As a young child, if someone were to ask me about my race, I would say with great pride: I am Black. Being the daughter of a Women’s Studies Professor definitely had its informative advantages – by the age of 6, I was familiar with heavy terms such as systemic racism, visible minority, and gender politics. This early exposure, untainted by perspectives of my peers, made me proud to identify as Black. Unfortunately, various life experiences caused this pride to waver. It never died completely, but at times it did temporarily burn out.
The first time my Black pride died was in fourth grade. I had just returned from Nigeria, and upon being re-introduced to an environment where being Black meant being Other, I realized that my identity was bizarre to those around me. At first, I did not realize the slight differences that caused my peers to distance themselves from me. However, when my rude awakening did happen, it altered the picture-perfect idea of my Blackness. It was my first day at a new school, and all I wanted was to be friends with the tattoo club girls, who would always be on the basketball court making cool designs for their temporary tattoos during recess. I distinctly remember mustering up all the courage I possibly could in order to approach them; more importantly, I remember my request being politely declined because the tattoos would not show up on my skin. After that, it became difficult to take pride in something that my peers considered strange – so I gave up embracing my identity in order to be accepted by them. I decided that I needed to re-define my Blackness, and I turned to the Internet for inspiration. At the time, I did not realize that re-defining such an important part of my identity in order to be accepted by my white counterparts would cause me to view being unapologetically Black as something to be ashamed of.
As an adolescent, if someone were to ask me about my race, I would pause and quietly admit that I was Black. I was no longer the young Black girl who ran around the house shouting, “sing it loud I’m Black and proud!” The girl who begged her mom to tell more stories about the Nigerian Civil War, and about the history of slavery in Canada, was gone. This young carefree Black girl was replaced by the Black girl that loved catfish, grape soda, and fried chicken, because the media told her that this was the acceptable way to embrace Blackness. This girl refused to have crushes on Black boys because she thought they would all eventually become “thugs” and “gangsters.” She idolized Cinderella and knew that her Prince Charming could only be white. She identified as stereotypically Black in order to be convenient for her white friends, but wished she was white so that she could be exactly like her idol, Cinderella. The media told her that her Blackness was only okay when it was stifled by the stereotypes created by whiteness to control Black people and Black bodies. Her Blackness was accepted only when she realized that she was ‘other,’ while whiteness was the standard. She accepted this as the truth because Cinderella did not look like her, but the characters who did were servants, antagonists, and clowns. She truly believed that in order to be the princess she wanted to be, she had to somehow achieve this standard called whiteness.
I know the effect of not having role models that look like you in the media, and for me it was a catastrophe. When you see people that look like you represented in a negative way, you begin to believe that there is something wrong with you. The shift from young pride and innocence is subconscious and slow, but before you know it you have stifled yourself in order to attain a certain standard that the media enforces. In times of self-doubt, I looked to my movie and TV show characters for an affirmation that my Blackness was acceptable. When I failed to find this affirmation, my ten-year-old self watched the movies with the white Disney princesses and began to idolize them. But my ten year old self looked nothing like her idols and this was a problem, because in order to become them, she had to look like them.
I say all this to emphasize the importance of events like the Montreal Black International Film Festival, which took place earlier this month. This annual festival allows Black artists and creators to express themselves in an area where they are often both underrepresented and misrepresented. Representation of Black people in the media is crucial because there are young Black children out there, watching and waiting for their next idol. They all need to know that not only are they acceptable, but they are beautiful and destined for excellence. In times when their non-Black peers question their Blackness, they need a Disney princess that looks like them so they know that they too are royalty. And lastly, they need to know that whiteness is not the default, and that Blackness is not the ‘other’. They need to be able to turn on the television and see a positive representation of someone who looks like them. These young people need to be aware that unapologetic Blackness is not only acceptable, but something to be proud of.
Chidera Ihejirika is a proud Nigerian Canadian in her second year at McGill University. She is an admirer of Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie and a lover of storytelling, dance and hiphop.