Two young passengers on a bus wait for it to stop before getting off. Photograph: Antonio Olmos
Every time I sit on a crowded street car, bus, or subway train in Toronto, I know I will have an empty seat next to me. It's like a broken record. Sometimes I don't mind having the extra space, but other times I feel awkward, uncomfortable, and annoyed.
I know I have good hygiene, I dress appropriately, and I mind my own business. However, recently, I finally became cognizant of why people might fear being around me or in close proximity to me: I am a black male. Although Canadian society presents the façade of multiculturalismthe truth is Canada has a serious problem with the issue of race.
I didn't realize it until my sister said to me:
Orville, people are afraid of you. You are a six foot tall black man with broad shoulders.
My sister is right, people don't sit next to me on the street car, the subway or on the bus because they are afraid.
The issue of black self-hatred is something I am supposed to pretend does not exist. However, the great French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote about this issue in his ground breaking book Black Skin White Masks in a chapter called "the Lived Experience of the Black Man". According to Fanon, the black man is viewed in the third person, and he isn't seen as a three-dimensional human being. The black man internalizes the perspectives of white society and its negative thoughts about blackness affect his psyche. In the chapter, Fanon discusses a white child calling him the "N word" and how he becomes cognizant of how he is different and viewed as someone people should fear.
There is also a fear by some black people that discussing the issue of self-hatred is a sign of weakness. There is a discourse that black people engender: that black is beautiful. But the truth is, the image of blackness is ugly – at least it's perceived that way. There is nothing special or wonderful about being a black male – it is a life of misery and shame.
The issue of black self-hatred is usually depicted from a female point of view. There are documentaries such as Dark Girls which aired on Oprah's OWN network earlier this year, in which black women discuss their feelings of self hatred for having dark skin. There are numerous books, articles, documentaries, and essays published by black female writers describing black self-hated. Black women are not afraid to speak out about their self-loathing, yet for some reason, black men are silent about our own contempt for what we are.
A lot of black men don't want to acknowledge the feelings of disgust we have for ourselves. It is considered emasculating to even admit the existence of such thoughts. I think my own self-hated manifests from the exterior, from the outside world. It is born out of the despair and the unhappiness I see within a lot of young black men.
I can honestly say I hate being a black male. Although black people like to wax poetic about loving their label I hate "being black". I just don't fit into a neat category of the stereotypical views people have of black men. In popular culture black men are recognized in three areas: sports, crime, and entertainment. I hate rap music, I hate most sports, and I like listening to rock music such as PJ Harvey, Morrissey, and Tracy Chapman. I have nothing in common with the archetypes about the black male.
There is so much negativity and criminal suspicion associated with being a black male in Toronto. Yet, I don't have a criminal record, and I certainly don't associate with criminals. In fact, I abhor violence, and I resent being compared to young black males (or young people of any race) who are lazy, not disciplined, or delinquent. Usually, when black male youth are discussed in Toronto, it is about something going wrong.
Honestly, who would want to be black? Who would want people to be terrified of you and not want to sit next to you on public transportation?
Who would want to have this dark skin, broad nose, large thick lips, and wake up in the morning being despised by the rest of the world?
A lot of the time I feel like my skin color is like my personal prison, something that I have no control over, for I am judged just because of the way I look.
Not discussing the issue doesn't mean it is going to go away. In fact, by ignoring the issue, it simply lurks underneath the surface. I believe a dialogue about self hatred should be brought to the fore in the public sphere, so that some sort of healing and the development of true non-label based pride can occur.
Of course, I do not want to have these feelings, to have these dark thoughts about being a black man. However, I cannot deny that this is the way I feel. I don't want to be ashamed of being a black man; I just want to be treated as an individual based on the content of my character, and not just based on the colour of my skin.