Racial identity is a matter of perspective.
Growing up I never thought much about race. As a young MC I was part of a group that consisted of a diverse mixture of races - Caribbean, African American, Native American, Central and South American (pretty much all of the "Americans"), White and Asian - we were a grab bag of various cultures. For years we worked together in chaotic harmony and through all of the disagreements and arguments we engaged in, very rarely did our racial differences ever emerge as a point of contention or topic of conversation.
In one of the rare moments where the festering sore that is racial seclusion was brought to our attention, it was quickly dismissed and humorously poked at until it was pushed deep down beneath the layers of stupidity and noise that we all generally ignore every day.
It was during the summer when we were at the peak of our popularity as local artists, not so much for our music but more because we wreaked havoc wherever we went and gave zero fucks about anything in our path. We were hanging out at the city's most prominent one stop hip-hop shop one day when it happened. A semi-respected, quasi-popular rapper from Toronto walked up to my partner in crime, e.d.g.e. (an MC of Caribbean roots), shook his hand, looked him right in the eye and said, "Stay black."
Right away e.d.g.e., or Derrick as I call him now because I'm an adult, looked down at his own exposed forearm and said, "I don't really have a choice."
Everybody hanging out with us erupted in laughter, including Derrick. The thought of some random dude (who was also of Caribbean heritage) walking up to some stranger and saying, "Stay black," was hilarious to us. For months and years afterwards we ran with the joke, often telling Derrick to "stay black" as much and as often as we could.
At the time, the concept of race didn't weigh on us. We often took jabs at each other and found humor in racially themed jokes. Aside from telling Derrick to stay black, we would laugh uncontrollably every time somebody took a photo of him or my other fellow group member, Jaykin, in a dark setting with the flash off and only a t-shirt and eyeballs would appear in the picture. Nobody was safe and no topic was considered untouchable in our group of friends. Every time I cracked a beer somebody would do a drunk Indian impression or every time our manager, who was Asian, got behind the wheel of a car jokes would fly in from every direction. To us, we were making fun of the individual, not the race itself.
Looking back now, that moment where Derrick was told to "stay black" stands out in my mind as something that was much bigger than we understood. With two words, this nobody rapper took it upon himself to remove Derrick's identity as an individual person and paint him as a one-dimensional figure.
What does it mean to stay black? What was he trying to say? It feels now like he was trying to relegate Derrick to a specific societal role. It didn't matter who Derrick was or what he wanted out of life, his blackness was the top priority and as long as he lived he would be graded according to how "black" he was.
As the years went on, this would often be the subject of many conversations between myself and Shane Eli, another fellow group member and an African American/Jewish mix. As Shane later detailed in his incredible song, "Grey Area", racial identity was something that he frequently explored and both of us were perplexed by. Having not known his father and being raised by his single white mother, Shane would sometimes feel out of place and angry when other black men would question his "blackness." None of our friends fell into any of the black stereotypes, but Shane specifically did everything within his power to steer as far away as he could from them. He expressed his frustration with how he was perceived and the personality traits he was expected to exhibit. He wanted to be respected as a human being first and foremost while his race played a secondary role. Shane loved who he was and had no problem identifying with both black and white people. The ironic aspect of all of this, from what I saw, was that his racial identity never really came into question from anybody other than a small minority of young black males.
These young black men were another confusing group of people. For all of our similarities, Canada and the US have one glaring difference. While the United States practiced slavery, Canada was a safe haven for runaway slaves and was the final stop on the Underground Railroad.
Because of this, Canada's black population has never really encountered the deep seeded racism that exists in the United States. Sure, racism against the black community exists here, but it's relatively minute and generally secluded to the nowhere parts of the country. In the few instances where it seeps into the larger population or is expressed vocally, it is met with overwhelming opposition and pushed back into the garages and living rooms of small towns on the outskirts of the city that nobody ever visits.
With that said, I began to notice a slow growth of angst surfacing amongst some of these young black men. They were beginning to mimic the same anger and pain displayed by their American brethren. They were being exposed to American media and were mirroring the images presented to them because they thought it was cool and who they were supposed to be.
Was this what it meant to be black? Were these young men "staying black"? It was odd to me. It felt like these young men were acting out a character instead of deciding who they were on their own. They were allowing for the false presentation of some “one size fits all” black personality to guide them and decide where they fit within society. They were not the product of any struggle but rather were choosing to slip between the tight boundaries of the white owned media's interpretation of the black male.
With the recent murder of Michael Brown by a white police officer, and countless other young black men during the past decade alone, I've been thinking about race a lot lately. Having lived on both sides of the border, and with the privilege of calling many different people from a variety of different races on both sides a friend, I've had the ability to form a unique perspective.
What I've found is that in most cases racism is not an inherent hatred that somebody is born with or even taught. Instead, it is the product of experience and perspective.
The mistake that we all make far too often is that we try to simplify a story down to just one sentence; in the case of Michael Brown's murder it was, "white cop shoots unarmed black teen." Immediately the media grabs a hold of the story and the wheels of manipulation start turning. Americans are once again divided-- either you’re outraged and protesting in Ferguson, MO or you’re sympathetic towards a police officer who was just doing his job.
But the reality is that issues like this one are far more complex and cannot be defined as black or white- both literally and figuratively.
Racism develops over time through a variety of conduits and locks into the narrow passages of the mind while biased personal experience; poor media representation and exaggerated stereotypes work together to reaffirm the perspective. As the outlook becomes more concrete, and the mind closes even further, the prejudice it harbors builds into a burning hatred. Then, one afternoon, that narrow mind encounters a kid who strikes that sensitive chord the wrong way and in a fit of anger, fear and frustration Officer Darren Wilson unloads his handgun into an innocent teenager.
But what Darren Wilson and thousands of cops just like him fail to understand are the circumstances that exist in the communities they patrol. As the American public school system has deteriorated, and as poverty continues to climb, these young men and women repeatedly find themselves trapped in a cycle. This American system- one where schools disappear and prisons multiply- is designed to ensnare them and hold them captive. With very little education, these young people have no hope and no prospect of ever escaping their environment. So slowly but surely, many of them begin to turn to an illegal means of prosperity, simply because there is no other option. As time goes on, most of those who survive will end up in prison- isolating themselves and destroying their probability of finding sufficient employment even further. Eventually, they have nothing and no other choice than to stay right where they are- occupying the same space as racist police officers like Darren Wilson and reconfirming his small minded perspective until one day Michael Brown crosses his path and dies.
This cycle will continue unless we recognize the roots of how this all came to be. The media, this false image of “blackness,” poverty, a lack of education, fear, anger, ignorance and frustration all melding together to create a boiling pot where young black men and women stir around until the hands of fate snuff them out. It’s not enough for us to just be tolerant and point fingers at each other when tragedy strikes. We have to re-examine the way that we perceive ourselves and each other. We have to pressure the media and popular culture to produce better representatives of these communities, and most importantly, we have to understand that poverty and substandard education are the benchmark of this cycle that, for the most part, has been disproportionately painted black.
[Jason James is an artist, freelance columnist and writer for DJBooth.net. You can read/download his free eBook, "This Is My Rifle" and listen/download his most recent album, "Pyramids in Stereo". You can also contact him here and here.]