Growing up as the white minority

As a child in Sub-Saharan Africa, Coltrane McDowell was very aware of his own "whiteness." In Montreal, where his skin colour made him less conspicuous, he became more and more aware of the role his minority status played in his life.

Montreal student Coltrane McDowell has lived on both sides of 'otherness'

As part of our series Real Talk on Race, CBC Montreal asked 10 people to share their personal stories about race. These stories are in their own words. Share yours with us on FacebookTwitter or email

For the most part, I have grown up as a minority in the countries I have lived in.

Here, as a white man, I have been able to "blend" in with relative ease as the community accepts me as Canadian.

Things are often easier, maybe not obviously, but I have noticed that discrimination, ignorance and bigotry are not part of my daily routine.

This comes not as a surprise living in Canada, but it has made me increasingly aware of my life and identity prior to moving here in 2012.

'The whitest things on the block'

In Sub-Saharan Africa, I would often be called mzungu (a term for white person).

This was stating the obvious. For the children that called me that, it was more because they rarely saw someone of a skin colour like mine.

Can it be called racism or racist behaviour if it still is underlined with flat out curiosity?

Having mostly grown up outside of Canada, Coltrane McDowell says his family was often 'the whitest thing on the block.' (Submitted by Coltrane McDowell)

Regardless, I was very aware of my own whiteness, and when we moved to Malawi it became even more obvious.

In 2007 we set up our home on the outskirts of Blantyre near one of the village communes.

We were one of the "whitest" things on the block. People going home on their daily routes would peer in across our wall and point at us.

It honestly felt like I was in a fish bowl at times and there was no where you could go to get away from being something different.

Walking to my friends' houses several kilometres away, I would constantly be met with  "Mzungu! Mzungu!"

This time though, the innocent curiosity of children gave way to something a little more malicious, and even violent.

Sometimes they would throw stones at me. Yet, the most puzzling thing of all was going to school there.

'I made a choice'

Coltrane has grown up all over the world. McDowell (bottom centre) also lived in Papua New Guinea in the late 1990s. (Submitted by Coltran McDowell)

Prior to Malawi, I had been living in Nairobi, Kenya, with its relatively metropolitan mindset.

In Kenya, I had still been a minority but there was some sense of cohesion. Skin colour did not matter much.

You were friends because they were your friends, and this negated any other reasons like the colour of your skin.

Going to school in Malawi was a little different.

There were groups, maybe not clearly defined, but a strong enough racial divide and this puzzled me at first.

You had to choose groups, not just friends and, while we were all kids, it felt uneasy to tread on this racial terrain that had been mapped out for us.

Over a few months there, I felt and observed myself gravitating towards the predominantly white group of friends.

While I didn't necessarily want to do this, and I still hung out with people not from this group, I did notice I had made a choice.

This choice may have made me not speak out on some occasions when I felt someone had said something about race that really bothered me.

I had made friends, but I'd also chosen a specific group.

Looking back on this, one of the strongest reasons for this may have been not wanting to feel different for a second — feeling like you might belong somewhere. 

But can anyone truly say they belong anywhere?

Coltrane McDowell is at the cusp of leaving the safety blanket of a Concordia Studio Arts university degree, entering a world that he sees as having no borders. He is hoping to bridge art with social action, making lasting impacts on the places he lives and works, in a manner that provides dignity and a sense of self-identity without being lost in the haziness of self righteous activism.