Debra Thompson is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.
I. ‘We came back too soon.’
The day after Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, my father said: “You know, Debra, your daughter was the first Thompson born in America since Cornelius Thompson escaped slavery. It’s been over 150 years, and some days I think we came back too soon.”
My father was born and spent his childhood in Shrewsbury, Ont., a tiny town about 100 kilometres east of Detroit on the shores of Lake Erie. It, and other neighbouring towns such as Buxton and Dresden, were the last stops on the Underground Railroad.
In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of a larger series of political compromises made between the Southern enslaving states and the free Northern states. It required law enforcement officials to arrest people suspected of being runaway slaves based on little or no evidence and penalized any official who dared not to comply. Any person found aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was liable to six months’ imprisonment and a US$1,000 fine. Monetary awards were offered to anyone who captured a fugitive slave. Those suspected of being slaves were not eligible for a trial and could neither testify on their own behalf nor defend themselves against the accusations. The result was the legalization of a national program of mass kidnapping and enslavement of free Black people across the U.S. But the Fugitive Slave Act did not extend to Canada, and to Canada thousands fled, including my great-great-grandfather, Cornelius Thompson.
Many of those that escaped to Canada went back to the U.S. after the Civil War to try to find the loved ones left behind, stolen from them, or lost along the way. But generations of those descended from Black American refugees from slavery still live in Southwestern Ontario, including my father’s family. Because the communities were rural and segregated, my kin have the most wonderful way of speaking. My father has southern intonations in how he says “thee-ater” and pronounces the “w-h” in “white.” He talks in the same rhythmic riddles that characterize barbershop talk in African-American communities and cultures, saying such things as, “Well, Debra, you know hindsight is 20/20 because any fool can turn around and look behind them.” But he is also staunchly, proudly, fiercely Canadian, and his accent appears plainly in words such as “about” and “sorry.”
He doesn’t know where Cornelius or the others on our family tree escaped from. He thought he heard someone talking about West Virginia or Alabama once, “but Debra,” he said, “you’re looking for ghosts. You’re looking for evidence left behind by people who were trying to hide, and whose lives depended on how well and for how long they could do it.”
When I moved to the U.S. a decade ago, I thought those ghosts would welcome me home. I felt like I was returning to the land of my ancestors, the country they built, where they prayed, and sweated, and toiled, and were tortured, and resisted, and fought, and wept as their children were stolen and sold, and were traumatized as they were raped for profit and murdered for sport; the country where they died, the places they still haunt. They escaped, and I returned to lay claim to the opportunities they were denied and the humanity they were refused.
I came to America as an immigrant joining a nation of immigrants, during a time when this country of immigrants is characterized by a high degree of anti-immigrant sentiment – although I am invisible in the recent, heated debates over U.S. immigration policy. I can “pass” as African-American, and not an immigrant, and muddy the conceptual waters of integration in so doing. I also have light-skinned privilege and a complicated, possibly dysfunctional relationship to my mother’s whiteness and Jewish identity – but that’s a story for another time. To tangle things even further, we of course cannot even begin to speak of homelands, homecomings, or homegoings without acknowledging that Turtle Island never did belong to us.
Home is a calling for many, but my understanding of home is rife with ambiguity. I want to articulate some of the invisible, even ghostly matters that materialized when I returned to my ancestral homeland, and the story of what it’s been like to have been here, in a country that is and isn’t mine; to be doubly unwanted as an immigrant and a Black person, but here by choice and protected by incredible class privilege; and now, at a moment when Black uprisings have once again called the meaning of American democracy into question, to leave. I want to acknowledge the unrepentant structural racism of American society while not negating the subversive, insidious racism of Canada; to be bewildered and awed by African-Americans’ love and hope and pride in this country, their dedication to making this country better, even as it has, more often than not, refused to love them back.
More than anything, this is a story about what it means to be in a place, to have ancestral ties to a place, to be haunted by the ghosts tethered to the land, water, soil and swamp, but to be not of that place. These are the questions I have asked myself for a decade, as I try to think through whether I can and should lay claim to this country, whether I can or should lay claim to Black freedom dreams that might have been born here, but which have also travelled around the globe, and what these claims might mean in the broader context of what it means to truly belong.
II. The narcissism of minor differences
Before I moved to Boston in the summer of 2010, I had a conversation with my dissertation adviser, an American originally from Chicago, who has been living in Toronto for decades. I told her that I was excited to go to the U.S. in part to put my money where my mouth is. I had spent years trying to make the argument that there was racism and racial inequality in Canada, just as there was in the U.S., and for years I had been told that I was wrong. I had been told so often that there was nothing political about race or racism in Canada that I wrote an article on the subject so I would have something to hand to the white boys in my PhD program who told me that if I really wanted to know about race, I should watch The Wire.
After I told this to my adviser, the brilliant Jennifer Nedelsky, she paused for a moment, and said that one of the things she thought was most compelling about my work was that I saw race politics differently than American academics. She said that my work turned many of her American-born-and-bred assumptions about race and racism upside down; that what she valued about my research was the way it asks not just why things are the way they are, but whether they have to be that way at all. “I hope you always retain the sense that things are odd,” she said as we parted ways.
Many immigrants experience a culture shock when they arrive in their new country, but Canadians seem to have a particularly hard time acculturating to life in the U.S. This difficulty is sometimes attributed to the narcissism of minor differences, a Freudian theory that suggests communities that have adjacent territories and close relationships are likely to be hostile and contemptuous because they are hypersensitive to the tiny differences between them. And, fair enough – Canada and the U.S. share a dominant language, democratic political culture, origin as white settler societies, tropes of popular culture and more.
The most obvious difference, which few would characterize as minor, is health care. (When I moved to the U.S., I had never heard the terms “co-pay” or “pre-existing condition” before, and I certainly didn’t understand what a deductible meant in the context of health insurance.) The most consequential difference between Canada and the U.S., however, is the manifestation of structural racism. We often think that racism is about a person’s behaviour. Some people, we think, just act in explicitly racist ways toward racial minorities. Those are the “real” racists, we tell ourselves. But racism is not simply a function of individual attitudes, and it can’t be eradicated by changing hearts and minds. Racism is the social, legal, political and economic distinctions that mark and maintain unequal access and entry points to privacy, property, protection, prosperity and personhood. It is embedded in structures, institutions and ideas, especially those about work, deservedness, representation, redistribution and even the proper role of government.
Racism has shaped the contours of every major political, social and economic institution in the United States. Every. Single. One. From banking and real estate to the location of highways and grocery stores. From education to health care, child care and the lack of parental leave. It is especially, obviously pervasive in every part of the criminal justice system, including policing, the cash bail system, prosecution, sentencing, prisons and capital punishment. In each case, racism may not have been a singular or direct cause, but it was certainly a collaborating factor. It has touched literally every facet of American society in ways that I didn’t understand until I got here.
This is not to say that Canadian institutions are colour-blind. There is ample evidence of racial disparities in nearly every socio-economic indicator, especially for Black and Indigenous peoples. But Canadian policies were not necessarily segregation by design. In fact, Canada is internationally known for having a social safety net and a model of diversity governance that are far more robust and redistributive than those south of the border. In the American Political Science Association’s 2016 Task Force on Racial Inequality in the Americas, Queen’s University’s Keith Banting and I explored the question of why these policies haven’t been more successful in alleviating racial economic inequality. We found that the key policy regimes that were established between the 1960s and 1980s – the welfare state, immigration policy, multiculturalism, and the Charter of Rights and anti-discrimination laws – failed to eradicate racial inequality because that was never their intended purpose. All were put in place during a time when Canada was not racially diverse and were designed by and for a largely white electorate.
Though Canadians revel in the country’s image of a multicultural, even postnational, exception in a world that has taken a hard right turn toward intolerance of racial and ethnic pluralism, Canada was a very white country in my lifetime. According to the 1981 census, nearly 96 percent of the population identified as white. Growing up in the distant suburbs of Toronto in the 1980s and 1990s meant that my siblings and I were the only Black kids around. And for every fairy tale that celebrates the family that moved to a better – often code for whiter – neighbourhood, there is a more accurate tragedy that captures the terror of being the only one. It was lonely and isolating and defined by a kind of gaslighting in which everything and nothing was about race. For nearly 30 years, there was one question that I was asked more than any other.
But where are you really from?
Perhaps you can’t hear the presumption in its premise. Where are you really from, because I can see that you’re not one of us. Where are you really from, because you don’t seem to fit in. Where are you really from, because I will stop you on the street and demand you answer my question, because I am white and you are not and if you do not give me your time, your benevolence, your patience, your attention, and your respect there will be hell to pay. Where are you really from, because my curiosity is more important than your comfort or safety. Where are you really from, because you can’t possibly be from here.
Black Canadian scholars describe the contradictory “absented-presence” of Black people in Canada. As Robyn Maynard points out in the widely acclaimed Policing Black Lives, anti-Blackness in Canada is often minimized as a relic of the distant past, or the problem of another place (i.e. the United States). Canada, cultural theorist Rinaldo Walcott once wrote, needs to see itself as the place that rescues Blackness from the evils of American racism. But there is substantial evidence of anti-Black racism in Canada, including differential treatment in immigration and criminal justice systems, unequal access to employment and housing, and overrepresentation in child welfare and incarceration systems. These inequities are particularly acute during the COVID-19 crisis, as increased police surveillance, the overrepresentation of Black people in low-wage, but “essential,” work, and the absence of race-based health data have compounded to endanger Black lives more than others.
The result is that racism in Canada is pervasive, persistent and yet hidden from view. White Canadians, in particular, get highly offended at even the hint that racism exists. My American friends were shocked when my Canadian Facebook friends lost their damn minds about a post I made about Freddie Gray’s death in police custody back in 2015. “Lyme disease is a big problem too, you know,” an angry acquaintance from high school memorably posted. And once, after I had finished doing a public lecture about racism in the Trump era, an older couple approached me and said, “Don’t worry, we didn’t think you were Black until you mentioned it.” They meant it as a compliment. It was so very Canadian of them.
But these differences – minor or not – have made me realize an uncomfortable truth, of which I am ashamed: I had to come to the United States to learn to love Blackness.
III. Go back where you came from
In a series of tweets last summer, Mr. Trump told four Democratic Congresswomen that rather than “loudly and viciously telling people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Being told to go back where you came from is something that people of colour in the U.S. have often heard. Less than a week after the President’s xenophobic tweetstorm, The New York Times collected more than 16,000 stories from across the country of people who had been told the same.
Even as an immigrant, I didn’t feel like this insult was directed at me. After all, to stand and fight is the essence of Black America. Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones began the New York Times’ 1619 Project with an essay titled The Idea of America. Her central argument is that because Black Americans have been excluded from “we the people,” they have had to believe in democratic ideals more than white Americans. And it was the struggle for America to live up to those ideals that substantiated American democracy. When given the chance to leave, they have not left. When excluded from the body politic, they have not checked out. When they struggled and won access to power, they have not oppressed others as has been done to them. Black Americans, she argues, have been the “perfectors” of this democracy. Arguably, the most recent incarnation of this struggle is the Movement for Black Lives.
But the democratic sacrifice required of African-Americans is a heavy burden. James Baldwin once wrote that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” For me, being Black in the U.S. has also been punctuated by grief, intense joy and crippling fear. There were countless moments of sheer terror brought on by police lights in my rearview mirror, racial slurs shouted from the windows of pickup trucks, or the silent flapping of a Confederate flag in the rural areas of states that were not part of the Confederacy. Sometimes I was invisible in the ways that Ralph Ellison wrote about – about once a month, without fail, a white woman will cut in front of me in line because she literally doesn’t see me. It’s like I don’t register as a person.
A few months ago, I was at a store in Eugene, Ore., and as I put my groceries on the conveyor, the cashier, an older white woman, turned to me and asked if I’d be using WIC – colloquially, one of the federal food stamps programs – to pay. I let a slow, small smile spread across my face. “No,” I said politely. She immediately looked flustered. “I only ask because you have apple juice,” she lied. “That’s one of the things people buy using WIC.” “Oh,” I said. She chattered nervously as she scanned my groceries, apple juice and all, clearly embarrassed that we both knew about her racism. I wasn’t angry, though. Only amused. The joke’s on her, I thought to myself. I don’t think being poor is anything to be ashamed of.
White America consistently derides, skews, or misunderstands the nature of Black America so completely, it would be comical if it weren’t so deadly. And, my God, it is deadly. The recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are not isolated incidents, but the latest tragedies in a long-standing pattern of police and vigilante violence against Black people. Although not a perfect comparison, let’s not pretend that the police-involved deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet and D’Andre Campbell aren’t indicative of the same racial logic at play. Let’s admit that Amy Cooper (a Canadian, by the way) knew exactly what she was doing when she weaponized her whiteness in Central Park. Let’s acknowledge that the cognitive dissonance required to be righteously indignant about Black death in the U.S., but defensive when the perpetrators are the “us,” and not the “them,” is itself a peculiarly Canadian form of racism.
Too often, the limits of white empathy for the Black dead end at the shattered glass of a storefront window. My ancestors were once considered to be property, and still, more than 150 years later, it’s obscene and macabre that many people would once again choose to value the sanctity of property over personhood. I think that white discomfort isn’t about smashed windows at all – trust me, Target will be fine. Rather, it’s the visceral anger erupting in Minneapolis and elsewhere, and protesters’ mass refusal to hide it, that is most disconcerting. Anger is often considered an obstacle to the imagined panacea of civil discourse. The sanitized, meme-able distortion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of non-violence never seems to mention that he was violently assassinated by white supremacists.
White anger – even when extraordinarily misplaced – is somehow normal, understandable, or politics-as-usual. After the 2016 election, journalists scrambled to profile the “forgotten Americans,” the angry, displaced, strangers in their own land, who aren’t racist – how dare you suggest that – but who believed Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and wanted to see America be great once again. The white nationalists who gathered in Charlottesville were “fine people,” according to Mr. Trump. Similarly, Mr. Trump tweeted that the armed protesters who stormed the Michigan statehouse were “very good people, but … angry,” and so the Governor of Michigan should “see them, talk to them, make a deal.” But expressions of Black rage, especially when catalyzed by circumstances of racial injustice, violate powerful social norms about who has the right to be angry or speak angrily in public. In the 244-year history of the United States, has there ever been a single form of Black protest that the majority of white Americans have accepted as legitimate, valid, appropriate and necessary? While Black people’s anger is construed as dangerous, riotous and insolent, it is white anger that is etched into the core of American democracy.
The uprisings happening in cities across the U.S. don’t make me want to leave. They make me want to fight. We are living in a moment that has revealed the deep fractures of American society, as the related phenomena of COVID-19, economic collapse, the designation of low-wage, dangerous, but “essential” work, and routine police violence have not only devastated Black communities, but also illuminate the extent to which some Americans view the lives of poor and racialized others as expendable. Protests are a sign that things can change, that the status quo can be disrupted, that the racial order can collapse, that coalitions can be solidified, that abolition is possible once again. Chaos can open a window of opportunity, and what emerges from the ashes might be, in the words of British cultural theorist Stuart Hall, a politics without guarantees. We must work to ensure that justice and equality have a fighting chance to fill the void, otherwise it will surely be racism, resentment and the normalization of the authoritarian-like tactics of state repression, as we’ve recently seen with the imposition of curfews, the excessive force used by police on peaceful and riotous protesters alike, and the deployment of federal troops in urban centres.
The anger of Black America is real and potent, but that’s because we have something worth fighting for. Black America is vibrant and prideful, the true soul and moral litmus of the nation. To be Black in this country is to have the privilege of knowing there is an invisible tether that binds African-American people together, what social scientists call “linked fate.” To be Black in this country is to live in the fusion of dream worlds and the quotidian practices of the everyday that exist alongside the white lifeworld, but which are made by us, for us alone. To be Black in the U.S. is to live in and through what Richard Iton called the black fantastic – those “minor key sensibilities” that are generated by those who are excluded from formal realms of politics, but who nevertheless engage in political acts when we learn and love, simply because we are expected to be capable of neither. To be Black in this country is to be home.
The kind of belonging I always wanted in Canada, I found in the U.S. I know some might think that the kind of racism that exists in Canada – in my opinion, more insidious, harder to name and therefore challenge, and always operating under the cloud of plausible deniability – is somehow better than the in-your-face racism of the U.S. But I’ve experienced both, and I’d rather face the enemy that can at least be named than the one Canadians deny even exists. And no one has asked where I’m “really” from in 10 years.
Ironically, the more at home I became in the U.S., the more I began to think through the ways that Black people have understood freedom in terms of mobility. Slavery was the violent, forced migration from one’s homeland to the New World. To be enslaved was to have your movements regulated, surveilled and criminalized. Black history is full of forced relocations, mass population removals, displacements, segregated spaces, curfews, zoned existences and running both toward better opportunities and from the terror of white lynch mobs. Even leaving the U.S. has sometimes been a strategy of Black liberation – Liberia and Sierra Leone were founded as colonies for freed Black people when many countries still traded in human lives. James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright and Josephine Baker all left and found peace and humanity elsewhere, even when it was temporary. Exile has, at times, been emancipatory.
I am not so arrogant or ignorant to make the claim that returning to Canada is an effort to find freedom, as it was for my ancestors. This is not a story of Canada’s purported rescue of Blackness once again. There is much to fight for – and against – in the True North. And while the unrelenting racism of American society, the viral spectacle of Black death by police, vigilantes and political neglect, and ways that the spectre of Sandy Hook haunts each morning when I drop my child at preschool are constantly on my mind here, I have complicated feelings about leaving.
I have had my green card long enough to meet the temporal requirements to apply for American citizenship, which I was on track to get before the COVID-19 pandemic made bureaucratic processing timelines screech to a halt. The application asked me questions, such as whether I’d ever been a member of the Communist Party, or if I was a habitual drunkard. It cost about US$725 to file. Since the pandemic added an additional eight months to my application’s processing time, I also had to apply for a travel document that will allow me to leave the country without surrendering my green card. That cost an additional US$660, and the fate of my green card will be up to the discretion of border agents, travel document or not.
I will have an interview and have to pass a test. One would think I’d be exceptionally prepared to take what is essentially a basic-level American politics exam, but I’m not. The answers they want aren’t ones I am okay with giving. One of the questions asks about the causes of the Civil War. There are three acceptable responses, including states’ rights and economic reasons, even as the long-standing academic consensus is about the centrality of slavery.
I debated for a long time about whether to get American citizenship. At the end of the day, my reasons for seeking it are personal and political.
In personal terms, my partner and children are American. As a green card holder, I can be detained, indefinitely and without cause, for any reason. Citizenship offers protection. More important, if the unimaginable happens, I need to be put in the same pen as my children. I need to be able to go where they go, whether voluntary or forced. This might sound dramatic, but remember the legacy of slavery. It was cruel and inhumane in many ways, but especially because it ripped children away from parents, who were helpless to prevent it. Slavery isn’t just this country’s original sin, but is an abomination on the very meaning of humanity precisely because it was economically invested in and fundamentally predicated on our powerlessness to protect our children from harm. Citizenship gives me the ability to keep my children safe – at least, in some ways. For many Black parents, citizenship cannot even guarantee safe passage to the corner store. As a parent to white-presenting children, the onus is on my partner and I to ensure they understand the moral obligations that come with their racial privilege: To use their privilege to fight toward its destruction.
In political terms, this is my ancestors’ legacy. My kin were owed a debt for their centuries of forced labour. But as an immigrant, I have no legal claim to citizenship on these terms. The principles of family reunification in immigration policy – what Republicans sometimes call “chain migration” – do not have a clause that accounts for the blood debt of the nation. But Black folk know of debts and forced repayments. When Haitians revolted and won their freedom, France responded by demanding 150-million francs for “lost property” – the property being the formerly enslaved. It plummeted the first Black Republic into debt, the echoes of which reveal themselves in Haiti’s status as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. We know of debts, bad checks and promissory notes defaulted. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to the formerly enslaved, and I have come to collect.