FIRST PERSON | I learned what it means to be Black after moving to Canada | CBC News

FIRST PERSON | I learned what it means to be Black after moving to Canada | CBC News

This First Person article is written by Cecily Erzuah, a diversity and social justice student in Prince Edward Island. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I was 18 years old when I became self-conscious about being Black for the first time in my life. I had moved to Canada just five months earlier and I was working in a clothing store in Charlottetown. As a new immigrant, I had been looking forward to the opportunities that awaited me in my new home.

But some customers refused my help or turned away when I approached them, and then called on my white colleagues for assistance. I wasn’t verbally attacked, but I saw how those customers looked at me and quickly moved away when I approached to assist them. It happened often enough that,  eventually, I could only conclude that it was because of the colour of my skin.

It left me feeling like I was missing something — like the fact that I’m Black set me apart from the other people who worked there.

About a year earlier, I was thrilled when my dad told me I was going to travel from Ghana to “a land of many opportunities.”He said, “Cecily, I will be taking you to Canada to pursue your education after high school.”

That moment remains etched in my memory. I didn’t know anything about Canada at the time, but I knew my life was going to undergo a profound transformation. From Pearson International Airport, I made my way to Charlottetown in November 2020, where there was already an established Ghanaian community and they helped me settle in my new environment.

I had heard about racism in North America back home in Ghana and the death of George Floyd earlier that year had given me a deeper understanding of the devastating consequences of racism. But still, I wasn’t prepared for what I would encounter in my new home. My experience at the clothing store showed me how racism can be both subtle and clear.

‘I’m still a work in progress,’ writes Ezruah. ‘And I’m happy to say that today I feel good and comfortable in my own skin.’ (Submitted by Cecily Erzuah)

A few years later, in my third year at UPEI in the fall of 2022, I was late for the first day of lectures and upon entering the classroom, so I sat at the back. That day, the class discussed the transatlantic slave trade and many comments were made about the dehumanizing experiences Black people had endured. During the discussion, I felt alone and isolated. No one said anything wrong. In fact, they all seemed genuine when expressing why slavery was so wrong.

But I felt alone, because I was the only Black person in the class. For me, it wasn’t theoretical. I couldn’t speak throughout the class. Having grown up in Ghana among people who looked like me and now finding myself as the only Black person in a class, I felt a profound sadness as I thought of how the lives of young women my age turned out due to the slavery.

Despite my silence that day, I felt other students stealing glances at me. I told myself it was just their way of expressing sympathy, perhaps looking at me was their way of letting me know they were on my side. But their glances only made me feel more aware of the fact that I was Black. I don’t believe any of these people were intentionally trying to hurt me, but it did.

Over time, I have learned how to be resilient as a Black woman in Canada. I practised self-awareness and identified my strengths and my weaknesses. I realized I needed to be more confident in who I am and boldly speak, such as calling out racism and having difficult conversations when necessary.

So, I did that by reading books and watching videos about racism and Black experiences, and then actually practicing what I read and listened to. This made it easier for me to show myself and others who I am without any limitations or hesitations. I have also learned how to have difficult conversations and call out racism when I see it. But most importantly, I have learned not to let the attitudes of others define me. I’m still a work in progress. And I’m happy to say that today I feel good and comfortable in my own skin.


Want to write your own First Person piece?

If you’re interested in writing a First Person story for CBC P.E.I., please send a pitch summarizing your submission to PitchPEI@cbc.ca for our editors to review. It’s helpful if you can include a suggested headline to help focus your submission. An editor will contact you if CBC P.E.I. wants to pursue commissioning your story.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.
(CBC)
WATCH | This archive of photographs shows Black Canadians ‘in the light in which they deserved to be shown’:

Photo archive shows Black Canadians ‘in the light in which they deserved to be shown’

Featured VideoAlvin McCurdy’s collection of photographs features “generations of continuing Black presence” in Canada, and portrays Black Canadians “in the light in which they deserved to be shown,” historian Irene Moore Davis says in “Haven, But No Heaven,” the first episode of CBC’s docuseries, Black Life: Untold Stories.

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