Ethiopianness, Africannness and Blackness in Canada

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A mom from the US posted this article on one of the Facebook groups I belong to, written by Kuukua Yomekpe about the invisible cloak of “Blackness” that people with dark skin or African heritage wear in the USA.

That was very very interesting and me ponder over my morning espresso. I wonder what journey my daughters will go through? I’ve thought about this topic many times before, about how we frame our daughters’ identities, since we have such a huge influence on them while they are still young. But what I haven’t thought about is rejecting or embracing the cloak that others see them wearing. I also wonder what that cloak looks like in Canada… We have such a different history, different demographics, etc. But then again, we share in much of the US media, so?…

When talking with the girls or about them (kids get just as much from overhearing conversations as they do discussions they are involved in…) we emphasize their Ethiopian-ness, but rarely African-ness, because I don’t want their identity generalized. Also, because Ethiopians don’t think of themselves as African… Not really. Now sometimes, there is a bit of cultural snobbery associated with this, but mostly it’s because Ethiopia has been a country for so long and has developed very distinct food, cultural practices, etc. distinct from its continental neighbours. I’m not saying this cultural assumption is right or wrong… But I still don’t want my kids’ Ethiopian culture lost in general Africanness.

We live in Canada, so certainly they’d aren’t African American… The Martin Luther King civil rights movement, the history of slavery, a Black president, etc. in the US has nothing to do with their heritage, and very little to do with any African Canadians in Western Canada. Yes of course, I know about the Underground Railroad and Canada’s slave history. But demographically and historically, that’s not part of the general Western Canadian African heritage.

Not to say that we are oblivious to the history of slaves, the railroad, and the African American experience. One of my daughters is named after a human rights activist at the time of Martin Luther King; we tell her context and story, and have books on these topics that we discuss. We want them to know about current culture and history too. But again, it’s not our daughters’ story. It’s not their heritage narrative.

All this said, “Blackness” is a narrative, a cloak, we see over and over again in (mostly US) media, and it will be a lens many peole will see my daughters through. Yomekpe writes about those “properties” of the cloak (jail, slavery, teenage mother, etc” that people often associate with Blackness in the USA. I am interested in is bridging her experience with this cloak to the Canadian experience with this cloak. We have different assumptions, or “cloak properties” (just borrowing her terms here) in Canada. We have different history, demographics, media, laws, etc.

I’ve talked to my Ethiopian friends and other African acquaintances about this several times, and I know the cloak is quite a bit different in Canada. It exists! of course. But I don’t know if I could articulate it. I think maybe I’ll frame it as this and ask friends as the occasion arrises in the weeks to some… “What does the cloak of Blackness look like in Canada? What are the properties of the cloak?”

But back to my daughters. They are Ethiopian (heritage,) African (geographical,) and Black (race.) I know what we emphasize now, but as they grow, will they reject the cloak of Blackness, because the “cloak properties” aren’t their heritage or story? Or maybe the Canadian cloak IS part of their narrative or heritage? Or will they claim it, because it becomes part of their experience, and they want to be empowered in the context many people see them in? I guess we’ll just have to see.

PS: the picture above is one I found on my ipad one day, after the above mentioned daughter got a hold of it. Little mischief maker…

6 thoughts on “Ethiopianness, Africannness and Blackness in Canada

  1. I love this post. We have often struggled here with what to teach our children about their ‘Blackness’. Although our kids have often been some of the few children of colour in the towns we have lived in they have usually been treated as celebrities instead of look down on. I realize though that as my boys turn into black teenagers that things may change. It is harder to define it in small town Western Canada though and also to figure out how things may be different in the city or when we travel to the States.

    • That’s a really interesting point about location too… I think our identities are very much shaped by place. But what about how others see people who are black? Do you think that cloak changes from place to place? Or are we so influenced by mass media that society’s impression of blackness is similar everywhere?

  2. any black person should always recognize their “blackness” or “african-ness” regardless of where they’re from. it’s unfortunate that all black people continuously separate themselves from their brothers and sisters.. as though we are so different.

    • Just a follow up… Your point about recognizing your blackness, no matter where you are from… Is that about solidarity? About shared identity? (I’m interested!)

      • I love that you’re open to learn about your little girls.. it’ll certainly be a journey! –and yes it definitely is about that for me. But as you’ve already witnessed, many black people separate themselves from other blacks. East Africans don’t want to be included with the West Africans, African Americans dont want to recognize their African blood, Africans don’t want to be put in the same box as African-Americans because we don’t have the same values. There’s a lot of damage with black people..

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