British Columbia·Point of View

Sometimes I feel like an undercover Black woman

As a white-passing woman, Eilidh McAllister writes that people sometimes say racist things to her not realizing she is in fact biracial.

When people say racist things to me, they're assuming I’m not a person of colour

Eilidh McAllister is biracial but she is generally perceived as white because of her light skin tone. (Eilidh McAllister)

This column is an opinion by Eilidh McAllister, who is biracial and lives in Vancouver.  For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Since the murder of George Floyd and the protests that have followed, little moments keep coming to my mind. A lot of people don't know that I'm biracial. I am generally perceived as white. That is my lived experience and I have had all the privilege that comes with my skin tone. Sometimes I've felt like an undercover Black girl because every so often people say racist things to me, assuming I'm not a person of colour.

I vividly remember a moment in my 20s when I was working at a remote resort in B.C., and a helicopter pilot made a racist "joke." I looked at him with indignance and said, "I'm Black, you know." He stammered and became beet red with anger and embarrassment. I finished the season, but he and I were no longer friends. Now I wonder if I had been more mature, could I have talked to him and helped him question his prejudices?

My Dad is Scottish, my Mum is half-Scottish and half-Ghanaian, which makes me one-quarter black and three-quarters white. I've always felt very proud of my heritage. My maternal grandmother moved from West Africa to live with us in Edmonton in the early '80s. I was five years old when I met my Nana. I was afraid of her at first because I had never seen anyone so dark. Her thick African accent with its percussive rhythm and the traditional clothes she wore were otherworldly.

And then, pretty much instantly, she was my best friend. Along with Nana, my family moved to northern Alberta a few years after she came to Edmonton, as if she needed even colder weather. A couple years later, starved for the African way of life, Nana returned to Ghana. I was devastated. I missed her so much. In all the years I've known her since and my three visits to Ghana, I've never asked her if she experienced racism in her time in Canada. I should.

Eilidh McAllister’s maternal grandmother is from Ghana. (Eilidh McAllister)

Ghana is a proud West African country. It was the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence from colonial rule in 1957. And it's awesome and refreshing to experience being in a nation of Black people who hold every possible position in society. Ghana was the major gateway of the slave trade. I've seen the "gate of no return," a narrow passageway through which slave ships would push a plank and force captives to walk aboard. Even more shocking and disturbing than the dungeons below where women and men were held prisoner, was the ballroom above. How could anyone dance there?

But it's small moments today that keep popping up in my mind.

One quiet night, I was walking in the Strathcona neighbourhood of East Vancouver with a friend who is a Black man. He greeted anyone who passed us with a warm hello. He said to me, "People behave better when they know they are seen."  It was a measure of security, making people aware that their presence was noted. Strathcona can be a dodgy neighbourhood after dark. Was it also his way of alerting people that he posed no threat? 

I am a costume designer. One extras casting agent always seemed to play into racist stereotypes: the lunch ladies were Black, the science club kids were Asian, etc. When I expressed my anger and frustration about it to a white peer, she agreed, but went on to say, "Yeah, but that agency always gets the best extras."

A couple of years ago, a white co-worker that I had texted earlier in the day commented to me in the office about the skin tone I had used for my 'thumbs up' emoji. "Your thumb's looking a little tanned there, Eilidh." I had no idea what she meant at first, and then it sunk in, she felt I was appropriating a darker skin tone emoji. The funny thing was, I hadn't consciously chosen the brown thumb as a personal reflection of my exact skin tone. I chose it because I was tired of the light tone being the default for a generic symbol, inferring that white is normal and anything else is an adjustment that needs to be made. But, if I'm honest, I don't identify with the straight up white skin tone setting. I'm latté-light, bitches!

These moments are so painful, like death by a thousand cuts. Can it be over? Are we done yet?

More than anything I hope every person of colour can finally move through the world freely and not have the burden of putting white people at ease. Can we hurry up and get there? 

Personally, I am going to try to initiate the hard conversations when racist undercurrents are felt and be OK with being uncomfortable. Because if we have those dialogues, we can move forward. We all have biases to break, so let's help one another do that.

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For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



Eilidh McAllister is a costume designer based in Vancouver. She lives in East Vancouver and finds creative inspiration in nature, arts and travel.