The Woyingi Blog

Article: Black History Month: A Challenge to My Fellow Muslims by Chelby Marie Daigle

For me, Black History Month is not only about celebrating the contributions of my fellow Black Canadians, it is about remembering the impact that the enslavement of Black peoples has had on Africa and the world. It’s about building on the strengths of the Black community in Ottawa by working across the socio-economic, religious, ethno-cultural, and linguistic differences of the diversity of individuals who make up our community. It’s about examining how anti-Black racism still exists within Canadian society and recommitting myself to challenging it by trying to understand why it persists and how it affects my life and the lives of my fellow Black Canadians.

This year, I was honoured to be invited to speak about youth engagement through arts and media at the launch of Black History Month at the City of Ottawa and I was humbled to be presented with a Community Builder Award by Black History Ottawa. For me, Black History Month has definitely started out with a bang.

I have been asked by Muslim Link to write a piece commemorating Black History Month. I feel obligated to take this opportunity to admit something: I often find it frustrating to be around Muslims during Black History Month. Why? Because, although there is often a celebration of Black converts to Islam, like Malcolm X, and condemnation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade perpetrated by the West, there is little, if any, examination of the history of slavery in Muslim societies or of the persistence of anti-Black racism within these societies as well as within Muslim communities in Canada. The reality is I have faced more blatant anti-Black racism from my fellow Muslims than I ever did growing up in a predominantly White community.

Anti-Black racism, which includes beliefs that Blacks are inherently less intelligent, more violent, lazier, dirtier, uglier and more sexually promiscuous than other races, is just as prevalent within Muslim societies as it is in the West, if not more so, because there have not been similar movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, aimed at combatting these prejudices, within Muslim societies.

Unfortunately, although Muslims will often cite the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, to demonstrate that racism is condemned in Islam, there isn’t really an examination of whether Muslims over the course of their history actually stuck to these beliefs.

It is important for Muslims to look deeper at their particular societies of origin in order to see how the enslavement of Black peoples in these societies has led to the development of anti-Black racism. For example, the fact that in several Arab dialects the word ‘abd, meaning slave, is used to refer to any Black person demonstrates that in these societies the equation of Black people with slaves still persists.

To read the my complete article visit Muslim Link

Further Reading:

Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery by John Hunwick (academic essay available online)

Religions and the abolition of slavery – a comparative approach by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)

Islam and Slavery by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)

Islamic Abolitionism in the Western Indian Ocean from c. 1800 by William G. Clarence‐Smith (academic essay available online)

“Slaves of One Master:” Globalization and the African Diaspora in Arabia in the Age of Empire by Matthew S. Hopper (academic essay available online)

Straight, No Chaser: Slavery, Abolition, and the Modern Muslim Mind by Bernard K. Freamon (academic essay available online)

Oxford African American Studies Center: Middle East Page

Race and Slavery in the Middle East Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire (American University Press in Cairo) Review by Gamal Nkrumah available online

Slavery and South Asian History (Indiana University Press)

Reflections: Gaddafi, Mandela and “African Mercenaries”

Posted in Black-Arab Relations, Blacks and Racism, Countries: Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, Nelson Mandela, Reflections by the woyingi blogger on February 23, 2011

You can compare Libya’s Gaddafi to Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak but for those of you who are “anti-imperialists” there is a particularly disturbing lesson here because Gaddafi was supposed to be “one of the good guys”.

Unlike the cases of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the case of Gaddafi really bothers me because it is clear that he has been, and continues to be, protected by some sort of Anti-Imperialist Old Boys Club who talk about justice but don’t seem to actually want to hold themselves or their parties or their “brother leaders” accountable for following it.

Mandela and Gaddafi

It’s easy to point fingers as Western Imperialists but if you can’t be accountable to your own people you are just as bad, perhaps even worst, because you came to power claiming to bring justice and go around the world saying you and your governments are examples to follow!!!

Gaddafi was/is often touted by the left as the Fidel Castro of the Middle East. He saw himself as a natural successor to Nasser‘s vision of Pan-Arabism. He used Libya’s oil money to support groups fighting for self-determination (such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the African National Congress (ANC).

Nelson Mandela was instrumental in helping Gaddafi resolve the Lockerbie Affair and regain easy relations with countries like Britain and the United States. Mandela shrugged off criticisms within South Africa and internationally, particularly from the United States, when he reached out to Gaddafi. He had this to say to his critics: “Those who say I should not be here are without morals. This man helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who say we should not come here were helping the enemy.” Clearly, Mandela’s support of Gaddafi is linked to Gaddafi’s support for the ANC during the Apartheid era.

Mandela was the first award winner of the Al Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights in 1989, an annual prize founded by Gaddafi himself (Other recipients include Lous Farrakhan, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Turkey’s Erdogan). Mandela returned the gesture by bestowing one of South Africa’s highest honours, the Order of Good Hope, on Gaddafi in 1997.

Gaddafi turned away from Pan-Arabism (mainly because most Arab Nations couldn’t be bothered with his nonsense nor could they be manipulated by him because they had their own oil money) to Pan-Africanism (African countries are much poorer and lacked as much oil money and therefore were ripe for manipulation) He proposed the idea of the United States of Africa. The extent to which Gaddafi has been involved in financing conflicts in Africa is truly horrifying (Chad, Niger, Uganda, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo)

David Maynier of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition to South Africa’s ruling Part the African National Congress (ANC) has accused the South African government of having sold sniper rifles to Libya, although South Africa’s Minister of Defense and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu denies this.

Allegedly, African Mercenaries have been flown into Libya to attack protesters. Who are these African Mercenaries? The question might be asked “Aren’t Libyans Africans? That depends on who you ask. Often when the term African is used it means “Sub-Saharan” African ergo Black-Skinned. The fact that Gaddafi has many Sub-Saharan African Mercenaries at his disposal should come as no surprise. Such mercenaries have been trained in camps funded by the Libya Government across Sub-Saharan Africa. As Jose Gomez del Prado with the United Nations Human Rights Council states:

You can find, particularly in Africa, many people who’ve been in wars for many years. They don’t know anything else. They are cheap labour, ready to take the job for little money. They are trained killers.

But it’s important to not dehumanize these “mercenaries”.  One of the central characters in Nigerian author Helon Habila’s novel Measuring Time is one of these mercenaries. He begins as just a young man looking to escape the dead-end poverty of life in his small village in Nigeria. He joins a Libyan-funded training camp and eventually ends up as a mercenary in Liberia. There, his conscience shaken to the core, he finds redemption.  However, the poverty of these mercenaries doesn’t justify their violence against Libyans.

What really worries me is that preexisting prejudices against Blacks in Libya, given the long history of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade, will erupt in violence against innocent Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers in Libya who already face discrimination and harassment. In 2000, violence against Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers by Libyan Citizens left allegedly 135 people dead. In an interview with the LA Times in 2000, one Ghanaian migrant worker had this to say about Gaddafi and the Libyan people:

“President Kadafi has a good idea, but his people don’t like blacks, and they don’t think they are Africans because of their skin color,” said Kwame Amponsah, 22. He spent three months in Libya before fleeing in October, returning to Ghana’s poor southwestern agricultural Brong-Ahafo region. As many as 80% of the nation’s returnees hail from this area, according to authorities.

Currently, the number of Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers living in Libya is estimated at over 1 million (Libya has a population of over 6 million). They often work in sectors such as construction and agriculture.

I pray for the freedom of Libya’s people and the safety and security of the migrant workers living there.

Further Reading:

Muammar Gaddafi

WikiLeaks cables: A guide to Gaddafi’s ‘famously fractious’ family (2011 article in The Guardian available online)

Gaddafi Urges Pan-African State (2007 article from BBC News available online)

Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights Website

Human Rights Watch: Libya: Security Forces Kill 84 Over Three Days

Gaddafi and Mandela: Brother Leaders

Mandela Welcomes Brother Leader Gaddafi (article from BBC News available online)

Strategic Moral diplomacy: Mandela, Qaddafi and the Lockerbie Negotiations by Lyn Boyd Judson (2005 essay University of South California) 

A Medal of Good Hope: Mandela, Gaddafi and the Lockerbie Negotiations by Lyn Boyd Judson (2004 essay from the University of Southern California)

Sub-Saharan African Migrant Workers in Libya

Migrant Workers from Ghana Flee Libya, Cite Racism (LA Times article 2000 available online)

Libya`s post-sanctions boom makes it African El Dorado (2009 article available online)

Has Gaddafi unleashed a mercenary force on Libya? by David Smith (2011 article from The Guardian available online)

Trans-Saharan Migration to North Africa and the EU: Historical Roots and Current Trends by Hein de Haas (2006 article available online)

Reflections: Ottawa’s Children of the Revolution

Posted in Countries: Egypt, Countries: Tunisia, Reflections by the woyingi blogger on February 21, 2011

The Arab population of Ottawa, according to the 2006 Census, is 45,245, making them one of Ottawa’s largest racialized communities. The vast majority of Ottawa’s Arab population originate from Lebanon. Many of Ottawa’s Arabs are youth. In the wake of the recent revolutions sweeping the Arab World, which includes countries in Africa, I’ve felt like reflecting on these revolutions and their impact on Ottawa’s Arab communities, particularly its youth.

Let’s start with Tunisia. Tunisia, if people in the West even knew about this small North African country with its great beaches, had been perceived as relatively stable and peaceful and there wasn’t much concern for its politics as long as they weren’t Islamist. I only learned about Tunisia when I befriended a family of Tunisian political refugees who were living in my neighbourhood about ten years ago. I have come to consider them my chosen family and over the course of our friendship I had to research evidence of political persecution of Opposition party members and their families in Tunisia in order to support their Refugee claim. I once even attended a forum organized by other Tunisian political dissidents with members of the Bloc Quebecois in Parliament Hill. But the impact of Tunisia’s political oppression wasn’t brought home to me by any of this. It was the poetry of the eldest daughter’s of this family, who had spent most of her life in exile from her homeland. Since she was a child she would write poetry and hip hop verses about social justice, her uncle who was a political prisoner in Tunisia, and her hope for the country’s future. I always thought that this was heavy stuff for such a young girl to write about, but as I came to know more families in Ottawa’s Arab communities, I realized that many of Ottawa’s Arab youth were highly aware of the political oppression and lack of economic opportunities that led to their parents choosing to raise them in Canada.

Although the root causes of revolution in Tunisia were high unemployment, rising inflation of food prices, government corruption, and the often violent suppression of freedom of speech and political opposition groups, it appears that the revolution in Tunisia was sparked, literally, by the self-immolation of a street vendor from the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17th 2010 (He would eventually die from his injuries on January 4th 2011). Mohamed Bouazizi had tried to complain to government authorities after being beaten and having his wares confiscated by local police but the governor refused to listen to him so Bouazizi, after stating that if no one would speak to him he would set himself on fire, went out, got some accelerant (it’s not clear whether it was gasoline or paint thinner) and set himself on fire in front of a local government building. The Tunisian revolution began with protests in Sidi Bouzid, as friends and family, outraged by the events the precipitated Bouazizi’s death, began to protest. Eventually, these protests moved into more cosmopolitan centres in the country, eventually leading to President Ben Ali, who had been President of Tunisia since November 1987, when he took power from then President Habib Bourguiba (who himself had been in power since 1957!) in a bloodless coup d’état, to flee from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia (That brings to mind another alleged African dictator who retired to Saudi Arabia…Idi Amin).

In Cairo, a 49 year old restaurant owner Abdo Abdel Hameed was driven to commit suicide by setting fire to himself in front of the Egyptian Parliament after the government denied him Bread Coupons. He died on January 17th. For those who have watched 26 year old Egyptian activist and protest organizer Asmaa Mahfouz’ impassioned Video Blog, recorded and posted on her Facebook on January 18th, which subsequently went viral, you know that Hameed’s death was driving force for her. But Asmaa wasn’t new to activism, as she is also a member of the Egyptian Facebook Group the April 6th Youth Movement and this Facebook Group is all about Action.

According to the 2006 Census for Ottawa-Gatineau there are 3, 580 Egyptians in Ottawa. Relatively more affluent and highly educated than Ottawa’s other Arab communities, I was curious to see how they might end up calling on the Canadian government to support the revolution (although I also knew that not all of Ottawa’s Egyptians supported seeing him go.) At the beginning of January, the community felt the effects of the Alexandria Church Bombing, which killed 21 people and wounded 80. Father Shenouda Boutros, leader of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church which is only a few blocks up the road from where I live, had grown up attending the Alexandria Church and was later a priest there. Local Coptic Churches held commemorations for those who were killed and expressed concern that copycat attacks might be made on their churches, concerns with the Ottawa Police Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Canadian Government took quite seriously.

Then the revolution came. A major Egyptian Gala was cancelled as community members felt it was inappropriate to have a big luxurious party while the country was in turmoil. I became curious to know what was happening on the ground in Egypt. I contacted Ottawa-born Iraqi-Canadian Associated Press journalist Hadeel Al-Shalchi (We know each other from high school) to see if she was alright. I checked up on Friends, Egyptian and Somali who had family living in Cairo. I read Facebook posts from Sarah Ghabrial about her mother, a Copt doctor’s, experiences helping the wounded in Tahrir Square (Liberation Square). I got an e-mail from a well-known Ottawa Egyptian community organizer asking for people to prey for her son who had decided to drop everything and jump on a plane to Egypt to join the protesters in Tahrir Square…she was both scared for and proud of him.

I wanted to know what some key Egyptian Intellectuals I follow felt about the revolution. Given Western perceptions of Mubarak’s regime somehow being a bastion for women’s rights in the face of the menace of the Muslim Brotherhood (as if that was the only Egyptian Oppostion Party), I was eager to hear from Nawal el Saadawi, the Egyptian feminist who had been imprisoned under Sadat and highly censored under Mubarak. I was surprised to learn that at 80, she was still as mad as ever and attending protests in Tahrir Square. In a telephone interview with journalist Sholeh Irani, el Saadawi had this to say about people’s fears of fundamentalists taking over Egypt:

We are not afraid of Islamic fundamentalists. You must know that millions of men and women are on the streets. It is not about right or left, about Islamists or any other political movement. People are frustrated about poverty and Mubarak’s regime. No political party has started this revolt. This is a spontaneous movement. But all political movements are trying to be part of it now. Now when people are out bringing a change, both right and left want to join. People have finally taken to streets to cry in unison demanding freedom, social justice, integrity, independence and equality. What is going on now is a movement that belongs to the young people and nobody else.

I then went looking for interviews and articles by Gamal Nkrumah, the son of Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah and his Copt Egyptian wife Fathia Rizk. Gamal is the International Affairs Editor of Al Ahram Weekly, Egypt’s leading English-Language Newspaper. I found an interview with him from Voice of America on January 31st 2011 in which he seemed pessimistic about the prospects of Mubarak stepping down. After Mubarak stepped down, Gamal wrote an interesting article in Al Ahram reflecting on the possibilities of Egypt after Mubarak:

Egypt is a country now poised to find itself in fresh diplomatic stand-offs with old foes, Israel for instance. Two questions arise. Can the Egyptian economy pivot quickly to find new sources of growth other than tourism and revenues from the Suez Canal? For Egypt to play a greater economic role in Africa, the democratically elected government resulting from people power will have to make a concerted drive on a series of structural reforms. It will also hark back to the days when as a new focus on Egypt’s traditional post-1952 Revolution role as a pioneer of African liberation, a trendsetter of revolution and anti-imperialism.

He goes on to quote Fidel Castro:

By the end of World War II, Egypt was under the brilliant governance of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who together with Jawaharal Nehru, heir of Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré — African leaders who together with Sukarno, then president of the recently liberated Indonesia — created the Non- Aligned Movement of countries and advanced the struggle for independence in the former colonies,” commented Cuba’s Fidel Castro in the wake of the 25 January Revolution. “The death of Gamal Abdel-Nasser on 28 September 1970 was an irreversible setback for Egypt.

Considering that Castro himself could easily be considered a dictator, I find his inclusion in this article as a champion of anti-imperialism funny but not surprising given Gamal Nkrumah’s pedigree. He quotes other Western political leaders including President Barack Obama who had this to say about the January 25th Revolution:

Egyptians have inspired us. They have done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence — not terrorism, not mindless killing — but nonviolence, moral force, that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.

I was most interested in what he had to say about Mubarak’s relationship with Sudan’s Al-Bashir. Considering that the January 25th Revolution followed closely after the referendum of Southern Sudanese who have chosen to secede from Northern Sudan, offering another example of an oppressed people fighting and winning their right to self-determination, I’m surprised that Egypt’s relationship with Sudan hasn’t been discussed more in the media :

It is no secret that there was little love lost between President Al-Bashir of Sudan and ex-president Mubarak. The latter suspected Al-Bashir’s connivance in the failed assassination attempt on Mubarak during a state visit to Ethiopia to attend an African Union summit. Al-Bashir also privately accused Mubarak’s regime of tacit complicity in the secession of South Sudan. Numerous Sudanese suspected that Egypt’s failure to play a positive and decisive role in Nile Basin politics in the past three decades and its wishy-washy and pussy-footed attitude towards intervention in domestic Sudanese political affairs led to the country’s break-up. Few in Sudan regret Mubarak’s demise. The consensus among African leaders is that they should support his departure from the continent’s political arena.

Despite all this, I got most of my information about the Egyptian Revolution from the Facebook Posts of my young Arab Facebook Friends. Many Canadian Arab youth, no matter how long they have lived in Canada, follow Arab Media sites and have connections with friends and family members who still live in their home countries, so their sources of information on events in the Arab World are far more diverse and can range from a CNN report by Anderson Cooper to an in interview on Al Jazeera by Riz Khan, to a blog post by their cousin Mo, to a video recored on a cellphone by their sister Fatima. And just as I was able to learn from these posts, so were other Facebook Friends. Although I think the idea of a Twitter Revolution is highly overrated, I don’t underestimate the power of friendships, real friendships to change global opinion. The fact that Ottawa has so many Arabs, many of them youth, has and will continue to effects the perceptions of the Arab World in this city. The generation of young people who attend high schools-both English and French as Ottawa’s Arabs, like Ottawa’s Africans, often bridge the Two Linguistic Solitudes of this city-and post-secondary institutions with Arab youth, they will come to learn their stories, their parents’ stories, and their perspectives on political and economic issues in the Arab World.

Needless to say, my chosen Tunisian family is overjoyed with the ouster of Ben Ali, and the mother and eldest daughter can be seen protesting in solidarity with other Arab communities as they demonstrate on behalf of democracy in their respective countries. At a recent protest organized by local Libyans, the eldest daughter wore the Tunisian flag as a cape.

What next? Who knows? One thing is for sure, the West’s perceptions of the Arab World have changed forever, Egyptian Youth, hijabs and all, just got touted as The Generation Changing the World in Time Magazine. Arab youth changing the world? I wonder what that could mean for the City of Ottawa?

Further Reading:

Mohammed Bouazizi

How a Single Match Can Ignite a Revolution by Robert F. Worth (article from The New York Times available online)

The Power of One by Ben Macintyre (article from The Ottawa Citizen)

Asmaa Mahfouz

The Famous Video Blog available online

Interview (2011) with Asmaa Mahfouz in The New York Times available online

Interview (2011) with Asmaa Mahfouz available online

Video Interview (2011) with Asmaa Mahfouz for MEMRI TV about using Facebook to Take Action, with English Subtitles Transcript of the interview available online

Alexandria Coptic Church Bombing

Coptic parish unites after attack in Egypt by J. Lafaro (article from Metro News available online)

Ottawa Coptic Events Cut Short Over Boming CBC News article available online

Room for religion and rights article available online by Gamal Nkrumah in response to the Alexandria Church Bombing

Egypt’s New Era: Copts Hope for More Freedom, video report by Al Jazeera available online

Nawal el Saadawi

In Tahrir Square (article available online)

Interview (2011) with Rebecca Walker available online

Interview (2011) with Democracy Now! available online

Video Interview (2011) with Riz Khan on Al Jazeerha available online

Video Interview (2011) with Nicholas D. Kristof for The New York Times available online

Interview (2011) by Sholeh Irani available online

Gamal Nkrumah

Room for religion and rights (article available online)

World of Words (article available online)

Undying Legacy: Reflections 40 Years After Nasser’s Passing (article available online)

Interview (2011) with Voice of America

Do Black Votes Matter? A Young Black Woman’s Reflections on Ottawa’s Municipal Election

I will be voting on Monday but frankly, I am not even sure it matters. I feel awful saying this as someone who works at encouraging members of my low-income housing project to become more civically engaged. But as a young Black woman, I really don’t think my vote matters to politicians and despite the fact that I come from one of the largest visible minority communities in Ottawa, I also come from one of the poorest and throughout this election I have heard politicians talking to those with wealth, those who own houses, those who earn enough disposable income to invest in their campaigns. Not people like me. But one positive aspect of this election has been the number of Black candidates who are running.

Read the rest of my post on rabble.ca

Day in the Life: What does being Black Canadian mean to me?

Posted in Black African Diaspora Literature, Day in the Life, Poems, Reflections, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on February 21, 2010

I was asked to present a one-minute testimonial about what being a Black Canadian means to me at the launch of Black History Month in Ottawa on January 31st at the National Library and Archives. The event was organized by Black History Ottawa.

The truth is there is no way I could answer this question in a minute. Actually, this blog is my attempt at answering this question.

What I decided to do was write a poem. I don’t presume to be a poet but I feel that poetry can often convey complex ideas and emotions more effectively than plain speech in a short period of time. It took me about 5 minutes to write the poem. Here it is:

Before I was a year old

My father was deported

Transported back across an ocean

To his homeland Nigeria

Never again to return to Canada

I grew up Black in Ottawa

Uncertain of my African roots

But aware that I was here and he was there

And so many others were there who wanted to be here

And it’s unfair

So I was burdened with a sense of guilt for being on the plus side

Of the Haves and Have Nots

I saw every opportunity Canada granted me

As a luxury it wasn’t my right to afford

But as I grew older I realized that punishing myself for the sins of a system

I did not create helps no one

So I now grab every opportunity this country offers me

In the hope that I can make equality a reality for those here and there

The Haves and Have Nots

So that these opportunities do not become simply luxuries

For those who can afford them

And this struggle against adversity

Is what being a Black Canadian has come to mean to me

Gerard Etienne

My testimonial was right before the testimonial of a certain Gerard Etienne and we were seated together to wait for our cue to go on stage. I was struck by the name as it is the same as the Haitian novelist Gerard Etienne.

Gerard Etienne fled Haiti in 1964 after spending time in prison under the Duvalier Dictatorship. He taught in Acadia and is still credited for having an impact on Acadian society. Etienne, who is best known for his novel Le nègre crucifié, also is a convert to Judaism. In 2011, there will be a colloquium dedicated to his life and work in Israel.

However, the Gerard Etienne I was sitting beside looked far too young to be the same person. While conversing in French, I mentioned that he had the same name as the famous Haitian novelist. “He is my father.” What a small world! However, I was sad to learn that his father had passed away in 2008. It was obvious that Gerard Etienne fils was still deeply grieved by this loss. We didn’t have much time to chat aside from Etienne explaining that he went into a career in Economics, quite different from his father’s artistic path. We exchanged contact information and I hope to someday discuss his father’s life and work in more depth with him.

Ottawa is interesting in that way, there are a lot of connections with great minds from the entire Black diaspora hiding away in this city. A lot of people complain about how boring and unengaged the Black community in Ottawa is. But, as this is my home town, I have always felt that Ottawa was small enough but diverse enough to really begin to understand just what it means to be part of the Black African Diaspora. Everyone is here, you just have to take the time to find them.

White Trash Pride: On Being a Black Girl Growing up with Poor White Folks

There are Black people and then there are niggers.

There are White people and then there are White trash.

(I’m pretty sure Chris Rock said this)

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I used to have a bag covered in pins. I couldn’t be found without it. My pins were mostly slogans declaring my political positions: anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-censorship, feminism, etc. But one of my pins read: Poor White Trash. That really confused people for obvious reasons. How can a Black girl be White Trash? Well, I am.

You see, my mother is White and I was raised on welfare in a social housing project. White moms with Black kids were pretty common in our neighborhood. At that time, there weren’t many Black adults in the neighbourhood, but there were a lot of mixed race kids. Sometimes their dads would come to visit, mostly Jamaicans, but most wouldn’t stay around for long. Papa was a rolling stone as they say. And mama would move on to the next Black dude.  These women, along with my mother, were pretty proud of their collection of mixed raced kids. Sure, they had no idea what to do with our hair so I spent most of my childhood and early teens with totally jacked-up hair but they all thought we were goregous. Actually, I only really started doubting my cuteness when I got around Black people, who ridiculed my nappy-ass hair and the darkness of my complexion. I just wasn’t very light for a mix in their opinion.

No one in my neighbourhood thought I was adopted like all the middle class White teachers at school. The concept that a Black child could come from a White woman seemed to boggle their minds. But that wasn’t so in our White Trash neighbourhood, dubbed Welfareland by both teachers and more well-off students at my elementary school. Most of the kids from my neighbourhood, and other social housing communities in the area, were put into remedial education for low academic performance or behavioural issues. These kids were mostly White, with some Natives and mixed race kids like me thrown into the bunch. I didn’t get put into remedial despite all the school’s efforts to get me in there. My IQ was too high. But I still had to put up with harassment and ridicule from teachers and guidance counsellors who would tell me that I wouldn’t amount to anything, that I was just going to end up on welfare like my mother. This was pretty much told to everyone from our neighbourhood.

And I believed them. Part of me still does.

You see, we were trash and we knew it. Our parents knew it too. Most of them hadn’t finished high school and they didn’t expect us to. Things like finishing high school were just not options for people like us. It just didn’t seem like part of our reality. I was raised with the expectation that if I was lucky, I would get a job at a department store and not have to live on welfare. That was the best that could be hoped for. My mother expected me to be pregnant by 16. I was never expected to get married or even have a regular partner. A steady man wasn’t necessary to have a child.

As much as people have this idea that people enjoy living on welfare it is really not true. Growing up, I always felt that the adults around me were consumed with a deep sense of self-loathing which sometimes resulted in pretty self-destructive behaviour. We as kids didn’t have many boundaries. We could be out at all hours because our parents were partying and too high or drunk to put us to bed. The partying was just a distraction; a way to get their minds off of their self-loathing. I understood that as a child

But good things came out of the chaos. Racism at that time wasn’t tolerated in our neighbourhood. One man who called me and another Black child niggers got his window smashed in retaliation by the local bikers who were my neighbours at the time. When Heritage Front, a Canadian Neo-Nazi group, came to our neighbourhood looking to recruit poor frustrated White men, they were beaten with baseball bats and chased out of the neighbourhood by my White neighbours. I felt protected.

Although I still live in the same social housing community I grew up in, my way of life has changed dramatically. I work to support myself. University is something I want to pursue, although I have no idea when I’ll ever finish it and often feel like giving up on the pipe dream. Getting pregnant without being married is no longer an option because I’ve become a Muslim (Not to say that Muslims don’t get pregnant out of wedlock because trust me they do). I don’t sit outside watching my neighbours smoke and drink themselves into unconsciousness anymore. Becoming a Muslim has really distanced me from the people who were my elders growing up. This separation is probably for my own good but I do miss those childhood days in my community, as dysfunctional as they really were.

My White Trash cultural background separates me from most Black people in Ottawa. Most of them identify with the values of their parents from Somalia or the Caribbean, values like hard work, dignified conduct, and sexual propriety. Values often in strict opposition to the blatant lack of values exhibited by the behaviour of the poor whites they saw. Most Black people I know grew up working class often looking down on Whites on welfare as lazy debauched losers who were willfully ignorant for not taking advantage of the privileges their Whiteness and Canadian Identity supposedly offered them on a silver platter.

Similar resentment exists among most people of colour I know and interact with and I find it all pretty alienating. I can’t relate to their experiences and they can’t relate to mine. For a long while I just pretended that I saw things the way they did but I really didn’t. Class has always been more my concern than Race. I don’t believe in a hierarchy of oppressions so it’s not that I think racism is less important than classism. It’s just that I feel personally more affected by classism. Class has been a key factor in the formation of my identity and self-esteem. During the reign of Mike Harris as Premier of Ontario you could really see how much people hated us because we were on social assistance. It was all over the news and in the newspapers. Such hatred and contempt, like we were the scum of the earth. When I write or talk about my experiences of classism growing up as a child tears always come to my eyes. That doesn’t happen when I discuss my experiences of racism. This is just my reality. Class issues are often ignored by finanicially privileged people of colour, particularly in the left-wing activist community I’ve been involved with because it’s all about who’s the biggest underdog. You don’t want to have to admit that in many contexts you are actually more privileged than some White people. I pretty much avoid activism centred around the “people of colour” identity now because I just can’t relate to this analysis. I’ve been accused of being too “White Identified”, whatever that means.

Well, fine, I am. I’m White Trash identified.

It seems we always need to put other people down to make ourselves feel better. So sometimes poor Whites discriminate against people of colour in order to make themselves feel better and sometimes people of colour discriminate against poor Whites in order to make themselves feel better. It’s all really petty and pathetic when you look at it that way.

My cultural background also distances me from most Muslims. For one thing, I was raised in an extremely morally lax environment. Although I wouldn’t want to raise my own children in such an environment I also don’t think I want my children to be as sheltered as many of my Muslim friends were growing up. Frankly, some of their childhoods sound down-right Victorian in their prudery. Sure, I don’t want my daughter to grow up unmarried with three kids from different fathers but I also don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that such a woman is trash and has nothing to offer the world or if for some reason they ended up in this situation I wouldn’t still love them. There seems to be an anxiety around appearances, reputation and saving face in Muslim communities which I just can’t relate to. I wasn’t raised that way. It’s totally alien to me. I hate it frankly. Which means that I will probably never marry into any of these communities. For one thing, no one wants a Black girl from a White Trash family as a daughter-in-law. Particularly one who isn’t deeply ashamed of her background. I refuse to be ashamed.

I will always be something of an outsider. I only feel really at home with other people like me, people who grew up on welfare, no matter what colour they are. We often have similar issues: depression, an overwhelming sense of self-doubt and lack of self-worth, the ability to give up easily, some tendencies towards self-destruction. We are often deeply cynical and suspicious of the motives of do-gooder activist types. We are often laughing and cracking jokes…we use humour to survive.  It’s a White Trash thing.