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Black is a problematic term

blackcolourOur ancestors would turn in their grave if they knew we had diluted ourselves to the word Black, and indeed African, writes Valerie Mason-John.

How the Blacks Created Canada is the title of a new book by my friend Fil Fraser. It has to be a must read, because there are books on how the Scots, the Italians, the English and everyone else who lay their claim to building Canada.

However my interest in Fil’s enlightening book is not just the subject matter, and learning how at one time the majority of Victoria BC was of African descent, and that in certain parts of Alberta over 50% of the people are African, my interest is in the title too: That the African and African Caribbean peoples are a colour, not a race. Or has Black become a race of people?

Problematising the word Black is something I enjoy. Because what does Black actually mean?

The word Black is used in so many ways. Many African or African descent people who came to live in Britain, say that they were stripped of their identity and became Black overnight, when they stepped off the ships and into Great Britain. They were never Black in their countries of origin, they were Nigerian, Trinidadian, Jamaican, Ghanaian and so forth.

I wonder if this is the case of the African, and African Caribbean-descent Canadians? Were they stripped of their race too? Or has Black become a political term for many, like in the UK where African and African Caribbean and some Asian (primarily East Indian peoples) people adopted this political reference which was influenced by the Black Panther movement in the USA?

Has Black just substituted the word coloured, though you do still hear that expression sometimes? Coloured is an interesting term. If we took this word literally it would refer to all humans on the planet. Unfortunately coloured became a derogatory term used towards non-white people.

How helpful is defining ourselves as Black? If someone says a Black person is coming to meet me, what does this tell me?

Nothing. I have no idea, culturally or racially, who will walk through my meeting room door. Similarly if someone said an African person was going to walk through the door, would I expect an Egyptian to open my door? This wouldn’t be my expectation, and even if it were, it would  not tell me much.

We have become defined by a continent. Europeans don’t define as a continent as much as we do. One doesn’t hear the expression European American, as much as we hear African American, for example.

So what has happened? Does this vague definition span back to slavery, when we were taken from all over the African continent, and treated as we were all the same? Are we aware even in our chains on that transatlantic crossing that some people refused to speak to each other because of tribal warfare?

In our darkest moments the pride of who we are, and where we originated from was tantamount to some of my ancestors’ survivals. And they would turn in their grave if they knew we had diluted ourselves to the word Black, and indeed African.

Valerie Mason-John is an author, playwright, performer, professional anger management and self-awareness trainer. She was named a major new talent in fiction by the UK media after the publication of her debut novel Borrowed Body in 2005. She is one of the Black British Contemporary writers listed on the British Council official website and has worked as an international correspondent covering Australian Aboriginal land rights and black deaths in custody.  

Valerie’s writing has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, The Voice and Morning Star. She was the editor of Feminist Arts News (1992-1997), co-author of Lesbians Talk: Making Black Waves (1993), editor of Talking Black: Lesbians of African and Asian Descent  Speak Out (1993), and the author of Detox Your Heart (2006) among other publications.  

More information about Valerie is at her website and she blogs here.

 

 

 

Comments   

0 #1 Gauche Sinister 2010-07-05 09:55
I think Black when used to describe culture or ethnicity is very problematic -- my pet peeve is when people use "community" as a euphemism for "race" (eg, "We really want to involve the Asian community"). And I don't know about Black or even African being used to describe individuals, particularly recent migrants and refugees, who are still connected to a particular nation. But I think it also has its place as a politicised term, that signifies broad alliance and solidarity -- like "people of colour". And for descendants of slaves who aren't connected to, or don't even know their ancestry, I think it's a term that recognises loss of identity and racialisation and serialisation into an amorphous mass.

I'm Shanghainese/Me lburnian -- I think that tells you a lot more about my own cultural position than Asian/Australia n, though you'd need to know a lot about my class positioning and subcultural affiliations and other identities to pinpoint that further -- but I'm also generically Asian, in that stereotypes about Cantonese and other Chinese and Japanese and Vietnamese and Korean people are applied to me as often as those that actually correspond to my experiences, and a person of colour in broad solidarity with all others who are non-consensuall y racialised.
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