An interesting part of Tales from the 2.9 is the interesting people my (potential) contributors introduce me to as we go. I’m not so ignorant to believe that Black Canadian narratives exist in Toronto alone—no matter HOW much we consider ourselves the centre of the universe—so I need the help of others to build bridges with those who live farther away than a few subway stops or so.
One of these people is Rhonda Thompson(-Wilson) of Winnipeg, Manitoba, someone Natalie introduced me to when writing the series up last year. And ever since then I’ve seen her passion for Black culture, going as far as to run a series of events each year for Black History Month—a tradition currently in its 36th year running with no signs of stopping!
In her entry, Rhonda takes the opportunity to examine her life as a Black Canadian at multiple points in time from her childhood days where the few Black families in Winnipeg still felt quite connected, to present day, where she still faces overt racism in an age where we swear it’s over.
If you want an interesting story with plenty of insight, search no further—Rhonda’s thoughts will put you in her shoes, possibly bringing you one step closer to understanding what life can be like as one of the 2.9%!
Enjoy the read!
What does being Black Canadian mean to you?
I knew I was Black and born in Canada, but when I was younger and anyone asked me “Where are you from”, I always felt like I had to tell them that my family was from Jamaica. Most times when I was asked the “Where are you from” question, it was followed up with, “No, where are you FROM?” because the assumption was that Black people were not Canadian by birth, not at that time anyways. I related much more with my Caribbean linkage then with the country of my birth. Even to this day, I still find myself giving more significance to my parent’s homeland than to my own.
Living in a larger Canadian city, we are blessed with a large Black population (relative to many smaller cities/towns) so we are afforded the opportunity to feel at ease and congregate with others from a similar cultural background and share stories of the racial tensions we face as a people. Sadly, not all Black Canadians have that privilege.
What’s your experience been like as a Black Canadian and how has it shaped who you are today?
I have experienced many highs and lows surrounding my skin colour within my life. A lot of my time (outside of school) was spent with other children from Caribbean homes. My parents still share stories of how close the Black Community was back in the late 70s and 80s. I learned very early on to love the skin I was in, but as I got older, I was definitely tested by others to conform whether it was to straighten my hair or dress a particular way.
Proverbs 22:6 says: Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. It rings true that those that are introduced to their culture from early on, tend to grow in and because of it. Having a sense of self and what I was born out of, gave me the confidence to tackle adversity and struggles. When questioned about my uniqueness, I did not cower or feel the need to downplay it, I accepted that I was different than most of my classmates/co-workers, and welcomed the chance to recognize this and share things that others may not have been aware of.
Funny thing is that I did not experience a definitive personal example of racism until quite recently.
I was shopping for items for a Black History Month event and went into a well-known grocery retailer and went to collect an order from their bakery department. I went to the counter and spotted the employee cleaning near the back of the department. She glanced quickly over her shoulder in my direction and then continued her task. I waited a few minutes during which time, another customer joined me to await service. A few more minutes go back and the other customer politely called to the employee. She glanced once again and saw more than one person waiting so she came over and went immediately to the other customer. The customer advised her that I had been waiting longer so she sighed and came over to me.
I was given such a hard time to merely pick up some items that the other customer kept close and observed every interaction. The kicker came when the employee proceeds to tell me that I was not allowed to touch the bakery rack that the packages were on because “we put food on that”. The SAME RACK that the public is usually able to just grab products from AND she herself had no gloves on. Long story short, a fellow committee member realised how upset I was upon delivering the items that she herself went back to the store to advise the Store Manager and he expressed that another customer had just made him aware of what occurred and to date, we are still awaiting an actual apology.
I did not endure anything physical yet that experience was so troubling to me and at that moment, I could not imagine what Blacks went through in the past when these actions were clear and generally acceptable. I thank the other customer and my fellow committee member Nadia that stood up for me that day when I could not form the words to express my disappointment.
What’s something you’d like to see more of within the Black Canadian community?
Unity and support for one another would allow our voice to be heard, for our struggles to be identified and corrected. When I think of my ancestry, I envision villages and congregations of people working together for a greater good. I picture elders sharing stories of achievements and adversity, leaving seeds of growth and an urge to do better within in the minds of the young ones. It is something that we are recognising more from within and as more of us make Canada our home, the inner divides will be lessened solely based on the fact that we can easily interact with each other and learn from one another.
For YEARS, people thought I was from East Africa – Ethiopia or Somalia, some going right into a conversation in their native tongue only to be met my confused yet fascinated look and follow-up explanation on my background. I don’t get that as much anymore but what I miss is the excitement that was felt within the interaction with a total stranger that believed that we had things in common. We need to remind ourselves that we are of the same bloodline and as such, are connected and need to make more effort to encourage and support each other like the brothers and sisters we are!
What do you think those outside the Black Canadian community need to better understand to coexist with Black Canadians in a respectful and considerate way?
Members of the broader community may not understand how diverse we are as Black people. Our skin tone can often be our only commonality. Among us, our language, food, music, attire is so varied and equally beautiful, that those within even have a tough time keeping track! It always astounds me to think of the rich cultures of our Motherland, with well over 1000 languages and the basis for most other genres of music. Or how in the Caribbean, islands have tasty national dishes unique to them and yet on the surface, you usually cannot tell what region a person is from.
Back in the day, on the streets of Winnipeg, the majority of the Black people were from the Caribbean, many related, and if not, were only 1 or 2 degrees of separation from each other. When we saw each other on the street, there was always an exchange of some sort to the point where I knew I would get asked “Do you know them,” and I would laugh and say “No”. To us, it was a sign of respect to acknowledge each other, and we knew that even if we didn’t know them personally, they were likely linked to us in some fashion.
I also think that those outside our community need to understand that Black people are raised to believe that they must always do more to gain the same. The premise may seem simplistic but consider generations of people that have been led to believe that their value is less of those around them. It does take a toll and so we do have remnants of that within us that spark resentment and anger. Many of us simply want to be treated as equals, to have our events and accomplishments be spotlighted as others or – no MORE, but no less.
Black History Month is the perfect example where organisations struggle to get the information out to people – mainstream media is uninterested, but when we rise up in numbers and take to the streets in a manner not deemed to be “pleasant”, the cameras are right there to capture it! Information on lesser known people and places… celebrations… resources on where people can learn more about how and why Canada is shaped in the way it is… these things need to be featured. The Indigenous community is facing the same struggle, to be heard, to correct false information that has been fed to us for generations.
If your life could teach but one thing to your fellow Black Canadians, what would it be?
In my lifetime, I have proudly witnessed barriers come down, and those given the toughest odds persevere in spite of it all. Because of what I have personally experienced, it organically became my passion to give back to the community that groomed me. We should make it a priority to pass on our stories, good and bad, to educate and enlighten others so that they are aware of what came before they did and we do not have to wait until late in life to do so. We are storytellers with golden nuggets to share, so we must VOICE OUT whenever the opportunity presents itself, and MAKE opportunities where none exist. Remember, ignorance breeds nothing good, so when others are curious about the differences within our greater human race, use the opportunity to educate!
We as a people must do better.
Rhonda Thompson(-Wilson) is an HR Professional, a singer/songwriter, and mentor. Thompson regularly donates her time to community organisations – from performing to financial consult to event facilitation, and is the Treasurer for Winnipeg’s Black History Month Celebration Committee) and Congress of Black Women of Manitoba). Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.