Too black, too brown: two stories of growing up between cultures

Kim Wheeler and Oscar Baker III grew up torn between worlds, and have had to fight to define their Indigenous identities.
Kim Wheeler and Oscar Baker III (Nadya Kwandibens and CBC)

[Originally broadcast June 19, 2016]

How do you see yourself?

Do other people see you the same way? 

Kim Wheeler and Oscar Baker III have thought deeply about these questions. And while they've each lived wildly different lives, they have two things in common: they grew up torn between worlds, and have had to fight to define their Indigenous identities. 

Kim Wheeler
Unreserved producer Kim Wheeler, who is Mohawk and Anishinabe, shares her story of feeling left out most of her life after being adopted into a white family.

Kim Wheeler is Mohawk and Anishinaabe. Born in Winnipeg, Man., she was adopted by a non-Indigenous family as part of the Sixties Scoop — a program that saw thousands of Indigenous children placed with white families. 

Her adoptive parents didn't place any importance on her Indigenous heritage. In fact, they actively tried to discourage her from embracing it. 

"My adoptive parents always cut my hair short so I looked like a boy." (Kim Wheeler)
"We were made to feel ashamed of who we were," said Wheeler. "Our parents would drive us down Main Street in Winnipeg and they would tell us if we didn't work hard and go to school we were going to end up like 'those Indians on Main Street'". 

Wheeler remembers the exact moment, as a child, she realized that she'd never truly belong in her non-Indigenous family.

"My mother wanted to have a photo of her daughters in front of the Christmas tree. And I went to get up and go in the photo — and it was clear that they didn't mean me," she said. 

After moving away to university, Wheeler found opportunities to become connected to her Indigenous heritage. A producer on Unreserved and mom of three, she said she raised her kids to be "strong, proud Indigenous women." 

Oscar Baker III
Oscar Baker III grew up in two very different communities. His mother is Mi'kmaq from Elsipogtog First Nation His father is black and his hometown is St. Augustine, Florida. Baker found it hard to fit into either place.

Black and Mi'kmaq, Oscar Baker vividly remembers the feeling of being looked at as 'different'. 

"Growing up in a Mi'kmaq community with the skin colour that I have, people would remind me that I was different, that I looked different, that I sounded different. I was bullied quite a bit." 

Baker's mother is Mi'kmaq from Elsipogtog First Nation, N.B. His father is African-American and his hometown is St. Augustine, Florida.
"I think as a kid because of the bullying and the name calling that I kind of resented my African-American ancestry." (Oscar Baker III / Facebook)

At just 10 years old, Baker and his siblings left Elsipogtog to live with their grandparents in Florida. With a mother suffering from mental health issues and a father in prison, Baker found stability and happiness with his grandparents.

That peace was shattered when his grandfather passed away, sending his grandmother into a deep depression. As a teenager living in a "violent neighbourhood" in Florida, Baker turned to partying and drinking to cope. Recognizing that his life was going down a difficult path, he decided to move back home to Elsipogtog. 

Reintegrating in to the community he left behind, Baker said he was surprised how much attitudes had changed — for the better — in the years he had been away.

Now a journalist and writer, Baker said that he's still working to understand his bicultural identity and embrace both his African-American and Mi'kmaq heritage. 

"I think I'm so unique that often times I just feel alone — that I don't belong in either culture. But I try to accept both."