Trigger warning for racial slurs and comments.
When I was eight years old, two classmates of mine shared the most racist conversation I have ever overheard. Standing by the window at the public swimming pool in Truro, Nova Scotia while we waited for the previous patrons to leave the pool, two girls noticed an older black boy walk past, headed for the entrance.
“Ew, we’ll use whatever one he doesn’t,” said one of the girls.
Truro wasn’t a deeply racist town. Ignorant and politically incorrect, but not hatefully racist. So I was more amazed than outraged at what I heard.
“But what if he decides to switch?” The second girl asked.
“Then we’ll get in the other one.”
“But he already got it dirty!”
I don’t remember where their discussion went after this. I was a day dreamy kid, and as the realization of what they were saying sunk in, the ringing in my ears began to drown out the rest of their conversation. I remember feeling the sting of my face flushing with embarrassment, but I didn’t say anything.
Like I said, I had never experienced Truro to be a hatefully racist town. To this day I cannot say that I have ever experienced deliberate racial discrimination in Truro in any capacity that significantly affected my life or being. I have heard my fair share of racial slurs and derogatory remarks, but there was a common theme that in my mind always made them “okay”: they were insults of convenience. They were cheap shots in moments of anger or frustration.
That is how racism works in Truro. In general I haven’t born witness to obvious prejudice, or race-based grudges fueling a continuum of conflict. Just little disputes here and there wherein tossing “nigger,” “wagon-burner,” or “chink” into an already colorful string of adjectives. I think it is an important distinction to make. Articulating an opinion regarding race meant to express a nuanced and deeply held hatred should be held as infinitely worse than the dropping of the n-bomb, at least in my book.
But that might be due to my skin color. I am, to the best of my knowledge, half Mi’kmaq First Nation, one quarter black, and one blank-canvas-quarter white. Judging by appearance, however, one would be forgiven for assuming that I am white with just a touch of that much sought after, ambiguously brown, evasively exotic “something.”
Most of the time people don’t even realize that I’m not white, which puts me in an interesting position. A deeply uncomfortable position. My white-ish-enough appearance often earns me access to that hideous and exclusive club that is “when only white people are in the room.” I have seen, too many times, the social standards upholding inclusiveness and diversity fall to the wayside the very second the last visible minority leaves the room. And then I am left alone in a room where I don’t look much out of place, subjected to the grotesque ritual that is a bigot relieving himself.
If I am with friends, they usually rush to my defense, calling out “Hey, Tanisha is black!” But what would have happened if I wasn’t? Why are we still having these closeted bigot orgies? The offender always apologizes, sometimes with a shitty remark about how I’m barely black and they were just joking. Sounds good.
I have no doubt that my light skin color has helped to carry me above the realm of racial epithets in Truro, but it is both a privilege and a curse. It thrust me into a more nuanced and unsettling kind of racism, a kind where you feel guilty for accidentally being the secret brown infiltrator in a room of whites wanting to say whites-only stuff. The only black kid in a room of people wanting to relax and make racist jokes for laughs. You don’t belong in either of those places and it’s usually without any forewarning that you find yourself in them. And then it’s your fault for being there. It feels, in some way, dishonest. As a younger person I often found myself wishing my skin wasn’t so misleading. I felt guilty for my friends’ parents who forgot I was black and said “nigger” in front of me because my light skin wasn’t a constant reminder. But I am thankful that it helped me to gain some perspective on racism. I now explicitly know the difference between hurling easy obscenities and holding racist beliefs. It is a difference I have lived.
I don’t want to exaggerate my story. As a proud woman of colour, I am utterly irked when a dispute arises over what is and isn’t racist. I have never experienced oppression. I was not systematically disenfranchised due to my race, neither before nor after having had to explicitly state just what exactly it is. Any racism I have encountered has been so mitigated by my privilege that I feel silly speaking as a victim of anything.
I have grown up and learned a lot since the day at the pool where my two friends inadvertently ostracized me. But I still don’t know what to do when my lack of a Mi’kmaq accent or obvious lace-front fails to help save me from that awkward internal debate between lecturing and educating or just finally, for once in my life, being able to exercise my human right to just fucking relax and thoroughly enjoy being there.
It is difficult to admit that despite all of the privileges I have benefited from in my lifetime, and they are enormous—don’t let my brown female lower class exterior fool you, because I am also educated, well-fed, insured, and surrounded by a massive and supportive group of diverse family and friends—I am still faced with limitations because of my race, and no amount education and enlightenment will change the fact that within myself lies a contradiction of racial and social expectations. I am equally an outsider, if only for almost not looking like one. I do not get a voice in that homogenous back room even though my appearance gets me the invite.
I have come to see that being “not racist” isn’t enough anymore. The comfortable majority must become actively and effectively anti-racist and refuse to act as a bystander. The comfortable majority is not faced with the dilemma of choosing between explaining and defending their individual existence or finding a way to live above the racial views of others and refuse to let them politicize their everyday life. It is difficult to admit that the comfortable majority, capable of commanding such humiliation and shame over others, has the strongest and most resounding voice when speaking against racism. It is difficult to admit that I need them to speak for me, even when I’m not in the room.
Written by Tanisha Blackmore
Follow her on Twitter!