Not All Blacks Are American: Making Space for Other Perspectives within the Diaspora

by Bee Quammie

“Blackness is not a monolith.”

This statement has served as a teachable moment for those who allow stereotypes to colour their view. It’s functioned as a defense mechanism when I’ve felt the need to explain the way I take up space in this brown skin. And more recently, it’s become a tool used to bore a hole in the tapestry of current conversations around Blackness, allowing room for more global voices to be heard.

Since childhood, the majority of my conversations around Blackness centred on the African-American perspective. My school’s narrow Black History Month curriculum revolved solely around American changemakers. My consumption of Black images in media was a diet heavy in American output. Growing up in a small, predominantly White Canadian city close to the border, America beckoned with its Black hair products, Black makeup, and Black barbers who knew how to properly cut my father’s and brother’s hair. Through history, media, aesthetics, and proximity, my identity as a Black Canadian born into a Jamaican family became tied to Black American expressions. Sometimes this was a comfortable space. Other times, it seemed like a futile attempt to grasp something that wasn’t mine to hold.

In university, everything changed. It was there that I met Black people from other parts of Canada and across Africa, the Caribbean, and South America primarily. It was the first time in my life that Blackness was not automatically expressed through an American lens, and that created a tectonic shift in the layers of my identity. The concept of Blackness exploded into a beautiful kaleidoscope and a cacophony of noise—voices saying new things, the same things, uniting and dividing at will.

What is “Blackness”? What implications has “being Black” had on lives in Canada/America/Ghana/France/Barbados? How does class intersect with race? Who identifies as “Black”? Who rejects the label? Who replaces it with something else?

These questions and discussions arose constantly, and like the shake of the kaleidoscope, you never knew what you would get.

In my experience, American culture dominates much of the overall discussion and definitions around Blackness. Living outside of the U.S., it never fails to baffle me when non-Blacks politely refer to me as an African-American. Geographical irrelevance be damned; somehow, the term has become a politically correct placeholder for the word "Black." Conversely, I’ve been attracted to things that claim to represent or support all Black women, before realizing that the heavy American slant negates the wide-lens view that would be required for such a feat. A Google search of “Top 10 Black _______” usually yields results that tip more towards America than anywhere else in the Black Diaspora. As a content creator myself, I understand—you often produce what you know for who you know. But as a non-American Black woman who feels that other voices/histories/experiences are just as worthy, an extra level of effort is required to ensure there’s a place for them.

Us non-Americans contribute to the imbalance as well. Many look to Black America as the leader for what’s new, what’s hot, what’s next. Many don’t champion their own stars and icons until they’ve been given the American seal of approval. Many adopt American ideals, values, and aesthetics that differ from their native ones, and are affirmed in that action. Like my younger self, many gorge on the American expressions of Blackness that are available to us, either from a dearth of visible homegrown expressions, or from the sentiment that our expressions aren’t valid or popular.

Social media has become a vehicle for connection and discussion on the issues facing Black people around the world. We not only use it to learn about perspectives that differ from our own, but use it to connect with others back home in the countries we’ve left. However, it’s often reported that social media is just another avenue for America to don its “Leader of the Free World” hat in conversations across the board. All too often, spaces illuminating Black Diasporic issues attract Americans who feel the need to fix/educate/chastise others, leading to animosity, misunderstanding, and silencing. This sense of exceptionalism fails everyone, building barriers more difficult to overcome than the geographical ones that already exist.

How do we eliminate these disparities and find ways to more effectively amplify Black experiences around the world? The answer is multi-layered and easier said than done, but it requires in part the ability to listen respectfully, to speak honestly, and to know when it’s your time to do each one. It requires space to affirm ourselves and others. It requires feeling uncomfortable. It requires the ability to stop navel-gazing, to focus, and to take in the view of the world around you. It requires effort.

It requires us to ask, “We’re all worth it, aren’t we?”

It requires us to answer, “Yes.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Bee Quammie is a Toronto-based healthcare professional, writer, and founder of ‘83 To Infinity and The Brown Suga Mama. Recognized by Black Enterprise & the 2014 Black Canadians Awards for her digital work, Bee aims to live '83 To Infinity's motto: "It's never too late to learn something new, do something new, or be someone new." Follow her on Twitter: @BeeSince83.

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.