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From Zimbabwe to Canada — narratives of the Black experience are not singular

On dissonance when reconciling Western higher education with its history of subjugation
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REBECCA ROCCO/THE VARSITY
REBECCA ROCCO/THE VARSITY

The value of education was instilled in me from a very young age. In many Zimbabwean households, education is the best predictor of an individual’s future success. 

Unsurprisingly, my mother unwaveringly supported my academic endeavours throughout my childhood. She would always say that my first husband should be my degree. Watching her make tremendous sacrifices to ensure that I would have access to the educational opportunities that were devoid in her upbringing encouraged me to vigorously pursue higher education. 

Unfortunately, in my final year of high school, I began to feel like I had reached an impasse. Although I retained my enthusiasm for education, I was somewhat disillusioned by the prospect of staying in Zimbabwe. 

Many of my peers who had graduated before me from local institutions found themselves struggling to find employment due to the economic turmoil resulting from rampant corruption and the looting of public resources by unscrupulous politicians. However, the dream of pursuing higher education abroad remained an unattainable goal due to my family’s financial constraints.

While local advocates of higher education touted it for its unrivalled potential to promote social mobility and alleviate poverty, the situation in Zimbabwe was bleak. Many of the people who had managed to escape extreme poverty were those who had completed higher education abroad. 

When I was awarded the Lester B. Pearson Scholarship to study at U of T, I felt as if the impossible had been achieved. I knew this was an unparalleled opportunity to garner knowledge and use it to affect change in my community. Aside from the North American-based movies, books, and music I had consumed growing up, I was naïve and ignorant about many aspects of North American culture, particularly the Black experience. 

When I moved to Canada for the first time, I was forced to confront my identity and how it interacted with people’s perceptions of me. Growing up in Zimbabwe, the people who occupied prominent roles in society were all Black. My high school teachers were Black. My doctor was Black. The lawyers were Black, and most importantly, the president was Black. 

In Canada, I was suddenly confronted with belonging to a minoritized group that was beleaguered by the legacy of slavery, mass incarceration, segregation, racism in policing, and white supremacist ideology. I experienced cognitive dissonance when trying to reconcile the pursuit of higher education in the west with its history of subjugating Black people.

Gradually, I internalized the palpable racial tensions, microaggressions, and media narratives, and I began to identify more with my race rather than my passions and goals. I constantly found myself battling feelings of being an impostor or questioning whether I was placed in a position to fill a diversity quota. 

I came to the gradual realization that my experiences were not isolated; false assumptions and attitudes about Black people constituted the scaffolding of the structure of this new society I found myself in. These assumptions manifested themselves in the daily realities of Black people in Canada. 

I began to wonder how I would have turned out if I was born in North America. Would the weight of subtle and implicit biases betray the assumption that others questioned my intelligence or perceived me as a threat? 

I began to appreciate the privilege of growing up in Zimbabwe. In hindsight, growing up there — where my identity was not defined by the colour of my skin but by the content of my character, to adapt the words of Martin Luther King Jr. — fostered my individuality and independent thinking. That, to me, has been the greatest privilege I have yet attained in this world. 

In the face of crippling bouts of self-doubt, I remain grounded in the identity that was formed during my upbringing in Zimbabwe. This ability to separate myself from a narrative perpetuated in society is what ultimately makes my experience of being Black in North America different. 

For Black people who have grown up in North America, it is more challenging to divorce their own feelings of self-worth from those that are projected onto them by the society. I am constantly in awe of Black people in America who are familiar with this crucible. Despite it all, they remain resilient. 

I think that the Black experience is multifaceted and different for everyone. Often in the media, there is a singular narrative perpetuated about it. The problem with a single narrative is that it homogenizes us and erases the individuality, diversity of thought, and experiences of the Black community. 

During Black History Month, I think it is important to amplify the experiences of Black people within the community. I also believe that it is important for Black people to share their experiences to better foster that understanding. Finally, I believe that it is important that we focus on increasing the role of Black mentors in the formative years of each child’s life. 

The ability for people to see themselves in others reminds them that they are a valuable and contributing member of the society. One of the best ways to do that is through education.