Ever since I was a little girl, I have always been proud of being a Canadian. Maple syrup, tuques, poutine, and saying "eh" at the end of my sentence has been my thing for a long time. However, there was something else I realized as a young girl: I stood out because of the colour of my skin and the hair on my head. Whether it was subtle or not-so-subtle comments from various groups of people, I realized that I was not society's "norm."
Throughout my life as a Canadian, I have had to deal with stereotypes. From being asked, "Where are you from? No, where are you really from?" in a context that suggested that I could not be born here, to being asked by my mother's coworker at seven years old if I was wearing a weave (since it seems that black girls "can't" have long hair), people have tried to box me in to a predetermined expectation of what "Black" is. By the way, these scenarios have literally continued throughout my life.
When I was in high school I remember being in a cab and the driver asking me where I was from. I said, "Canada." So he asked me, "No, where are you really from?" and I said, "Montreal, Canada" and he said, "Really?! Wow. Okay, so where are your parents from?" Now, normally at this point I would say, "Jamaica," but with his reaction, I decided to say… "Canada." Well, he nearly lost his mind. A Black second generation Canadian? How could that be? Meanwhile, I have cousins that are third generation Canadians.
Then there are the times in high school where my classmates referred to me as "ghetto"—as some sort of compliment, no less -- because I liked hip hop music. As a contrast, they referred to one of my Black classmates as an "oreo" because she apparently didn't have Black friends outside of school.
Nonetheless, no matter what experiences I have been faced with, I have carried on by always trying to break down barriers and stereotypes. Whether it was making the honour roll at school or starting a newspaper at 17 years old to combat the media's portrayal of Black youth (i.e. the infamous "Year of the Gun"), I have always tried to go beyond society's expectations. In fact, in that same high school, I won an award for starting a music club that used music to discuss diversity and various societal issues.
Despite my education, accolades and demeanor, I realize that people are going to judge you how they choose to. It is up to us, as the individual, to define and embrace who we are. In my early twenties, while working as a teller, I had a regular client come in. He didn't always come to me, on account of me not speaking Portuguese. However, this particularly morning he decided to, and while I was processing his requested transactions, he randomly said, "You know, you are not Canadian." I knew exactly where he was going with this, but I proceeded to ask, "What do you mean, I was born here?" So he shook his head, and said, "No, because…" as he rubbed his hand to indicate that I couldn't be Canadian because of the colour of my skin. The client also went on to say that although his son too was first generation Canadian, he was a real Canadian, where I was not. Of course, using my educated background to my advantage, I had him quickly backtracking and apologizing, without me having to raise my voice or use profanity.
At about 25 years old (during the so-called quarter-life crisis) I was approached by a manager, who kindly told me that my freshly done box braids were not professional, and if I ever wanted to move up the corporate ladder I should never wear my hair like that again. Well, that didn't stop me from wearing my hair natural, and now I am the CEO of my own company, and would say I have climbed up the ladder, with my box braids, afro, twist-outs, and braid-outs. When people try to box me in because of the colour of my skin or the texture of my hair, I choose to step out and just be me. And that works for me.
Born in Montreal and raised in Toronto, Jessica Alex has a Joint Specialization in Sociology and Anthropology from Concordia University, and studied Marketing at George Brown College. With a passion for writing and a love of literature, Jessica started her own publishing company, Upon A Star Books Inc. to publish and promote books that are educational and/or inspirational for children and youth. Since then she has expanded her business with her new imprint Victorine Publishing™ and book marketing division, Jessica Alex Marketing. Jessica enjoys breaking down barriers, and currently is taking on the task of showing the world that quality self-published literature does exist.