How using our mother tongues and our real names can be everything_freckle removal ipl

How using our mother tongues and our real names can be everythingThe hosts of Real Blackity Talk on language as power.

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The hosts of Real Blackity Talk on language as power

Nneka Elliott · CBC Life(Photo: Eniola Yussuff; art: CBC Life)

When I watched the "Language is LIT!" episode of CBC Gem's Real Blackity Talk,I almost sobbed. I could so relate to the struggle of wanting to embrace my ancestry but also just wanting to fit in, and I knew that countless other viewers would as well. While I was born in Canada, I relocated to the Caribbean as a wee one, and only returned to Canada for university. As that move loomed, I can remember my mom coaching me on words that were pronounced differently from the way we said them in St. Vincent. My brother and I had always been skilled at doing a Canadian accent or code-switching, so she focused on pronunciation of words we didn't quite get — like "contribute," for example. "They say con-TRIB-ute … not contri-BUTE," she'd say. 

That story is the tip of the iceberg regarding my accent and is just one of the many reasons that I was eager to talk to the hosts of Real Blackity Talk,Aiza and Kamana Ntibarikure. After my chat with the Burundian Canadian sisters, I became more clear on why I couldn't blame my mother for wanting to soften my otherness. The enigmatic hosts also schooled me on the power of language to protect our identities and release the burdens others place on us.

Part of our conversation follows. (Their responses have been edited and condensed.)

Nneka:This whole idea of communicating culture— can you talk more about what you actually mean by that? 

Kamana: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." … I don't believe in that, you know? Like, words matter. And how we say things and how we bring things up, and how we call people and events, those things matter. So that's what we mean by communicating culture. It means, like, with language, we're able to place ourselves in a place in time. And we need to evolve with the times. We can't stay stuck in the past. 

Aiza:As Kamana was mentioning … [language is] a direct through line to your culture, you know, and it can be used in ways to empower. And with just a spin of a phrase, you can turn something that was meant to break you down into a really empowering statement. 

Nneka: It was really interesting to listen to the Blaxperts in this episode. Titi (co-host of the podcast Woke or Whateva), was talking about how our names are the starting place for decolonizing ourselves. I personally have had a lot of dissonance with this. I do embrace my name, but having dealt with people constantly mispronouncing it, I can understand why some want to shorten or anglicize their names. Can you speak to this whole idea of names and decolonization?

Kamana:Yeah, I mean, it's yourname. So you are called Nneka, and that is how you want your name to be pronounced. And that is how it will be pronounced. That's what we mean, in the sense that nobody can come and tell you how you are going to be called. That's what, I think, is the gist of the idea of decolonizing. And that's not to, you know, tell people who want to anglicize their names or … find a nickname that is easier in the Western world to not do it or tell them that it's wrong. It's just saying that, like, if you want to be called by your name, tell me your name. And that is what I will call you…. It's about respect, and it's about your choice. And I feel like a lot of times, we just came in and didn't realize that we had a choice.

Aiza:White supremacy is a real thing, and it permeates everything. And it tells you that … anything that is "other"... needs to mould itself to try to fit into that box. And, you know, I don't doubt that my teacher in theatre school thought she had good intentions, right … in telling me, "You should just shorten your last name … it's going to help you down the line." And the painful part is maybe it would have. But here's the thing: if we keep doing it, if we keep letting people water us down … we're never going to be free, you know what I mean? 

And I do believe in, like, breaking generational curses. And me putting my foot down and saying, "My name is Aiza Ntibarikure" … hopefully, energetically, I'm sending out a ripple that [makes people think], I can do it, too. I can just stay who I am and trust that the world will shift according to that instead of me having to chop bits of myself.Because then you chop, you chop, you chop, and one day, you wake up and you don't know who you are anymore.

Nneka:You both speak French and English. I sometimes speak more "Canadian" and other times more Vincentian. If I say certain Vincentian words on social media, people might say, "Oh, my gosh, you just transported me right back home." Can you speak to the importance of that duality of language?

Kamana:Speaking more than one language is kind of like what Titi says in the episode; it's about the flavourings of myself … I can tap into all the aspects of my personality because of the vocabulary, because language is culture.… The way I perceive my bilingual mind, is like, if I want to say something, I have, like, a cloud of words and expressions … whatever comes out is what I'm going to say. That's why … a lot of times, it's like, Franglish, you know? It's like going from one to the other. Because I think in both languages, I feel in both languages and whatever I'm going through in this moment, I'm going to find the best way to express it with the language that comes out. 

Nneka: Can you tell me about losing your mother tongue, Kirundi, when you first came to Canada?

Kamana:I would say that, at first, it's like it doesn't matter. Like when I was a kid ... I kind of lost it because we weren't speaking it. Then I became a teen, and you know, you're just like, "Whatever." You just want to conform to your environment.... But then as I moved into my 20s, and like, mid-20s, it starts to hurt. It's when I became an adult ... that I started to feel the void, really. 

Nneka: And about your parents' role in that, why do you say you don't fault them?

Kamana: As far as our parents, yo, they were struggling. They were doing their own thing. They were working to put food on the table, to put clothes on our backs, assimilating to the environment. And now that I'm an adult and I understand the messaging of the systems that we live in … I cannot blame my parents. I cannot because I know that in their hearts they believed they were doing the right thing. That they were trying to protect us, you know? "You need to focus on French and English because that's what we're gonna be speaking here." Their survival mode allowed me to be in thriving mode.

Nneka:Is there anything else about language in this episode that you want to call out?

Aiza: One thing I love about the [episode] is [how it touches on] honouring people's pronouns, witnessing [drag performer] Mx. Bukuru's elation and joy in being spoken to the way that they want to be spoken to, referred to as "they." … We really wanted to showcase [that] it's not just a frivolous thing — this is how I want to be referred to! And when you honour that, you make someone feel literally and completely enveloped and loved. And the same goes for our fellow Black folk when we say this phrase, "It's because I'm Black." No, it's not because you're Black. It's because this person is racist or this person has biases. It's not because you're Black. My dream is to eradicate that because it puts so much on us. When really it's like, "I was born like this!" Learning to spin it, it's such a simple spin, but for me it's made a big difference in my life because I feel like we carry so much of other people's stuff.

This episode of Real Blackity Talkis a masterclass in taking back your personal power and using language to do it. Stream all episodes nowon CBC Gem.

Nneka Elliottis an award-winning TV news personality turned lifestyle content creator. She shares her love of beauty, style, wellness and her adventures as a new mom. Follow her @nnekaelliott.


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.

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