Learning to be Black: Navigating a new identity in Nova Scotia
Wairimu Maureen Waithaka and Muriithi Benjamin share their story in a short film for CBC
Wairimu Maureen Waithaka and Muriithi Benjamin moved from Kenya to Rwanda to Namibia, and finally to Nova Scotia in 2017. While the couple identify as African, here in Canada they're now also referred to as Black.
They share their story in the short film Learning to Be Black. The video was created for CBC.
In the essay below, Waithaka shares a personal experience with racism, and reflects on the meaning of identity and grace.
"To them, we are all N-words!"
That's what he said! Can you imagine?
And the way he said it, he made it sound like he was referring to us both — himself and me, but as I sat thinking about the conversation later, I started to feel that what he was actually saying was, "Here in Canada, you are a N-word!" How the word had hung in the air after he had said it. It was the first time that someone has ever used that word to refer to me. He said it no less than three separate times that afternoon.
I had only met him about an hour prior. My kind new friend brought me to visit him. You see, I am still sort of new in Canada. I have only been here for three years, living in Nova Scotia. In my home country Kenya, I am a pathologist — a specialist doctor. But here, it has been difficult for me to integrate into the medical profession. It is a unique struggle that not many people would truly understand, save for those who, whether directly or indirectly, are living or have lived the experience.
I had thought that my new acquaintance would be someone like that. Many decades ago, he too was a foreign-trained doctor, newly arrived in Canada. He had eventually managed to work in his profession for many years, and this is why my friend had brought me to see him. My friend had thought that drawing from his own experience, the doctor might have some encouraging insights about my own situation. Here he was now, in front of a toasty fire in the lounge of his humongous house, calling me an N-word, and telling me that in Canada, I could never be a doctor.
"I am telling you, it is impossible," he said again, for the umpteenth time. "Maybe you should buy a lottery ticket instead."
And then came the kicker: "Who told you to come to Canada with all that melanin?"
It was getting really uncomfortable. This is definitely not something I was expecting to hear; not from a fellow immigrant, not from a fellow doctor and especially not in 2020. I suppose he thought that because we were both not white, and because he was significantly older than me, he could level hurtful statements like that at me easily. I didn't answer. All I could think was, "I wonder if my new friend sees that his old friend is being racist?"
None of us spoke for a moment. And then slowly the conversation moved on to other things. I had come hoping to get some perspective about my situation from a kindred, someone who has been through it and triumphed, but instead I was sitting in a strange living room, drinking tea with molasses cookies and feeling a remote urge to cry.
I have never thought of my skin colour as an accessory, as something that I carry outside of myself. It might be hard to understand for someone who didn't grow up in Kenya or somewhere similar, but I never used to think much about my skin colour. I went through more than 30 years of life not paying much mind to that aspect of myself. I have never been as conscious of my skin colour as I have been in the last three years that I have lived in Nova Scotia. It is strange that after living for so many years in a place full of people who look like me, Nova Scotia is where I have come to learn about what it feels like to be Black.
I have had many conversations whose racial undertones I do not fully understand until way after the fact, when I have had a chance to reflect on what was said. Only then do I pick up on the nuances that went over my head. Racism is an odd thing. For me, it is often a passive experience, and even if I do not want to participate, I am forced to. I suppose, too, that this is how it feels in the beginning when you are adopting a new identity — uncomfortable, confusing.
This new identity is complex. It carries a lot of weight. With it comes legacy and accomplishment, and this makes me very proud to identify as Black. But there is also a lot of baggage that comes with it, historical things that I will probably never fully understand, but that will nonetheless affect my life's journey. On top of navigating Canada while African, which is complicated enough, I am learning that I have to do it while Black too. Black and African might look like the same thing to the untrained eye, but they are quite different and separate things. I am just starting to wrap my head around this.
I am finding that now, there is all of this extra attention and time I have to give to these new things in my life: to my experience and study of Blackness. I fear they might affect my ability to focus on the greater struggle of my life: making my way in a new country. I now have to learn to navigate life in this new space with a big, new identity. It is not necessarily one that I have selected for myself, but instead one that precedes me, one that is often applied by others, to me, by default. I suppose this is part of growing up, learning to see myself how others see me.
Maybe the good doctor is right, maybe I will never get to practise medicine in Canada. I won't know for sure though until I have tried. Racism does make my journey harder, but in my experience not many things in life are absolutely impossible. The greater achievement though, will be getting back to the point where I am comfortable again in my own skin. But I know I will make it there again someday. After all, if there is something that being African has taught me, it is how to bear difficult things with grace; how to make the lemonade, even when they have hidden the lemons.
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.