In our February blog, Nathan Utioh, Residence Life Coordinator, narrates his experience as a biracial person and analyses the impact of an interesting journey of re-learning
I grew up in a small town in rural Manitoba, the younger of two- my mom is a white woman who grew up in the prairies and my dad is a black man who emigrated from Nigeria. Apart from the kids of my parents’ friends, I do not remember other black kids at my school through elementary years and none in my class until high school. It is not an understatement to recognize that I was limited in the scale of diversity I was exposed growing up.
At the same time, I know the smells of my dad’s fufu and pepper soup and can hear the rhythm of the music he would play around the house. So, while being biracial, I was always comfortable self-identifying as Black and while knowing that my brother and I were different, I didn’t think much about or contend with my identity.
Fast forward to 2016. For the first time, I am going to Nigeria with my Dad to stay where he was raised, meet my Nigerian family for the first time, and see how he came to grow from “the poorest family in the village” to leaving for Canada on a scholarship.
In meeting a side of my family I had never seen or spoken with I was embraced as though we had known each other our entire lives. Regardless of this being my first visit, I immediately knew I was home and felt like one of the family. That said, at times when we were out in the city, I overheard on a few occasions people gesture and say something in my direction. I had to ask my dad what they were saying, I was told they were commenting about me being ‘a White person’ walking about the area.
This was the first time I had ever been referred to as White, even though I knew that some biracial people do identify themselves as white or hold a protean identity[i], shifting between Black, White, and biracial. For me, I was thrown back a little, even a little defensive as I felt as though my identity was being challenged. Over time I have been rethinking my understanding of my identity, coming to recognize that the reason why I was thrown was because of my own internalized racism[ii]. I felt that because I grew up in a predominantly White community and didn’t have a strong connection with a Black community I wasn’t “Black enough.”
The problem with this reasoning is of course, that race is a social construct and I don’t have a right to expect that strangers with cultural and ethnic experiences that differ from my own need to see me as one who shares a common identity. Yes, on the one hand, being in White dominated spaces means that as I continue to unlearn how I think about race and identity, I still identify as Black; living in White dominated spaces I will always be aware of how I exist in that context. On the other hand, because of shadeism and internalized White supremacy, there are barriers and biases that I may not face.
So in the years since my visit home I have been taking stock of the biases and beliefs that I have been putting on myself and other people of colour. I make more time to expose myself to the voices and experiences of other people – reminding myself that I can have my perspectives shaped by my experiences without minimizing or diminishing the stories of others. Often our friend groups look like us and are fairly homogenous[iii], so I try to put myself in situations where I can continue to learn.
In my work I continue to advocate for ways that we can increase the diversity of our team and create spaces to ensure that the staff from underrepresented communities feel welcome and supported. I also get involved in committee work and seek training that is focused on inclusion on campus.
For you, here are a few easy ideas that you can try:
– Read a more diverse slate of authors
– Complete training offered by the Human Rights and Equity Office
– Seek opportunities to learn from others both on campus and in the community
– Elevate the voices of those who are asking for change to make Queen’s feel like home
I am appreciative of the opportunity to more thoughtfully consider my identity as a Black biracial person, the context I live in as it relates to systems of oppression, and how I can be more actively involved in anti-oppression work in my life. The opportunity to unlearn some of the biases and beliefs we carry around identity and to relearn how to be anti-racist in our actions will help us think about the impact of the work that we do. I know that it has for me.
[i] Rockquemore, K., & Brunsma, D. L. (2008). Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 39.
[ii] Bivens, D. Internalized Racism: a definition. Racial Equity Tools. Retrieved from: https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/bivens.pdf
[iii] Jones, R. P., Navarro-Rivera, J. and Cox, D. Race, Religion, and Political Affiliation of Americans’ Core Social Networks. PRRI. 2016