Black In The 519

blackinthe519-notitleI’ve lived in Small Town*, Ontario my whole life. Although certain things are happening now that make me feel hopeful, there are a few aspects of life here that get on my nerves. I’m one of the displaced: A person of colour who has struggled to make peace with life in a non-diverse part of Canada.

In the past, our town’s lack of diversity has driven me nuts.

Although certain changes are making things about living here more enjoyable, I can’t help but feel as though something’s missing.

Just the other day I was talking to someone who works here but lives out of town. They asked me what Small Town is like. “It’s quiet.” I cautioned. As I walked away, I wondered what I was thinking. Was “quiet” some sort of euphemism for “white”?

I’ll be honest. Ideally, I think a person should love where they live, but I’ve struggled. I realize that my lack of social interaction is my own fault. Yet in some ways, being here has been challenging.

ORIGINS

Once I was old enough to know where I was born, I figured it was a mistake. A horrible, horrible mistake. My parents immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean (Barbados and Trinidad) before I was born. They settled in the GTA and pursued their education. Eventually, my father got a job out of town. He was hired locally to work as an elementary school teacher.

Thus began Mom and Dad’s exodus from paradise. They settled in Small Town in the 70s. My mother and I have been here ever since. All along, it’s been hard not to notice the disconnect between us and our surroundings. Growing up, I used to wish my parents had fought harder to stay in Toronto.

SIGHTINGS

If I’ve made my town sound like a gigantic washroom with a Whites Only sign out front, I should apologize. That isn’t my intention. I remember one Black woman and her family used to live on a street near our house. They moved away several years ago.

Overall, my town’s lack of diversity is a major factor in the reason I’ve tried, repeatedly to make my escape. However my attempts have proven to be unsuccessful. The only place I can really imagine settling is Toronto, and that city is ex-PEN-sive with a capital E.

Meanwhile, since I fist graduated from university, I’ve begun to notice the occasional person of colour in town.

A few years ago I was taking music lessons. One day as I was leaving, Mrs. Music Teacher’s husband came home. When I saw him, I was stunned. Mr. Music Teacher was a Black man!

You know that moment when you’re shocked by someone but you don’t want to stare because that would be rude? Yeah. That’s what happened.

“How long have you been here?” He answered, and I’m ashamed to admit that I could barely believe him. If Mr. Music Teacher had, as he claimed, been here for years, why hadn’t I seen him before?

There’s a Latino family in my neighbourhood. A few days ago I saw a hijabi near downtown. Every time I see a person of colour in town, I feel a twinge of hope mixed with sorrow and curiosity.

Things started to really hit me though when I first saw a Black student at the grocery store about a year ago. She was with a friend. I couldn’t help but wonder what life was like for her here in town.

Was she like me—ever-conscious of the fact that she was an “only”—apart from her family, the only Black person around for miles? I couldn’t help but wonder if like me, she planned on leaving as soon as she was old enough to do so?

Well actually, that’s a lie.

I saw two other Black teenagers a few nights ago when I went to McDonalds. Once again, I wondered what their life was like. Have they been here for a while? Were they ever teased when they were younger, like I was?

THE MEETING

One reason I don’t like to venture out and about is that there’s a 50% chance that I’ll feel unwelcome. (Living here, I notice that either people don’t care less, or they seem to be genuinely bothered by diversity.)

A few years ago there was a public meeting on the county’s future. I moseyed over and sat towards the outer edge of the room. As usual, the speakers seemed concerned about preserving our county’s heritage. However that heritage has involved agriculture and manufacturing—industries that offer no options for those whose talents lie elsewhere.

At one point in the evening one speaker got up to speak about what he didn’t want to see unfolding in our town. Every now and then Toronto had been mentioned as a point of contrast. Comparisons to the city can be a sore point for a lot of people. We see its flaws spelled out in living colour on the evening news—poverty, crime, and carding. Yet something about the place keeps drawing people in. There’s a whole generation of Small Towners that don’t live here. I’d be willing to bet my life that the majority of them are in a larger city.

Why resent Toronto? What draws people to it? Diversity. Racial diversity, cultural diversity, diversity of thought, religion—you name it! In the city, opportunities to learn from a variety of human beings are endless. It’s inspiring to be in such a place.

I remember during the meeting, the townspeople were given the chance to speak. One of them was a middle-aged man. From what I can recall, he only seemed to have one intention—to complain about what he didn’t want Small Town to turn into. I cannot remember the details of what he said, however he spoke negatively of life in the city. I asked him to elaborate and specify exactly what it was about being in Toronto that was so offensive to his sensibilities. I was standing right behind him. When I asked him to clarify his points regarding the aspects of urban living that he didn’t like, his reaction didn’t go unnoticed. My request was met with silence.

I couldn’t help but wonder why. How hard would it have been to say that he didn’t like the crime or the crowds or the stench of overpriced real estate? Instead, he said nothing. That confirmed exactly what I’d feared about some of the people who live here. Whatever it was that offended this man about city living was likely something that wasn’t truly problematic, yet only got on certain folks’ nerves. Needless to say, my mind went straight to diversity. It’s the most obvious difference between life here and elsewhere.

In the week after this forum, I’ll never forget the way the press responded. A reporter from The Small Town Herald was there that night. He made it sound as though the man I’m referring to was genuinely concerned about condo developments over-saturating the town’s skyline. However, I was there. And as I said, his silence over a simple question spoke volumes.

My attendance at that meeting also made me self-conscious and want to assert myself. As one of very few people of colour, in town I almost think I should wear a t-shirt that says, ”I belong here!!”

In fact, while I was there, I wanted to stand up and launch into a soliloquy: “How long have I been here? Since there was a Calbeck’s and IGA!” These are both old grocery stores that were in town during the 70s and 80s, when I grew up. At that point, I would have gone on. “One of the ladies who retired from working at Sobeys has seen me shop with my mother since I was a child!” I might have looked strange, but it would have felt good to say something.

THE COMMERCIAL

Do you know those commercials by the Dairy Farmers of Canada featuring Canadian towns that share names with European cities? We have one. It’s been interesting watching it evolve. At first I was surprised and delighted…And even a bit confused.

It was obvious to me that it was produced by people who aren’t from the area. The first time I saw the advertisement and the announcer said, “This…Is Small Town…” I was stunned. It actually looked diverse. At one point there was a woman in it who had a gorgeous afro. Jokingly, I looked at my mom and said, ”Who in [this place] would have an afro, except for me?”

However, my surprise and delight was short-lived. The last several times I saw the commercial, I noticed something. It seemed as though all signs of diversity, aka actors of colour, have been edited out of existence. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. To me, although these changes were technically accurate, because Small Town isn’t exactly a melting pot…They were somehow wrong.

They also made me wonder about my family’s lack of a local footprint. If only a few people in town remember us, and they pass on over the next few decades, were we ever really here in the first place?

 

*The place where I live has a name. However I think my theme’s fairly universal.

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