As someone who identifies as a black Caribbean, I have a different concept of being black than black Canadians do. Many times black Caribbean and black Canadian people are grouped together and are expected to have the same feelings and opinions, when this is not the case.
I grew up in the Caribbean, where race is not as clear-cut as it may be in Canada. The Caribbean is home to a large population of black people, but the region is a multicultural hub that features every skin colour and ethnicity under the sun.
Immigrants from the Caribbean are often surprised by the significance of race in North American society, as racial tensions are much more apparent here than they are in the West Indies. I, along with many other Caribbean people I know, did not grow up in a home where race was a central issue. We do not usually have a heightened sense of racial awareness.
My best friend in primary school was a white girl from Ohio, and all of my other friends were various shades of brown and black. In high school, my friends were even more blended. There were about eight of us who used to sit together at lunch and we were white, black and every shade in between. I’ve just always been surrounded by people of all colours, and the one thing that binds us together is culture.
To me, culture is always much more tangible than race. And I believe that it would be a shame for someone to solely focus on my race rather than acknowledge my individuality and culture. I identify much more strongly as a Caribbean woman than as a black woman. Although I am proud to be black, I feel like it is not nearly enough to define me.
There is so much more to me than the colour of my skin. In order to know me, you’d have to know about the infectious Caribbean music that I love (soca, dancehall and reggae), the delicious Caribbean foods that I crave (roti, oxtail, and pelau), the festival that I look forward to every single year (Caribbean carnival in Antigua), and the laid-back, warm lifestyle that I experienced growing up.
Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar, a Caribbean studies professor at Ryerson and expert in Caribbean culture and identity, says that in order to have an appreciation for Caribbean culture we must deconstruct the notion of the term “black.”
“In the U.S., there’s a more clear history of what blackness is and isn’t. But blackness in the Caribbean is a continuum,” she says.
The Caribbean today is not just about black and white. Due to a history of African slavery followed by an indentureship system where workers were brought into the region from India, China, South Asia, etc., there is a vast spectrum of ethnic diversity. The identities and traditions of all these cultures are reflected in Caribbean culture, creating a unique, blended community.
“When you have this overarching category of black, it erases mixture,” Hernandez-Ramdwar said. “You could be black but have multiple ancestries, and in the Caribbean we understand that and appreciate that.”
My ancestry, for example, stretches all across the globe. Yes, I have African heritage, but my family also traces back to the Netherlands, England, India, Central America and various Caribbean islands.
“Being ‘black’ is a very North American stereotype,” says Maria Brisbane, a second-year child and youth care student at Ryerson. “My background itself includes Portuguese, ‘black,’ Scottish, Indian, Venezuelan and probably some native Indian,” says Brisbane.
Brisbane was born in Canada, but associates with her Caribbean background. Her family originates from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a small island nation in the region. She is of mixed descent, but identifies as black or Caribbean.
“In general when you are from the Caribbean, you don’t actually separate yourself as being black,” Brisbane says. “Some islands do look at race but for the most part it is not something that would be talked about like we do in North America, especially the stereotypes associated with being black.”
Statistics Canada’s 2006 census showed that 2.5 per cent of the Canadian population identifies as black. In 2001, over half a million people of Caribbean origin were living in Canada, 55 per cent of whom were foreign-born. It’s also important to note that over half of the Caribbean immigrants in Canada arrived here recently, since the 1980s.
The Caribbean community in Canada is also growing significantly faster than the overall population according to Statistics Canada. That puts into perspective the importance of recognizing and understanding this group of people.
I can say that I’m fortunate enough to have never experienced racism in Canada, or at least, I haven’t been aware of it. However, Hernandez-Ramdwar believes that once you’re racialized in this country, you’re going to be experiencing some form of racism.
“It’s so important to understand your roots if you’re Caribbean,” she says. “It’s crucial to understanding the racism you’re experiencing.”
I feel it’s important that Caribbean people have their voices heard and are able to distinguish themselves as a unique and complex group that deserve to be recognized as such. This is not a case of one versus the other, but rather a highlight of the individuality of each social group’s experiences. The only way to avoid misunderstanding or prejudice is to inform and enlighten members of the community who are unaware.
So this Black History Month — and every month afterwards — we should try to remember the history of all black people around the world. Hernandez-Ramdwar said that if we’re going to learn black history, we need to learn everyone’s history.
“If you’re born black in Canada of Caribbean background and you don’t learn anything about it, you’re lost,” she says. “You need to know your legacy.”