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Recently, while trying to explain to me the myriad difficulties he faces and the hardships he experiences daily, my pro bono client chose to point out that he shares his living quarters with many black people. You know, he said, touching his cheek – people with black skin. He looked at me imploringly, as if to say, surely I understood how difficult this must be for him – a white man, an immigrant, not a thug or a criminal.
Someone else may have dismissed this remark, placed no greater significance on it than him pointing out that his bedroom was tiny and windowless, or that he had to wait a long time to use the shower.
But try as I might not to think about this remark for the rest of the day, it kept surfacing. His words sounding in my ears. His imploring facial expression appearing before my mind’s eye. Against my will, the familiar question would begin floating up from the depths where I keep it hidden, bursting on the surface of my immediate consciousness, my own incredulous inner voice not letting me just let it go, asking “What color did he think I was?” As soon as my mind posed that initial question, the others flowed rapidly. Does he not realize that I am black? Was it just an unintentional racist slip – the thing he complains about to his wife accidentally flopping out of his mouth in front of the wrong person? In his mind, does he segregate me from the people whose black skin he cites as the sole explanation for rendering his living situation undesirable? Am I a “different” black person, because I am a lawyer, educated, and young? Or does he in fact hold me in the same racist contempt, explaining any perceived shortcomings, and misunderstandings through my race, my skin color? Does he complain to his wife that his pro bono attorney is black?
Before moving to the United States, while living in Canada, I spent little time thinking about whether my skin color affected the way people perceived me or treated me. This is not because I was not “woke” or because Canada is some sort of post-racial utopia. As this Teen Vogue article about the Gerald Stanley trial which happened in my home-province of Saskatchewan indicates, Canada is far from such a utopia.
My race did not matter, because (1) I had the privilege of not belonging to the group forced to battle Saskatchewan’s ugly racist side – the Indigenous people, and; (2) before coming to Canada, I lived in Russia – an unapologetically racist country with a white mother, an African father, and a mostly white extended family who never defined me nor anyone we knew by race and vehemently denounced racist ideas and behaviors. Although I was always implored to act like a girl and reminded that girls did or did not do certain things, I was never corralled with any race-based rules. My parents ensured that even when I was openly targeted at school by Russian Neo-Nazis because of my skin color, I understood they were wrong because they had committed themselves to supporting something that was deeply anti-human, that was not tethered to reality, and had nothing to do with me. My race was never made to be important in the way that my gender was. As a result, I always identified as a girl first, Russian second, and mixed race last. Formative years spent in mostly white environments where I excelled and my only sense of non-belonging stemmed from my immigrant status further diminished race as a core source of identity or as a source of self-doubt.
Then I moved to the United States. Here race is everything. People expect you to do or not do, like or dislike certain things based on your skin color. All of a sudden, the amount of melanin your skin happens to have determines not only your status as insider or outsider, but also a whole collection of preferences that in reality have nothing to do with skin tone. In this country, the darker your skin, the less of an individual you get to be. I often found myself an outsider in groups where I was assumed to belong because the common denominator was our race, and race was a foil for certain cultural knowledge, which I just do not possess.
When the regular gunning down of black men and boys was all over the news, and law schools all over the country were pulled tight as a newly botoxed forehead, my law school held a sort of open forum, where people could voice their feelings about race and police brutality. Some sort of conversation had to happen. By the third speaker, I was bawling uncontrollably, and messily. A great damn had opened. For the first time in my life, I realized that it did not matter that I am intelligent, Ivy-league educated, well-travelled, an immigrant. My experiences, my preferences, my skills and abilities. None of it mattered, because in this country race is paramount. Here, when people look at me, they don’t see a woman, or a student, or a lawyer. They see a black woman, a black student, a black lawyer. And with that adjective, “black” comes a shitstorm of assumptions, narrow boxes, and beliefs. My accomplishments are diminished and qualified because I am black. My shortcomings and failures are amplified because I am black. My actions are reviewed through this “black” lens and a predetermined script of words and actions is assigned to me. I cease to be an individual or even a person – I am an actor, an embodiment of someone else’s racist ideas and beliefs.
I don’t think about this often. When I meet people for the first time, I do not think about the fact that they have probably made a lot of assumptions about me because I am black any more than I think about all the assumptions made about me because I am a girl, and dress a certain way and wear make-up. To think about this often would be debilitating. And life must go on. I remind myself that I am not my body. But I no longer have the privilege of not thinking about it at all.
It is a weird feeling indeed when the man you’re helping profusely thanks you and then thoughtlessly diminishes you seconds later. It’s a feeling of incredulousness, of discombobulation, a detachment of mind from body. It is a reminder of the great human accomplishment of widespread, ingrained racism, such that an educated foreign man from a faraway country can land in the United States and comfortably assume that his attorney can inherently understand why the heavy presence of black people where he lives is a terrible reality and an undesirable living condition for a man like him.