A couple of years ago, I asked my family about their favourite books, and this is one of the books my sister Kate recommended. She sounded so passionate about it that I have had every intention of reading it ever since. Maybe it’s all the global conversations happening right now about race and discrimination, or maybe it was just the right time for me, but I finally picked it up.
Having been published in 2001, I was a little worried that it would feel outdated… but not at all. Because Hill’s approach comes from personal stories of himself and others he interviewed, the content felt just as fresh as it must have in 2001. And absolutely just as relevant.
Lawrence Hill talks about his family’s history and his own journey into claiming an identity for himself. He also interviewed other Canadians of mixed heritage and used many of their stories as well to help propel his narrative on the personal, the political, the historical, and the scientific angles of race and what it means to ourselves and to others.
The utter inadequacy of racial terminology plagues us to this day. Why? Because racial definitions themselves are meaningless.
Race, my friends, is a social construct. Our obsession with mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons, has nothing to do with science and everything to do with society.
There is no biological difference between black people and white people. One cannot use genetics to explain race. And since black and white people can’t be distinguished genetically, their children – whatever their mixtures – can’t be grouped into neat genetic categories either.
Hill’s family is fascinating to read about in and of itself. His parents were both civil rights activists, his mother white and his father black. They married in 1953 in the U.S., then moved to Canada (Toronto area) after they married, seeing it as a less threatening place to be an interracial couple. To give you perspective, their marriage took place 6 years before the marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving of Virginia, who are the subject of the movie Loving.
Growing up I was aware that Canada provided me with a little manoeuvring space that my American cousins did not have. For example, I didn’t have the weight of a legally sanctioned United States school system telling me that I had to attend this particular school because I was black. Unlike my cousins, I had at least some room to concoct my own identity, declare it, test it out, see how it flew out there in my world. This, I think, is what still defines Canada today for a mixed-race person. There is some wiggle room.
But, brothers and sisters, be warned. Canadians may let you wiggle occasionally, but you’re going to have to scratch and claw like mad to get anywhere discernibly new.
I am white with two white parents and three white siblings. But I also have two black siblings, which makes this subject both personal and fascinating to me. I didn’t realize how eye-opening this book would be, and know that I should have read it long ago. Reading about Lawrence Hill’s own experiences with discrimination, as well as from the people he interviewed made me wonder what my own siblings have experienced over the years that I don’t know about.
Our family is close- we still enjoy gathering together whenever we get a chance (and eating cake). And I think we’d all agree that our parents are the best! I have always felt like I knew my siblings pretty well. There are age differences and gender differences that make it hard to be close to everyone in the same way. But now I also know (and have had the opportunity to think about) that some of us have had more obstacles in life just because of skin colour.
My sister, Kate, has agreed to an interview based on questions that popped up for me while reading Black Berry, Sweet Juice. I’m grateful to Lawrence Hill (author of the wonderful The Book of Negroes) for writing this book and giving me the opportunity to get to know some of my siblings even better.
Kate decided she wanted to answer my questions in video form, so that they would be more spontaneous. Because her answers are spoken aloud (and they are often ramble-y – in a good way!), I have her permission to edit and paraphrase some of them for my purposes here.
Lawrence Hill talks about his early memories of racial identity – how he felt about white people versus black people based on his experiences with them and on what he heard his parents say. What are your early memories?
“I guess I always knew that I felt a little bit different… but that didn’t really start to hit until I was older and in elementary school… that’s when I started picking up on body language and people looking at you in social situations… it wasn’t my family unit that made me feel out of place, it was the social surroundings that came on later.”
It wasn’t until school that she started feeling a little “confused”. The example she uses is the memory of confusion she felt about the long hair all the other girls in her class seemed to have that she didn’t. At this point she still wasn’t aware of the fact that she was a different colour – at first it was about the hair. [And as we’ll come to find out, “hair is huge”.]
When do you remember noting the physical differences between you and your siblings? What were they and what age were you?
Around the age of 4 or 5. And once again, it was the hair. Our sister Belinda, who is the closest in age to Kate, was getting her hair curled, and Kate felt “out of the loop”. Not because her family made her feel that way, but only because it just wasn’t possible to do the same with her hair since it was “pure afro at that stage”.
It was the “little things”. Another example is that while the rest of us were being slathered in sunscreen, she wondered why it wasn’t being done for her? It wasn’t something that she minded, just something that she noticed.
“Unique was a really wonderful word that was used a lot.”
[As much as this interview is about racial identity, for her the adoption factor may also come into play as Kate answers these questions.]
What is your earliest memory of hearing a negative comment about your race?
[This is the tough one. It’s the first time Kate has ever told us this story.]
“At the age of 36, it still affects me.”
“For whatever reason, and I have learned to accept that it isn’t anything that I did… because I was in grade 1. There was someone who had a huge problem with the fact that I was adopted by a Caucasian family… There weren’t too many of us, I guess… This person said to me… that it was a mistake, that I should not be where I am… that no one would ever think that I was smart or intelligent or beautiful and that no one would ever love me. And that I could be taken away.” This man swore her to secrecy with the threat that if she told, he would tell our younger brother the same thing. So she didn’t ever tell.
“That was the biggest moment of overt racism in my life.”
Because she was only 7, it took her a while to clue into why he would even have said this to her… but it changed her anyway. She became very careful about the way she did things… she wanted everything to be done well and done right… so that no one would want to send her away.
“I remember going to my grandparents’ house for dinner and all the kids there didn’t want to eat squash and I remember eating it even though I hated it because I didn’t want to do anything wrong to be sent away.”
What do you think about the fact that you were a black child placed into a white family? Is it always a mistake? Never? Or does it depend?
“For myself I have never, ever thought it was a mistake. Never.” Kate says that she has always felt blessed to be a part of our family with the “unbelievable amount of inclusion our parents have for many things”. As much as there may be “hardships” she feels that it’s “one of those things where social constructs are way behind… I don’t think it’s a mistake… That’s never been questioned, not even from a young age, that’s never been questioned.”
Did it help for you to have another black sibling? (Haha. All I can think of here is how much you guys fought!)
“Visually, for myself, yes, I think so.”
She remembers that people used to ask them if they were “real” siblings (because they were both brown)… when really they don’t look any more alike than they do to the rest of us.
Kate adds that it was also helpful for her to have another female sibling who was adopted, as well.
It was helpful for her to feel, growing up, that she wasn’t the only one.
As for all the fighting that went on between Kate and our brother, she believes it stems from the incident that happened when she was 7. “I was very frustrated with my brother, and I didn’t even know why. There was resentment… I was the one who was really angry and resentful and I never gave him a break. Ever… If he didn’t do things “correctly” I was all over his ass.”
Some of the people interviewed by Lawrence Hill feel strongly that inter-racial couples think good and hard about having children, because it’s so hard on them. What do you think?
“I think it’s totally fine… everybody’s going to be a mix of something… as long as you are inclusive and understanding and love them unconditionally… There’s so much to being mixed or interracial that is non-visual. People like to put it into categories, but it’s so much bigger than that.”
Did you or do you ever wish you were all the way white, or all the way black? Which and why?
[Laughs] She’s actually been asked this question before by people. Sometimes complete strangers.
“I don’t even know what that would mean… it pigeon-holes people into being only one thing… we’re so many different things… I’ve never thought about being one or the other… To me it almost feels really constricting to be classified just as one thing… It’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with who I am, but I’ve never wanted to change who I am,”
Reading this book, Lawrence Hill has helped me realize how important it is for humans to connect with others who we identify with (however that may look to each person). As a child, how (if at all) were you able to do this? What about now?
One thing Kate feels has come out of all her experiences is her ability to connect with “anybody and everybody”. Even as a young kids she became “hyper-aware” of her surroundings and of body language – she would notice if someone felt like “the underdog”, or if they were being “marginalized or judged”. “I just love to learn from different people.” She likes to be able to “find common ground” with just about anybody, and find it gives her energy to be able to do so.
Some of the interviewees in the book talk about the challenge of not being accepted into the black community, because they weren’t ‘black’ enough. Have you experienced this?
[Another tough question, and I had no idea…]
“Yes. Definitely. Until the age of 12 we lived in a much smaller town, so there was limited exposure… It was when we moved to the city that that changed… more black people around for sure, or people that looked like me, I will say… When I moved to Halifax, I felt rejected… from the black community for sure… and I remember feeling so excited when I first moved… there are more people who kind of look like me… only to feel rejected. That propelled me into huge confusion… Hair is a huge identity thing, particularly for people of black descent… and God love Mom and Dad but they didn’t have a sweet clue what to do with my hair [laughing]…
“The things that were said to me, because I got good grades and I was engaged… I used to get that I was white-washed, or I wasn’t black enough or my hair was nappy, and I definitely got picked on verbally.
“I remember making a mixed tape and it had to be all black artists… it was just this thing that I had to do, to prove something… I still don’t even know quite what that is… it was like I had to prove that I was black enough, whatever that meant… And I got told that I was too smart… that was a big thing… and I still don’t know what that is… why wouldn’t anybody want to be smart? I’m not going to allude to what that could be, because everyone’s got their story. Sometimes I wonder if people were frustrated that I had certain opportunities that they didn’t… I don’t know. But that definitely made me feel insecure. It got a little bit better in High School. A little bit”
Kate goes on to say that, even now, as an adult, the language and tone people use when they talk to her, when they say things like “you’re really smart, you’re really educated”… “that weird, socially, politically correct language that people use when they talk to me… it’s like people are trying to be polite but then there are constructs behind what they say… like ‘you’re so well-spoken’… well, what does that mean?… I can see it behind their eyes…, I can see that its’ slightly loaded.
“I often, still as an adult, still get the ‘you’re the smart, you’re the well-spoken black person’… and that in itself is loaded, because you’re judging others and you’re judging me at the same time.”
“I will say that the most racism I probably have endured has been from the black population.” [Outside of the incident that occurred when she was 7.]
“Hair is huge. Especially as a woman.”
She is feeling more included in the black community as an adult. “People seem to really like my dreadlocks.” [Laughs]
Do you think your environment or upbringing has influenced the way you live? Has it influenced you preferences for romantic partners or your ideas on interracial marriages?
“I think so… coming from an inclusive background… Mom and Dad just wanted all of us to be happy, so there’s never been a judgment with partners… I’ve never felt that judgment from my parents, ever… or my siblings, ever…”
Kate tells the story of inviting her now ex-husband over for dinner to my parents’ house for the first time, neglecting to tell him that she didn’t look anything like her parents – it didn’t even occur to her to mention it. He was confused at first, and it took him a bit to feel comfortable enough to mention it. Since that time, she’s tried her best to remember to mention it to whoever she invites over to meet the family.
“Like anybody, you grow up with certain traditions or belief systems… there has to be a certain amount of common ground.” As an example she says that if her partner’s not okay with her hanging out with her gay friend, it’s a deal-breaker.
One of Lawrence Hill’s dislikes is being asked “The Question” – where are you from? Do you get asked this question based on your looks, and how do you answer?
[Laughter] “I get it allll the time. All the time. Still. People always think I’m from somewhere else… I’m very proud to say where I’m from… I’ve always been proud to say I’m from Nova Scotia… Sometimes I’ll go into more detail… Some people will then ask ‘No, but where are you from?’… the tone, the lean-in… sometimes I want to be cheeky and say ‘I’m from Canada, I’m from Planet Earth, what about you?’… but I might go into more detail around my biology and the little bit that I do know about it…”
One thing she finds interesting is the diverse set of people who she gets this question from. Other Nova Scotians, or east coasters want to know her last name and where she grew up, so they can compare notes on who knows who from where – because that’s what we do here. But when someone from the black community asks, they’re looking to find out her roots and how she connects in the black community (for which she has no answer at this point). Then there are people who are new to Canada who want to know where she “originally” comes from.
Being adopted is another thing people want to know about. They ask if she’s ever met her “real” parents. To her, they feel like the same type of question. She “politely corrects people” in what they might mean by the word “real”. “I was adopted as an infant. My parents are the only parents I’ve ever known. My family’s the only family I’ve ever known… It angers me a little bit sometimes, if you catch me in the right mood, because how can it get anymore real than adopting an infant and giving them all the support that they have… you can’t get any more real than my parents… and they adopt everybody, everybody, any friends, any kids… some of our friends might have been having a hard time, and mom and dad were ready to bring them into our house even though it was really full already… So you can’t get any more real than that.”
What are some examples of discrimination you’ve come up against in Canada over the years?
“I’ve been discriminated against as being a woman… as being of mixed race… as being ‘too smart’… as not fitting into a particular social construct… not being black enough… not being white… ”
Something she’s found hard, but has happened a lot is having a phone interview, and having it go well, then being invited in for a face-to-face interview, and walking into the place and “their body language and their eyes change and they are expecting something very different from what walks in. That sucks.”
“Or people make assumptions.”
Being stopped in vehicles and being racially profiled has been in the news a lot lately… “people were really upset about it, and came to me and asked me about that… it’s interesting that people didn’t know that it still happens… and it’s happened to me before.”
“When you’re faced with discrimination… people react in different ways… and I myself am still processing why I hit an eerie calm when it comes to things like this. And it’s not like I take it, but I’m not one who will get agitated, action-wise… that’s just not who I am… rather, I try to take that situation and educate people, and hope it might open up their eyes a little bit.”
She tells the story about when she was living in Winnipeg and working at a children’s museum. There was a woman who came with her family from Georgia – they had a great rapport and Kate had a great connection with her kids. As she was leaving, she came up to Kate to thank her for giving them such a great experience, and then she said “Thank you so much. You’re the nicest Negro I’ve ever met.” Kate took this as an opportunity to explain (kindly) to the woman why she might not want to use that term here in Canada. The woman was both “absolutely mortified” and extremely apologetic. “That look on her face… you knew that it was not meant to be hurtful… but that’s what you have to do in the face of adversity and discrimination, and that’s about all you can do.”
“I get followed in stores… it happened the other day… so I just smile… you push through it… am I used to it?… am I dulled by it?… No, but it’s on your radar and I guess that all I can do is just prove them wrong. Carry myself with honesty and intelligence, and just throw their misconceptions in their face.” [smiles]
“… we can’t resolve problems that remain unacknowledged.” Any thoughts or ideas you might like to share about racism and what we can do about it?
“A part of me just wishes we could be only identified by our names and nothing else. Our first names.”
Kate believes that sharing our experiences is important for understanding one another, to open our minds, and to stop being afraid of what we perceive to be “different”. “Particularly talking to people who aren’t like you – put yourself outside of what feels safe and comfortable.”
Speaking of sharing stories… I have learned so much about my sister from this, and it feels good to have a better understanding of her based on her experiences. Likewise, she was surprised to learn from me (when I sent her these questions) that I sometimes used to feel plain and boring next to my more interesting adopted siblings. I know now, of course, that my plain-ness has allowed me to escape most of the discrimination Kate has had to face. But can I just take the opportunity to say here that I so wish I could do away with the sunscreen!
So… Tracie, Jake, Belinda, Nathaniel… who’s next? Recommend a book and I’ll interview you! 🙂
Thanks, Kate, for agreeing to my interview. You are amazing and we love you!