'Life outside of blackness': Montreal family reflects on race, identity

Race, ethnicity and religion are all intertwined for the Eyobs, a Montreal Ethiopian-Jewish family. But the experience of being black differs for each generation.

Race, ethnicity, religion all part of Ethiopian-Jewish family's experience in Montreal

3 generations of Eyobs on race and identity

8 years ago
Duration 4:41
Featured VideoMalefiya Zeleke, her daughters Hirut and Eleni Eyob and Hirut's daughter Méshama share a Shabbat meal and talk about how their colour and their Jewish faith affect their lives in Montreal.

Real Talk on Race is CBC Montreal's special series exploring personal conversations and experiences around race in the city.

Race, ethnicity and religion are all intertwined for the Eyobs, a Montreal Ethiopian-Jewish family. 

But the experience of being black differs from grandmother to mother to daughter.

Three generations of the Eyob family shared their experiences with CBC Montreal, as part of our Real Talk on Race series.

Malefiya Zeleke: 'Number one is my religion'

Malefiya Zeleke with the framed story of Queen Sheba and King Solomon, written in the Ethiopian language Amharic. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)
 Every Friday, Malefiya Zeleke's children and grandchildren gather at her home in Côte-des-Neiges.

"This is our tradition," said Zeleke. "We're sitting together. We talk [about] the whole week we've passed."

As an Ethiopian-Jewish family, observing Shabbat is important, she said.

"Number one is my religion," she said. "As Jewish -- it's my religion. And Ethiopian Jewish: It's my identity. I am black and a Jew. This is my identity."

It was 1984 when Malefiya Zeleke packed up her family and left Ethiopia for Canada. Her home country at the time was under communist military rule. Her family members would often hide the fact they were Jewish, for fear of discrimination from others.

"We don't want to talk too much about Jewish religion. Most of the time they don't understand about us, and they give us bad names, like hyena."

But Zeleke doesn't feel that she's been discriminated against because of her race.

"My blackness? No," she said. "It never affected me."

"God protects all colours," she said.

Hirut Eyob: 'Blackness is very much a political identity'

'Since I've had kids, my identity has been very much, what message I want to pass on, what are the identities that are relevant to them?' said Hirut Eyob. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)
 "The idea of blackness, I learned that by coming to Canada at the age of seven," said Hirut Eyob, Zeleke's daughter. "So the first seven years of my life in Ethiopia, I was allowed to just be myself."

Eyob said it was through conversations with Caribbean and other black Canadian classmates that she was first told she was black.

"I didn't understand what they were talking about. I was just like, 'I'm brown,' because I looked exactly like my friend who is from Sri Lanka."

Eyob, who works as a doula and lactation consultant, says she's become more rooted in her Ethiopian-Jewish identity since she's had children.

"My identity has been very much what message I want to pass on, and what are the identities that are relevant to them?"

But because the Ethiopian-Jewish diaspora in Canada is small, Eyob said she has gravitated towards other black Montrealers in order to find community.

She's a co-founder of the Third Eye Collective, an organization that addresses issues of violence and sexual violence targeting black women.

"It's over time that I learned that blackness is very much a political identity. It's a survival identity. It's not necessarily how I identify, but it's how I'm perceived."

Méshama Eyob-Austin: 'Blackness is beautiful'

Méshama Eyob-Austin, 13, said her mother Hirut Eyob has told her many times, 'I wish I could have been able to have you in Ethiopia, where you could know what it was like to not be black.' (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)
 As the daughter of an Ethiopian-Jewish mother and a Jamaican father, 13-year-old Méshama Eyob-Austin has invented a word for who she is. 

"I consider myself, what I call, Ethio-Jamaican-Canadian," she said, laughing. 

But from an early age, she realized that some people only saw her as black.

"My first encounter with racism was maybe grade one or two. There was this girl. She was white. And she was always telling me I looked like poo." 

"That's when I knew, I am different than everybody here. And people are going to point it out to me."

Méshama Eyob-Austin on being black

8 years ago
Duration 0:32
Featured VideoJewish-Ethiopian-Jamaican Montrealer Méshama Eyob-Austin describes her love-hate relationship with her dreadlocks as a child.

Méshama also faced schoolyard taunts about her hair, which she used to wear in dreadlocks. By the third grade, that experience had taken its toll.

"I just started cutting them," she said. "My parents would find dreads around the house. And I would try to hide them away so they wouldn't see them."

"Eventually they started noticing ... 'Méshama, is that your dread on the balcony? Is that your dread on the floor?' And they were just like, 'We need to talk.'"

She feels her mother's experience with race is different from her own.

"My mom has told me this so many times: 'I wish I could have been able to have you in Ethiopia, where you could know what it was like to not be black.'"

"The first time she told me that, I was offended," Méshama said. "I was like, 'What's wrong with being black?'"

Eventually, Méshama understood that her mother wished for her not to have to deal with certain burdens that come with race.

"Going to the mall for me is all about blackness," she said. "I can't go to the mall without someone following me around. I can't see the police without feeling something inside."

Still, she can't imagine life with a different identity.

"I don't even know if I would want to try that," she said.

"Because as many issues as there [are] with being black ... and how people treat you based on the colour of your skin ... blackness is beautiful."