See this chipped wooden carving of an elephant in my hand? This is an object that connects me very strongly to my childhood. I remember this specific one and a host of other carved elephants in our home when we were back in Africa. Maybe that is why I keep drawing elephants over and over again…it reminds me of a very different time in my life. But that is neither here nor there. The reason I’m sharing this image today is because it is a starting point for a story I want to tell.
So as you have no doubt surmised, I’m a first generation immigrant from Africa. My family and I immigrated to Toronto when I was 13. And I had barely been there a month before I came up against what I know understand to be systemic racism. I remember going to school and facing the school’s administrations expectations that because I was an immigrant from Africa that my education was substandard and I spoke limited English. They couldn’t have been more wrong, I would say more but I’ll save boasting for another post Having grown up in a country where everyone looked like me, and I grew up hearing I could be anything I wanted to be, this idea that others may believe I was less than never occurred to me…really…I just thought there was something off with them (which is really the best attitude to have about racism).
This is not to say I didn’t understand racism. I understood it existed. But naively I assumed it looked more overt. Outspoken supremacists who were deliberately ignorant. Well, that is what I believed until I had experiences that showed me racism is capable of disguising itself as normalcy, working to insidiously limit the opportunities in my life. In high school I became actively involved in a well attended annual stage production organized by the “Multicultural Club”. The goal of the production was to showcase music and dance cultures from across the world. I remember approaching the staff sponsor for the program and asked why there was funding for only one African Dance but yet Asia was represented with multiple choir and dance performances from India, Sri-Lanka, China, Korea, Vietnam etc. And this woman who was the head of the ESL Department looked at me like I was being unreasonable and said “That is because Africa is One Country, and Asia has multiple countries”.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. I remember shaking my head at her and explaining that Africa was the second largest continent, was the seat of civilization, had over 50 countries, over 3000 tribes and we spoke over 2000 languages. And she looked like I’d just smacked her upside the head. And I think back and realize here was this woman who had a Masters degree…was head of a department that worked with immigrant/refugee students …decided where funding for ESL programs went …and she was working from a place where she assumed every African had the exact same background.
There I was this teenager explaining that Canada was the third country I called home because though I was born in Eritrea (North East Africa), my family had lived in Kenya (East Africa) for 12 years before immigrating to North America. That this image she had of Africans being a mass of homogenous, unfortunate, helpless, starving caricatures of people with faces smeared in porridge and covered in flies while we shelter in huts awaiting our saviours…well that image was ignorant.
I hadn’t grown up living in huts like she thought, though yes, I had learned as part of a history class how to construct one (because education & knowledge is valuable). I grew up in an urban center in a gated compound with maids and guards, went to a private school where I had to learn 14 subjects on any given day. Was expected to be fluent in English and Kiswahili and have a working knowledge of French …not to mention the additional mother tongues I spoke at home. That the number of languages spoken in my immediate family numbered at 8 or 9 at last count, and that wasn’t merely because my father was a linguist and author, it was because like most Africans every member of my family is a polyglot. And her face…her face will always be etched in my mind. I always ask myself, what the heck had she imagined my story to be…and what doors had she shut off to me and my fellow African-Canadian students because of this.
In that moment I learned racism can look like person masquerading as an educated relatively intelligent person choosing to rely on lazy unchallenged ridiculous assumptions. Since that day I’ve challenged the bejesus out of any assumptions I’ve made for fear of ending up complacent and ignorant like this supposed educator. True Story.