A Good Home, Diversity in Small Towns, Welcoming communities

Living Where I’m a Rarity

One day, walking along the main street of a small town, I noticed a Toronto TV producer I knew. 

“What on earth are you doing here?” he asked, staring in disbelief. “Black people don’t live in places like this!” 

“What are you doing here?” I shot back. He, too, was Black.

Turns out he was there for a funeral, and I was there to visit friends.

We laughed and hugged. I explained that yes, there seemed to be very few people of colour here, but there were some. My own family had lived nearby in earlier years.

But I understood his question.  An hour east of Toronto (‘the most multicultural city in the world’), people of colour and even fairly recent immigrants are rare birds.

Blog Photo - Autumn trees and Driveway

When we lived on a farm in the 80’s, I went into the general store, chatted with the owner and said: “I’m so glad to meet another Jamaican!”

He turned out to be Welsh.  (Yes, there is a Welsh accent similar to the Jamaican.) 

We had a good laugh together and sometimes I visited his store just to hear a “Jamaican” accent. 

~~

One county over from ours, only 5% of residents are people of colour. The stats for my county are higher, but not by much.

People of colour are so few that I go out of my way to say “Hello” when I see them. 

~~

I’ve heard anecdotes about communities that are unfriendly to outsiders of any race. And I’d heard this disturbing rumour more than once in earlier years: that local realtors in a small town discouraged Chinese homebuyers because of an unspoken pact to keep Chinese people from “taking over” their town. 

True? I still don’t know. What I can say is this: I was at a sidewalk cafe with friends in that town recently, and just as I remarked on the rarity of people of colour there, four passed us, and then, 10 minutes later, another three.

I joked that they’d been sent by central casting, just to prove me wrong. But perhaps that town is changing.

~~

When a Canadian town, village or farm area remains virtually all-white, what and who are responsible? Is it locals who are unfriendly, or people of colour who won’t leave the city or suburbs?

One obvious explanation: most immigrants settle in Canada’s big cities or suburbs.  More likely to find jobs and services there, many immigrants prefer to settle near relatives and others of their own ethnic/language group.

Blog Photo - Toronto from an airplane - credit Hamlin Grange

This pattern isn’t new.  In fact, it’s part of immigration and settlement patterns in Canada going back hundreds of years.

Then there’s the fact that some Canadians are “city people”, and some are “country people”. Some like big urban centres, and some like villages, small towns or farms.

I’m always in the latter group. Born and raised in a rural Jamaican village, I’m most at home when surrounded by trees, water, wildlife.  The place where I live now is like that.

On any given day, I’m more likely to see a dozen birds than a single human neighbour.

Yet, our neighbours are friendly, helpful and supportive.  (That matters to me even more, since I have a disability.) 

Local shopkeepers are much the same.

“Is everybody here this friendly?” I asked one, the first month after we moved here.

“You know… I really think most people are”, she replied.

“Black woman with a cane,” my husband teased when I told him later. “Everybody’s friendly to you.”

But once we’d lived here for a few months, he admitted  that I was right: many people are remarkably friendly, even helpful.

Of course, we’re both former journalists. We’ve worked in every part of this country and in many parts of the world. We’re unafraid of approaching strangers. We’re also used to living in rural communities; we feel at home there. Perhaps that makes a difference. 

Finally, we’re proudly, lovingly, confidently Canadian and we enjoy our right to live in city or country.  It’s both a privilege and a right.

~~

Are some people in local towns unfriendly to outsiders of a different race?  That would be unfortunate for them.  Rural areas and small towns need new blood to thrive.

As for my own neighborhood?  Without knowing it, we ended up on a street where 25% of the families are people of colour.  I have no idea how that happened, but I’m thankful for it. I love small towns and rural areas, and I love diversity.

43 thoughts on “Living Where I’m a Rarity”

  1. What a beautiful testament to the richness diversity offers to any neighborhood. An all white neighborhood? Not for me. I value cultural and all types of diversity. Love to you Cynthia.

  2. You are right, small towns and rural areas do need new blood and new ideas, to not only survive but to thrive. The view of Earth from space is a favorite of mine. At times when the distances between human minds seem so great, it is a reminder to me that we all reside on this beautiful blue gem of a planet, whirling in space, our greater neighborhood, third position from the sun. It is in our best interest as a species to embrace diversity and to learn from one another, no matter where we live.

  3. It’s interesting, I live in Cumbria in England. But we’re one of the most rural counties and probably the furthest from the cities
    I found these figures. Our population is less than half a million, we’ve got the second lowest population density and the third largest area 🙂

    482,124 identified themselves as White: British (96.5%)
    10,133 identified themselves as White: Other (2%)
    2,504 identified themselves as Mixed / Multiple Ethnic Group (0.5%)
    4,066 identified themselves as Asian / Asian British (0.8%)
    579 identified themselves as Black / African / Caribbean / Black British (0.1%)

    What is interesting is that People of Colour are largely employed in the Health service, they’re doctors and nurses and predominantly very skilled professionals. They tend to be better educated and more widely travelled than the rest of us 🙂

    1. It’s all a very interesting snapshot, Jim. Most immigrants in Canada are far better educated than our native-born Canadians. Things are changing in some professions such as medicine and pharmacy, but there are still barriers to some immigrants, no matter how well educated. Our farm area was outwardly not at all diverse. Then many members of the LGBTQ community started moving there from the city, and though a few may still feel vulnerable there, most longtime residents seem to have been accepting of those differences. That surprised many onlookers.

      1. Rural attitudes to LGBTQ have often surprised. 🙂
        In our rural church an elderly gay couple have been part of the church community for many years.
        Similarly perhaps forty years ago I know one comparatively local farmer who was gay and living with his male partner. I overheard a conversation between what you might call ‘senior ladies of the church’ in which he mentioned.
        He’d been in hospital for something and one lady asked another how he was. The other replied he was OK and had been discharged. First lady then commented that this was good news. Second lady sighed and said, “Yes, he’s a nice lad, [he was probably 35 at the time] some girl has lost the chance of a really good husband.”

  4. There was a Caribbean Centre in our small town of Newark, Nottinghamshire. We never saw black people outside until we met our friend Frank, also born and raised in Jamaica. By the time Louisa met Errol my wife asked her to ask him if he knew Frank. “Just ‘cos he’s black” spat our daughter. Errol turned out to be Frank’s nephew. Reader, Louisa married him.

  5. I’ve lived in upstate NY and the Midwest, and both areas were diversified. When we relocated to NH, my husband and I would look around and marvel at how white the place was at the time. We lived in one town for a year, and saw one person of color at the local coffee shop regularly. He was it. When we moved further east and closer to MA, we would see one now and again, but still the numbers were almost nonexistent. I can say that sixteen years later, diversity seems to be improving greatly.

  6. I’m originally from London, England, which is a very mixed-ethnicity city, and where from my early teens onward I mixed with people of many different cultures – many Jamaicans as there was an immigration wave to the UK in the early 1950s and a lot settled in London – but over a decade ago I moved to a rural area in Wales and there are very few here which at times I find very unsettling having been used to the opposite all my life. I think wherever there’s an imbalance it stands out like a sore thumb.

    I don’t know if you are aware of the blog, but you might find Past Presence blog interesting, it’s by Linda Yip who is a Chinese Canadian and some of it is about her family’s struggles after they settled there. This post in particular is very informative: https://past-presence.com/2018/01/27/well-tell-you-where-you-can-live-bcs-land-titles-act/ I was quite shocked by some of it, not having realised how obnoxiously racist Canada was in earlier days. I hope it has changed for the better.

    1. Yes. And our country practiced racist immigration laws until the 1950’s. Canada has changed for the better for many people, but I’m not sure the Indigenous people and many poor citizens of various races would agree. And I’d like to think certain small towns and rural areas are open and welcoming, but I just don’t know for sure.
      I make myself comfortable wherever I go, which may be a kind of arrogance or delusion in itself! (big smile)

    1. Thank you. In my last neighbourhood, the obvious diversity was Italian, Greek, Chinese and Caribbean, with some French-Canadian and British thrown in. I enjoyed it all and felt privileged to live there.

  7. I have lived in wonderful small towns where being different was acknowledged but not an impediment to being a part of the community.

    And I have lived in (blessedly fewer places) where I am known as “the Chinese one” – I’m a person defined by my race, nameless.

    The former is definitely better. 🙂

  8. Living near Washington DC I find that I take diversity for granted. Then occasionally I go somewhere and find myself thinking “It’s so white!” It is nice to have all different people around and I’m glad people are friendly where you live. I liked your analysis of this; as usual an insight-filled blog!

  9. Great post, Cynthia–it obviously got lots of people reflecting on their own locales. I’m so disheartened by the Trump era racism and immigration-phobia. It seems to me that the strength of your country and mine is the diversity of peoples and cultures and ideas . . . why would anyone want to end that??!

    1. As Oscar noted, tribalism can unite or divide and it is doing a lot of the latter in your country. But that in itself may force some unlikely allies coming together to defeat the ugliness.

  10. Tribalism… it can unite us, or divide us. It can give a sense of belonging, home-away-from-the-homeland (how many people no longer live away from the old-country, whether Irish whose ancestors came to the Americas 150 years ago, or Jamaicans who came her a generation ago). But, it can give us a sense that we are different from people of other tribes (race, ethnicity, skin color, spiritual beliefs and rituals, canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. Jesus’ teaching of “love your neighbor”, such the Good Samaritan, should compel us to cross the tribal boundaries. – Oscar

      1. Sounds like a theme to a recent Murtle the Turtle story line… which is amusing because I went to Amazon.com to pick up a copy of the original book for a young person… I did not know a 3rd in the series was out & ordered this… I though to re-read it before giving it, and thought, “Wow, I really don’t remember this story…” Duhhhh. I’ve been a bit busy (and vacant recently). She did like the story.
        – Oscar

  11. I spent my twenties in London, living as a student in multi-ethnic communities such as Brixton. But it was only when I went to visit my brother in Kenya and wandered on my own down a street in Nakuru that I experienced for the first time what it was to be the odd one out, a white woman in a black town. As a European in Africa I was from a lucky and privileged group, but I have not forgotten that sense of being seen as different by all around me. When I married and moved to a village 50 miles north of London in the 1970s, there was not a single brown face to be seen. In the 1980s a family from Sri Lanka moved in, their youngest daughter started school at the same time as our younger daughter and we all became friends (though they emigrated to Australia three years later). Since then our village has slowly acquired some variety, but like Canada, it is the cities in Britain where newcomers congregate. The countryside tends to remain very bleached, but this is definitely changing and I see much better representation of all colours on TV and in workplaces with every year.

  12. Hi Cynthia! I’m so glad I found your blog. I immediately took a liking to your stories, I hope be a frequent visitor. 🙂 I find this post particularly interesting and thought provoking with the question “When a Canadian town, village or farm area remains virtually all-white, what and who are responsible? Is it locals who are unfriendly, or people of colour who won’t leave the city or suburbs?”

    I know about “living where I’m a rarity”. When my husband and I moved from South Africa to Finland more than ten years ago, we opted to live in his home village in a town with less than 3000 inhabitants. To cut a long story short, as in your case, our neighbours were/are friendly, helpful and supportive. I’ve never been made to feel like an outsider, perhaps because the place is so small that everybody knows everybody. And it is my husband’s home after all; they know since he was a child. We live more in the city nowadays, due to work but we spend most holidays there. I honestly enjoy being there; it’s home.

    And to answer your question, I think people of colour here opt for the cities. Because it’s where jobs are, higher institutions of education and where English (not an official language) is spoken widely. It would be a challenge to live in small towns and villages here, if one is not prepared to learn and speak the local language. Of course, there are areas who are determined to remain all-white but they are a minority.

  13. As a military librarian, I was often in groups that were mostly male and predominantly white. During lunch and at other breaks the women usually sat near each other for mutual support. I was always curious to see whether women of color chose race or sex to sit with. Annectdotely, I think it was usually with the other women.

  14. I worked in a school for many years where I, as a white person, was a minority among the students, parents and staff. I found that people generally accept others based on their treatment and respect for each other which goes beyond skin color.

  15. I think when people feel comfortable in sharing their experiences with each other and can find common ground, then diversity can exist in any environment. There are many places in this country (U.S.) that are such wonderful examples of this, be it urban, suburban or rural, but in others, we sure have a long way to go. So let’s all keep talking …

  16. Those are interesting observations and statistics Cynthia. I live in Toronto, the upper part of the city, no longer the burbs, and to be quite honest, I’m finding it very diversified. In fact, most times I’m out, I find my white skin color the minority. I guess it depends specifically where you live?

  17. It is so refreshing to read about why things happened instead of just judging the outcome. Patterns of moving and economy and industrialism play a huge role in where immigrants go. If there were legal restrictions of course that plays a huge role. I wish more Americans talked about what why “urban communities” or “the black community” came to be and where white people of different nationalities settled and whether or when they moved again later. I find all of that fascinating.

    1. How lovely to get your very interesting comment. It is an interesting question of why people settled where they did and what became of them. I can see patterns here in Canada of where certain groups first settled, where they move to next, etc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s