Two summers ago I was driving in Moncton when a car pulled up beside me at a traffic light. A group of young white boys were singing a rap song called Man of the Year by Schoolboy Q. I remember this moment well because I had just listened to the song in my own car as it came on shuffle. I remember thinking to myself that it was a fun coincidence, so I looked over just as they sang the lyrics, “N**** cop a crib in the burbs, N**** you ain’t said nothing but a word.” Then the light changed, and they were on their way.
I can’t comment how old those boys were or what their intentions were, but I am unconvinced that it matters. The ease of which those boys sang the n-word – without a second thought – is symbolic of how complex and deep-seated anti-blackness is ingrained not only in our political and social spheres, but in how we portray culture. White privilege is being able to sing lyrics to a song about surviving on welfare cheques to finding success as an artist and living in a white neighbourhood, all while claiming ignorance in saying a word that is associated with such a vile and dark history. White privilege is being able to blast a song on a busy street and be looked at “as kids” while Black boys are thought of as a threat to society. It is emblematic of a failed education system where young Canadians are barely, if at all, taught Black history in Canada and Black contributions to society.
Canada, which takes so much pride in multiculturalism, utilizes it to provide institutional power to the appropriation of cultures that it neglects. While Canada promotes itself as a safe haven for immigrants and refugees, thousands of Black people and children (deemed “illegal”) spend years (in some cases over 10 years) in detention centres without being charged for a single crime. We cannot take what we like about Black culture and remain quiet as another young Black man is murdered at the hands of police. We cannot stand idle as our government steals Black children away from Black parents who are deemed “unfit” due to racial profiling.
Over the past couple of years, I have thought back to the relatively mundane situation of those boys singing in their car at least a dozen times. How many times have we, as non-Black people, ignorantly taken from Black culture to make us seem “cooler” or “cultured” without respecting the Black people who created it? This is not to say that we cannot support or be fans of Black work, but that we have systemically failed to support Black people in return. It is cheap to look back at the situation and call it harmless when it is just another case of non-Black people borrowing, stealing, praising, glorifying and appropriating Black culture without using our privilege to end the violence against Black bodies. No matter how negligible situations of cultural appropriation may seem, let it remind us how embedded the theft of culture is in our Canadian history and framework.