Oreo Identity Crisis
May 19th, 2017
Twenty-three years of doing a particular activity every day should make one an expert. If I told someone I had been an accountant or a chimney sweep for over two decades, it'd be safe to assume I knew exactly what I was doing. I have been a black woman for twenty-three (and a half) years, and I can honestly say that I still don't have it figured out.
Living a life at the intersection of race and gender means living a life where other people have defined a lot of your identity. The majority, a prestigious club of people who are nothing like you and yet have the power to set your place in society. So I ruminate over this question: What does it mean to be a black woman in Canada today? I should know the answer; I've been doing it for over two decades. But I don't know. My journey with my identity has not been an easy one. For years, I considered my skin nothing but a burden. I disassociated from my race and ethnicity in hopes of just fitting in. Hard as those years were, they brought me to here. Taking ownership of my Blackness and learning to make my own definition of what it means to be a Black Woman.
The first time I questioned the authenticity of my skin colour, I was four years old. My family was living in Chester Le, a neighborhood in Toronto that if you Google today, most of the hits that come up involve criminal activity. My older brother had picked me up from school and we were discussing the exciting day I'd had in junior kindergarten. I was explaining to my brother that we had been studying colors and that I was now an expert. "You know I'm not black." I said with confidence. This caught his attention. "What?" "My skin is brown," I clarified. "Like the Crayola marker. I'm brown." My brother laughed. He tried to explain to me that we were black despite our skin being brown but I stayed firm, I was an expert on those colors. It didn't make sense to me then and it doesn't now. When I look at my skin, I see a color I am told is brown. But when I fill out surveys for Census Canada, I am told I am black. So which is it? And whom do I ask? Who is in charge of assigning our identity?
By the age of six, my family uprooted and moved to Montreal. My comfort zone was transplanted from the familiar corners of Scarborough to the pristine streets of the West Island of Montreal. In the blink of an eye, the ecology of my neighborhood had drastically changed. In Chester Le, there were so many black families that no one ever thought twice about it. All of a sudden, we were one of the only families of color for blocks. At six, I didn't yet understand what that meant. I would learn as I got older what kind of pressure that put on my parents as they were raising us.
I started at a new school and made tons of new friends. Other students would inquire curiously about my strange homemade lunches. The teachers would struggle with pronouncing my last name. In this white suburban public school, I was an anomaly. Every day it was something else about me that reminded me I was different; my hair, the language we spoke at home, all of it different. I was six years old and fed up with being othered.
When I got to high school, it only got worse. I tried my hardest to assimilate to white culture. I stopped putting my hair in braids or wearing it natural. I permed and pressed and burned my kinky curls into straight submission. I refused to wear any type of cultural African dress, I didn't eat African food outside of the house and I didn't speak the languages. Hard as I tried, I could not run from my Blackness. And because of it I would never just blend in. By the time I was sixteen, I was daydreaming of which white boy I would marry and claim his last name as my own. I could not wait to be Rachel Miller or Rachel O'Sullivan. At sixteen, I knew nothing of true racial discrimination. I did not know yet that my curriculum vitae would pass on desks of potential managers and bosses, who would see my African last name and dismiss me. That perhaps if I had become Rachel O'Sullivan, I could have benefited from a small amount of privilege granted by a name.
Hate as I may to admit it, but sixteen was not that long ago for me. I still have vivid memories of the comments some of my peers made in school. I can still remember the hot rush on my face burning with embarrassment when someone made a black joke. I still hear the voice dismissing me as overly sensitive because I didn't laugh. It pains me to think of that self-inflicted suffering I struggled with for all those years. I hurt when I think of all the time I wasted being uncomfortable in my own skin. The time I spent wishing I could have been born just a little bit lighter so that life could have been just a little bit easier. All those years spent trying to run from my skin, I have somehow developed a thicker one. Because all of that lead me to here: finding comfort being on a stage as an actor and intertwining my race with my art. Exploring the intricacies of being a black woman through my work in the theatre has been a healing process. Longing to follow in the footsteps of great black women in the arts has given me something to strive for. Now, as an actor and a writer, I am committed to telling the stories that give voice to the black female experience. The voice I shied away from for so long, I am now using to shout off every rooftop.
I cannot say definitively what it means to be a black woman in Canada, because I am still discovering it. I know that it is a journey, and it means releasing yourself from any definition of your identity by anyone who is not you. It means embracing life at the intersection, but not being afraid to admit when you want to run from it. It means never letting setbacks keep you back, and always knowing that you are more than enough.
Rachel Mutombo is an actor and writer based in Montreal, QC.