Two days ago, it was the UN International Day of Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We wanted to share an article written by our Co-Founder, Anne-Sophie, which originally published in French in La Presse on December 5, 2020 about a Kenyan women now living and working in Montreal.
“I can’t breathe”, repeated George Floyd only a few months ago. After this event, I thought to myself that as a society, we needed to do better and listen to each other more. And that it included me.
I started by reading. The books ‘White Fragility’ and ‘So You Want to Talk About Race’ were eye-opening about the challenges people of color face and how white individuals have influenced some of these dynamics.
And I wanted to do more.
So I contacted Lucie – fictitious name used to maintain her anonymity –, a Kenyan black woman who has been studying and living in Montreal for many years. I had met Lucie about a year ago and was instantly seduced by her vibrant personality, resilience and generosity. I wanted to hear her perspective on racism.
Her answers totally surprised me.
“Even black people are racist”, was one of her first comments. Through our conversation, I came to understand that her experience as a black African English-speaking woman living in Montreal was about so much more than racism. It was about her many identities and how she walks into the world with all facets of who she is.
Yes, we did end up talking about her experience as a person of color, because that is an important part of her identity. She has experienced racism, like people touching her hair on the street without asking, hiring her only to show diversity or restaurants washing the toilets after she had gone.
But throughout our conversation, I realized that her Eastern African roots are probably even more important to her. Coming to Montreal wasn’t easy and she often felt misunderstood. Some of her teachers in Quebec told her that her art looked too “ethnic”, often said negatively. Some also commented on her work being ‘not perfect yet’, whereas the concept of ‘reaching perfection’ does not exist in Kenyan culture. She was perceived as cold because Kenyans are raised to be extremely polite and formal while Westerners tend to “wear their emotions on their sleeves”, as Lucie would say. She has had people tell her that she runs fast on the sole basis that she is African. And the list goes on.
She likes when people ask questions. Then, it becomes a conversation she can engage in rather than be the victim of stereotypes.
Lucie also speaks highly of her woman identity. As a Nilote, one of the Kenyan tribes, she was raised with a warrior mentality. She is proud of being a Kenyan woman, which she describes as strong and independent, having both a job and a family, in contrast to North American women who “sometimes feel they have to fit into a particular gender role”, says Lucie. It was interesting to hear her perspective considering I had a different interpretation when I worked in Kenya. I saw Kenyan women run the entire household and work to sustain the family, not always by choice.
Our perceptions are tainted by where we come from.
What was more surprising to me is that she didn’t appear bothered by the discrimination. “It’s just not part of my personal history”, she says.
The history of blacks and whites, primarily in the United States, is united in an unfair hierarchy. As we look to make the society more equal, whites’ identity is threatened whereas blacks are left to define theirs. “Black Americans, apart from the color of their skin, have nothing African about them.” It was interesting to notice that she used the words ‘Black Americans’ instead of ‘African Americans’.
“Discrimination stems from insecurity”, Lucie repeated. According to her, French Canadians exhibit less discriminatory behavior than other groups because they have fought for their culture and know who they are.
As I was speaking with Lucie, I had just finished a chapter of Jacqueline Novogratz’s book ‘Manifesto for a Moral Revolution’ in which she explains that “recognizing that people carry myriad identities within themselves is a crucial step toward navigating difference in an interdependent world”. Reducing ourselves to white or black can be harmful because it divides our societies into us and them.
Lucie and I are quite different. But we’re also both young educated women, who love playing sports and share many of the same values. Our multiple identities are what make us unique, yet they are also what make us similar.
Check out more of articles in our blog.