Montreal·Point of View

Why I hid my hair and my smile, or why #BlackLivesMatter shouldn't just be a trend

Thalie Emond, a 20-year-old with African and Thai ancestry, recounts what it's like to grow up in what she calls Quebec's Eurocentric society.

Thalie Emond, a 20-year-old with African and Thai ancestry, recounts the racism she's dealt with

Thalie Emond says people used to make fun of her lips, because they were big and ‘made [her] look like a chimpanzee.’ (Submitted by Thalie Emond)

I never would have imagined having to write an article like this in 2020. But I am, because in recent weeks, people have been asking an overwhelming number of questions in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

They have asked questions like: "How can we help? How should we educate ourselves?" Others have said things like "I understand that I will never understand." I'm writing this to help you truly understand my experience as a 20-year-old with African and Thai ancestry growing up in a Eurocentric society.

I grew up in Baie-Comeau, about 420 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. In school, before learning about the rich and diverse cultures of Africa, I was taught the history of slaves in the United States and the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Meanwhile, people made fun of my hair texture because it "looked like steel wool," and they mocked my lips because they were big and made me look like a chimpanzee. The fact that people now get lip injections to have Kylie Jenner's lips is sort of ironic.

Peers and colleagues haven't called me the N-word many times, but each time they did, it stuck with me and shook me.

I moved to the big city of Montreal, a place that most call "inclusive," to go to university. I discovered quickly that it can be extremely exclusive at times. Once, I was followed by an employee while grocery shopping. I wondered if my small stature made me more intimidating and suspicious or if my skin tone was the cause.

There are times when I tell myself that I have no concrete reasons to complain. When I was almost two years old, I was given a second chance at life; as a Thai adoptee and an only child, I received all of my parents' love and attention (and still do). I benefit from quality education as they pay tuition fees and my apartment. I have friends who accept me for who I am; I'm well integrated in my social environment.

Emond with her father, not long after she was adopted. (Submitted by Thalie Emond)

However, there are times when I wonder why I rejected my heritage my entire life; why I felt the need to straighten my hair and wear straight sew-in weaves in my teens; why I tried to hide my lips when smiling; why I was unable to be proud of my heritage from childhood to young adulthood; why I was scared of tracing my ancestors.

More important, why did I agree to laugh and make "racist jokes" about myself? I must've heard: "Ha! We can't see you in the dark" at least a thousand times in my life. Some would even say: "We don't see you as a Black person, you act and look white."

I once thought that laughing at our differences was normal, but I later realized that I was internalizing such remarks at my own expense and laughing to hide my discomfort.

Changing my natural traits didn't make me happier with myself. When I turned 18, I realized my self-confidence would never develop if I, myself, didn't change. And so, I tried to learn more about my heritage in order to grow.

My only cultural references were rap music, the Black Panther movie, Martin Luther King Jr., the Obamas, Nelson Mandela, Morgan Freeman and Beyoncé, and to some extent, Malcolm X.

Great African Empires such as the Songhaï, Kongo or Kanem were names unknown to me. African ethnic groups with darker complexions witnessed their culture, food and customs being erased by global Eurocentric societies.

My DNA test results revealed that I had Fulani roots. I didn't even know what "Fulani" meant. Google said it was an ethnic group of 40 million people scattered across 15 African countries.

I was clueless about my ancestors' history because it was reduced to slavery, in both real life and in textbooks. For my entire life, the world showed me images of lynched people, enslaved populations, starving nations and brutalized people.

At 10 years old, Emond started trying to hide her lips in pictures. In high school, she started to straighten her hair. By CEGEP, she was wearing a straight weave. Now, she wears her natural hair. (Submitted by Thalie Emond)

Claiming to be non-racist is easy here in Canada and even in Quebec, but Canada's history is built on the colonization, massacre, alienation and violent assimilation of Indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, the murders of D'Andre Campbell, Eishia Hudson, Jason Collins, Régis Korchinski-Paquet and Chantel Moore — who all died this year in Canada — weren't isolated incidents. Here we are, in 2020, still seeing people kneeling down on other people's necks because their complexion is associated with criminality and inferiority.

It seems that we haven't progressed much since the time of James Baldwin, renowned author, civil rights activist and LGBTQIA+ rights pioneer. Here's a 1989 quote from Baldwin:

What is it that you wanted me to reconcile myself to? I was born here more than 60 years ago. I'm not going to live another 60 years. You always told me that it's going to take time. It's taken my father's time, my mother's time, my uncle's time, my brothers' and my sisters' time, my nieces and my nephew's time. How much time do you want for your progress?

His words ring true today as much as they did then.

I don't want my future children to think that they're ugly or undesirable because of the colour of their skin or the lack of representation in the media.

I don't want them to believe they have to accept or make racist "jokes" to be socially accepted. I don't want them to see videos or news of people who resemble them brutalized or murdered because of their complexion, religious beliefs or sexual and gender identity.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement should not be a trend that fades away in a month. It's a complex fight that affects so many people. And it's a fight that has been going on for years. How much more time do we have to wait before progress is made?

About the Author

Thalie Emond is a Thai-born Canadian university student in Montreal. As a person with Sub-Saharan African and Southeast Asian ancestry, she experienced covert and overt racial discrimination in Quebec her whole life. When she saw that the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum worldwide, Thalie felt compelled to share her experience.