Sunday, January 29, 2017

Keep Your Head To The Sky

I've been called nigger.  That's just a statement of fact.  All things considered, it hasn't happened that often, and certainly others have had it worse, and many people died so that I haven't been called nigger more often.

Now, this isn't about me.  But it has to start somewhere, so let's start with the most painful part.  Am I even?

I was born on the island of Trinidad, in the West Indies.  Already fourth- or fifth-generation mixed-race, in 1963, which in Trinidad was and is not that remarkable a thing.  A co-worker, many years later, would say I was Tiger Woods long before anyone knew of Tiger Woods.

My family, on both sides, is at least half Chinese - as far as I know, Pacific rim Chinese, not the communist Chinese most folks had only heard of for the first half of my life.  On my father's side, it's mixed with French.  On my mother's side, English, Dutch and Indian.  If you're familiar with the West Indian diaspora, none of this is surprising.  The aspect that's been difficult to explain to Canadians over the years is that I'm not at all conclusively part African.  I've asked family elders about it and I can't get a definite answer.  There have been vague concessions that someone, somewhere, sometime "must have been" "coloured", but no one has ever been able to confirm who or where that person might have been.

So I can't ever claim to be black.  African-Americans don't accept it; I've seen how Caribbeans look when I tell them I'm from Trinidad - it's an "oh you one a dem" kind of thing.  There's a name for people like me in Trinidad, with a certain place in the social strata for us; not Black, not Indian, not Chinese.  When I was a kid I sometimes wondered if I'd have faced less racism, had my parents never emigrated.  In later years, as I learned more about Trini society, I realized I might have faced even more.

So that's me.  Not white - though I am - and certainly not black, but I've got this dark skin (is it the Indian coming out?) and, by genetic lottery, this curly hair that almost no one else in my families possesses.  And it's 1971, my family has emigrated to Canada, I'm at Catholic school with entirely Irish, Italian, and French kids, and no one else in the neighbourhood looks like me.  And the first time someone calls me nigger to my face, it's the little brother of one of my classmates who knocks me down on the way home from school, jumps on my chest and punches me in the face.

I laugh at him.  Because he's wrong, which I try to explain, but he isn't hearing it.  He doesn't hurt me, because he's smaller, and I don't hit back because he's two years younger.  Overall, the incident isn't painful, it's more... disturbing than anything else.  Because, I suppose, from the very start, I knew all of it would always be unjustified.

Man, it got strange at times.
In the '70s, Canada welcomed Pakistani refugees, and I was called "Paki" in high school.  I knew nothing about Pakistani people.
I've never had a close African-American friend because I've hardly ever even met Blacks.  Even by the late '70s there were - maybe - ten Black kids in my high school.  Culturally, I'm a white suburban kid from "That '70s Show", raised on FM radio, long haired bands, power pop and punk rock... with the exception that I didn't actually hate Disco.
In college, a guy I hung out with asked me if I was Portuguese.  I figured he only dreamed it up because he had no genuine idea of Portuguese people, but he couldn't peg me as anything he knew.
These days, in possibly the final turnaround, I get Muslim dudes on the street asking me if I speak Arabic.

Things have changed, especially here in Canada.  My son recently told me "I'm glad that I'm mixed race."  Wonder of wonders.

You learn to deal with it.  You grow up, finally understanding in the end that the most fundamental lesson, and this goes for every person of every sex, colour or religion - is that anyone can reject you at any time based on something only they decide to perceive.  

I was an immigrant, and these things have always happened to immigrants.  Which leads me to one of the most formative times of my life, which I carry with me to this day, and which I feel that I will have to till I die.

One day, sometime around 1975, as I'm getting off the school bus, I walk down the right side, toward the back.  The bus is set to pull away, and I'm about to step off the curb and cross the street behind it, on my way home.  And just as I do, an older kid in the back leans out the window, a neighbourhood tough who'd been hounding me, and he calls me nigger and spits full on in my eyes.  And I'm blinded as I step into the traffic.

I cried all the way home that day.  Not because of the incident.  Not because of the indignity, or the danger.  But because the kid who did it was Lebanese.  I'd dealt with all the other shit.  What truly bothered me, and why I remember it to this day, is that that kid was the same as me, a first generation immigrant just like me, and he somehow felt like he could push that shit on me.

I will never do anything like that to another immigrant.  Period.

Today is January 29, 2017.  I've been writing this piece my whole life.  I've thought about publishing it since I started writing this blog.  I think you understand why I've done so today.

I'm done now.