On set for a Divine Brown video shoot ... the first time I was ever paid to dance ;-)

Five-Year Flashback …

… Dancer Chattrisse is still a baby compared to the other Chattrisse listed in this old post, which you should absolutely go back and read so you know what on earth I’m talking about. (That pic represents the first time I was considered a professional [read: paid] dancer … ah, memories.)

That post was the first thing I ever blogged here, and this Wednesday it will be five years old — that’s crazy! Thanks, internet, for hanging in there with me while I learned to blog, and did it regularly, and stopped doing it, and got back on the wagon again.

Huh. Kind of like dance, interestingly … as some of you know, I injured my shoulder in spring 2016 and due to a condition that developed during the healing process, it’s still not back to 100%, and due to this, I’ve been doing significantly less dancing since 2016 than I would like. (One of the many reasons I love this video is that it was filmed mere days before the original shoulder injury; I still don’t have my full range of motion back, but at least I can admire what I looked like when I’d never considered losing it!)

So I’m taking a moment to look back and congratulate myself. For being transparent and for finding a new way of sharing my thoughts five years ago, for learning to be patient with my body during the last two years, and for how much better I will be two and five years from now.

Just for fun, what were you doing five years ago? And how does it relate to what you’re doing today?


Haïti 2018 with TWA

As promised!

Last month I took my sixth trip to Haïti with an incredible group called Third World Awareness. It was a short trip – only one week – and yet it was filled with some of my favourite memories from these six visits, along with some positive changes. (Quick note: my first time visiting was in 2011, more than a year after the huge devastating earthquake, so I don’t have any firsthand info on how things now compare to pre-quake conditions. Before this year’s trip, I hadn’t been back since 2016.)

Couronne with a splash of Barbancourt ;-)

Couronne with a splash of Barbancourt ;-)

Almost immediately – like, leaving the airport – I noticed that the roads were in much better repair than I remembered. Traffic, I would realize within a couple of days (I landed on a Saturday), was arguably worse, but the surfaces of most roads I travelled on were smoother and had fewer potholes, apparently due to the government having spent a good chunk of change on infrastructure repairs. There is better access to electricity now, neighbourhoods with power lines which didn’t have them during my other trips there, more streetlights and traffic lights. There are also – bizarrely – numerous electricity towers which have been built in such a way that they partially obstruct traffic, forcing the roadways to become more narrow (possibly because to put them further back from the road would mean that houses had to be demolished?), and this increased traffic noticeably, as did the number of intersections which were being controlled by police officers instead of by the aforementioned traffic lights.



There did seem to be an increased police presence; twice during my stay I was in (or on) a vehicle that got pulled over for seemingly random police checks. The first was at a roadblock but there wasn’t much to be nervous about as I was in a van mostly full of Canadians; the second time, when I was en route to the airport and riding a motorcycle with the driver I’d just met and a friend of mine, was jusssst a bit more unnerving.


In addition to better roads and more cops, I noticed that the air quality was vastly improved. It took me awhile to pick up on this … after all, how often do we really think about the air we breathe except when there’s something wrong with it? It must have been five days in that a truck or van went by belching black smoke which hung around in the air for a bit, and I had a sudden flashback of wearing a bandanna around the lower half of my face because that thick lingering haze used to be how the air seemed to feel all the time. Not out in the country, of course, but in the city and its suburbs, where we spend most of our time, it was a problem. I’d constantly feel grit in my eyes, making contact lenses even more irritating; I’d blow my nose and what came out would be grey. So this was another welcome improvement, although it may be due to the weather: on most of my trips, the air has been hot and heavy, and this time there was always a breeze blowing. So. Very. Grateful.

So what were some of my specific memories? I’ve got a few pictures to help me out. (One thing I should probably point out, though, is that my photos decrease in number every time I go. Photography/videography isn’t allowed in most of the areas where we do our volunteer hours, isn’t polite or appropriate in many of the other places we go to, and the novelty started to wear off after my third visit.)


This. On my first full day there, we visited a resort with this beautiful – rocky, but beautiful – beach. Little boats like this one took turns anchoring nearby, playing music, hoping to entice guests to go for a ride up and down the coast.


So we did.


On the same day, we visited the Ogier-Fombrun Museum in Arcahaie, birthplace of the Haïtian flag. This museum is wonderful – it’s a restored sugar plantation with many original artifacts and even though I’d been there before, this was the first time I was able to take in most of its displays.

FullSizeRender 8

FullSizeRender 19

FullSizeRender 20

FullSizeRender 11

FullSizeRender 2

For whatever reason, although I knew a good deal of Haïti’s history even before my first visit, I was really struck this year by how ludicrous it is that the first country to throw off chattel slavery is still imprisoned in so many ways. I zeroed in on the hatchet (centre, in the above photo), which was used to amputate slaves (I forget now whether the example given was as punishment for slaves who weren’t working fast enough, or as a potentially life-saving measure for slaves whose hands got caught in the machinery; both occurred in different places throughout history). There was – and is – this deep, brooding reminder about how unjust it all was – and is – and a sort of helpless feeling that I’ll never be able to make any difference at all. It’s such a monstrous wrong, I don’t know how it could ever be made right.


I guess it’s as part of an effort to right this wrong that I and many others do humanitarian work. I’m keenly aware that had my grandparents not emigrated to Canada, I could be on the receiving end of this work. (That’s not an exaggeration. Frankly, most of us living in “the first world” are just one disaster or personal crisis away from being on the receiving end of similar work, but that’s a topic for another day.) So pictured just above is the first school that Third World Awareness built in Haïti, in a part of a “slum” called Cité Soleil, on the edge of the water. Upon visiting the school this time around I noticed that even in CS, the roads looked better than I remembered; they were certainly cleaner than what I was used to seeing here. (Don’t get too excited, though; near the end of this blog you’ll see the sitee of some cleanup work we hope to do next.)

Most of the places where we do work forbid photography, but photos are always welcome at this school. The smiles of these children never fails to warm me up, no matter what’s going on.


Two moments really stood out for me on this day. One was an event that half the school, it seemed, celebrated together: during games of soccer with the students in their schoolyard, there was intense jockeying for a position near whichever adult was handing out pinneys ahead of each round. In a sea of waving hands, pressing bodies and yells, a teacher looked down and picked out a small boy to get the last blue pinney. He scored the last goal of the game – the smallest kid on the field – and the whole place went crazy. They mobbed him, cheered, applauded, lifted him up in the air; it felt like something out of a movie! I was too caught up to get a photo before everything died down, but I did capture this shot of him still beaming, and I had a moment of intense gratitude for every teacher or leader everywhere who has ever given the underdog a chance. It was so wonderful.


On a more personal note, I came to the school bringing a particular set of gifts – prints of photos that I had taken in the same place in 2016 and 2015.

Cite Soleil schoolyard smiles

That’s one of my fave pictures that I’ve ever been in, period; and since there are 16 students in it with me, I brought 16 prints back with me and gave them all out. (Not all of them are still students here since that photo was taken three years ago, but it made sense to prepare for the best-case scenario.)


There’s more of a story behind this one.

In 2016, I was able to teach dance classes to the students at this school and it was a high point in my adult life. I was keenly aware, however, that I wasn’t able to share the joy of that dance class with every child nearby. These two boys from the area, who weren’t in school (I presume because their families weren’t able to afford it, or perhaps the school was just too full), climbed up to the second floor to see what was going on, and even though I knew it was dangerous for them to be there,  I snapped this photo of them before they were chased away. (Terrible role model over here.)

I printed two nice black-and-white copies of this photo too, hoping against hope that I could find these kids in 2018 … or at least someone who knew them and could pass on the prints. And as I sat at the back of the school watching one of the aforementioned soccer games, I realized that one of the students looked very familiar. Turns out the boy in the red shirt – Nelson – is now a student at our school, and I was thrilled to have his teacher call him away from the game so he could get the photos. Although I didn’t see the other boy on either of the days I visited, Nelson says he knows where to find him. I’m not quite clear on whether he still lives in Cité Soleil; a lot can change in a couple of years, and his family may have settled somewhere else. Wherever he is, I hope he’s safe and healthy and cared for. I want that for all of these kids, and it’s heartbreaking to know that many of them … maybe most of them … are not, despite the best efforts of the school and of many other people who care about them.


Maybe next time I go, they’ll both be in uniform.


Ayiti cherie!


On Lists and Gratitude

Sooner than later I’ll be sharing a recap of the trip to Haïti I took earlier this month.

In the meantime, while that recap post brews and stews in my mind and my WordPress account, I felt like sharing a nightly habit of mine. It’s something I’ve been doing for at least five years, and only very recently spoken about with two people – my cousin and my boyfriend – outside the group of people who encouraged me to do it in the first place. It’s a very simple thing, and yet it can be a real game-changer as far as your mindset is concerned.

Every night, before I say my prayers and after I’ve otherwise finished getting ready for bed, I look at myself in a mirror, and begin to speak aloud, enumerating my “Sweet Sixteen.” Sixteen things I’m grateful for, and all sixteen must have occurred between my waking up that morning and the moment I get around to this ritual.

One of the (many) things I love about visiting Haïti is how easy it is to rattle off my Sweet Sixteen list every night (“I’m grateful for today’s sunshine, those adorable children in school uniforms,  my ride in a tap-tap, an evening visit from a tiny lizard, the electric fan by my bed, the delicious dinner we ate…”), and that this easiness lasts for quite awhile after I come home (“I’m grateful for the streetcar coming right when I needed it to, for reliable wi-fi, the bewildering variety of items on these store shelves, the chat I had in the laundry room with my neighbour, my tanned skin, this morning’s hot shower…”). On one trip I found myself being particularly grateful to feel a breeze blowing on a sunny day, and that level of appreciation is a place I want to learn to live in … while continuing to “build for better” (as my pastor would say), because if I spent all my time just being grateful for what I have I would find it hard to motivate myself to work, or work out, or write, or right any of the wrongs I see in our society, or ask for things I still want or need. In short, if I got too wrapped up in gratitude for what I’m able to enjoy, I wouldn’t ever go back to Haïti. Maybe I wouldn’t ever go anywhere.

And that doesn’t sound like me.

Taking one minute each night to deliver a big long “thank you,” that sounds exactly like me, and I hope I can inspire others to do the same. In fact, if you had to stop right now and list your own Sweet Sixteen for today’s date, what would it include?

Isla Caine - Viva Italia 03

Introducing . . . Isla Caine (Chattrisse does burlesque!)

Last fall, I saw a dear friend of mine (Cassidy) perform in a fabulous burlesque show created by another friend of mine (Knox). Many people think of burlesque as just a bunch of hot women taking their clothes off in front of a sleazy crowd and not much else, right? Not on Knox’s watch — this was a full-scale production with a plot, period costumes and props, music, interesting characters, incredible dancing and choreography and singing, and both women and men of diverse appearances — including body types — performing burlesque for a warm and responsive audience. I stood around afterward, talking to one or two dancers who’d performed for Knox before, and said that I was going to try out for one of her shows in 2018.

Necessary background info:

(1) I am a lifelong singer; I’ve been singing at home since forever and in public since I was six years old, although

(2) I still battle with shyness, and feel that none of my public performances have ever been as good as what I manage to pull off vocally when I’m alone at home

(3) For almost as long as I’ve been singing in public, I’ve been very self-conscious about my body, and this has been exacerbated by the fact that

(4) For nearly two full years, I’ve been recovering from a shoulder injury (really, two of them) and this has led to a deepening of my disappointment in, and disdain toward, my own body

(5) In addition to a slump in my dancing, it’s been quite awhile since I was onstage singing. Except for a guest spot in a Chris Birkett show last October, it honestly may be over a year now — I literally don’t remember.

And finally, (6) I am a born-again Christian who still many questions about reconciling God’s love, my gratitude for innumerable miracles including our own bodies, and the shame that many Western people, particularly women, are programmed to experience when we discuss or display our sexuality.

Where am I going with all this? Well, even though I had plenty of reasons to simply disregard my stated goal of auditioning for a burlesque show, I decided that they all boiled down to one: fear. I pulled that fear out of my head and held it in my hand, where I could get a good look at it and remind myself how much bigger than it I am and always will be. I weighed all six of the points listed above, and decided to go through with the audition. With Knox’s help, I created a new act starring a new character: Isla Caine.

“Isla” can be either “EESS-lah” (Spanish pronunciation) or “EYE-lah” (English pronunciation), depending on where she is and who she’s talking to . . . because if you know me personally, you know that my most-used skills throughout life have probably been reading, writing, speaking, and code-switching. “Caine” is mostly a nod to sugar cane, since I’m Caribbean and I can be very sweet. Isla Caine emphasizes some of the realest parts of Chattrisse. She has a soothing voice. You see her commanding personality when it comes to getting things done. She’s willing to appreciate her curves even if they aren’t all in the places where she’d like them to be yet. And in terms of fashion, the vibe she gives you is made up of Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada), Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal ensemble, and a deep appreciation for jewel tones.

So I did it! On April 12th, I took the stage at Revival in a white suit over a black blouse, with smouldering eye makeup and a bright red lip. My hair was coiled into a bun and I wore my real-life oversized glasses. Before an audience of friends and cousins (but mostly strangers), I sang Diana Krall’s version of “Peel Me a Grape” while removing my blazer, blouse, pants, and elbow gloves. By the time I sashayed off the stage in my stilettos with my hair swinging back and forth across my shoulder blades, I was wearing only my matching aubergine bra and panties. And for once, no doubt because I was singing into a beautifully restored antique microphone, my voice sounded far better floating through the venue than it did it any of my at-home rehearsals.

Even before I was hugged by my people in the audience, or checked my phone to see a congratulatory message from a friend in Vancouver which contained a video clip of me onstage mere minutes earlier, or saw any of the pics or footage, I felt so good. I was so proud of myself for facing off against my nerves and fear and insecurities, and the feeling kept growing as I proudly watched Gin Kelly, another first-timer who I know from the world of acting, wow the crowd. Cassidy, who’s a pro at this, absolutely killed her set too. From what I was able to see, every woman and man who took the stage did themselves proud, and it felt incredible to be in the ring with them instead of watching from the sidelines.

On a very real level, if you aren’t learning you aren’t growing. One of my guiding principles (especially for this transition period I seem to still be in) is to keep learning, no matter what; otherwise I’ll have gone through an entire new season and have no growth to show for it. Creating and debuting Isla Caine has certainly taught and tested me, and while I haven’t decided yet how soon (or whether) I’ll bring her back out again, I’m truly glad to meet her and get to know myself a little better at the same time.

Thanks to Knox, Cassidy and all of the other Viva Italia performers, my family and friends who came, the sound guy whose name I forget right now but he’s super-cool, and to Hollywood Jade whose years of Urbanesque dance classes have helped me more than he knows.

Thanks also to photographer Ruth Gillson for the wonderful images! Speakeasy at Revival is a monthly event at 783 College St here in Toronto and if you’re looking for a fear to conquer, you may want to get in touch and ask to audition. Either way, check out one of their shows; I think you’ll be glad you did!

Isla Caine - Viva Italia 02


How to Scare Yourself, and Why

As annoyed as I get by the overabundance of inspirational quotes flooding so many social media platforms (I wrote a monologue all about it, maybe I’ll share that one day), every once in awhile there will be a kernel of truth in one of them that I really appreciate.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway” (which came to me from the world of network marketing) and “do something that scares you” (which I think I first saw on a Lululemon bag) both capture the sentiment I want to talk about today, and so does a quote which I wish I could type word for word right now. Unfortunately, all I’ve got is this: at some point probably more than five years ago, a celebrity contestant got eliminated from whatever season of Dancing with the Stars and I heard a snippet of her farewell speech on the radio as I struggled to wake myself up that morning. Her words, heavily paraphrased by me here, and delivered with a lot of emotion (I think she might have been crying) were: “Whatever you’re most afraid of, run toward that thing as fast as you can; I promise there is something amazing on the other side!”

(Sidebar: can any of you find the actual quote for me? You can imagine how fruitless my search has been, years later and with such sketchy info to go by.)

Fear does have its function, and a very useful one – so I’m not going to start telling you to go fly in the face of safety and reason. What I am going to do  (in my next post, so stay tuned), is tell a little story about how I feel more empowered today than I did a month ago, because I recognized and called out a fear that was inside my mind. I faced off with it, and I hope I can learn to value “scaring myself” enough that one day it’ll just come naturally to me.

It’s important to recognize at least some of the many times that fear, while you might assume it is helping you, is actually hindering your growth and/or learning. Listening to your fear may keep you safe . . . and yet, isn’t safety itself kind of dangerous? When you feel safe, you’re less observant. More complacent. Easier prey for, say, a pickpocket than someone who acknowledges the risk of being pickpocketed and keeps their guard up. Feeling fear is a sign that you’ve left your comfort zone, or are about to; and at the risk of leaning too heavily on more annoying quotes, leaving your comfort zone is almost always a prerequisite for earning any new stripes in this life.

Anyway, I wanted to get these thoughts down before sharing the actual story in detail. Come back soon to read the whole thing ;-)


FullSizeRender 3

What’s this season called?

I’m in a transition phase in my life … which is starting to sound kind of funny to me since I’ve been saying that for more than six months now. First it was time to leave my full-time day job, then I switched into a part-time evening one, then I had an audition drought (which was pretty annoying, since the job change had been prompted in part by my desire to have my daytimes free for auditions), then I used those daytime hours to write my first feature-length screenplay and apply for funding to help get it made, then I reinvigorated my training as an actor and got new headshots, then I had a few auditions followed by two more audition-barren weeks, and now I’m in training at a new new day/evening job and the auditions have started to pick up again.

In the meantime, I’ve taken a vacation (a concept which is nearly as foreign to me as the idea of celebrating a romantic anniversary, which I’ve also recently done), said goodbye to my cat (a beloved faithful companion of 14 years), dealt with a health issue or two (nothing awful, don’t worry), and had numerous extended family members pass away. So in many ways it feels like a turbulent time in my life.

When I expressed this recently to a friend, she said “Try and have patience. You’re likely coming through the other end now,” and “Longer transitions mean a greater impact when you land … I’d like to think.”

So would I.

I received another helpful insight from a social worker, who has suggested that I try being more compassionate with myself. I live my life by a set of unwavering standards, and I’ve always been able to fall back on my adherence to them even when those around me fall short. This has mostly served me well – except that I’m starting to wonder whether one of the lessons I’m meant to learn now is to let up on myself every now and then. To have a non-productive day without feeling bad about it. To treat myself with gifts once in awhile, the way I love to treat others. To congratulate myself for tries as well as actual wins. Because when I stop and think of all the reasons (excuses) I could’ve come up with to not write, not seek medical advice, not pay for classes and new headshots, not travel, and not go back into the Job Hunt Vortex … twice … all of those tries begin to look more and more like wins to me.

This is where I’m supposed to deliver an elegant finish; I don’t really have one. I guess I’ll just thank you for reading, and for sharing any of your own recent tries and wins that you’d like to let the world know about; and give thanks, of course, to my friends and fam who love me undoubtedly.

And thank you, Self. I’m proud of you.




PS: For real, what are you reaching for right now? I’d love to know!


Tired … On Purpose

This post will probably be more useful to me than it is to you.

Roughly ten years ago, when I was taking dance classes regularly, I had a brief meetup with a dancer friend of mine inside of DLM Studio on Bloor St West. He told me about how tired he was because of all the dancing he’d been doing (both that day and in general). I remember telling myself “Don’t do this. Don’t get to the point where you complain about doing so much singing, or acting, or whatever.” What I think I said out loud was something to the effect of, “Hey, everybody’s tired, but at least you’re tired from doing a lot of something you love.” And I’ve been reminded of that conversation numerous times.

Like yesterday, for example.  My Saturday, February 17th was awesome.




Yep, even more so than an average weekend for me.


Well, let’s see.

Although I went to bed too late on Friday (my day job is an evening one), I woke up on time Saturday to arrive at the location for a music video shoot at 9:45am. I was one of the production assistants, helping to organize various things so that my friends and their dancers/models could focus on giving the best performances possible. It was so good to support folks I really care about who are working to make their dreams come true, while meeting some new ones and having the fun of being part of a creative project without any of the stress of the project being mine. Although the shoot was an all-day affair, I left at 1pm after a partial outfit change to get to the Art Gallery of Ontario before 2 (eating snacks en route on the 505 Dundas streetcar). At the AGO I had time to apply lipstick, mingle a bit, and settle in for a tribute to and Q&A session with acclaimed casting director Robi Reed, who bestowed some nuggets of useful knowledge as part of the 6th annual Toronto Black Film Festival. Two of my favourites were “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” and “There are two kinds of people: the people who want it and the people who can’t live without it.” That ended a bit before 4, so my friend and I were able to mingle a bit more and then hustle to catch the 4:15 showing of the Black Panther movie with my dad and my boyfriend. All I will say about that at this moment is that Black Panther is one of the best movies I’ve seen, I fervently hope to play a role like Shuri’s one day (yessss Letitia Wright!), and this film will go down in history as a memorable one for so many of the right reasons – I’m so happy I was able to see it on its opening weekend. The last event of the day was a live comedy show starring Toronto comedian Trixx, who’s absolutely blown up online since the first time – years ago – I saw him onstage in person. While Trixx and the other comedians were all very funny, one of my favourite parts of the night was probably his serious show ending, where he talked about the support he receives from Torontonians despite our reputation as the Screwface Capital. It was especially cool that when I made my way up to Trixx to congratulate him afterward, he greeted me as “Ms Director” (a bit preliminary, but I’ll take it!), which just seemed to confirm to me that while you’re watching someone else rise and shine, they may also be aware of you doing the same thing. And then, on the way home, I realized that I’d received an email during the show confirming my participation in a Master Class with a Gemini-award-winning screenwriter and director at the upcoming ACTRA conference; essentially, my first audition of the year, and one with maybe 200 people watching it. Live.

I was very tired by the time I got to bed, and it was the kind of tiredness that inspires and even demands gratitude. Even better: although yesterday was particularly careerful (haha), it wasn’t an anomaly for 2018 Chattrisse Dolabaille. Today I took an acting class which involved a true performance breakthrough for me; on Monday I’ll be getting new headshots done and writing; Tuesday will involve prep for the ACTRA conference which is on Wednesday and Thursday; the next screening of my short film CHECK is on Friday. And et cetera.

I wanted to publish this so that I’ll have something tangible to point to when future successes seem to some as though they materialized from nothing. I actually keep a little notebook where I write down every career-related task that I do each day, to make sure I don’t let any days go by without adding to the pile; and even though I still have *so* much more building to do, I know that I’ve been putting in work that I can be proud of. Since I’m learning and growing, my goals are within my reach; since my goals are within my reach, I have more learning and growing to do. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I’ve “made it” and the bulk of the work is behind me; I do know that every time I yawned today, somewhere deep down inside my soul, I gave myself a high-five.

So at the risk of repeating myself, let’s promise that since we spend so much of our adult lives being tired anyway, we’ll make sure that at least some of that tiredness is the result of chasing our dreams. Not so that we can complain about the effort, but so that we can develop those dream-chasing habits and muscles.

Now if you’ll excuse me . . . bedtime. And not just because I don’t want bags under my eyes for tomorrow’s shoot =)

Image-1 (1)

Ujamaa … or, How to Buy Black?

Helpful hint: if you’re a black business owner with the ability to reach folks who observe Kwanzaa (in other words, this applies to every black business owner who has ever heard of the internet), you should consider either releasing new products on December 29th or having a sale that day, or both.

The 29th of December is the fourth day of Kwanzaa, and its principle is Ujamaa, or “co-operative economics.” Observers are encouraged to support black businesses and black business owners in order to help build and strengthen the community.

The phrase “Buy Black” is familiar to many people by now, and it’s an important, subtle yet meaningful way to counter some of the economic oppression which has been endured by the black diaspora for centuries. It’s clear that a disturbingly high amount of dollars from within the black community don’t remain within the black community for long enough to build the community up; what isn’t always so clear, in an age where so many financial transactions are completed without you ever knowing the ethnic background of who is eventually getting your money, is how to correct this at the micro level.

“Buy Black,” you say. Especially on December 29th. Okay, yes, of course … but how do I buy black correctly?

One of my default Ujamaa shopping spots is A Different Booklist, a black-owned bookstore here in Toronto. Co-owner Itah Sadu went to school with my father, so her Black Card credentials are easily verifiable. So let’s say I head over there to buy a copy of “The Hate U Give,” one of my favourite new reads of 2017. It was written by Angie Thomas (another black woman) and happens to be full of socially aware content in a compelling story told through the eyes of a black girl narrator (bonus black points!). Have I done Ujamaa right?

Because I’ve definitely bought black … well, mostly. It is, after all, highly doubtful that all of the links in the chain of production for “The Hate U Give” are black. It may be that a majority of the people whose work was required to get this book into my hands are not (or, are not only) black, although the woman who birthed it and the woman who sold it to me both are.

And speaking of birth … what if the owner of the store, while identifying as black, had one biological parent who was black and one who wasn’t? Or, let’s say there are two black-owned bookstores that I know of, both within a reasonable distance from me. (Sidebar: the fact that this is not the case points right back to the importance of observing the principle of Ujamaa in the first place.) Both are stocked with books I want at prices I find reasonable. If one is owned by a black person whose parents are both black, and the other is owned by a married couple consisting of a black spouse and a non-black spouse, is shopping at one a more appropriate Ujamaa mission than shopping at the other? What if the other spouse is mixed?

Maybe I’m over-complicating this; maybe a book is a bad example. Something like taking your family out for soul food at a black-owned restaurant is a lot more straightforward … although the restaurant’s ingredients probably come from all over the world and its suppliers are likely not all black … plus, what if their staff aren’t all black either? Hey, what if the generic franchise eatery down the road, with a much larger staff, happens to employ three times more black chefs and servers – isn’t eating there the same as putting money into the pockets of more black people?

I don’t mind admitting that I got a lot less done than I planned to on December 29, 2017, largely because of this. Two of my black business owner friends make and sell kickass, unique clothing and accessories (scroll to the end for links); I made sure to purchase from both of them earlier in the month, but I wanted to find new benefactors for the modest amount of disposable cash I had left over from Boxing Day. I kept finding or thinking of cool items I wanted, and then waffling because I wasn’t sure whether the purchase would receive the stamp of Ujamaa approval. For example, I want that gorgeous lip colour from Rihanna’s makeup line … but I don’t see any proof that she’s an owner. (She probably will benefit from my purchasing it, but does the fact that the line is branded with a black person’s name make it a truly “black” purchase?) I found websites which sell adorable accessories featuring black mermaids and the likenesses of black singers (again, scroll to the end for links) … but one is owned by an ally who appears to be white, and one has no “meet the owner” section which might enable me to gauge who they are. What was I supposed to do, assume that a person selling something with Lauryn Hill on it must be black just because Lauryn is? Start creeping them on Facebook to find out what they look like? Send an email that said “Hey, I hope this doesn’t sound racist, but are you black? Because I like your product, but today is the fourth day of Kwanzaa so I’m only going to type in my credit card info if you reply back with a selfie before 11:55pm EST ”?

While I did eventually make a decision (my LipservceCos lipstick is on its way to me right now), this dilemma prompted me to set some guidelines for myself when it comes to buying black, on any day of every year:

  1. Accept that these guidelines are what works for me right now; no one else is required to agree with them. And if a future version of me doesn’t agree with them, she is free to choose new ones for herself.
  2. Acknowledge that businesses, like people, are complex and multifaceted. There will be occasions when sifting through layers of data to find out “whose business is this, really?” is ultimately a waste of time. (Especially when a Google search can actually hinder instead of helping this cause.)
  3. Remember that because buying black is an increasingly constant priority throughout my year, I don’t need to stress out about it come December 29th. This means I will continue to keep an eye out for small black-owned businesses I can support at any time, the same way I keep an eye out for opportunities to support small businesses, period.

Fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the meaning of the Swahili word “ujamaa” (outside of the context of Kwanzaa) is “extended family,” “brotherhood,” or “socialism,” which suggests to me that anyone who is too eager to judge a particular purchase on some sort of Black Enough? scale is really missing the point. So with that in mind, alongside the guidelines above, I decided to create a challenge for myself: Between now and the end of the year, I will have made a first purchase from at least 12 black businesspeople; and I will also be purchasing from allies who are supportive of black progress though they themselves do not identify as black. 

And for real, I hope to see some Ujamaa sales and/or discount codes popping up right after Christmas!

PS: In case you’re interested, here’s a so-far list of folks who can expect to get my money in 2018, whether it’s for clothing or accessories or event tickets or makeup or food.

Angie Thomas – I want my own copy of THUG … <3 … and I’m also going to see the movie when it comes out in theatres. (Ms Thomas, will your second novel be out before 2019? Because I’m coming for that too…)

Pat McGrath Labs - I’m so in love with the colours of her makeup through the screen, and can only hope not to be disappointed IRL … oh, also, that new lip balm sounds tantalizing.

Chinedesign - I love the clothes I’ve bought from Chinedu Akabam for myself; my cousin loves the shirt I bought for her from him; my friend Max loves the clothes she bought from him too. He’s 3 for 3! Plus …

Supafrik – … the very same Chinedu throws some of the dopest parties around. There are still so many people I want to bring to their first #GUMBO party =D

Papaya & Co – this brand is one of my fave finds of 2017, for sure! I still get tons of compliments on my blue tote … one of my homegirls is gna flip out when she sees her belated Christmas gift … and I haven’t even debuted my latest piece from them yet =)

Fenty Beauty – it’s simple, really: I want that Stunna Lip Paint, pronto. I’ll probably cop a Mattemoiselle too.

Oh Plesiosaur – you know what? When someone creates pins featuring beautiful brown-skinned mermaids, is told “nothing to do with race, but black mermaids don’t look good!” from a prospective purchaser, and then decides to keep making the black mermaid pins while also making a donation to the NAACP, I am quick to hand over my money. Here’s the kicker: as far as I know, she isn’t even black >>> top-notch allying right there. I’m ordering one set, and I’m on the email-me-when-back-in-stock list for another. This is also where you should go if you want pins with mermaids who aren’t skinny, mermaids wearing hijabs, lovely and imaginative pins of all sorts (most are not mermaids, lol) by an LGBTQ+woman-owned line.

High Five Pins – let me not say too much about what I’m buying from here, since it’s a gift for someone who will almost certainly read this post …

Radical Dreams - in 2017 I bought pins from these folks for my dad, my friend Jerome, and myself, and I’m planning to come back for more! 

Good Dope Supply Co – it would really suck if, between the time I wrote this and the time I placed my order, the Lauryn Hill pins had sold out completely. Fortunately that isn’t the only one I want! =D

(New to my blog? I promise most of my posts are far shorter than 1700 words. xoxo)


Here, Borrow My Glasses

This blog post grew out of necessity. A friend of mine from high school, having read an excellent piece called What I Told My White Friend When He Asked For My Black Opinion On White Privilege, asked me to share some of my own brushes with racism. Her suggestion, like the Facebook post by “J” which apparently inspired Lori Lakin Hutcherson to write the Black Opinion On White Privilege piece, was a sincere request for help to see the world as I do for a moment, knowing that the same scene can appear vastly different to two people if only one has rose-tinted lenses.

I figured I’d type out a point-form list of a few remembrances and be done with it. Lakin Hutcherson’s article, after all, had done a great job (seriously, go read it if you haven’t already). I started gathering anecdotes and jotting them down; I realized how many of them I wanted to expose, then cut a few out; I’m finally ready to share them. But first, some background info.

I was born in Canada to black, Caribbean-born, Canadian-raised parents. I live in downtown Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, but I grew up just north of it. My parents and I lived in a housing co-op with a variety of cultural and ethnic families; that co-op was nestled into an upper-middle class neighbourhood, and you may correctly assume that white faces were the majority there. Funny how class and race are so intertwined — whoops, I’m getting off topic. My first high school had about 1,500 students; if memory serves, 16 of us were black in the 2000-2001 school year, and 15 the following year. Eva, who met me at that school, is the friend who asked me to share some of my experiences as an obvious minority there. I’m glad she did, and I hope and trust that she will not interpret my explanations of otherness and white privilege as accusatory or divisive.

I’ll be taking numerous cues from Lakin Hutcherson: aiming for brevity, keeping it chronological, acknowledging that “Most of what I share below is mild compared to what others in my family and community have endured.” (Disclaimer:  I don’t always add the word “white” before “privilege” and please don’t ask me why unless we have both time for a really long talk.

One last thing: writing this has made me realize that I’ve forgotten, perhaps intentionally, numerous slights and incidences which could be part of the list. It appears that racism is discussed less in Canada than in the United States. I can see why my neighbours who are unaware of their privilege are surprised and defensive when their “But don’t all lives matter?” query is met with something more hostile than they expected. If any of you are hoping for me to heartily reinforce my country’s reputation for interracial harmony . . . meh. If you’re hoping to gain insight from my point of view and you’re aware that it might clash with yours, here we go.

1. I switched schools frequently, initially because my family kept moving, and then because I was enrolled in the Gifted program for my fourth, fifth and sixth grades and my first two years of high school, and the Arts program for my seventh and eighth grades. Throughout my time in both of those programs, in three different schools, I was the only black female in my class, usually the only black student in the class period. Have you ever been the only one of a certain group or community in your classroom? Was it uncomfortable in any way? It actually began to feel normal for me. If you have never felt a sense of otherness like this, or you have and it felt strange because it isn’t what you’re used to, you may be starting to hone in on your privilege.

2. One day in the fifth or sixth grade, my classmates and I were being taught about how there were only a few different original “races,” one of them “Negroid.” When an illustration of a face with dark brown skin and a broad nose and lips appeared on the projection screen, one of my white, Jewish classmates sitting in front of me turned around and stared searchingly at my face. I can now see that she could have just been gauging whether my features resembled the ones being shown (I mean, they did if she was comparing my face to hers). At the time, though, I felt acutely embarrassed to be scrutinized that way. Have you (n)ever felt objectified as a result of being the only member present of a certain group or community? Have you (n)ever stayed quiet about it because speaking up would only have made the embarrassment worse? That’s another example of white privilege.

3. There was an interesting thread on Twitter lately, asking people how old they were the first time they had a black teacher. Probably because my lack of representation in school settings felt “normal” for me, I was actually surprised to realize that I don’t remember having any black teachers until my second or third year of university. A black teacher at my second high school was a tremendous personal influence on me, but I wasn’t in any of her classes. If you have never had to stop and think about the first or last time you saw yourself represented in the leadership around you, be it in school or worship or politics or media or recreation, that is an example of white privilege. As far as I can see, this is actually the central tenet of white privilege: assuming that “white” is the norm, or the default, so it is safe or logical to ignore non-white stories, experiences, opinions, and concerns.

Important note: for this piece, at least, the preceding paragraph is the closest I will come to addressing the need for proper representation in the world of arts and entertainment, where I have chosen to base my career, because that topic opens a Pandora’s box which will likely take me longer than the duration of my life to cover adequately. Know that I’m not oblivious to this much-needed conversation; let’s discuss it later; please continue reading.

4. I doubt I will ever forget this one. I was a teenager riding the #5 Clark bus home from school, as were a bunch of other students, one of whom I will call Dave. Dave is white and Jewish. And let’s call the other male character in this story Mike. Mike was a fellow visible minority at Thornhill Secondary School, and we got along so well that we started referring to one another as cousins. (Sidebar: if the idea of a play cousin sounds funny to you because you’ve never felt the urge to fabricate a familial relationship in order to combat the isolation to which you’ve grown accustomed, you aren’t used to being in the minority. Another hint that it might be time for a privilege check.) Anyway, Dave looked out the window and saw Mike, then snickered and boasted that he was “blacker than” Mike because Mike “doesn’t even do drugs.” He literally said “I’m blacker than he is,” and laughed. Given my temperament, I’m surprised that I didn’t cuss Dave out, but the point here is that if you’ve never had a person who shares none of your cultural background “joke” that they are a better representative of that background than you — while assuming that the proof of belonging to your background is limited to an illegal activity — AND feeling comfortable enough to say this out loud in front you  — you might be privileged. Let’s all hope Dave grew up (I’m still in touch with Mike, he’s doing just fine) and move on.

5. In fact, let’s move on to my second high school. For some reason, the Gifted program didn’t extend past the tenth grade. I didn’t feel like staying at TSS, so I arranged to switch to Vaughan Secondary School, which was actually my home school. The classes I took were geared to “stream” students toward university (as opposed to college or trades), and being the only black female in the classroom was still my norm — but now, in a school of closer to 2,000 students with far greater diversity than TSS (including more than 50, maybe more than 100, black students), I felt less like an anomaly in the hallways. There were even situations in which I found myself to be part of the majority, like our gospel choir. We were pretty much all black and/or mixed, and we were pretty surprised to find out one day that a Caucasian student who was briefly part of our ranks had taken issue with the way someone else in the choir described her. She had been referred to as “the white girl” and she didn’t like that. Pause. Here’s how I feel about labels and descriptors. When they’re used to stereotype or over-generalize, to dehumanize, to insult, of course that is a problem. However, if someone refers to you as “the white girl,” with no ill will at all, not because they’re saying something negative about you but because they’re asking someone a question about you and they don’t know your name yet and “white” is a more accurate descriptor than, say, “funny” or “new,” you probably don’t have any reason to feel offended. Uncomfortable, maybe, and apparently she was. But, as another choir member pointed out when we had this discussion (the white girl wasn’t present), “It’s not like somebody called her a cracker.” Not until university did I gain more insight into this issue of so many white people not liking to be called white (short answer: because to define something or someone suggests that they are “other” than whom or what is predominant or “normal”), but if you feel that someone calling you a colour is offensive while it makes total sense for other people to be called colours, you’re pretty steeped in white privilege.

6. Let’s skip ahead to university. I took Radio and TV Arts at Ryerson, where I learned so much more than I’d expected to.
(a) While in full chase after several scholarships, I learned that even one of your “friends” might make a snide remark about your applying for awards which are specifically for visible minority students (in case anyone reading this is wondering about my academic credentials, I graduated third from the top of my class while working multiple part-time jobs, and in eight semesters of full-time studies I received exactly two grades that were lower than an A—).
(b) When a few students of colour proposed forming a group or committee called Students of Colour in Radio and Television to address what can only be described as habitual whitewashing in the media, I learned that the status quo is one of the most challenging obstacles to progressive change — that the folks in charge might not consciously want to keep others out of power, but they really don’t want to have to do or think differently than they’ve done or thought so far, and they probably won’t unless they’re forced to.
(c) During one very interesting English class, I learned that privileged people spend little if any time even wondering about the concept of paying reparations to the descendants of disenfranchised people. Specifically, I got very frustrated during a conversation about whether the legacy of chattel slavery lives on in present-day North America (yes, the question was whether it does, not how it does), and my lasting memory is of trying to explain that whether a white North American has racist beliefs or not, they continue to benefit from the effects of slavery the same way a black North American continues to be hindered by those effects, eventually blurting out “The White House was built by slaves. Are they going to stop using the White House?” and realizing in the sudden brief silence that I’d momentarily penetrated a force field of ignorance surrounding many of my classmates. If your cultural and historical perspective is treated with respect when it is discussed in an academic setting, and attempts to include your perspective are given due consideration; if, on top of this, your classmates don’t question whether your work ethic and intellectual merit are responsible for you attending classes with them (even as you smoke most of them on exams and assignments), then your privilege is well above average. Congratulations.

Is this blog long enough yet? I’d actually hoped that my painful experiences regarding race would have peaked in high school, petered out in my twenties, and would then maybe-but-hopefully-not re-emerge when I became a parent. Imagine my surprise at the following two revelations, both of which occurred in 2016.

Bonus #1: I was leaving a funeral with three colleagues of mine. As I think about it, this would have made a great setup for a corny joke or an improv sketch: we were one Muslim, one Jehovah’s Witness, one Jew, and me, a Christian. We all got to chatting about significant ceremonies for religions other than our own, and I mentioned that I’d attended lots of bar and bat mitzvah receptions but only gone to some of the synagogue ceremonies — you know, since some synagogues require only Orthodox Jews to be present, but the rules for the party are less strict. Now, my Jewish coworker is sweet but blunt. She barely let me finish my sentence before stating that anyone claiming to be Orthodox Jewish shouldn’t lie like that: there is no such rule. You can attend the bar/bat mitzvah service whether you’re Jewish or not, never mind “having” to be Orthodox; and she should know, because she also works part-time at a synagogue. A recent poll on my Facebook page garnered input from a wide number of friends, mostly Jewish, at various points on the spectrum between Orthodox and non-practicing, and one former classmate even asked her uncle who is, in her words: “a cantor (the guy who stands next to the rabbi and does the singing)” (hi Steph!). The overwhelming majority said you do not have to be Jewish to enter a synagogue, while three speculated that it might be a preference for some who are extremely devout, but not a rule. Remember Eva? She chimed in, introducing herself on the thread as a “super religious Jew” and asserting that “everyone is welcome in a synagogue!” . . . so I’m left to conclude that I wasn’t exactly lied to back then, but I wasn’t exactly told the truth either. It’s all water under an 18-year-old bridge by now, since I don’t even remember which of my classmates told me this. I know it happened more than once, and that I believed it. I know I’ll have my guard up if history repeats itself with my kids.

Bonus #2: the month of July was emotionally draining for many of the black people I know, and while that sounds like an exaggeratedly broad remark it is absolutely true. The back-to-back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the circulation of gory images containing their bodies, the heartbreaking cries of their family members, the hypocrisy and tacit acceptance of such a large portion of the general public — none of this was new, please understand that. What was new, particularly for black Torontonians after the Black Lives Matter TO protest which interrupted Toronto’s Pride Parade, was the volume of the backlash. Also, the closeness of it. I, and many of my friends, suddenly saw that a number of acquaintances, coworkers, former classmates, hell, even (former?) “friends,” were dismissive of — or hostile toward — a movement which is insisting that my life matters as much as Jane Creba’s did, or that Mike’s matters as much as Dave’s. Knowing there are people in my life who value my input only if I remain calm enough so that they don’t start to feel uncomfortable, that’s old news. Re-learning it at the age of 30, though, meant losing a significant amount of hope that things will be different for my children. If you can wonder about descendants of yours who don’t even exist yet and your first thought is something other than fear they will be racially profiled, I envy your privilege because I’ve been scared to have sons since I was 14.

If you’ve read this far, you may be curious about my experiences away from home. Do Black Lives Matter elsewhere? So far, the only places I’ve lived besides Canada are the capital of the United States (so that’s a nice quick answer) and the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Racism in the Middle East is a whole different animal, but here’s something to ponder: I had difficulty getting a taxi at an upscale Dubai nightclub because I, in a parking lot full of women wearing party clothes, was assumed to be a prostitute. Just me. The only black woman in sight. With my shoulders covered. Fuck outta here. Oh, pardon me, here’s the polite Canadian translation: if the shade of your skin has ever shielded you from assumptions that would have otherwise been made about your behaviour, particularly if one of those assumptions might have literally landed you in jail, you are winning at the crooked game of white privilege.

I’ve edited this piece several times by now. Stories have been deleted and memories questioned, and I’ve begun to wonder about the feedback I might receive. It doesn’t feel complete yet, though, because I need to point out one thing about the anecdotes I’ve shared.

Beneath every one of these is a deep, troubling sense of self-doubt. When prejudice affects the way you are treated by fellow human beings, your sense of faith in the kinship of humanity is poked, tested, occasionally broken. Did they really just do that to me, even though they know I’m a person too, because of the kind of person I am? Doesn’t the fact that we’re both human supersede my colour/sex/orientation/religion/net worth? If not, am I to blame? Is something wrong with me? If you don’t understand the effects that continual rejection and otherism can have on even the strongest personality, you are either in complete denial of your privilege or you are so dense that nothing else I say will make a difference to you. My tendency, as someone who believes in self-determination and self-responsibility, is not to jump to the conclusion that every negative thing someone says or does to me is because I’m a person of colour, a woman, etc. As seemingly small incidents pile up, though, it is damn near impossible not to doubt yourself. And far too many people eventually perpetuate stereotypes, staying or living in the confining spaces they believe have been created for them. If you’ve never doubted your ability to choose your own nest instead of being shoved into a box, a cage, or even a hole, your privilege is such that I literally cannot imagine how the world looks to you.

This has taken me far longer than I expected it to, so I’m going to wrap it up. Many thanks to Eva for asking with warmth, respect and humour about my experiences attending the same school at the same time as her, and yet learning some very different lessons. In fact, thanks to all of my friends, from everywhere. Looking over my shoulder can be painful, and yet it’s a great way to remind myself of how many people are in my corner.



D C Dolabaille