Sunday, February 16, 2014

JCUF VOL 1 NO 1 (2014) - "The Issue of Belonging" by Keishia Facey

In the fourth grade, my teacher asked a question to the class (actually, less a question and more a fact that she felt needed to be shared), and she started by talking about God as being great.

I agreed. Years of Sunday school had me believing that God was great, not feeling the least bit uncomfortable with the topic, although I could sense that some of the other kids were not familiar with the direction that this was going. After all this was a public school, and God was not a part of the curriculum.

Then she informed the all-white class that white people came from God. Okay, I thought, where is this going? Before she could say the rest, a familiar tightness in the pit of my belly emerged, and I felt like I was going to be sick. She said “white people“—and everyone knew that I was not white and so this must be about me.

Everyone was looking at me now. It was the look that made me feel that the weight of every issue pertaining to blackness—good or bad—was placed squarely on my nine year old shoulders. So I sat back, not daring to show my insecurities about my blackness, and feigned hardness and pride.

I knew this dance.

My teacher then proceeded to look directly at me, whilst informing the class that “white people came from God and Black people came from monkeys.”

Before she was done, I saw myself outside of myself telling the teacher that she was a lying b**** and that she was a monkey and in fact that she would be going to hell. Instead of her losing her job, I was transferred to another class, for my outburst. Again, alone in my Blackness, feeling like I did not belong.

There is an issue with the concept of belonging. As a woman of Afro-Caribbean descent who was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan in the late 70’s and early 80’s, my relationship with the concept of belonging has jumped, shifted, been skewed, evolved, de-volved and remained static over the course of my lifetime.

I have had moments where I feel I belong so much to the fabric of Canadian identity that I swear that I invented mukluks, maple syrup and multicultural pageantry.

In those moments, my Canadianess—as multi-faceted and complicated as it is—is worn as a badge of honour, and I am so grateful to be born in Canada, and for the experiences that I have had.  And as with most anything in life, there is always a polar opposite experience, and for me that polar opposite has resulted in my Canadianess being the mark of an outsider. In those moments, I am eager to align myself with my Jamaican roots.

While I was being called an N***** at school, my Jamaican mother (well-intentioned, but ill-equipped to deal with the racial epithets that were hurled my direction on a frequent basis) could only muster up an insult, which of course made no sense to me, and likely would have made no sense to my detractors.  I knew my mother never had this experience—this weight of race.

Growing up surrounded by family and friends, that looked like her, sounded like her and ate the same foods as her, she was safe from the racially charged name calling, and that knowledge was enough for me to place Jamaica on a pedestal.  It was a safe space where I did not have to feel the same way that I did when I was in the fourth grade.

And here lies the issue for me, of belonging.

My time spent in Jamaica, always reminded me how Canadian I truly was. My cousins would prod me “Keishia. say bulla, one more time!” I would respond “Buller-duh.” Can’t get much more Canadian than that! When in Canada, my pseudo-Jamaicaness seemed to act as more of a shield against the constant feeling of not belonging, but while in Jamaica, my accent and foreign look made me stick out.

I was always talking about Jamaica and how amazing it was. Jamaica had to be family, acceptance and love, because Canada was none of the latter. My mother, father and sister (in my mind not able to fill the endless void of need for extended family):  grand-mother, aunties, uncles, cousins—to me that was what family was.

At least that was how it had always been portrayed in the movies. (“Soul Food,” anyone?)  To be accepted by a large group of people, who knew you and all of your quirks, but loved you anyway, was my biggest ambition in life.  And so, much like the weather, the reasons for the fluxes in my sense of belonging are constantly changing and being re-negotiated based on a mixture of my past experiences, hopes, and dreams for the future, my interactions with others in society, and I am not ashamed to say even the way that I digest films in popular culture.

Today, my time in Saskatchewan, and my time in Jamaica have faded into the distant past. Nostalgia fills my memories, and both places now fill my heart and mind with the experiences that have shaped me into the woman that I am today.

Here I find myself in Toronto, a city that I always knew would encapsulate my need for belonging. Here you are as likely to be a Black Canadian, with roots that go back in Canada for generations, as you are to be a first-generation Canadian with ties to the Caribbean or Africa, or an immigrant to Canada—experiencing your own version of a struggle for belonging and search for home.

I am neither, only of Caribbean descent, or only Canadian. I have negotiated that I am both, and that I belong equally to the diaspora as I do the highways and bi-ways of urban Toronto life, of professional discourse, of academic pursuits, of bodies in motion and of belonging wherever it is that I feel most at peace within myself.

Keishia Facey is a Social Worker, African-Caribbean dance and fitness instructor, and writer. Contact Keishia at:

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