Issue 135 - April 21 2005


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How do you feel when you go to a party full of strangers? How do you feel when all these strangers are white and you are the only black person? If you live in Nairobi the likelihood of that happening is rather slim – just as slim as the chance of you waking up to find snow on the ground. But if you live in Ottawa, that will happen to you. In fact, it will happen to you more than once. More often than not, you will be surrounded by people who have blue or green eyes, people who turn red when they blush, and people who become pale in the winter. Being from Nairobi, for the first time in your life you will be very aware of your color and you will feel very different.

You have never been happy merely to see another black person before, but this time you will be. It will make you feel more comfortable, more relaxed. You will almost want to talk to that other black person but something will keep you from doing it. Perhaps it is because you know that they are not from Nairobi, that they are most likely from Barbados, a place you have never been to and just heard of recently. You will know they do not speak Kiswahili, that they have never eaten ugali, and never rode a matatu – all of which are prominent features of life in Kenya. They have very little in common with you apart from skin color. You will therefore not speak to this other black person, but just seeing them there will make you feel more welcome.

Should you feel like a fish out of water though? The history of Canadian race-relations, though far from perfect, should maybe make you feel more at ease. Canada – unlike the United States – has no history of black slavery, at least not on the same scale as the US. As a matter of fact, Canada is where black slaves from the United States ran to for freedom. However, the images of racism in America that you have seen on TV are hard to get over – pictures of African slaves being shipped to America in the 17th and 18th centuries chained hand and feet; pictures of the KKK lynching black men; pictures of white parents trying to stop black children from attending white schools in segregated America.

You are aware that that mostly happened in the past and that since then been there has been affirmative action, the song Ebony and Ivory by Sir Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, and two black secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. But these symbols of advancement in race-relations are not enough to erase strong images of hate from the past and present and neither does the knowledge that these apply to the US and not necessarily to Canada, which has a reputation of greater racial tolerance.

So you are in Canada, not in the US, and specifically in Ottawa, the capital city. How different is the experience going to be for you than if you were in US? For starters, you will find that there are fewer black people in Canada. While Blacks account for 14% percent of the US population, they only make up 2% of the Canadian population. This then explains why you will be the only black man in your condominium complex and why there is only one black person in an Ottawa drum and dance group that plays African music. It will not be much different when you decide to teach Swahili. You will expect that a few black people will be interested in the language of the mother-land but on your first day teaching you will again be surprised to note that you are the only black person in a room of ten. All your students will be white. You knew blacks were a minority in Canada but you did not realize how small that minority was. If you have always believed that strength lies in numbers then you will feel a bit vulnerable in this mainly white society.

In your first few days in Canada you will inevitably get lost in downtown Ottawa and who should come along and offer to help with directions than a white woman or man. Heck, they even walk you to where you are going if it is not too far. One cold Saturday morning you wake up to find that a winter storm has poured 10 inches of snow on the ground and who do you see out there shoveling your drive-way after finishing his? Your white neighbor. So is the story of a more tolerant and friendly Canada true after all? You try to balance these friendly acts against reports of racial-profiling of black people by police in Toronto and cautions from some black people who have lived in Canada longer telling you that racism exists even though nobody has called you the N-word, or excluded you specifically because of your color.

One winter morning you are driving in Ottawa. Your favorite radio station is on. It is the only black station in Ottawa. (A black radio station in Ottawa means that the station plays black music – nothing else). Only one of this urban radio station’s DJs is black, the rest are white. At this particular time of the day a young white female DJ called Amy is usually on the air. She is good. She seems to know a lot about hip-hop music and a quite bit of hip-hop slang.

A rap song that has been playing on the radio is slowly fading to an end. Amy’s crisp, made-for-radio voice comes on the air. Usually what Amy and other DJ’s on this station have to say is predictable. It will be about a competition that the radio station is running or she will be introducing the next song, or it will be a phone conversation with a listener. But this turns out to be one of those few moments when her speech is unscripted and personal. And what is she telling Ottawa? She is yelling that she hates Omorosa with a passion. “What did she just say? ” you almost say out loud.

Omorosa is a leading, if controversial, black female contestant in a very popular reality show called The Apprentice. Omorosa has an attitude problem, however, and does not get along with the rest of her team on the show who are white. You have always thought Omorosa is less than affable, but nevertheless feel there is something wrong with what Amy has just said. Amy is white, Omorosa is black. Is it politically correct or sensitive for Amy to say she hates Omorosa with a passion?  

I pose this question to Amy herself. Here is her reply: “OK...that means you would stand by her simply for her race? Omorosa is an evil woman. She was nasty and tried to use her race to make other people feel sorry for her. People said she used the race card – and she did!  She tried to make the whites look like racists when they weren't. Who cares if she is black, she is a BITCH.“

I am not happy with Amy’s reply and taking a cue from her strong language I pose the same question more directly if rather bluntly: “Are you a racist then? ” “I am not a racist,” Amy responds. “Some of the best people in my life are non-white, but I will not tolerate a nasty attitude from anyone!  And I will not be afraid to say someone has a bad attitude because they are not white and I may hurt their feelings!”

True, some of the most important people in her life are non-white. Amy’s boyfriend is half-West-Indian and her son from a previous relationship is half-Vietnamese. Family aside, one of her favorite actors is Morgan Freeman and she has taken a rather risqué picture kissing a life-size image of black rapper 50 cent’s face. Regarding Kwame, another strong black contestant on The Apprentice, she says, “I like Kwame just because he is smooth, honest, hard working, genuine and well-educated”.

Amy is not an atypical young white person, she belongs to a generation that grew up in a multicultural Canada that embraces equality of races and cultures. She says she grew up believing that color is not important.

In a tolerant Canada, I think there is an important dialogue that is not taking place. I think most white people who are not prejudiced fail to understand that black people are very sensitive to acts that might be interpreted as inspired by racism. This is a result of centuries of discrimination against black people worldwide. Psychological hang-ups related to racism will persist, even with the possible decline of race-based hate. Black people in North America, on the other hand, fail to understand that white people who are truly not prejudiced do not want to feel emotionally burdened by, or associated with, the sins of their fathers or their fellow Caucasians who still believe in white supremacy. I think most black people do not understand that most white people are just as sensitive to being called the R-word, “Racist,” as black people are sensitive to being called the N-word. 

Charles Kinyua Ruthari is a new Canadian and teaches Swahili and English in Ottawa. He is also a free-lance journalist aiming to bring African points of view to the North American media. Mr. Ruthari has a Master of Arts degree in African politics, and was interviewed, in 2004, by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) among others. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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