The Intersection Of Black & White
by Shauna Cole
Photographs by Denis Duquette
Shauna Cole, Saint John, NB
It is a Monday morning in the lunchroom. Carol has just returned from her tropical vacation. She is tanned, looking relaxed, as she reminisces about the trip. Carol is in her mid-thirties. She’s a beautiful, fair-skinned white woman with long blonde hair. I look nothing like her. My skin is darker and so is my hair. Carol is smart, keen and ambitious. She runs an entire department of this company. I like her, respect her and look up to her.
In the midst of our weekday-morning coffee ritual, Carol says something that makes me want to pour my hot, dark roast coffee onto her crisp, light-pink blouse.
“It was so weird,” she says. “We went on an excursion into the city, and I felt so exposed. My husband and I were the only white people anywhere. We stood out like a couple of sore thumbs. I felt really unsafe and, honestly, I couldn’t get back to the resort fast enough. Everywhere I looked there were Black people. It was a terrible feeling.”
I immediately stop pouring my coffee, look her straight in the eyes and say, “Carol, I am Black.” It was a terrible feeling.
Carol’s jaw drops open. She fumbles on her words, “I’m sorry, I forgot you’re Black. I mean I don’t have anything against Black people.”
I give her a half grin and walk away with my black coffee. I haven’t even added my milk and stevia.
I never had my morning coffee with Carol again. She had something against Black people. They gave her a “terrible feeling.”
My home city of Saint John, New Brunswick, is mostly white. In fact, according to the 2016 Canadian census, only about 7 percent of the population is made up of racialized persons. I had a hard time feeling bad for Carol. I was used to standing out. My entire family was.
My father is Black, and my mother is white. They both grew up in the North End of Saint John, and they went to school together. Dad was president of the student council and captain of the hockey team. Mom was studious and introverted, keeping to her group of close friends. She wasn’t that interested in dating Dad. But when he asked her out on a date, she decided to go. “He was just so popular, and I wasn’t. For me, that’s the part that was intimidating, not the colour of his skin,” she says.
I am Black and white. My appearance confuses people. Sometimes, people make me Black, and sometimes people make me white. Sometimes, people assume I’m from countries I’ve never even visited. Sometimes, people ask me, “What are you anyways?” This used to bother me. I wanted so badly to belong in some specific category. But I couldn’t quite figure out where I fit. Through my adolescence, the questions from strangers were a constant reminder of my outcast status.
Now, I’m older, and I don’t care what these people think. I’ve decided that these people are ignorant. I like to answer the dreaded “What are you anyways?” question with “I’m a person.” I do this mostly because it bothers people who want to place me in a specific racial category. I perpetually put my checkmark next to “other.” I am at the intersection of black and white and don’t fit into their specific box.
My Aunt Mar had lost her partner. The family were going to support her. The funeral was on a Tuesday afternoon. My mom had to work, and Dad was looking for company for the five-hour drive from Saint John to Halifax, Nova Scotia. So I volunteered. I was in my early twenties.
“Wade,” my mother asks, “are you sure that’s a good idea?”
I don’t know what his answer was, but I end up going with him. Dad and I leave early in the morning. I sleep most of the drive. I wake up to the sound of Macy Gray singing “I Try” and my father’s voice announcing that we have arrived. As we drive down the dirt roads of North Preston, I think, “This seems different from how I remember Halifax. There’s even more Black people here than at my Aunt Joy’s house on Boxing Day.”
Marlene, Weymouth, Nova Scotia, 1960s
“This is an all-Black community,” Dad says. I only half believe him. My frame of reference tells me that Black communities only exist in movies like Boyz n the Hood. I can’t even Google to confirm Dad’s tall tale. It is the late 1990s, my phone is a Nokia, and data doesn’t exist.
From Aunt Mar’s partner’s homestead, we go to the church for the funeral. I have never been in a Baptist church, and I think this is going to be a typical Catholic funeral. Instead, there are hymns, energy and celebration. I feel a sense of community. Still, funerals make me feel uncomfortable, so I stay by my father’s side the entire time.
There are so many people. Probably over a hundred. I see a single white woman in the Black crowd. She stands out. But she doesn’t seem scared. She seems to belong. I feel like I belong too.
When the funeral ends, everyone walks towards the front doors of the church. I get chatting with my cousin and lose track of my father, just for a minute. My cousin and I conclude our conversation. She goes to be with her parents.
I am now standing alone on the steps of the church looking for my father. I feel panicked. I keep scanning the crowd frantically. “Where is he? Where is he?” This is the first time in my life I can’t easily pick my father out of a crowd. At every childhood Christmas concert and every stadium event we have ever attended, he is easy to spot. He is the 7 percent. I keep scanning the crowd, looking for him. “There are so many Black people here,” I think. “I’ll never find him.”
I had never seen so many Black people in my life. This brought new perspective at the intersection of black and white.
and Frank Cole, Saint John, NB, 1978
Early in my career, I did a lot of recruitment, and I worked with a lot of different managers. Every single one was white. For a technical position, I would prescreen all the resumés and then review them with the hiring manager. The role requirements were clearly listed on the job posting, and I would make sure each candidate’s experience was a match.
We are ready to start scheduling interviews, so I sit down with the hiring manager to show him the resumés of the candidates I am planning to contact. These would be the lucky few to move on to the interview process.
I come to the meeting with five resumés. I am an experienced recruiter and feel confident about my selections. The manager and I meet in a large conference room that is much too big for just two people. He sits at the head of the table, and I sit to his right. The conference room table is a dark, reddish-brown wood. The chairs are black, and there are no windows in the room. The room’s vibe is old, white man. But everything is dark.
“We’ll meet these four candidates,” he says as he passes me back four resumés.
“What about the fifth candidate?” I ask. The manager says, “I don’t want to meet that guy. Sounds like a n***** name to me, and he’s definitely not going to fit with my team.” I feel a pit in my stomach. He assumes I am white, but I am Black too.
This is what happens at the intersection of black and white.
Shauna Cole with her father, Wade, Saint John, NB, 1980s
Months later, I was still thinking about my interaction with Carol. Being surrounded by Black people was a terrible feeling for her, scary even. I couldn’t understand this. Yet when I lost my dad in a crowd of Black people for the first time, I felt scared too. When the hiring manager called the candidate a n*****, I felt a lot of things. I felt anger, and I felt fear then too. The lessons from Carol, my experience in North Preston and the racist hiring manager are the same.
The lesson is that our frame of reference shapes our reality. Change only happens when we seek to fully understand and truly feel the realities of others. This means escaping our own frame of reference and exploring new ones.
Grampy Frank Cole and grandkids Shauna Cole, Craig Cole, Mahoganey Jones, Dwayne Marcial, Luke Bishop, Adrian Bishop, Saint John, NB, 1980s
Carol’s fear was fuelled by assumptions and nonfacts that came from her reality. Her fear was created by a culture that tells a story about Black people that’s wrong and filled with a tainted history. Carol probably hugs her purse a little tighter when she walks past a Black man. Carol’s world is white. Racialized persons truly are the minority in her city. To Carol, Black communities still only exist in the movies. Carol makes me angry and sad.
I was scared when I couldn’t find Dad outside the church at the funeral. This was the first time in my life he had ever blended into a crowd. This was me escaping my own frame of reference. My father’s black skin always made him easy to spot in our white community. The idea that he could be the norm, rather than the exception, was new to me. And really kind of liberating.
When I finally found my father in the big, Black crowd, he was looking for me too.
“Dad, I couldn’t find you. It was such a scary feeling. I never have trouble finding you in a crowd. I was panicking.”
I took him to the top of the steps where I had been standing to conduct my search. Those steps overlooked the parking lot below. I showed him the view because it was like nothing I had ever seen before.
“See, Dad, everyone is Black. You didn’t stand out.” Dad stared out at the crowd. I could see the figurative lightbulb pop up and turn on above his head.
When I heard the manager call a candidate a n*****, my frame of reference changed. This was the moment in my career and my life I started to think more critically about leadership and about skin colour. “What if all the managers at the company feel this way?” I wondered. “What does this mean for me? What does this mean for every other highly qualified Black candidate?”
I should have told Carol her experience on vacation was an opportunity to learn. I should have said, “Carol, did you ever think that Black people in predominantly white communities feel like this every single day of their lives? They stand out. They are just 7 percent of the population.
They are my father, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins and my friends. On top of standing out, the world paints them as villains. So, Carol, I’m sorry you felt that fear on vacation. But please, lean into that right now, and pretend you stand out like that every single day of your life. Are you still afraid of Black people? Are you afraid of me?”
But I was in my twenties, and I kept my mouth shut back then.
The day after the manager called the candidate a n*****, I put a photo of my family on my desk at work. In the photo, I’m standing proudly arm in arm with my Black father, white mother and my brother, who looks a lot like me. That manager stopped by my desk one day. I saw him glaring at my family photo. He looked shocked and seemed distracted in his conversation with me. I thought to myself, “I hope you feel sick to your stomach right now, just like I did the day you called a perfectly qualified candidate a n*****.”
I should have done more in that situation with the hiring manager. But everyone in leadership was white. I worried they would see me as a complainer or too sensitive.
The path to real change means feeling what others feel. It comes from inside each and every one of us. It means listening and hearing stories and understanding our past. My Aunt Joy says this, and she is right. The way to understand others’ feelings is to put yourself in their shoes, or better yet, their skin. You can change your shoes, depending on your mood. But you can’t change your skin colour.
At the intersection of black and white, I’m an unintentional and unlikely spy. I hear quiet, secret hate that people share because they assume I’m white or, at the very least, not Black. The path to changing attitudes and assumptions stems from sharing stories and experiences that make those different from us the same as us. And the path to common ground is in shared feelings.
The Cole family celebrates Christmas, Saint John, NB, 2018
Sitting on the couch watching television one evening, my white, six-year-old son, Jayden, has something on his mind. He turns to me very seriously and asks, “Mom, have people been mean to Grampy just because he’s brown?”
I answer honestly. “Unfortunately, yes, Jayden. Sometimes people are mean to people who are different from themselves.”
He is quiet for a moment, reflecting on my answer. He is searching his own frame of reference to figure out how he feels about this. I can see it in his thoughtful green eyes. After gathering his thoughts, he looks at me and says, “Mom, that is absolutely ridiculous.” And I couldn’t have agreed more.
Shawn Cormier, Shauna Cole and their sons photographed in Saint John, NB. Photograph: Naomi Peters.
The intersection of black and white means challenging our own frame of reference and feeling those of others. The intersection of black and white is where real change happens.
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here.