I’m Nigerian, but in Canada, I’m just Black

The aftermath of my mirthful night — a typical Lagos December evening pulsating with energy oozing out of thousands of 20-somethings enjoying the sultry sounds of live performance and sonorous music — was rudely interrupted by the dull hum of YYJ’s arrival terminal. It was my third time in Canada, but my first time flushed with inescapable dread.

Before we dive into this extremely personal essay, I would prefer to tell you a bit about who I am — who I was? — before integrating into the Great White North.

I was born to a young, not-so-newly-wed couple in Lagos, Nigeria, and raised in a quiet estate in the city’s capital, Ikeja. Lagos, Africa’s metropolitan heartbeat, is famous for its zest, go-getter culture and unwavering commerciality. I spent a considerable chunk of my formative years in Lagos’ infamous traffic. My six-year stay in high school had me bound in traffic commuting to and from school daily.

In university, I spent less time in traffic and more time worrying about my prospects in the job market, complaining about university life with friends and fielding through group projects. Having lived in Lagos, the arts and culture hub of Nigeria, my time as a mass communication undergraduate student deepened my interest in covering the thriving arts and culture scene.

As a new graduate, I wound back up in the gridlock of Lagos traffic, either making my way to Landmark Beach for a Saturday with friends or scouring Victoria Island in search of an exhibition, play or event to inspire a new story. I spent a considerable amount of time with some of Nigeria’s finest writers, filmmakers, artists and musicians; learning from and about their craft.

Now, as a graduate student at UBC, I’m a little lost — metaphorically and literally. I spend most of the week in class, soaking up multifaceted viewpoints on journalism, and the rest slugging at a job I now need to survive.

Solitude is no stranger to me as I spent the better part of my undergraduate journey and COVID-19 without family. But a solitude that goes beyond physical loneliness is quite foreign to me.

As I inch towards the one-year anniversary of that dreadful moment at the airport, I’ve come to doubt the testimonials of preceding friends and family who relocated to Canada over the years. Through the last ten years, I’ve watched friends and family migrate to many different countries. Though scattered around the continents, a common assessment of Canada has been its assertion as a cultural safe haven for African immigrants.

It could be partially my fault that I haven’t experienced the diverse multiculturality that Canada boasts of. According to a report by Statistics Canada, Canada has 2.6 million South Asian, 1.7 million Chinese and 1.5 million Black people. However, while Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary house the largest population of immigrants, what I failed to realize was that Toronto was home to the largest Black population, including the African immigrants who make up almost half of Canada’s Black population.

As I lay in my South Vancouver apartment, in a province where only one per cent of its population identifies as Black, I can’t help but wonder why provincial and national borders stop me from feeling culturally connected to the Nigerian, or at least the African, communities spread all over Canada. While I personally find ways to stay connected to Nigeria by immersing myself in local online communities on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, the 11,000 km of land and sea separating us seem to still be a significant barrier.

With over 42,000 Nigerians in Canada, I often wonder why Canadian media does little to represent, not just Nigerian communities, but other immigrant cultures that populate the nation.

CBC — one of Canada’s top media outlets — and many other channels fail to adequately represent experiences outside of the racial categories accepted by the white Canadian mainstream. For example, the CBC has a dedicated section on its website titled ‘Being Black in Canada’ an all-encompassing news section for ‘Black Canadian news.’ Its periodic coverage of exclusively Black stories and lack of diversity within the overarching community only proves that skin colour is the domineering identity. The inability to highlight diverse communities, cultures and nationalities in its stories claims responsibility for the feeling of loneliness migrants may feel.

Although I continually reiterate that I’m not Black, I’m Nigerian, lump-summing all Black people and experiences seems to be a satisfactory representation for much of the mainstream Canadian press.

It’s hard to relate to the sliver of representation because to be a Nigerian in Canada is a much different experience than being a Black Canadian. And I guess that’s truly what this essay is all about. My identity and heritage as a Nigerian offer me a different experience than being Black, but most Canadians don’t understand or care.

Black Canadian history dates back to the 1600s and has deep roots in slavery, the abolition movement and racial injustice. As someone whose family heritage is not significantly marked by any of those histories, it’s difficult to connect with. It’s even more difficult to shoulder the unpleasant emotions of shame and guilt that society associates with Black history. The burning stares during discussions of Black identity or history in a room full of white people, automatically burden you with feelings you shouldn’t feel. Why should I then be necessitated to adopt an experience that doesn’t belong to me?

I want to be acknowledged as who I am and not what I look like. I don’t want the complexities that define me to be stripped away, leaving me as nothing but a label. I am first a Nigerian before I am African and I am first an African before I am Black.