When I was two years old, my mom brought me to Highfield Square Mall on Main Street in Moncton, New Brunswick to get my first pair of big girl panties. Two white skinheads saw me and called me a “cute nigger baby”. My white mother first told me about this some five years later in an effort to prepare me for the difficult life the colour of my skin would apparently give me. At twelve years old, my mom begged me to read To Kill a Mockingbird, to further deepen my understanding that Black people have been and would continue to be wrongly persecuted until they unlearned their ignorance.
From Kindergarten to the beginning of grade ten I was the only Black person in my classes. In grade ten one Black male student joined, but was not in French Immersion like myself, so I had few classes with him. In these years, kids had said generally mean things, racist things I didn’t know how to characterize. I remember being called a “chocolate bar” and a teacher trying to defend that as a compliment, “Because chocolate is sweet.” This kid’s parents brought me homemade cookies to make me feel better, but it didn’t and later that year, the same child drew a swastika on my jumbo eraser. Looking back now I understand that this child was seeking attention; he was constantly causing trouble and I, being Black, being Other, was an easy target. That happened often. In grade six I let a group of kids take turns bouncing badminton rackets off of my afro to feel liked and included. I realized now that I allowed myself to be an easy target so that I could try to make friends because being Black is lonely, being Other is lonely, but being lightskinned was somehow lonelier.
What I’ve come to realize is by being a lightskinned girl, raised by a single white mother, I had no father figure, no Black community, and no pride for an entire part of my identity. I was completely whitewashed. In my lifetime I have spent thousands of dollars to try to get my hair as straight as the white girls I was raised around. I never wanted the Black baby dolls or Barbie dolls. I wanted to be like everyone around me and everything portrayed to me through media. But as much as I wanted to be white, I wasn’t. These kids were always going to see me as different and never understand any of the racism I was facing.
On the other side of the coin, I had no Black identity. I could not relate to having a dark complexion. I felt through school that while the kids teased me, it was never what they perceived to be full-out racist comments. I don’t think they knew how mean they were being, but it certainly wasn’t as racist as they were being to the other dark skin, African refugee students in my school, and yet I felt worse off then them. These beautiful Black students came to our schools, probably experiencing a culture shock I know nothing about, but they had each other. They had siblings, or other Black students from the same countries in different grades. I felt I could bring nothing to this conversation, and had no way of communicating with them. From grades one to twelve I was in French Immersion and these Black immigrant students were placed in the English stream because they already spoke French. I was too self conscious about my French to make an effort, and by that point I had disowned any part of my Blackness. I wanted to be like the white kids. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted no part of being Black, or their sense of community, so for years I felt extremely alone.
I do firmly believe that some of that loneliness is what contributed to my subsequent alcohol and drug abuse. I longed for connection to a point that I would do anything to be liked. Letting kids hit you on the head with rackets can quickly turn into buying shots for everyone at the bar so that they like you. Even as I started to make friends, I never felt I was liked enough. Those friendships weren’t enough at the time, and I was always worried they were never genuine. From the ages of 20 to 25 my mother’s declining health quickly took a turn for the worse. She became disabled first, and then developed dementia later. Her absence is what pushed me into drinking and drug use as a means to feel less alone. This continued throughout my university education, and as I moved from Moncton to Toronto.
It wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa and started spending time with the Black side of my family that I started coming to terms with my identity and accepting it. I felt like I was betraying my mom, because of her being a single parent, by even entertaining any part of my father’s heritage. But I believe she would rather I be happy and feel less alone then be her daughter only. I slowly started embracing my Black identity but moving in with my father before the pandemic really threw me into the culture at high speed. Again, I wanted these people to like me and I wanted to understand them. In the year that I’ve lived here I’ve gotten my hair braided twice, tried new cuisine, partaken in Ramadan and done countless things that I never would have considered as a child or teen.
I finally feel these two worlds that collided to create me are mending together and I am the better for it.
I’m Hillary, a 26-year-old biracial, bisexual, bilingual woman born in the Maritimes now working in Ontario. I am many things rolled into one, and I am happy to be writing for Black In The Maritimes.