Seeing Race Across the Border

When Canadians say that they don’t see race, a black American disagrees.

It’s another day in the University of Winnipeg’s LGBT* Center. The cozy basement room is filled with chatter. One group discusses the newest episode of Dr. Who while another discusses serious politics. I am in the small group discussing social issues in Canada. It is a great way for me to learn about different social issues than the ones that I grew up with in the United States.

My schoolmates tell me about the injustice of denying Canada’s Indigenous people rights to their land and robbing them of their culture. In turn, I describe some of the unfair experiences I have had as a black woman in the United States. I describe how African Americans and other minorities are more likely than whites to live in poverty and more likely to have many health problems.

One of my classmates shakes his head.

“That’s one thing I don’t understand about the United States. Their focus on race is ridiculous. I don’t see race when talk to someone and neither should anyone else.”

Not see race? Don’t believe it.

My heart clenches whenever I hear this line. Ever since I moved from the Twin Cities to Winnipeg in 2009 the statement “I don’t see race” has brought me more anxiety than comfort. Not see race? I don’t believe it. And I don’t want it.

Nationwide, only 2.5 percent of Canadians are black compared to 13.6 percent of Americans. Canada doesn’t have the awful history of slavery to deal with. It’s the place many escaped slaves who followed the Underground Railroad went to be free.

But Canada still has the scars of colonialism with its Indigenous population, who continue to fight for control of traditional land. There are still many Aboriginal people in Canada trying to keep their land or get it back. What’s more, I believe that Canadians’ reluctance to recognize and discuss racial differences makes it harder to heal them.

In Winnipeg, where I attend college, tensions are high between African refugees and Indigenous Canadians who are competing for the scarce resource of public housing.

According to Noëlle DePape, executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community of Manitoba, there is a lot of misunderstandings between the newcomers of Canada and African refugees, which leads to a lot of conflict, especially between the youth. There have been many reports of violence between the two groups and yet the local news does not highlight the racial division, and the conflict is unknown to the general public. I believe that ignoring race has simply made the conflict between the two groups harder to work out and resolve.

Not from around here

When people first meet me in Winnipeg, they assume I am from Canada. When I tell them I’m an international student they are puzzled. I don’t have an accent so I can’t be from an African country, can I?

When I say I’m from the United States, they are often confused: Why would a black person leave the United States to attend college in Canada? After I give them my reasons (cheaper schooling, international experience, etc.) I am drawn into conversations about American politics—especially how I think President Obama is doing. From politics, we move to social issues. I am always asked if Canada is less discriminatory than the United States.
I answer that I think that Canada simply has a different type of discrimination. Many Canadians ignore race but insist that the dominant culture’s ways are the ‘right way’ to do things.

For example, one thing I love about the black culture in the United States is that families tend to be very close-knit. It’s not uncommon to find two and even three generations very connected. My aunts and uncles are practically another set of parents to me. My cousins are like my other siblings. We always find time to be together, no matter what time of year it is, and I always have someone to go to when I need help.

But some of the traditional family studies I’ve read by Canadian and American scholars describe African American families like mine as “too enmeshed” and dysfunctional. A year-long course in family therapy and a lot of interviews with my family have convinced me that our strong connections are healthy and normal.

Seeing race to fight racism

One reason Canadians try so hard not to see race may be that it’s seen as an American thing. Canadians have an image of themselves as peacekeepers and more tolerant and equal-opportunity than the United States. I get this feeling that they don’t want to confront race-related problems because as long as they don’t have racial problems like the United States, they don’t have a problem at all.

By at least talking openly about race in the United States, we come one step closer to fighting this nasty thing called racism. You can’t stop people from thinking what they think, but part of fighting racism involves getting people to recognize their racist thoughts and working through them.

I don’t want people to ignore my race. Race is a part of my identity, just as much as being an American and being a woman is. Telling me that you don’t see my race is like telling me that you don’t see an important part of who I am.