The school bus screeched to a halt. My mother, a Black Fijian woman who proudly embraced her natural ’fro, was waiting for me at the bus stop.
“Bye, n***a,” another kid said loudly, as I got up from my seat.
My stomach sank and I put my head down as I hurriedly got off the bus. I didn’t know what that word meant, but I knew it was something I should be ashamed of.
It was 1984 in rural Nova Scotia and I was just 5 years old.
As an adult, due to my mixed heritage, many people describe me as “white-appearing” or racially ambiguous. But in Nova Scotia in the 1980s — with my tanned skin and thick curly hair in a sea of whiteness — I was reminded on a daily basis that I was different. I was an other. No matter how hard I tried, I would never blend in.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t try. That day on the school bus taught me that Black is dangerous. My 5-year-old brain made the link to my mother. Maybe if I distanced myself from her, I would be safer?
I asked my white father to fetch me from the bus stop going forward.
If my mother came to get me from a party, I would watch for the car from the window. And then I would run to the car and jump in, hoping that nobody would see her. My shame toward my mother was a direct response to the racism in my community. I know this because I also have distinct memories of feeling very proud of my mother’s heritage.
When I was a little older, we were learning about multicultural identities at Brownies. The Brownie leader asked my mom to talk about her heritage. As the other girls listened to my mom’s story in awe, my shoulders shifted back and my chin lifted toward her. I felt proud that she was my mother. In this room, I was safe to claim my Black heritage.
But I also knew that if I carried this pride out of the Brownie hall, I would be punished.
Anything that drew attention to me seemed to warrant verbal racial abuse (such as a sports or academic award). But if I stayed in the shadows, kept myself small, and downplayed my intelligence, these attacks were less frequent.
When I was 13 and in junior high, I attended a party. I remember it being a rare occasion that my guard was down. I felt unusually confident and I was the center of a discussion that included a lot of laughter.
While we were dancing, one of my classmates addressed me out of nowhere.
“Eleanor, this party is really bringing out the n***a in you,” he said.
I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. My face felt hot and my guard came up again. I barely uttered another word to anyone for the remainder of the party.
This created a major separation in my identity. Not only did I know that aligning myself closer to my dad (i.e., whiteness) would be safer, I also saw whiteness as the path to success.
My dad was the breadwinner because my mother stopped working as a teacher when they immigrated to Canada. (The Canadian government didn’t recognize her qualifications.) Outside of my own family, I saw only white people in positions of power and success.
Unknowingly, I started to reject all of the parts of myself that were Black.
This changed when I finished high school and went to study in Toronto. I wasn’t exposed to the same level of hostility anymore. In fact, an increasing number of people mistook me for being white. When I was in university in Toronto, I remember bumping into someone that I had a junior high crush on. “Oh, my God, you look white now,” he said.
In the wider world, my mixed heritage wasn’t such an anomaly. This created room for a major shift in my identity. I welcomed conversations about my ethnicity and spoke of my mom’s heritage with pride.
My parents moved to Fiji for two years while I was studying. I remember arriving at the Suva airport for my summer holiday and seeing Black people everywhere. Spending time as an adult in Fiji gave me firsthand evidence that Black leadership and success could be the norm.
On the surface level, I had embraced my mixed heritage. But on a subconscious level, my fractured sense of self was still haunting me.
At the height of my burnout, in 2018, I was traveling constantly. I was also always sick: getting pneumonia, losing my voice just before an event that I was hosting, harboring a cough that never went away.
I remember that all my attempted lifestyle changes kept failing. Yoga, meditation, and daily walks worked short term, but after a few weeks “on the wagon” I would tip back into burnout. I told my mentor all of this.
“My hair is falling out,” I lamented.
We were also in the midst of a discussion about my business goals.
“Eleanor, have you ever noticed that whenever we talk about external accomplishments, the conversation often goes back to your dad?” she asked.
I had always valued intellect and hustle. This is what I thought my father or — on a deeper level — whiteness represented. What I didn’t value was self-care. My mother was wonderful at looking after herself and prioritizing hobbies, time with family, and rest. Yet as an adult, I saw this as a wholly inefficient use of my time.
Once my mentor pointed this out, I brought it up in therapy and worked on understanding the depths of how I had disassociated from my Blackness and everything that my mom represented. Lots of small things came to light — like how I continued to straighten my hair before professional events. (I’ve stopped doing this now.)
I wish I could sit here and write that I am now whole and I have found a full sense of belonging in the world. But that wouldn’t be true. When you exist at the intersection of different identities, you spend your whole life being told that you don’t belong. This was — and still is — incredibly painful and isolating.
Instead of fighting these feelings, I am intentionally owning this experience. I am reminding myself that I don’t need to fit in a neat box. I am a biracial immigrant with a Black Fijian mother who grew up (and still lives) in rural Nova Scotia. If that’s too complicated for someone to comprehend, then they’re not worth my time.
I am finally giving myself permission to release responsibility whenever someone doesn’t understand “what I am” or “where I come from.”
I am also learning to find belonging within myself. Regardless of whether I am mistaken for white or asked to bring the “African Nova Scotian perspective” (whatever the hell that is) to business events — I am still me. And that’s always been more than enough.
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