I went to a high school that changed my life.
And while I pride myself on living in hyperbole that statement is the truest of my many exaggerations. I went to a high school that changed my life for many reasons:
I had two teachers–Mrs. M and Mr. G–who taught me to both get my shit together and how write an essay that could kill a man. I had an art instructor who every year made us memorize a slide list of 60 artists, dates and artwork titles, thus making my first year of University seem like a vacation. And I had a handful of fellow students who reminded me, on the daily, that my black skin would always be a signifier of difference.
At my school, I was called the N-word more than I can count on both hands. While those encounters were evident expressions of ignorance and hatred, there were also small one’s that felt just as sinister, like the table called “cAfrica:”
In my cafeteria I sat in two places: 1) near the windows and back doors, 2) near the vending machine. But I spent a lot of my time in the art rooms because I could eat and draw simultaneously. Like most, our cafeteria was socially divided: I would say that closer to the back doors and windows sat the punk/alternative/smokers, in the centre sat the popular kids/rich kids/the tall and blonde, in the lower centre/closer to the café sat the dancers, and closest to the café sat the black kids/black musicians aka cAfrica.
I’ve always been loved or condemned for being Afropunk. Condemned– coming from those who acknowledged the white supremacy that existed in the subcultures I was participating in and thought it best that those activities remained as white ones. And loved– by those who saw themselves too as Afropunk.
People will always try to project their bullshit ideals and expectations onto you. They will mark their boundaries as yours and gasp and comment when you do things outside of them. Even now, some ignorant coworker will try to reduce my blackness and Jamaican-ness to the sum of how much slang I use and jerk chicken I eat. If I don’t fully embody their archetype of blackness then suddenly I’m an Oreo, or whitewashed.
I never sat at cAfrica and I realize I hadn’t because I knew, from conversations I myself was participating in, that I’d be labelled as a “cAfrican.” There was white supremacy in our language and it never hit me until I graduated. Here I was using the term thinking it was never offensive to me. In singularity I was harmless, but if I ever sat at that table I sometimes wonder if I too would be more marked than I was already. CAfrica was for ‘those’ kinds of black people, whether they were African or not, it was a title to mark their difference and peculiarity. Naturally, no one had a name for the rich kids who sat in the centre of the cafeteria and gushed about cottage life and their cars.
What strikes me now is that I myself, and other people of colour, used this term as if it excluded us. It became colloquial: used in everyday conversations, naturally and without second though. I understand that strange question: “If you also used the term how is it offensive?” But, we can’t forget 2009-2015, and beyond, where the word “Gay” was used to mark people who behaved idiotically. Every now and then I’ll hear an asshole on the streets of Toronto use ‘gay’ outside of it’s definition and a friend of mine will comment on how we once used the word as if it had nothing to do with the people we cared about. Perhaps, in our circles it seemed harmless, but that never stopped it from being hateful and disgusting. Cafrica and my bullshit co-workers are prime examples of micro-aggressions – a casual degradation of a marginalized group – often said in passing and meant, quite genuinely, to comment on otherness without truly commenting. They’re passive-aggressive ways of saying “Hey, you don’t belong here.”
Note to self: Be more alert and mindful in what conversations you’re participating in. Call out your racist friends and refuse to compromise for ignorance. You’re smarter than you were then– and thank God for that.