That Black Kid
Every teen dreams of standing out, but what if the reason you do is your race? Brett Johnson speaks out about his experience growing up Black in rural Alberta. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
So when you say “small town Alberta,” how small are we talking?
I was born in Rocky Mountain House, which has a population of about 7000. Then I moved around a lot. I spent my first few years living in Caroline, a nearby village with a few hundred people. In the fifth grade, my family moved to Wildwood — an even tinier village [population: 300] — and I did most of my schooling there until we moved again to Mannville [a hamlet of 800 people near Edmonton] when I was in Grade 11. So, pretty small, I guess. [laughs] Rocky Mountain House was the biggest place I lived in before moving to Edmonton at 18.
And were you the only person of colour in those towns?
I grew up with my older sister and my mother; they’re white, I’m black. My sister and I were raised in a single-parent household, and my father left before I was born, so I’m actually the only black person in my family. For most of my life I was one of a handful of visible minorities in town, and I was typically the only black person in a 2-3 town radius.
What was it like being one of the very few racialized people in town?
It was like living in duality. On the one hand there was me — who I actually was, who my family knew me to be — and on the other there was the perceived notion of how I was supposed to act as a black person, which was based 100% on what people [at school and in town] saw in the media. They’d project what little they gleaned about black culture from music videos and comedies onto me and expect me to behave the same way. My realization of being different from my classmates started with their racist jokes at my expense: jokes they’d repeat from their parents or TV about my skin colour, jokes where black people were constantly painted as criminals, thieves, or murderers in some way. And the smaller the town, the more comfortable kids in that community were with sharing these comments with me.
But the jokes really hurt you.
Yes. They hurt. But this is where that duality came into play. There was a part of me that knew I could've said something about it, but, in actuality, I just wanted to fit in. I’d laugh. And I would encourage them to tell me more, thinking that if they were making jokes about me, maybe they liked me and didn’t actually think [in this racist] way. As a kid, I realized quickly that the jokes they found funniest were always at the expense of black people, but I also knew pretty instinctively that I couldn’t call them out on their racism because there weren’t that many people to be friends with in town. I’d even tell racist jokes myself as a defence mechanism. Which kid wants to be alienated? I started to put up emotional barriers and walls. I developed a thick skin, but I couldn’t completely be myself because I needed to create mental armour so that everything, all the jokes, could just roll off. It was a “fake it till you make it” type of situation.
Did you feel like you had any real friends? People you could be yourself around?
It seemed like I was really popular — there was a general interest in me. [laughs] I was a pretty good athlete, and I was easily noticed, so people wanted to get to know me and talk to me. I made friends easily. But I’m not sure if I was my real self around too many classmates. I had a deep friendship in Wildwood with David, a First Nations kid, in part because we were both visible minorities. Don’t get me wrong, he used to make plenty of racist jokes about my skin colour too. But it put me at ease a bit to know that we were being treated relatively the same (although in his case, our white classmates would tell him “Native jokes” rather than “black jokes”). There was a big difference, though: David had a First Nations family and was part of the small First Nations community in town. If someone made a “Native joke,” he knew enough about his culture and heritage to know the context of the joke and whether there was any element of truth in it or not. It doesn’t make it okay and I won’t necessarily say it was easier for him, but it was different for me because I had no knowledge of black culture or history at all. We grew up with peasant vision in the house (our TV didn’t get more than a couple of channels) and we didn’t have internet. I had no context and no real way of finding it.
Were you treated differently by people in town other than your peers?
I was a pretty active, hyper kid, and initially I was unaware of whether or how I was treated differently. I started to realize in middle school that I was constantly painted by my teachers as the troublemaker, even if I wasn’t the instigator or involved in any antics. It started to feel like if anything went wrong, it was my fault.
In what way?
You know how sometimes if a teacher left their class for a few minutes, the students would start acting up and get a bit rowdy before the teacher returned? Sometimes it would be throwing water bottles and erasers, or pushing each other off chairs — just regular “kids acting out” stuff. I was the one who was sent to principal’s office every time, regardless of the number of other people who may have instigated it or had participated. After a while, it was pretty obvious I was being singled out. Teachers used to go to the grocery store where my Mom worked and start complaining loudly, publicly about “that black kid,” unaware that they were complaining to that kid’s mother. And it was more than just inappropriate; sometimes it was outright lies. As I got older, teachers and other community members would claim to my mother that I was involved in mischief at times she knew would've been impossible for me. She’d have to correct them and point out I was actually with my grandparents at the time, or at some event. It’s hard not to think they had some sort of perception of my race, some prejudice that fed a picture of what I was like… And eventually I gave in. I became the troublemaker they always told me I was. I honestly didn’t start out this way — I was a nice kid who of course had one or two scuffles — but I think part of my acting out was based on how I was perceived, and it really became a negative feedback loop, because I couldn’t be anything else to them.
My white friends’ parents also seemed to be uncomfortable with me — I could sometimes just tell by the looks they’d give me or their hesitation in starting conversation that they we're having trouble connecting. And don’t get me wrong, people were friendly — it’s not like they would tell me, “Get out of my house.” — but they needed time to warm up to me. A lot of this could be in hindsight after moving to the city, where I realized that most people here aren’t taken aback by my skin colour, and that has altered my own perception and memories of how people treated me. But I do remember feeling like people didn’t want me there; I really felt like an outsider.
Did you ever wish you weren’t black?
Throughout my school years, I definitely wished I was white. I thought it would be more of an advantage. I wouldn’t get looked at differently, I could potentially be treated the same as the kid beside me. Not to mention that I felt very unattractive as a black kid; girls always seemed to be attracted to the average white guy with frosted tips. [laughs] It was the 90s! But in all seriousness, it was a burden on my self-esteem. And particularly after junior high, I constantly felt this enormous pressure [from my peers] to be who they perceived a black person should be: that I should listen to rap, or know slang, or “talk like a black person,” whatever that meant. I really didn’t cover those categories adequately. One thing I really, REALLY hated was when they’d tell me I was “the whitest black person” they knew. I never figured out whether they were intentionally being racist or whether they didn’t realize it was racist. It bothered me because they were telling me I wasn’t “black” enough to have this skin colour, when in reality, I had no reference point for their definition of a black person. They were basically telling me I was the “Oreo” of the group because I wasn't worthy of my own skin, that I’m not the person standing in front of them. That was the worst, sometimes even worse than the overt racism.
There was one incident in Grade 12 when my friends and I went to a bar and ran into one of the town rednecks. He started with the racist jokes I was used to, but he suddenly switched over to calling me a n*gger for five straight minutes, saying things like, “Hey n*gger, how’re you doing?” or “Look, there’s a n*gger playing pool!” It was shocking to see how many of my friends didn’t say or do anything and acted like this was normal, not to mention the guy insulting me was someone I knew and had previously had beers with. I think that’s when I realized I didn’t want to be in this environment where I didn’t fit in, where I seemed to be either a nuisance or a novelty.
I didn’t talk to my family about my racist experiences or about feeling like an outsider because I felt they wouldn’t be able to relate. I especially didn’t want to bother my mother, who was working her ass off to put my sister and I through school, with any other issues, even if they stemmed from racism.
This all seems really isolating. How did you cope?
I listened to a lot of music; actually a lot of Linkin Park. [laughs] I know, right? But a lot of their songs at the time were about trying to be heard when you’re different and not being understood. I also really got into punk rock at the time, particularly because it spoke to my feelings of isolation and wanting to break down this establishment I was in, that it isn’t right and people shouldn’t accept it for what it is. Video games also made it easy to immerse myself in a fantasy world. It allowed me to forget my feelings about life in a small town, and I could make up my own character, my own story, in a world where I was accepted and could do what I wanted. I could escape the small world I was actually living in and feel like I was part of a bigger picture. [pause] Sorry, this is a bit emotional.
You mentioned earlier that your memories are coloured by your experiences after moving to the city. Can you expand on that?
Yeah, moving to Edmonton was like finally getting to go to the giant high school I always wanted to be in. Was it nice to be noticed in small towns and have people want to get to know me? Of course. But I was the type of kid that would’ve been happy to fade into the background. I mean, I always wanted to move to a big city — most small-town kids do — but race was a big factor in that desire. I was so excited about the diversity. When I first saw large groups of black people in the city, I was like a five-year-old at Christmas — I was giddy! [laughs] And as I got to know more people of colour, it was an incredible learning experience realizing they’re not the caricatures my classmates had made them out to be. That people of colour could be whoever they wanted to be: it sounds basic, but it was a big, satisfying “fuck you” to everyone in my childhood who thought I should be a certain way. I was able to accept myself as the person I was.
What are your thoughts now, looking back on your experiences?
Looking back, I realize that parts of my childhood were depressing, especially the seclusion I felt. But it wasn’t all bad — I had a lot of fun, I made a lot of friends, I had a family that loved me. I don’t want to suggest that rural communities are inherently [prejudiced]; these were just my experiences. It may have seemed like a negative atmosphere, but I certainly don’t hold any ill will towards rural Alberta or any particular person because I feel it all made me stronger.
I think a lot of the racism I faced in rural Alberta stemmed from inexperience and naivety; it’s hard to tell someone they’re wrong or racist when you yourself don’t have that context. In some ways [such as] with racist jokes, I encouraged it so it made sense for them to continue. However, I think it would be to every town’s benefit if racism and diversity and exclusion were taught [in an experiential way]. Most students I knew were quick to wave off ideas that were taught in school because they’d develop an attitude of, “Oh, I already know that,” without actually demonstrating it. What will change racist attitudes is simply experience; rural Alberta will benefit from increased diversity and cultural interaction. My theory is that this won’t happen quickly, not even with the pace of immigration; it will be a generational thing, when children in rural Alberta grow up with many more families of colour who have been in their town for years.