Radio·Personal Essay

How growing up as a Black Jew shaped my personal identity, and my music

Canadian musician Daniel Greaves reflects on how his mixed-race identity shaped his life and his art.

Canadian musician Daniel Greaves reflects on how his mixed-race identity shaped his life and his art

Daniel Greaves is a singer and songwriter based in Toronto, and member of the band The Watchmen. (Michal Grajewski/Submitted by Daniel Greaves)

This essay was originally published Sept. 7, 2020.

My first memory about being called the N-word happened when I was about seven years old.

I was attending a Hebrew day school at the time. As a child of mixed identity, I was the only kid who looked liked me.

I came home from school and asked my mum what the word meant and, appropriately so, she lost it and called the school immediately.

My dad is from Trinidad, and my mom is a Jew from Winnipeg by way of Russia. My skin colour falls somewhere between Black and white.

I could pass as a person from any number of ethnic backgrounds, and have been mistaken for a lot of them — Spanish, Arabic, or Moroccan, for example.

I was raised as a Jew while growing up in Winnipeg, and I wouldn't have had it any other way — but I've never been identified as one by anyone I meet.

As a young teen, it became clear to me that outside the people I was closest with, I didn't look like the rest of the Jewish community there.

Looking back on my upbringing and trying to reconcile the effect my mixed identity as a dark-skinned Canadian has had, I've realized our identities don't form in a vacuum. They're tied to all the people we see and interact with in the world every day. Who we are has an effect on them, and who they are affects us just the same.

I'm dark-skinned, but my brother has blond hair and blue eyes. Now that's not so unusual these days. But in the late '60s, when my dad was carrying my very blond, white brother on his shoulders in downtown Toronto, it turned more than a few heads.

To give you a sense of the culture at that time, just a few years before my older brother was born, my dad was stopped by police in downtown Toronto on suspicion of being a Black Panther.

'Ugly' ducklings?

Back to that day in Hebrew day school.

Based on my mom's complaints, the school gathered all the Grade 2's together for an assembly and showed us the film The Ugly Duckling.

The underlying theme I picked up from the film as a seven-year-old would be: don't worry if you start out as a dark black duck. You will eventually turn into a beautiful white swan.

Obviously, this wasn't the most helpful message for me at the time. I ended up finding my way into the projector room after we saw the movie, and I cut up and destroyed the film.

Maybe if I had seen other dark-skinned Caribbean Jews growing up, I would identify more with the Jewish community than the Black community. But I didn't. My dad was the only person I knew who looked like me.

My musical identity

I've been a musician for more of my life than not. In fact, my bar mitzvah was actually my first live show in front of an audience.

As soon as I started playing music full-time, I was seen as an artist first, regardless of what or who I identified with — which at the time was as a Black Jew from Winnipeg.

People saw my ability as a singer before they saw my colour or anything else — and I think that made things a little easier for me. I have my fair share of stories about playing music around the world in places that didn't feel as accepting as other places.

Of course, it didn't change who I knew myself to be. But I'm not gonna lie, it had a great effect on me.

First impressions

I can't say for sure if it was positive or negative — probably a bit of both — but what I have come to realize is that the way people treat you is consistent with whatever picture of you they have in their heads.

Think about some of the people in your life you've known for years. I bet the impression you have of them now is way different than when you first met them. We can make quick judgments about the people we see based on a whole host of criteria.

Elements of racism can spawn from these sorts of surface-level snap judgments that we all make.

Hopefully, as we get closer — both literally and figuratively — we use our human gifts of language, of reasoning, to build a more informed impression of a person.

Perhaps in doing so, we'll realize that what we may have first thought of as a stranger or outsider was actually a friend in the making — or at the very least, someone worthy of your respect.

'I'm very much at home'

I've always wondered what effect my upbringing had on my creativity as a songwriter. Looking back on the songs I've written over the last three decades, I've realized that an underlying theme of loneliness permeates through all of it — that feeling of being on the outside looking in. 

I can only attribute that to my upbringing and my sense of being the "other." I think that realizing this has made me a more thoughtful person. I know the effect other people's words and actions have had on me throughout my life — good and bad.

As such, I'm constantly thinking about the effect my words and actions have on others. And for that, I'm grateful.

One of my songs that I think speaks to this idea is At Home. The opening line reads: "I'm tired of being alone, but I'm very much at home." And to me, that says it all.

Daniel Greaves is a singer and songwriter based in Toronto. He kicked up a little dust in the '90s with the band The Watchmen. Recently he's guest hosted several programs for CBC Music. You can follow him on Twitter @listentodg.

This essay was based on the CBC Radio Special 'Invisible Me', produced by Arianne Robinson. You can follow her on Twitter @ariannerobinson

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.


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