in Brampton for nine years and graduated from Fletcher's Meadow in 2010. While there, she witnessed students living out the black stereotype every day: getting poor grades, using terms like "ghetto" and being teased for not being black enough. When Ms. Whittingham was in Grade 10, she was in the schoolyard when a teacher walked by and said to her friend, "you look like Aunt Jemima, [because your hair is up today].
"That made me really, really upset. It's frustrating. When black people move here, people just think the all the men are robbers, the women are on welfare and the kids at school stand around and do nothing," said Ms. Whittingham, who is now in final year of a social worker program at Seneca College. "Colour Me gave insight into what we really do at the school, and shows that not all black people are the same, the different stereotypes that exist and that people with light-coloured skin go through black identity issues."
Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell, said the film makes you think "Who am I? Where do I fit in?" When she was 16-years-old, her family moved from Quebec to Ontario, during her high-school years and she lost her entire social network making it hard to fit in and get good grades. "I struggled. This is what happens to newcomers who move to Brampton," she said. "It's a challenge we can't turn away from, it's a challenge for young people."