This piece is featured in Issue No. 1 Love in the Time of Corona

personal essay


When you’re a kid you spend a great deal of your time slowly trying to figure out exactly who you are. When your family moves around a lot - and you look the way I look - piecing together your identity can be made just a little bit harder. My family immigrated to the United States from Nigeria before I was born. They wanted their kids to have more opportunities than they did, and they were willing to sacrifice anything to ensure that. Finding our footing was difficult at first as we found ourselves moving from city to city quite a bit before eventually setting down in a small neighbourhood in the California Bay Area. It was one of those neighbourhoods that Army recruiters love to frequent, picking off young boys with nothing to lose with tremendous efficiency. I think this is where I started piecing together my identity. 

Being the kid of immigrants meant that, even around people that looked like me, my “black” was always a little different than their “black”. Even as young boys, they were able to spot the difference. It was in the way I dressed, the way I talked, the way I walked. And in a way, they were right; their family trees had roots soaked in the blood of the slaves that built this country. Mine didn’t. However, being American born and melanated, I was never considered an outsider. The “Black Community” was always my community. Black culture became my culture, Black pain became my pain, and Black issues were always inherently my issues. Similarly, African culture - inherited from my own family and ancestors - became a part of their culture; a small substitute for those vital parts of their identity, taken from them long before their time. 

Being so young in such a community, it was hard to recognize how much the way I looked influenced how I lived. I never wondered why we had to stop playing and go inside when the police came around. It just seemed like something we were supposed to do.  I don’t think I ever questioned the stares we received from the convenience store clerks, or why we had to walk with our hands on our heads as we browsed the aisles. I was probably more concerned with whether or not my favourite Ninja Turtles popsicle was in stock. It was Donatello, in case you were wondering.

I was still pretty young when my parents were forced to leave the country. We left our community behind in California and moved to Canada, which according to our family friends was “pretty nice, I hear.” In a familiar exodus, we traveled from town to town, eventually settling in this tiny Ontario suburb called Oakville. 

Oakville was weird. 

For starters, I suddenly looked like very few of my new friends which seemed to be as jarring for them as it was for me. My skin became a point of discussion as I was bombarded with questions about where I was from, what my name means, and whether or not there are lions in Nigeria. But these were kids, they were curious, why make a big deal out of it?

Sports in Canada were weird too. The coaches celebrated my speed with names like “Black Lightning” and “Nubian Prince”.  From players on the other teams, my speed would inspire alternative names like “runaway slave” or, arguably less creatively, “run nigger, run,” which, while a clever allusion to an African-American folk song, isn’t even a name when you really think about it. “Don’t worry Black Lightning,” the coaches would say. “They’re just mad that you’re beating them.” So I let ‘em hate. Why make a big deal about it?

Putting my hands on my head in a convenience store became an instinct in California. My new friends didn’t understand.“This is Canada! We’re not racist like in the states,” they assured me. “You don’t have to worry, T!” They called me “T” because “Toluwa” was a bit too difficult for them. My first name is actually Toluwalase. I suppose I thought Toluwa would be easier.

The weirdest thing about Oakville was how quickly I became aware of all the things that were expected of me based on the way that I looked - and, more upsettingly, all the things that were not. By way of daily jokes and comments, I learned of all the things I was supposed to love, things like watermelon, fried chicken, basketball and Shaft. And it was the gentle cock of the head and the falsetto “Oh!” that made me realize that things like comic books, metal music and contemporary dance were interests that made an anomaly out of me. 

By the time I was a Junior in highschool, comments about the way I spoke became a sort of white noise.  A familiar tilt of the head and a higher-pitched “You’re so well-spoken,” became routine. And from the bolder of my peers, “You talk white,” “You’re totally scary...until you start talking!”, “You’re like the whitest black guy I know!” OREO was a term I heard a lot. In reference to the popular cookie snack? Black on the outsides, white on the inside. You get it. The way I spoke, the way I wrote, my interests, my passions, everything was given a color code. And I let this happen for years. How couldn’t I? When you’ve had your head slammed into the hood of a cop car while being called a “nigger” with the hard -er, names like “Oreo” and “Black Lightning” just don’t seem to worth the fight. Besides, this was Canada. They’re not racist here. Not like in the states. 

In California, my best  friends and I loved anime and science and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons. We listened to 90’s hip hop and punk rock. We wrote and illustrated comic books on my mum’s printer paper and sold them for 10 cents apiece. We were nerds, but we were never “white”. We were never OREOs. We were always just us. And where I grew up, not many people spoke the way I spoke. But you could sit on any given porch in the neighbourhood and hear the best fucking story you’ve ever heard in your entire life, and that shit will stick with you. 

Last year, my vehicle was surrounded by plain-clothes officers in the Yorkdale parking lot. Their guns were drawn and trained on me as they ordered me to turn off the vehicle and put my hands on the steering wheel. I had just dropped off my friend Rasa and was eating a snack. I froze in fear with the snack still sticking out of my mouth. Believe it or not, I was eating OREOs. Cinnamon Bun OREOs, but still. 

At first, I had no way of knowing that this was law enforcement and that I was not, in fact, being robbed. I then had the silly thought that this was because I was parked, for just a moment, in a spot reserved for pregnant women. The last thought I had before being pulled out of the car was that I was about to die. I started thinking about what my last day would look like. What would they say about me on the news? Would they call me a thug? Or will they use my “white” traits to capitalize on the tragedy?

A few moments later, handcuffed and pressed against the back of an unmarked cruiser, I was told that my car matched the description of a vehicle that was reported stolen. I was told that I, too, matched a description. After searching my car and confirming my identity, they sent the only Black detective over to me to explain that this was an honest mistake, and to assure me that this was not a “race-thing”. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it might as well have been “Besides, this is Canada. We’re not racist here.” 

Despite how derivative it may sound, I truly believe that the hardest thing for any one person to truly know is themselves. Like many, I allowed myself to be influenced by the expectations of people who could never hope to understand my experience. I’ve spent a lot of time working on freeing from these expectations and I admit that, in smaller ways, I’m still working. To this day, I still sometimes find my hands on my head in a convenience store. But you better believe that if I hear the term OREO, I’m going to make a big deal out of it. I know who I am. And your expectations will never change that. 

Toluwa A. Fayemi

Toluwa A. Fayemi is a writer, filmmaker, and scientist. He has his Honours Physics (BSc) Engineering Science (BESc), and is a Masters of Engineering Physics (MSc) Candidate from the University of Western Ontario.