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?