Wednesday, July 10, 2013

99 Problems

Recently I went to dinner with two black friends (their race will be relevant, just give me a moment here). We ate at a chain restaurant in Mississauga. The youngest of the group - a pretty teenager with a medium sized afro, dressed casually in short shorts and tank top appropriate for the steamy summer weather - elicited a sharp look from the beady-eyed manager at the front. The manager  then walked into the dining room where we were seated. The room was recessed from the rest of the restaurant, with no other exit point except the entrance to the room (i.e. there was no reason for her to pass through it except to observe who was in it and depart). 

She walked by our table, flashed us a plastic smile and went out. Her off-putting attire - ("prison guard in a women's prison" chic perhaps?) coupled with stringy blonde hair, mannish, dun-coloured pants and a large set of keys at her side - reinforced a sense of unwelcome.

Well, that was weird we collectively noted. I wondered how often my friends, and specifically other people of colour, had these weird little moments - where they felt they were being observed or assessed merely for walking into a room, driving by, entering a store, or, walking in the "wrong" neighborhood, with the "wrong" colour skin. 

They have 99 problems that white people in the same situation have absolutely no understanding of. I'm not talking about the overt acts of racism such as racial profiling by the police and the phenomenon known as DWB (Driving While Black) which are obviously horrendously offensive and dangerous. It's the smaller things that are difficult to explain, to quantify. How do you assess, describe, that sense of not feeling welcome, of not feeling that you belong? That you are there on their sufferance?

I get a little bit of that as my racial identity has always appeared ambiguous to the outside observer. So labels tossed at me about being an "-ist" this, or a "-ic" that, tend to be met with subdued hilarity on my part.

The only people I have ever met who have aggressively accused me of blatant intolerance have inevitably been white, middle class or upper middle class liberals or "progressives" (usually male) who have their political correctness barometer on high and have been exposed to a heavy dose of liberal white guilt.

Labels affixed to me have included: racist, elitist, homophobic, anti-sex, unfeminist. Not that I, and approximately, oh, 100% of the population do not have elements of this in their psyche (we all do) but I do struggle fiercely every day with either combating my own stereotypical feelings about various groups or I am fending off the enormous number of idiots I encounter who just feel absolutely entitled to express their curious ideas to me about race, ethnicity, or, sexual orientation. 

I am dogged by issues of my race wherever I go ... and have been since a young age. It ain't so bad. In a way it has driven the most racist impulses that were embedded in me at an early age somewhat out of my system.

The environment I grew up in in Hamilton was unfriendly to the influx of Italian immigrants. There were a lot of unrepentantly told wop jokes and snarky comments about immigrants in our hood. Even our working poor/working class neighbours seemed to think they had more rights, or stature, than their Italian-born neighbours and their offspring. It was unpleasant, somewhat hostile, and likely why we tended to congregate together (as many immigrants do) in certain neighborhoods. 

But, on the other hand, immersed in a population of people of almost exclusively European and Anglo descent, there would also be the intrusive questions and interrogations from them about my background usually prefaced by "Are you Italian on both sides?" Note to the inquisitive: racially "ambiguous" people don't like to be quizzed about "where they are reaaallly from". 

The question, "Are you black?" usually seeped out in a restrained, apologetic tone or sometimes it was in a somewhat accusatory tone. So, so sorry to disappoint ... I guess you could blame it on the Carthaginians colonizing Sicily or Sicily's proximity to Africa, a scant 100 or miles or so across the Strait of Sicily.

Conversely ... my forays into the world of non-Italians usually was met with a menacing look, or worse, that signified, "Why can't you hang around with your own kind?"

Flash forward to my escape to Toronto the Good, Toronto the diverse, Toronto the tolerant, when I was 19 where I met my future husband who is of Japanese descent. I don't like to refer to him as just Japanese; I think because his people have been in this country for 100 years (since the First World War in the early part of the 20th c.) I think he, and his family, deserve the right to be called a Canadian. So there's all the silly bigotry that goes along with being a bi-racial couple which, admittedly, is very much less unusual now than when we started dating in university decades ago. 

Still, it's not a pleasant experience wandering into a small Ontario town where we are often met with quizzical glances, coldness, and, sometimes outright hostility. So much for the mosaic. I guess as long as you partner up with the same colour on the mosaic, that's cool.

On another night, not so long ago, I was at a house party, basically the only white person there, the guest of a friend in her home. My appearance caused some raised eyebrows I believe. At one point, my presence might have elicited a long tirade from a woman with a decidedly frosty air on how bi-racial people had to pick a side in terms of self-identification and as white people didn't see them as white ... they (the ambiguous looking bi-racial people) should, and must, declare that they are black, not bi-racial. As I glanced around the room, I was easily the person who might best be described in this manner to the unknowing.

Well ... this is awkward, I was thinking. Luckily my friend, the one who had invited me, launched into a spirited defense, unasked, about how her black friends were always asking her about who I was and what I was and how did we come to be friends.

I loved that girl so intensely at that moment. We had both been through a boatload of heartache because of this friendship over the years but we had never discussed it. I never told her the opposition I received from my family, the "friends" I had lost, or the ugly, racist remarks that white people had made to me about black people during, and because of, our friendship. She never told me that people were interrogating her about our friendship or giving her grief.

What can I say folks, idiocy comes in a rainbow of colours and hues.

I wish we'd all just leave the people of colour and the not so white people like me alone to supposedly ruin this wonderful country with our industry, our amazing cultural histories, our superior cuisine and exquisitely beautiful children. I really do. 

1 comment:

Cheryl said...

Whenever I am forced to fill out a form that asks for race, I always enter "human." Why isn't that enough?
Lovely post.