“But, where are you really from?”

May 24, 2022
Lisa Semchuk, Acting Policy Lead, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

In a keynote address to the Black Caucus of the Canadian Sociological Association, Dr. Debra Thompson (Associate Professor of Political Science and Canada Research Chair in Racial Inequality in Democratic Societies, McGill University) explored the boundaries of racial belonging, and what it means to be in a place, but not of that place. She drew from her forthcoming book, Long Road Home — her personal story of growing up Black in Canada, surrounded by the rhetoric of multiculturalism but bludgeoned by the reality of entrenched systemic racism. Thompson lived in the United States from 2010 to 2020, witnessing firsthand President Obama’s promise of hope, and the extraordinary political polarization that followed. 

Thompson outlined how comparison is routinely used in service of Canadian deniability when it comes to racism. The US is often considered exceptional in terms of how utterly and uncompromisingly racist it is — Canadian racism, in comparison, either does not exist, or if it does, is seen as less harmful, less violent, and less entrenched in society. Slavery in British North American may have been smaller-scale than chattel slavery, but it was still objectively horrific and existed in Canada for over 200 years. “There’s no such thing as humane slavery,” Thompson stated.

Canada often defines itself as “not the United States;” if the US is racist, and Canada is not the US, then Canada cannot be racist. The idea that racism ‘happened somewhere else’ is a national ignorance of Canada when ideas and inspiration, people and profits, and goods and grievances have crossed the border for centuries. This indignation about racism in America, but defensiveness when the perpetrators are ourselves, is itself a uniquely Canadian form of racism. 
The question of “Where are you really from?” communicates many sentiments. It says, “You’re not one of us, you don’t seem to fit in here;” “My curiosity is greater than your comfort or safety;” or “How long you’ve been here will tell me something about your place in this country.” Thompson shared how she used to respond to this question, pointing out the generations that her family had lived in Canada, though she recognizes now that time is not always a marker of Canadian-ness. The logic that “some of us have been here longer” implies that foreigners should be treated differently — and this is a morally indefensible calculus of settler colonialism, Thompson argued. 

“But, where are you REALLY from?” 

This question, Thompson asserted, reveals the “shock and astonishment of seeing Black people in a place where we are not supposed to be.” Blackness in Canada is ‘absented’ rather than absent; a vision of Canada is crafted that renders Black people invisible. Canada holds a narrative of a promised land, a destination for fugitive slaves that is safe from American tyranny, or a multicultural paradise. These narratives depend on the historical presence of allegorical Black Canada. “Just...not too many Black people,” Thompson clarified, pointing to the destruction of Africville in Nova Scotia and Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver. 

Black communities in Canada are both very old (pre-dating Confederation) and very new. Two key waves of Black immigration to Canada came following the American Revolution in 1776, when Black loyalists migrated to Nova Scotia from New York, and after 1833 when freed Black people came north. Thompson’s ancestor, Cornelius Thompson, came to Canada at that time, escaping slavery. Later, the 1910 Immigration Act prohibited entry of any immigrant deemed to be “unsuitable to the climate or requirements of Canada,” a tactic used to deny Black people from entering Canada. In 1967, this policy was amended and the point system was implemented, spurring a new wave of Black immigration. This simultaneously old-yet-newness lends a unique racial consciousness and experience of Blackness in Canada, Thompson explained. Organizing and creating solidarity can be difficult, but it is also full of potential that comes with the recognition of overlapping authentic yet contradictory Black experiences. 

Reflecting on the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, Thompson noted that there is not a coherent narrative to explain why the world stopped to protest, grieve, revel, or mourn together. A reckoning, she detailed, might not be the correct word for this moment, as it implies that honored promises are repaid, balance is restored, and the past is faced. Old horizons have collapsed or evaporated, but new ones have not yet taken shape. We are in a time of speculation, flux, vulnerability, and possibility. 

Thompson cautioned that racial progress is often shadowed by disproportionate white backlash, which can dilute radical demands into little more than EDID trainings. But power concedes nothing without a demand, and the very least we can do is remember and try to make sense of all that was, and all that still might be. For Thompson, it isn’t only writing about racism and domination and despair — it is writing about life, the improbable, and the impossible. 

To conclude, Thompson shared a feeling of not being able to go home again — “not because home changes, but because you do.”

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