Live from the 3.5, 2020 #5 — The Trouble with Tokenism: No, I’m NOT What You Expected.

Tokenism.

One of those things the Black community doesn’t talk about nearly enough, tokenism is what happens when someone’s in a group where everyone else is completely unlike them.

Much of my life had me as the token Black guy, navigating spaces unfamiliar to me again and again as I defined my identity. Black Canadians make up 3.5% of the population now, but there were even fewer of us around in the ’80s and ’90s. You rarely saw Black faces not already connected to your parents from their ties back home. Over in the suburb of Mississauga, Ontario, I could go to school near one of its few Black neighbourhoods, and there were still only three of us in my French immersion class.

Live from the 3.5, 2020 5 The Trouble with Tokenism — No, I'm NOT What You Expected — Young Casey Palmer Trying to Look Mean
Even a young Casey thought he had to fit a certain mould….

Fact is, I didn’t understand how differently my parents were looking to do things.

The thing is… you don’t really know that you’re Black as a kid till someone points it out for you.

And I don’t just mean your skin colour—it only takes one look in the mirror to tell you that—but how you come off to everyone else as a Black person, with someone always willing to call you to account if they don’t think you measure up.

Too “White” for the 3.5%, too Black for the rest. This is Casey Palmer’s Trouble with Tokenism, and it all started with one little test.

What’s The Trouble With Tokenism?

“And every Black ‘You’re not Black enough’
Is a White ‘You’re all the same'”

— Childish Gambino, “That Power”, Camp (2011)

One of the problems with being Black in Canada is that we’re often grossly underestimated—that our economic, social and situational disadvantages are somehow due to a lack of intelligence instead of a lack of opportunity.

When I was six, my Mom wanted me tested for gifted education, thinking me capable of more than what my school offered. And so she did what any concerned parents would do and asked the school board to make the arrangements to make it happen.

And they refused. They thought my shows of intelligence little more than a phase I’d outgrow if they gave it a little time. But my Mom wasn’t one to takes things lying down, fighting them until they let me take it, doing better on it than anyone on the board expected.

But that just might be part of the reason why I wouldn’t see many Black faces for the next ten years—in a country that didn’t expect much of us, it took a lot just to get through the front door.

I was lucky, though, to have a mother who believed in me even when others wouldn’t—to have me rise to the challenge even when others thought I didn’t belong.

I just wish I understood all that sooner.

Live from the 3.5 2020, #4 — Canada’s Dance with Diversity (A Toronto Does Not a Canada MAKE.)

“Why’s your skin so dark?”

— an eight-year-old boy from small town Ontario at the Canadian National Comic Book Exposition, 2003.

When a little White boy asked me why my skin was so dark at my comic con table, I wasn’t ready for it at all. As a Mississauga kid, I knew diversity. I knew a public aware of all the races, never dreaming of a situation where people wouldn’t know about people who didn’t look like them.

But that also meant that I grew up in a bubble, thinking the Greater Toronto Area a reflection of how things worked across the country instead of seeing it for what it is—one big Canadian anomaly.

Many Torontonians make the same mistake (after all, being steps away from an international airport makes cheap trips to the Caribbean far more alluring than costly domestic travel), but I wanted to show my kids more of the country than I’d ever seen myself. In those journeys, I realised something:

This country is white as hell.

And, Toronto? This might come as a shock to you.

Yes, we have Black people in Canada. No, they’re not LOST.

Embed from Getty Images

For a long time, people were surprised we have Black people in Canada, sure it was a country full of White people living in igloos and travelling by dogsled through a wintry tundra.

And they weren’t entirely wrong.

But before Drake came along and showed the world a different side of what a Canadian looked like, there were always Canadians who’d run online to our country’s defence, telling everyone that they’d be stunned if they knew how diverse our country was. We have representation from every corner of the world. Canada embraces people and weaves them into a cultural mosaic instead of having them assimilate as the United States does.

And their hearts were in the right place—if you look at our urban centres like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, this is indeed the case, as vast proportions of our BIPOC population calls urban Canada home. But it doesn’t take much travelling outside of those metropolitan hubs to understand just how homogeneous the rest of our country is.

Live from the 3.5 2020, #3 — Examining Blackness.

When I started this project, it had a straightforward premise—to let Black Canadians share their stories, seldom seen in our history books.

And that worked at first—interviewing my fellow creators and weaving our stories together into something everyone could understand—but what I didn’t realise was how much I’d learn from them, the breadth of our experiences slowly reshaping the way I think.

In the beginning, I worried about the perception—how others would view my brand if my work grew too serious. But the deeper I dug, the less I toed the line—I wrote and wrote and wrote again until I had but one deceptively simple question:

What is Blackness, exactly?

The Quest for Blackness.

Live from the 3.5 2020, #3 — Examining Blackness. — Black Self-Reflection
Source | Photo by jurien huggins on Unsplash

“You made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”

— Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between Me and the World (2015)

Blackness. What is Blackness? What is this thing we know is flowing through our veins, making us a little different from most of the world around us even if we can’t quite define it ourselves?

To most people, Blackness is just a label. It’s the thing that defines a people darker than themselves, a people connected to basketball, hip-hop and Spike Lee joints. They might not ever stop to think about it, but what so many see is just what’s on the surface, not understanding everything underneath, because they’ve never had to live it.

But what of the 3.5% of us who do? For us, it could be anything. Where you come from. How you think. It’s a web of traditions, experiences and unwritten rules, continually shifting but ever-present in a world that sees us as different. But with the discrimination, dehumanisation and just plain racism that happens every day, sometimes the Blackness is all that we’ve got. And though we’d like to think this couldn’t possibly be true and that anti-Black behaviour is a thing of the past, it only takes a little digging to find a story with a very different take on the matter.

The Difference Between Black History in Canada and the US is That There’s Very Little Difference at All….

Live from the 3.5, 2020 #2 — Do We Even NEED a Black History Month?

Angry White Person: “Why isn’t there a White History Month???”

Me: “Because that’s ‘history class’.”

If you ask those who believe we live in a post-racial world, things look a little like this:

Racism is over. Everyone’s equal. We know the evils that men do and teach our children not to become them. We’re in a respect-first culture with everybody dedicated to the cause—segregation, ostracisation and blaxploitation are things of the past. Blackface is extinct, Black people can be anything, and we have the same fighting chance that everybody does, so the day for a Black History Month’s long behind us.

Which would be nice if it were the case, but if you’ve chatted with a Black person for five minutes or more, you’ll know that the reality we see paints a very different picture.

The Bother with Black History Month

Now—Black History Month is a tricky subject for a group of people whose histories come from wildly different directions. Black people who’ve been here for centuries, the descendants of slaves both freed and not. Those who made their way here as legal discrimination slowly dissolved in the decades following World War II. As metropolitan Canada became more diverse, our Black identity did, too, and now we find ourselves with a history that’s not so easy to distil down to just one thing.

But despite the fluidity found in Black culture and how much the very idea of Blackness can differ from person to person, there’s a shared narrative that we’re trying to share with everyone else…. if only they’re willing to hear it.

Experiences show us otherwise, though, with teenagers making racist jokes just outside of our nation’s capital and schools trying to replace Black History Month with “Diversity Month” as if all members of the BIPOC community are the same. (BIPOC = Black/Indigenous/People of Colour.)

As a Black person, it can often feel like your history and your very identity is regularly stepped on, and Black History Month is that one month in the year where everyone finally stops to listen, so we need to make the biggest impact we can.

But it’s not that simple.

It’s Black History Month, but WHICH Blacks and Whose HISTORY?

Live from the 3.5, 2020 2 — Do We Even NEED a Black History Month — Black Women Saluting Black Power v2
Source | CreateHERStock

As I said before, with a community made up of over two hundred different ethnic and cultural origins, things aren’t cut and dry. And just as our Blackness shouldn’t be just one thing for those from the outside looking in, it also means we’re not always on the same page within the community, either.

The sentiment of Black History Month is nice, but some feel it can be lacking in execution, with some alternative approaches to our twenty-five-year-old tradition that might make it better.

So—which way do we go? Do we stick with the Black History Month we already know and work to make it better, or do we fight for an approach that could transform it into something else entirely?

That, my friends, is what we’re looking to figure out in Live from the 3.5 #2: Do We Even Need a Black History Month?

Live from the 3.5, 2020 — INTRO: Back to Black.

“When we talk about black maybe
We talk about situations
Of people of color and because you are that color
You endure obstacles and opposition
And not all the time from… from other nationalities
Sometimes it come from your own kind
Or maybe even your own mind
You get judged..you get laughed at… you get looked at wrong
You get sighted for not being strong
The struggle of just being you
The struggle of just being us… black maybe”

— Common, “U, Black Maybe”, Finding Forever (2007)

So here we are in the twenty-fifth Canadian Black History Month since the Honourable Jean Augustine made it official back in December ’95.

And we’ve grown—while not everyone agrees with the need for a Black History Month, it brought much more discussion to the forefront.

That said, we still struggle to find our home online.

After all, just because it’s Black History Month doesn’t mean we fix our gazes firmly in the past. Yes, the notable moments and achievements in Black Canadian history need to become part of our daily discussion instead of examining it once a day… but where do we go from there?

Live from the 3.5, 2019 — Chapter 1: What IS Blackness, Exactly?

Am I Black enough?”

Blackness — More than just Melanin

Those who’ve followed my podcast Chatting with Casey from its very first episode know that this isn’t the first time I’ve asked this question.

If you considered the archetypal Black man you know from popular media—rocking an oversized hoodie; listening to rap music full-blast; and having a deep affection for curvaceous women, basketball and ballin’ outta control—not only would you fail to capture what my Blackness means to me, but you’d entirely miss the point of why we’re doing this in the first place.

What IS Blackness, Exactly — Black_Canadians_at_Queens_Park
Group of Blades at Queens Park | Source

Every Black person I know has had to come to terms with what Blackness means to them in their own way. There’s no unifying guide to being Black like what the Bible does for Christianity or the Quran for the Muslim faith. We use it as an identifier for our culture, but Black literature could mean books from the Congo to St. Vincent and back. It’s an oft-debated and loosely defined term, but we all understand what we mean when we say it.

Live from the 3.5, 2019: Intro — Being Black in Canada

Black culture is unique—one of the few cultures thrust upon a people and not developed by them. A Jamaican is not a Gambian is not an Australian Aborigine. We’ve got tribes within tribes and languages within languages but somehow lumped together by the colour of our skin.

And we’ve made the best of it. From Canada’s first Negro History Week in 1926 to officially recognising Black History Month in 1995 thanks to the help of the Honourable Jean Augustine, we’ve celebrated our Blackness and looked to remind the world that we’re not just one thing.

But it hasn’t been easy, with “Black Canadian” conjuring up images of The Weeknd or Drake and not so much Cameron Bailey or Michaëlle Jean. You hear about Black Canadians on February 1st, but where do they go for the rest of the year?

And that’s why I’m here working on Live from the 3.5—because if we don’t invest the time to own our stories, who will?

UP NEXT: Live from the 3.5, 2019—My Biggest and Best Black History Month Project YET.

We’re halfway through January, and before you know it February will be up close and personal and with it, all the stories of Black history we’ve waited a year to share.

Black History Month is Back Again!

That’s not entirely true—Black people are sharing their stories all the time, but is the world ready to listen? Our culture stretches to every corner of society—those flaunting their wealth on social media and in music videos. Or those seeking separation instead of assimilation as the best way to preserve ourselves. If you’re anything like me, that culture involves a little too much code-switching—trying to find our place by working with the rules of our non-Black environments instead of fighting against them and staying true to ourselves. The world gives us a number of ways to learn each others’ stories—I found The Hate U Give as a recent example, showing that no matter how much you try riding the line, the world will try its hardest to tell you who you are.

(The Hate U Give was released on Blu-ray™ and DVD on Jan 22nd if you want to check it out for yourself!)

But that’s not the only story we have to share, and that’s why I work on Live from the 3.5 every February to tell even more.

Live from the 3.5 — Telling the Stories of Black Canadian Culture

UP NEXT — Live from the 3.5, 2019—My Biggest and Best Black History Month Project YET. — Casey on TV for Black History Month

If you’re unfamiliar with my work, I’ve been running month-long projects for Black History Month, usually either interviewing other Black Canadians to hear their stories or discussing topics that affect us all regardless of our heritage, language or beliefs. I wasn’t able to put it out last year due to some scheduling conflicts, so I’m doubling down this year to get it done right.

While past years have been almost entirely in written form, this year I want to do a better job of appreciating the oral tradition deeply rooted in our history and spend some time creating podcasts for the things I’ll be discussing this February. If you have a computer microphone or a landline phone and feel compelled to spend 10-15 minutes chatting on any of the topics below, do let me know. February’s around the corner, and I’d love to start locking the recordings in sooner than later. With anyone who participates, I’ll include a photo, mini-bio and the most relevant links that tell us what you do! If you have a computer mic or landline phone, we can make it work.

Live from the 3.5 — February’s Over, But We’re STILL BLACK.

When you’re a one-man operation trying to put out a series for Black History Month, there are some things you might not want to do with your February, like:

  1. Hit up a Dad Summit in New Orleans to make dozens of new friends and better understand all the possible ways to be a great Dad,
  2. Take a trip out to Kelowna, BC to keynote a parenting conference and change others’ thinking on what fatherhood means in 2018, and
  3. Think it’s a good idea to take on such an ambitious creative project when it’s the financial year-end at your 9-5… and you’re in charge of keeping the numbers balanced.

But for those of you keeping score at home, that was my situation exactly this February, and though I got a bit of content out in its last few days, there was still so much I could do to move the needle.

Because after all—we’d danced this dance before. The dance we danced every February, schedules packed with dinners, discussions and dialogues as we revel in the attention everyone’s giving us… but what then? What happens when Black History Month’s over and we’re back to our regular lives, the Black Canadian narrative nothing more than a side note to everything else going on? I’m sorry, but as a Black Canadian myself, I’m still Black full-time well after February ends. I’ll celebrate other aspects of who I am as the year goes on from fatherhood to masculinity and back… but what says I should hold back from celebrating my Blackness just because it’s not the month where everyone else is doing it too?

And that’s why I’m thinking… maybe it’s time I tell some Black Canadian stories beyond the work I do each February.

Live from the 3.5 — Fix Up, Look Sharp — Why Fashion’s So Central to the Black Canadian Experience

If Black people aren’t some of the most fashionable people on the planet, I don’t know who are!

Live from the 3.5 — Fix Up, Look Sharp — Why Fashion's So Central to the Black Canadian Experience — Klaxon Howl Fashion Show

Growing up, my mother was always adamant that my brothers and I dressed our best to head out the door. As I liked to say, she’d dress up to get the paper from the front step. It took a while for that lesson to take hold in my mind, but as a man and now as a parent myself, it’s important to me to represent, making sure people know I came from a solid upbringing.

No matter what kind of Black person you are, I’d argue you see clothes as a direct reflection of yourself. Businesspeople. Gang members. Ballplayers and fashionistas. It’s the colours, the cut, the brand names and more—it’s completely woven into our culture with mentions in our music, movies, magazines and more… we are what we wear, and Black people rarely shy away from that!

It’s especially important for me as a Black Dad—we gain this reputation as slobs once we enter this phase of our lives, so focused on raising our kids that we don’t spend any time on ourselves. I’m looking to fight against that amidst a wardrobe of tailored suits, polished shoes and three-quarter length coats in the winter.

As Mark Twain once said—”Clothes make the man.”