image via the New York Times
Once upon a time, I married a black man. I didn’t really think much about the fact that he was black when I met him, or when I started dating him, or when we decided to sign marriage paperwork while drunk at home on a casual Tuesday. I mean, I noticed, but it didn’t really cross my mind that such a fact should matter very much.
It seems like a lot of other people think about the fact that my husband is black, though, and it seems like they think about it a lot. I’ve had people make awkward jokes based on the assumption of the kind of “white girl” I must be if I’m married to a black person. I’ve seen people start talking to him differently because of the colour of his skin, only to be shocked when he speaks with perfect diction. I’ve watched people do a double take when he comes to a restaurant with my family, or when I go to eat with his. I’ve had retail employees try to help us separately, only to watch the confusion cross their face when we tell them we’re together. I’ve seen parking attendants watch with a more careful eye when he goes to unlock his (albeit used) Cadillac, as though it couldn’t possibly belong to him. I’ve been asked if I’m okay, or if I need help with anything, when we’re walking home from dinner after dark.
I don’t give much thought to the colour of his skin, but my husband thinks about it even less. As a medical student, former president of the debating society, and born-and-bred Oakville boy, he is used to being the only black person in the room, but presumptive that this fact doesn’t matter in the slightest. When I am pissed off and ready to smack a bitch because of how they’ve looked at or spoken to him, he’ll shrug and say he didn’t notice, or accuse me of reading too much into things. We actually debate about this a lot, and he once said that he didn’t think the Black Lives Matter movement was necessary in Canada. On the one hand, I completely disagree, but on the other hand, who am I to tell my black husband about what it means to be a black person in Canada?
But every single experience I talked about above, thinks that I would never have thought would happen in Canada? They all happened in Canada. The far more extreme and problematic experiences of Desmond Cole and Dale James, of every young black man who has been disproportionately and wrongly targeted by police simply because of how they were born? Happened in Canada. Not even just in Canada, but in (supposedly) one of the most multi-cultural, progressive cities in the country.
So, how do we even begin to deal with a problem that we aren’t even comfortable addressing? We look at the history of Canada and remember how we accepted the slaves who travelled to freedom on the Underground Railroad, but we don’t teach our young students about the fact that Canada actually partook in slavery (albeit on a much smaller scale). This seems to be a pattern when it comes to race relations across Canadian history, especially in how it is taught to students when the subject is still mandatory in school. We boast about how accepting and multicultural Canada supposedly is in comparison to the United States, but we spend far less time discussing the history of residential schools, of Japanese internment camps, of the Chinese head tax, of our historical and continued overrepresentation of black and Indigenous men in our country’s correctional facilities. These are footnotes, if they’re spoken of at all, and the image of Canada as anything even remotely racist is quietly and quickly swept under the rug.
Of course, I’m very happy to live in Canada, where my husband can simply get a funny look as he approaches his car, and can safely assume that if he is pulled over for running a stop sign, it won’t be one of the last moments of his life. I’m glad to live in a country where we can safely travel to any province, territory, or city without having to worry about our ability to find lodging or someone to serve us dinner. It’s comforting to know that I belong to a society that never enacted anti-miscegenation legislation, rather than one that didn’t even declare such legislation’s unconstitutionality until 1967. But this doesn’t mean that I’m not pissed off sometimes, or that I’m not perpetually frustrated to know that racial bias is persisting through the decades.
There aren’t really any answers in anything I’ve said. I’m not really sure that I’ve accomplished anything, or that I was trying to accomplish anything. But this is a bunch of shit that we don’t really want to talk about, and maybe that’s the problem. Maybe if we started talking, and not just talking, but talking about the truth, there would be more answers than questions, more progress than frustration, and more love than hate.
– Alyssa Jervis, 2016.