Starting to fall in love with my Blackness

Finding a group of fellow Black people was only the start of my self-acceptance

Clanny's relationship with being Black is a work in progress. 
Photo: 

Racism is inescapable. 

Even in parts of the world where people of colour are the majority, the effects of colonialism linger. Growing up, Fair and Lovely had billboards over the roads that lead to my school, hair-straightening products sat comfortably on the shelves at the hair salon, and the media carried white Western ideals to our TV’s.

I grew up in many different places. I was born in Canada and spent my formative years here, but then, when I was seven my mom got a new job which took us to Kinshasa, the capital of DRC. Then Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Then finally Nairobi, Kenya. Between moving to those countries, we’d spend our summer and winter breaks with our extended family in Burundi—I didn't properly experience what being a “minority” felt like until I was fifteen, when we moved back to Canada permanently. 

Despite technically growing up as a part of the majority, I still fought the urge to lighten my skin and battled with my hair for most of my life.

I didn’t speak Swahili or Kirundi like everyone around me, so even among people who looked like me and talked like my parents, I was relegated to the Western, white influenced corners of urban African life. Because I didn't have access to anything else, I absorbed the messaging that came with it. 

It didn’t help that sometimes teachers would single me out for my Blackness, or that kids would call me “medusa” for my snake-like braids. Eventually, all these outward messages turned inwards, and I became my own worst critic for things I had no control over.

It's hard to look back and see the amount of insecurity I had for daring to be unattractive. Before blaccents, cornrows, and afro-beats were mainstream, I went to a French school that punished you for speaking anything but perfect French. 

I watched white kids turn the way my family and I spoke into a joke. My culture was never acknowledged unless it was for the purposes of reducing us to a laugh or an insult.

Before we moved back to Africa, my parents made sure I could assimilate into “Canadian culture” in the best way I could. 

They saw the way my cousins were ridiculed for their accents. My parents had first-hand experience with the racism and xenophobia that came from entering Canada and corporate spaces. To be successful in any institution with a colonial foundation, even in Canada, you have to cut away pieces of yourself to fit the mould.

So I tried. I flattened my hair. I wanted to cut off pieces of my body, to cut through layers of brown skin to find something pure and white underneath.

When I was twelve, I made the drastic transition from one of the worst middle schools imaginable to a much more welcoming and kinder environment. 

The shift was so jarring I couldn’t believe it was real. I remember sitting in my first science class, looking around at the new students and the bright lights, amazed at how easy it felt to breathe in this place. 

This was the school where I made some of my closest friends, friends I remain close to.

We were all incredibly different people, but that's what made it work. One of the things I'm grateful for is the way they challenged the most toxic parts of my personality and my internalised racism. 

I grew close to this group of people whose parents also immigrated to North America, who spent more time in airplanes than on the ground, and more time between borders than among a community. 

When I rejected Black culture, they pushed back. They're the ones that made me question the worldview I adopted for my own self-preservation.

Even though we had different interests and hobbies, we still found common ground in expanding each other's worldviews. We were an unofficial book club, we tried to learn a new language together, we joined new clubs together. 

And we found similarities in our life experiences. In different ways we struggled with our identities. What I learned from them was this struggle was okay. My struggle with my culture and understanding my family was fine.

In the end, I found comfort in just being Black. I started to accept the contradictions I felt on the inside and embraced the solidarity other Black people offered me. Finding a group of fellow Black people was only the start of my journey of self-acceptance. 

For the first time in my life—the very first time—I didn't feel ugly. How could I be, when the best, brightest, most brilliant people I knew looked like me and had families like mine? And when I talked about my feelings, my friends understood.

My relationship to my Blackness and the cultures my family comes from has been, and always will be, complicated. Unlearning internalised racism is a lifelong process, and unlearning internalized xenophobia is just as complicated. 

This process is especially difficult now that I find myself back in Canada trying to find a place to fit in, where what makes me different just makes me feel more exposed. But half this journey happened when I was just learning more about where I’m from and who my parents are.

My mom and I talk a lot more these days. I find myself asking more questions when I encounter something I don't understand. I learned about my grandparents and the things they did to contribute to anti-colonial liberation efforts. 

When I went to my cousin’s wedding I started paying attention—instead of letting myself fall to the background because I was ashamed for not knowing enough Kirundi to participate. 

Sometimes, I don’t need to know the language to participate in or appreciate what’s in front of me. 

I’ll always have a level of distance from my culture. I won’t grow up like my mom or dad or any of my cousins. I used to resent going back to where my parents grew up because I felt so distant. I willingly closed my eyes and shut out the bright colours of Rwanda’s nature. I plugged music into my ears and ignored the Burundian drummers who were performing in front of me. I didn’t feel like it belonged to me.

Now when I visit Burundi, and I go to an event and hear the Burundian drummers pound their instruments so hard it changes the pace of my heartbeat, none of my lingering resentments matter. 

When I listen to the drums, I can feel the love that comes with them. The love of my friends who taught me to appreciate myself. The love of my family who only wanted me to succeed in an oppressive world. The love of a global diaspora that’s fighting to thrive. 

No matter what, that love will stay with me. 

Tags: 

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.