In my first interview on Black in the Maritimes I touched briefly on how my upbringing was ‘whitewashed’, which was also mentioned when we interviewed the lovely Taylor McNallie who had a similar upbringing to mine. For those who are unaware, I felt I should really dive into what a ‘whitewashed’ upbringing is like.
What I mean by saying my upbringing was ‘whitewashed’ is that nothing about the culture or community around me was Black in anyway. As I said in my last blog, my mother was white and with my Black father being absent she raised me with only her culture, customs and values. My mother is a proud Acadian woman, who taught me a few key recipes and ensured I was educated bilingually. Other than that, I was surrounded by pop culture 24/7. My mom had the TV on from the moment she woke up until she went to sleep. I don’t think my mother ever thought about the lack of representation for black people on TV. My mom just watched what she wanted, in the house she paid rent in, because she found the shows funny. I grew up with Rugrats, Hey! Arnold, Dexter’s Lab, Spongebob and other cartoons. Mid-afternoon until late night my mom watched Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You and other sitcoms until it was time for the news or Dateline and then we went to bed. I don’t think I ever pointed out that none of the kids or characters looked like me. I was often playing games and not paying attention to what was on TV, so neither my mother nor I ever thought about how the lack of black characters would affect me. I remember actively only wanting white baby dolls. I didn’t want a doll that looked like me, I wanted dolls that matched what everyone else had, which were the white Barbies, Bratz or Polly Pockets. I never made black Sims characters either.
Slowly my desire to appear as white as possible grew. My hairdresser from a young age only cut my hair into a small little afro and I hated it with a passion. My mom didn’t know how to style black hair and at over 40 years old she didn’t want to learn. I was stuck with this afro, watching the white girls have ponytails and braids and buns until grade 7 when I decided to get my hair chemically straightened. For a decade I continued damaging my hair unknowingly with hopes I would be more like the white girls in my class.
Throughout all of this I never felt embarrassed for my lack of knowledge or lack of understanding about the black side of my culture. I understood that my mom did not have the means to educate me fully on my Blackness and I felt it would almost be a betrayal to her, as a single mom, to start researching factoids about my absent father’s culture. With this strong dislike for my father came a strong dislike for Black men. I did not fear them, but I had no interest in them. I found them to be more confident and assertive than white men, which I found to be intimidating and the smallest resemblance to my father (only their skin tone) made me want nothing to do with them because of my internalized hatred toward him. As I said on the podcast, I had no desire to learn about my blackness and only wanted to be perceived as interesting in comparison to my white peers but not actually different from them either.
As I’ve previously stated, some of this was the fault of my mother, some of this was being surrounded by a white neighbourhood (which I outlined in last week’s blog) and some was because I was surrounded by white pop culture. It wasn’t until the age of 24 that I started trying to explore and own my Blackness. As my relationship with my father grew, I found myself trying to understand more about braids, weave, hair products, learning recipes, asking questions about my family tree. I didn’t expect to move in with my father and get to learn about my Blackness firsthand. I didn’t think I’d ever ask my brothers about their experiences being racially profiled, get my hair braided, call my grandmother every weekend. Both the culture and the community I now have are gifts that I try not to take for granted. But it’s easy to understand why people would rather be whitewashed and comfortable assimilating to the community they are surrounded by, rather than go against the grain and be more ‘other’. As someone who had already been called racist slurs, bullied for being different, why would I feed those bullies more fuel by wearing Senegalese garb, or getting Bantu knots.
As a Black person without community, I wanted to just fit in and disappear and be like everyone else, and I am now understanding how important it is to be loud and proud about every facet of who you are. As a proud Black and Acadian woman, I want everyone to know the struggles of both parts of my identity and how hard those people worked to get us here so that I could even write on a blog like this today. Blending into society is how people erase you and your kind.