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Speak On It: Scotia Welcome

5 October 2010 407 views 10 Comments


By Fabien Alexis

My five-week trip to Pointe-de-l’Église, Nova Scotia was a test of character, patience, strength and sheer will-power.

In May 2010, I packed my bags, hopped on a plane with a friend and embarked on my journey to rediscovering the French language. French immersion is especially difficult if you speak no French or haven’t spoken a word of it outside of the casual bonjour in the past 10 years.

For 35 days we were not allowed to have any English-language music, books, posters, let alone speak it. Yikes.

I plugged away at my studies in between all the planned activities. Other students would watch me, confused, when I’d disappear to complete my devoirs before going to the pubs. I didn’t quit my job to play balle-molle, I came to learn. Fin.

We picked up the French slowly, but steadily, but we also received a reminder of what it is to be a visible minority. There were approximately 15 black people, fewer Asians, and a small family of Moroccans. Ninety-five percent of the student body was white.

During week two I was promoted to Debutant Deux because I was incorrectly placed in the beginner section after taking a general test. My housemates picked up on the news before I could announce it. They were shocked. Instead of felicitations I was met with disbelief. Pourquoi? Why? Many people were surprised if and when I responded to their questions en Français. Weren’t we all there to learn?

During breakfast, I would sit alone studying. No one would approach anywhere near where I was eating. My professor didn’t recognize me in class one day when I tied my hair back – I was the only Black female in the class. These things took a toll on me psychologically. Yes, I’ve always been aware of racism’s existence, but the prolonged experience really opened my eyes. Could I really have been so naïve? My African-American friends said it was nothing.

One question confirmed my thoughts: which exotic countries speak French? Why?

Genuinely baffled, the girl sat in a corner awaiting a response.

‘Exotic’ – defined by Dictionary.com is “foreign” or “strikingly unusual”. What is an exotic country? Her usage of the term implied “tropical” countries aka warmer countries aka countries outside of North America & Europe. Okay. Her tone implied her shock and confusion: why does my animateur (residence advisor) speak perfect French… he’s so Black… I think that’s what set me off. She directed her question at the only Black male (one of three total on the campus) present.

Translation: Why do you Africans speak French? How does that work?

My animateur stood there looking at her for a hot minute – the room was silent with the exception of the nails-on-blackboard noise of my Styrofoam cup being crushed in my clenched fist. My limited French vocabulary did not allow me to argue with her sufficiently. Speaking English would result in the dreaded avertissement – warnings resulting in expulsion.

He responded. Martinique, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Senegal, Seychelles, Cote d’Ivoire. He did not reply to her underlying question, confusion.  I refuse to believe that at the age of 22 you do not know about world history and colonization ignorance is never cute. Wilful ignorance deserves no response whatsoever. I quietly got up and left the room.

Ironically, a few days prior to this, this animateur played a cave man wearing a leopard loin-cloth, oiled to perfection, screaming “OOGAA BOOGA”. It was his only performance that night.

I’m definitely blessed to be living in Toronto and I definitely appreciate it more, now. We fought through it supporting each other and succeeded, walking out with our heads held high.

Fabien Alexis is a Toronto-born, Caribbean-inspired aspiring journalist. You can find her on Twitter @fabienalexis.


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  • yowande said:

    Love the piece, very descriptive and appeals to me as I think the emersion into the French language for 35 days is a very brave endeavour. Well done Ms Alexis, hope to see more experience inspired pieces from you. Cheers!

  • binx said:

    Well done Ms. Alexis!

    As mentioned by yowande, it’s very descriptive.
    I felt like… “I was there” listening to your conversation.
    It baffles me, that in this day in age ignorance & racism still exist!

    I am still in….AWE!… about:
    “Why do you Africans speak French? How does that work?”

    I also consider myself VERY BLESSED to have been raised in a multicultural city. I LOVE Toronto!
    Hope to read more from you.

  • Em Blacks said:

    Lovely piece. Now I understand what you meant when you seemed frustrated at the ignorance of that lady. The fact that you couldn’t argue nor raise your voice in English alone have added on to make the situation more tensed.

    It is sad to know that there are people who still think that Africa is a country. That Egypt is not in Africa. That Iraq is not a country. That Middle East is a country. Is it them? Or is it the fact that ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ areas in the world are still being misrepresented?

    But hey, now you’ve learned something. And I’m sure this have made you more in control when such situations arise.
    Keep the articles coming!

  • Aloezade said:

    A very well written piece. I too fully understand your frustration of the ignorance you felt was expressed by the professor. There is no doubt in my mind that racism still exists in today’s society, however in this specific case I raise the question, was it wilful ignorance or unintentional miscommunication? I suppose the frustrating part was the fact that your French was not adequate enough for you to get a sound answer. I’m not in any way undermining your thoughts or what you believe took place, however I’m just trying to approach the issue from another perspective.

  • EAWilson said:

    Nice work. I was a bit disturbed by the “OOGAA BOOGA” performance that night and I remember seeing how upset you were that night as well. I think that I, as an African-American, didn’t really sense what you sensed because Americans, especially Southern like me, deal with race in society differently. While I was in Pointe-de-l’Église, my train of thought was, “I’m going to be me and be frinedly, representing my country and my ethnic group.” For the most part, everyone seemed more friendly than the whites down here. And I never felt that people were confounded by my French capabilities, even as an American. Did I make friends? Yeah. Would I go back? Probably not. But meeting Canadians from all over the country reassured me that Canadians are so much different from province to province. There was one incident, though, the 1st week of the session: I was in the computer lab and I wasn’t sure how to log-in or something. So I asked another student – he wasn’t in the immersion with us – for help. He just looked as if I were really annoying him by asking for help and just shrugged his shoulders, shaking his head. That sort of discouraged me to not even want to be in Nova Scotia anymore; but just like in my country, I should have expected that I would run into at least one racist “connard.”

  • F. Alexis said:

    Thank you all for responding to this piece.

    - Aloezade: Thank you for bringing your perspective. To clarify, the program I participated in brought students from across Canada, and parts of the US, to Nova Scotia. In no way, shape or form am I claiming this is normal “Scotian” behaviour – I was living in a small town/village, far away from any metropolis. I met many lovely individuals from NS and beyond, and am considering my experience as a Black, Torontonian outside of her element/city.

    In response to your question, I believe a lot of it was willful ignotance. I would like anyone to explain to me how ‘Ooga Booga’ in any forum could be deemed appropriate. It reminded me of the “Bojangles/Sambo character in a different format. It would be equally offensive for the animateurs to perform a Minstrel show and call it good fun. Unacceptable. As mentioned above, there is no excuse for ignorance, we all have access to information (biased or not), and “not knowing”, doesn’t cut it.

    Finally, towards the end of my stay, I understood French a lot more than at first. That being said, I was able to pick up on conversations occurring around me and my friends (there were no racial slurs—i.e. a cafeteria woman assumed me and I friend were sisters— a case of all Black people look the same? We dont resemble each other at all. But her hair [twist extensions] and mine [locks] were the same, and so we must be sisters). But actions (i.e. the constant staring, pointing, or pretending I did not exist) speak louder than words in any language.

  • F. Alexis said:

    - Em Blacks: YES! It irritates me whenever I hear/read “Canada, the US, Colombia and Africa…” Why? ‘Africa’ as a continental concept was devised by outsiders (i.e. Romans, Greeks). Over centuries, and possibly a millenia, describing different sections of the continent as X simplified the process of identifying the location geographically.

    The “African” was a new concept* (colonialism) grouping nations together, despite differences, i.e. beliefs, cultures, languages and etc. Enslaved “Africans” did not understand the term, because they were the Ashanti, the Nubians, the Berbers and etc.

    I’ll never understand why “I’m going to North America” is not the same as “I’m in Africa”?! Where? Guinea? Congo? WHICH Guinea? Which Congo? We need to enforce this dialogue in every conversation to dispel ignorance (in this case willful).

    *The African identity was subsequently elevated above that of the “Negro”, another invention and word to differentiate between the enslaved Black man and the “noble savage” (another common historical theme—»see “The Autobiography Malcolm X” or Aphra Behn’s tale of “Oroonoko”.

  • F. Alexis said:

    - EAWilson: I chose Nova Scotia because I wanted to visit the memorial of Africville. I love that NS has a home-grown, historically-based, proud group of Black Canadians. I wish Id had the opportunity to meet them. The history of Africville is so well hidden in Canadian history, that many people miss that connect between the Underground Railroad and the Maritimes. The free men/women didnt disappear into society, they created a culture and community of their own. This, of course, is ignored completely, especially when discussing Acadian history. I’m shaking my head all over again or the brief documentary we saw, depicting the plight of the deported Acadiens, and the Deportation itself, as something even remotely relatable to the atrocities committed against humanity, enslavement.

  • Lynden said:

    Well said Fabien! You thankfully are full knowledge. Keep up the good work and I’m sure you have inspired various ethnic groups reading this, to seek a little more information on not only their culture and history but our Black culture and History.

    Looking forward to reading more pieces.

  • bassie said:

    Tre Bien, Magnifique, Formidable, personally I would never do it, I would have cussed them out and got expelled. Sorry it took so long for me to read it, but I did, well my computer read it to me:) Keep up the good work.

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