A Prairie Homo Companion is a regular column that celebrates the Canadian prairies, canola fields and big skies, and the paradoxes of being a fine-ass lady prairie homo.
Header by Rory Midhani
This is my unique perspective on being a half-black, half-white human who sometimes feels uncomfortable using the term Person of Colour to refer to herself. I use it, because the English language is limited and there aren’t enough words to describe the (very) mixed-race Canadian prairie weirdo that I am. As well, when I’m referred to as Black and only Black, I feel like an important part of me is being ignored. I’d like to stress that this is only my experience, which is shaped not only by where I grew up, but how. If I were a half-white, half-black American, my views on race and identity would probably be completely different. Similarly, I’m 100% sure many Western Canadian non-white humans are perfectly fine with the term Person of Colour and that’s perfectly okay. However you feel, it’s all okay, but personally, I find it alienating when I come across writings that mention the Black Experience or the POC Experience, and I can’t relate, especially when, because of the colour of my skin, people assume I should be able to. It’s enough to cause an identity crisis when people who are not you put you into a specific category and assume you’ve had certain racialized experiences, when, although you have had to deal with racist micro-aggressions, you still wonder, when reading writings by Black people and People of Colour, if you identify more with the oppression (because you’re half Black) or with the privilege (because you’re half White and grew up in a mostly white environment).
It’s hard for me to talk about race because I don’t want to offend anybody. Having grown up here in Alberta, I’ll never know what it’s like to be part black in a country with a history of slavery and a specific kind of horrible, institutionalized racism towards black people. I want to learn about and listen to the experiences of all sorts of people who identify as Black or as People of Colour, but at the same time, I want to carve out a space for myself, my Canadian weirdo self who spent her early childhood with a white (half Dutch) mother and a father who’s black, but not black like African-American or even black like Afro-Canadian, but Ghanaian. His accent has a slight British twinge to it and the biggest obstacle he had to face when he moved to Edmonton was not racism, but the cold. I never thought of my childhood home as a mixed-raced household; it wasn’t that black and white (see what I did there?). No, my house was a mix of Dutch delft (white plates and salt shakers decorated with blue etchings of cows and windmills), African straw hats, British literature, and Dutch Sinterklaas songs. All of this impacted the way I see myself and the way I see race. And though I may be unique, I don’t think it makes my perspective any less important. If anything, my voice is especially crucial because there aren’t many of us speaking out from the in-between places.
I feel like multiculturalism was never really designed to imagine me.
from Between: Living in the Hyphen
The 2005 documentary, Between: Living in the Hyphen moved me in a way many blogs, articles, and books on race haven’t because it had the first discussion I’ve ever seen about people like me: in-between Canadians of mixed ancestry who don’t easily fit into categories. There is a lot out there on what it means to be a Black American or what it means to be a (usually American) Person of Colour but when I watched this amazing documentary, I was able to see and listen to Canadians who felt, and in some cases even looked, like me. It helped me realize that my experiences in the in-between are worth talking about. From the National Film Board:
Anne Marie Nakagawa’s documentary examines what it means to have a background of mixed ancestries that cannot be easily categorized. By focusing on 7 Canadians who have one parent from a European background and one of a visible minority, she attempts to get at the root of what it means to be multi-ethnic in a world that wants each person to fit into a single category. Finding a satisfactory frame of reference in our ‘multicultural utopia’ turns out to be more complex than one might think. Between: Living in the Hyphen offers a provocative glimpse of what the future holds: a departure from hyphenated names towards a celebration of fluidity and being mixed.
In the film, Karina Vernon, a half-black, half-white Canadian writer and academic, expressed something I often feel weird admitting to myself or heaven-forbid, telling to others: in Black or People of Colour Spaces, which are meant to be healing and safe, there are times I feel like a fraud. Of course, that’s not to say that I don’t like those spaces, that I don’t benefit from listening to peoples’ stories and experiences or even that I can’t relate to some of them; but still, sometimes this nagging sense that I don’t completely belong creeps up. Thing is, I’m White as much as I’m Black; in fact, maybe I’m even more White than Black because after my parents split up, I lived mostly with my mom. So I wonder, What am I doing taking part in a POC conversation? I ask myself, Shouldn’t I be quietly listening and learning like a respectful, privileged white person?
I think that there’s always a part of me that feels like a fraud, that feels somehow phoney, like “Oh, I’m not really black. I’m mixed. Or I don’t even know… like, I don’t come from a black household so how can I represent? How can I really be black? There’s really that crisis of inauthenticity, I think.
-Karina Vernon (half black, half white) speaking about how she feels in black communities, Between: Living in the Hyphen
When someone refers to me as Black, I feel both inauthentic and uncomfortable. Inwardly, I cringe. It’s not because I see being Black as something of which to be ashamed. I didn’t grow up in a culture and atmosphere in which Blackness was ever a source of shame. If I travelled to Africa and someone referred to me as White, which my dad assures me they will do because of my light skin and North American mannerisms, I’d feel equally uncomfortable because it wouldn’t be true. I’m not simply black or white. I’m both. I know that people like other people to fit into these neat little boxes: you’re gay or straight, White or Black. Existing in the spaces in-between arouses suspicion and makes others uncomfortable. But I’m not about to change how I identify (as Black em White, together, at once) for the sake of someone else’s comfort. Additionally, referring to people as Black even if they’re part White has a history rooted in America’s one-drop rule.
I feel like she’s black. I’m black and I’m her mother and I believe in the one-drop theory.
–Halle Berry speaking to Ebony magazine about her mixed-race daughter.
The one-drop rule is the idea that any African ancestry makes a person black, and has its roots in twentieth-century anti-miscegenation laws that sought to preserve white “purity.” It might seem strange of Halle Berry to have referred to a law with such racist roots when speaking of her daughter, but in this interesting piece by Jami Floyd, a mixed-race journalist, it’s explained why an American of mixed-heritage would want to call herself Black:
I see my young children step out into a more perfect union [than before.] But it is an America that is far from perfect. They have already encountered the N-word, slights about their hair and features and an overall culture that celebrates their Anglo Saxon great-grandparents (who were slaveholders) while discounting their African American ancestors (who were slaves)… Halle Berry’s daughter will have to choose a racial identity, the way [Halle Berry] had to choose a racial identity. In America, that means it will probably be chosen, at least in part, by the way people react to her. In America, her skin color (black or white) will be something that people use to define her.
I appreciate that Floyd emphasizes “in America” because as a mixed-race Canadian with an African immigrant parent, I don’t have slave-holder and slave ancestors. I don’t have Black ancestors who were transported to a new country against their will and then horrifically mistreated. I don’t associate my black side with struggle. Maybe if I did I would want to claim Black as an identity. In “Between: Living in the Hyphen” Charlene Hellson, a part-white, part-Aboriginal Canadian woman explains her relationship to her Aboriginal side with part of a spoken-word poem:
Whenever I think I might be white, it is revealed that I share in the plight, ancestral fight.
If, like Aboriginal Canadians or African-Americans, the “colour” in the Person of Colour identifier connected me to a struggle for survival against whiteness that had taken place in the not-so-distant past, in the country where I live, I would probably want to define myself by that colour because it would represent the part of me that would have struggled, survived, and grown strong in the face of oppression. But that is not my experience. I obviously have different feelings and a different relationship to Blackness than an African-American has. To think of me or to refer to me as Black is therefore to place me in an historical and cultural context that is not my own. And I’m not cool with that.
I don’t think being half of anything is a bad thing because I am the whole of me.
-from Between: Living in the Hyphen
Just like there is no one, uniform Black Experience, I feel like what it means to be a Person of Colour can change from person to person. The problem with the term POC is that it puts all POCs in the same group and although all of our lives have been impacted by white supremacy, and that’s some serious shit, the degree of this impact varies according to a multitude of circumstances, like nationality, culture, and class to name a few.
My childhood was great — I was safe, had a good education, plenty of freedom to grow up. But that’s because my family was well off there. It’s the same as here — money helps make things smoother, right? Even if you’re part of an oppressed class, it helps.
–Dhati (born in India and grew up in the Middle East), Straddler on the Street
It was the wealth of my father’s family that allowed him to come to Canada from Ghana and attend university here. Immigration is never easy, but having money made it easier. I know a lot of POC in Canada whose wealth is what allowed them to come to this country in the first place and is what continues to give them advantages. Ironically, it was the white side of my family that immigrated from Europe in poverty. Before my Opa got a decent job as a commercial artist, he struggled to make ends meet taking jobs no rich Canadian would, working as a grave digger and a grain-elevator worker, a very dangerous job if you know anything about how the combination of wood and flour makes grain elevators fires waiting to happen. This is why, on a personal level, I have a hard time associating a POC identity for myself with a lack of privilege, and whiteness with privilege. I in no way want to deny the widespread effects of colonialism or racism or white supremacy. Instead, I simply want to point out that to assume that all POC have similar experiences with oppression related to their race is to deny the lived realities of a fair number of us.
Again, I want to emphasize that had I grown up in a country with a history of enslaving (and now imprisoning) people whose skin colour looks like mine, I would probably have a different relationship to my Black heritage, but it’s important to understand that racism is not the same in all cultures.
US/Western imperialism is so widespread that it even imposes its ways of doing racism on the rest of the world, and on people of color.
–Janani, “What’s Wrong With The Term Person of Colour,” in Black Girl Dangerous
Though Canada is a part of Western imperialism, it has a very different history than the US, and this history obviously influences how Canada does racism. In fact, each country has not only its own particular ways of cooking, celebrating, and speaking, but also its own brand of racism.
When I travelled to Europe, I was surprised to hear about the various horrible experiences with racism many white Europeans have encountered. I realized that there was so much I didn’t know about how racism works across colour and nationalities. It’s complicated and it’s difficult to understand; but I think we all need to start by realizing that there is no singular experience lived and felt by Black people and People of Colour. Whiteness shouldn’t be the only factor we consider when deciding who’s privileged and who’s not. White privilege, though of course it exists, can sometimes work as an over-simplification and doesn’t take into account the way various non-Americans experience racism. It’s important to listen to the many ways different people from different cultures with different histories identify themselves and experience race and racism. It’s not as simple as black and white. And there’s much to be learned in the intersections between cultures and histories, in the in-between places and from the in-between people.
I’d like to challenge those two hegemonous poles who’d like to claim a part of me because I feel like I’ve lived in-between and I like the in-between. It’s a place that I’d like to spruce up a bit. I’d like to, you know, put some nice furniture in the in-between place.
-Fred Wah, Canadian poet, novelist, and scholar of Chinese and Europen mixed ancestry in Between: Living in the Hyphen
You can watch the full documentary right here.
As a half English-Canadian, half Nigerian/Ghanaian-Canadian Queer girl, I cannot TELL you how awesome it is to see this perspective here!
I pretty much just want to buy to you a coffee or a tea and talk about this for hours… maybe days.
Have you ever read “Black Berry, Sweet Juice” by Lawrence Hill? This book has some great mixed-race Canadian perspectives in it… so much so, I bought it for my little sister for Christmas.
I’m not gonna lie, when you said you wanted to take me out for coffee, I clicked on your name and thought, “Oh shit, Vancouver!” I haven’t read “Black Berry, Sweet Juice” but now I will have to check it out.
…Well if you’re ever in town, you have a standing invitation. :)
I really, really love this piece and this column in general. It really resonates with me as a half-Hispanic, half-white girl who looks more white than anything.
Us “in betweens” have to stick together!
Thanks for sharing Malaika! It’s really great to hear this perspective.
I can’t really speak to much to your experience but I think hit the nail on the head in the bit about how different cultures “do racism.”
American culture influences Canadian culture in a lot of ways, and I think it’s dictated the way we talk about racism in Canada. I think a lot of people only associate the word ‘racism’ with oppression towards people of African descent because that’s what most of the conversation is about in the states. Not to say black people arent suffering from racism here, because thats not true
, but we don’t have the same history as America but we DO have a horrifically problematic past in other ways. Colonialism, residential schools, Japanese internment camps! I think that the American perspective of racism is maybe distracting us from having the conversation we need to have. I’ve heard some truly horrific statements about aboriginal people from white people who don’t think that counts as racist. Including someone who said they would never hire an aboriginal person because they are a “bad bet” and that “it’s not racist it’s good business”
Idk. Basically what I’m saying is that this shit is COMPLICATED. And we don’t talk about it from a Canadian specific context enough.
yes, yes, yes to everything you just said!!
I’m having so many feelings after reading this article. Definitely going to check out that documentary. I am also a person of mixed race and I feel uncomfortable using the term POC when I quite often hear it used in a context that implies such a person definitely does not have privilege. I am very light-skinned, and I have not experienced the same kinds of racism that some POCs with not white-looking skin have faced. I also am very privileged by my expensive higher education, which is an advantage many people regardless of race do not have. I resent when it is implied that I am not a POC or less of a POC because of my privilege, because my Black ancestry has profoundly affected my life in so many ways. I can’t ever not have that part of me, just like I can’t ever have the white part of me, or the queer part of me, or the female-identifying part of me.
So I realized after reading this that when you spend the greater part of your life having your feelings hurt over something bigger than you, that you cannot control, and trying to function you can forget to listen. I sometimes am that character in group therapy with Bette and Tina after they lose the baby (Season One), that just attacks Bette without listening to her perspective. Being angry all the time does that, it keeps you on high alert for bullshit because that is what you expect. In America, and I can only speak to one side of the disagreement and the ugliness that pre-dates my oldest family members, being biracial affords you a privilege depending on your socialization. When I’m asked why it matters so much I try to explain that being black is the first thing the world knew about me before I was even born. Unless I had been born lacking pigment/albino, before my parents knew my sex, they knew by virtue of being who they are that their offspring would also be black. It isn’t something I get to flirt with or mull over and I guess sometimes it feels more like rejection than it should when biracial women of any African lineage(in America at least) don’t identify as being black, because of our structural racism.
Then I read this and I got an idea of how maybe instead of rejection I should ask myself why they have to pick a side at all. Which in reality better appeals to my rational nature and seems far more democratic. There should be a place in the middle and you shouldn’t have to assume a side. Will that ever be the case in the States…Nah, but it is a much better way of looking at the situation rather than walking into the discussion from a perspective based in hurt and doubt. So this is really wonderful because honestly I think my heart just grew a little more compassionate and maybe less bitter.
I agree with most of you what your saying. I do think that society needs to do a better job of acknowledging the fact that biracial children shouldn’t have to deny one side of the heritage. That said, structural racism which is honestly is widespread throughout global politics effects all non-white people regardless of wealth. Sometimes I think that mixed race families don’t educate their children to appreciate and expect that fact.
I agree with you. Yes. I cannot speak with any authority about the treatment of non-whites outside of the U.S., but I think discussions about the implications of race are just as important as owning your unique mixed race position.
Lanie, your comment gave me goosebumps. love it. thank you.
:) Thank you for giving me the opportunity to expand my view.
Oh god, yes.
As someone who is half-white, half-not white, I feel so weird every time I call myself a person of color. My parents are both mixed, and I ended up with all of the fair skinned genes. ALL of them. There is no color in this skin. I have dark hair and black eyes, but I rarely get read as anything but lily white.
It’s hard to navigate that when I’ve also had a lifetime of cultural experience. Tribal events, summers in Mexico, rants from my grandmother about what it was like to grow up as First Nation in the forties.
I am careful not to speak over those who can’t pass, those who don’t have that white privilege. But I will speak over white people on the subjects of Latin@ and FN things all day long.
It’s interesting, the only people I’ve had issues with not accepting my opinion as a sort of POC have been white people. I’ve experienced nothing but overwhelming acceptance otherwise.
It’s just…hard. Just knowing when to shut up and when to speak out.
Your comment about being careful not to speak over those who can’t pass, but being loud and clear with white people really resonated with me.
My mother is half Inupiat Eskimo, but I was definitely born with all of the fair features of my European father, and pass to the point that people think I’m disingenuous with claiming my native heritage, where as my brother was born with much darker skin, hair and eyes, and has had experiences growing up with that context that I, as someone who passes, had the privilege to not experience.
Fun fact: I was born and raised in the middle of nowhere AK, and EVERYONE my family encountered while there thought I was Yup’ik, especially those who were Yup’ik. When I moved to the Lower 48, that stopped entirely (well, I mean, not many people who the Yup’ik people even are in the Lower 48, but they stopped thinking I was anything but lily white). I think it might be because of the diversity in AK, especially way out in the middle of nowhere, and the huge number of mixed FN/white kids, and in Glennallen, where I lived, the most popular FN ethnicity was Yup’ik? I don’t know. Also probably that Alaska has a better grip on actually having any idea about FNs. I love that when I was a baby, people knew I was different. While I’m not Yup’ik, I am an enrolled Cherokee with bits of two other tribes, and Mexican.
So I guess I’m saying: Move to Alaska.
I LOVED this. Thank you so much for writing it, I loved hearing your perspective and getting a glimpse into someone else’s thoughts on such a complicated subject.
Oo, very interesting!
I’m so happy to read something about racial politics from a Canadian perspective. We are so flooded with perspectives from the States, where the racial history and demographics are very different, that it can be hard to know what makes sense here and what doesn’t.
Yes! Thank you for articulating this. I truly feel that the US experience of race often overwhelms or tries to squash everything else (e.g. the idea that white people cannot experience racism, because they are the priviliged majority – this may be true in some countries, for example, yes, the U.S., but when we expand to take in a truly global experience the scales of privilege and majority swing up and down.)
My housemate in univeristy had a very strange time when it became clear that she, as someone of totally Portuguese ancestry, was perceived as white here in Europe (for whatever definition of that term – again, not quite the same in Europe), but was seen as poc by people from the US.
I am very mixed, the child of a mixed race person and a Mexican American. (Which of course is also a mix, racially, though my father is less mixed than my mother) and I can really appreciate and relate to this article.
I grew up with a bunch of people asking “what are you” and making speculations about my race. It is alienating, and I don’t feel like I fit in with any of my backgrounds. My skin is dark enough to where most white people know I am not white, but paler than much of the hispanic community I grew up with. I have no cultural ties to any of my parents backgrounds (mainly Mexican, native and German) due to various reasons (both my parents are very estranged from their families but that is just one factor), so a lot of times I feel left out of something that I am not even sure what it is, the “race” experience. The focus a lot of groups, well meaning or not, is odd to me, like lines are being drawn and I don’t fit on any side of them.
That is just my two cents okay yeah.
I completely understand where you’re coming from. As a Black and White individual my skin is also dark enough where people know I’m not just White but also paler then most Black and White mixed individuals; ever since I can remember people have asked “what are you”. Both sides of my family are estranged from their families and cultures so I’ve never really identified as any race or culture in particular. This being so whenever am with non-poc’s I don’t feel I belong and when I’m with poc’s I don’t feel I belong. If anything I associate myself with POC’s because of the way I grew up, but feel the color of my skin makes that troublesome. Whenever I’m among individuals who are white I feel like their saying (not verbally, but it’s insinuated) “you don’t quite belong here” and when I’m in POC space their saying “you don’t quite belong here”. And this “so a lot of times I feel left out of something that I am not even sure what it is, the “race” experience.” means so much to me. *snap snap*
Thank you! I love hearing other mixed-race voices, especially from non-Americans (New Zealander here, yes I am extra proud of this fact due to the marriage equality bill passing this week).
I would really like to have a conversation with other people of mixed-race ancestry who are not descended from recent immigrants… My “Chinese” side of the family are fourth or even fifth generation New Zealanders, possibly earlier immigrants than my white side, but still having the ‘look’ I have to deal with constant microaggressions, stereotyping and assumptions. Person of Colour just doesn’t fit when the only available narratives seem to be a) colonialist and native person, b) slave owner and slave holder or c) immigrant and country national.
I am excited for the future. As there is less and less stigma surrounding interracial relationships there’s only going to be more and more of us around :)
I know what you mean. I mean, I personally haven’t dealt with getting stereotyped in that way, but my parents and family have. My sister (who looks like a stereotypical Mexican woman) went into traffic court, and the judge asked her if she was legal. Our grandfather is the most recent immigrant in my family, and he’s from Switzerland. Our Mexican family came around 1910 or so…we’re definitely, definitely legal.
I really appreciated this. Thank you for writing it.
Reading this was unnerving – it was as though someone took the thoughts in my head and put it into a blog post! I am part Ghanaian/Mixed British heritage/Métis and also grew up in the prairies! I thought my brother and I were the only ones! Thanks for writing about this very important topic. It’s often hard to convey something as complex as identity to people who put you in boxes, often casually, during polite conversation. I’ve had to be overly vocal about the non-black parts of me because they seem to get regularly drowned out by people’s perception of me. Thank you so much for writing this!
You guys, reading all your comments is nothing short of amazing! When I first wrote this I was scared nobody would be able to relate, but I’m so happy there are so many of you out there with similar thoughts and feelings! Thank you for comments! Really awesome!
Your comment about having trouble connecting your non-white ancestry with oppression and your white ancestry with privilege really resonated with me. My (non-white) mother’s stories of growing up involve vacations in Peru and maids and owning one of the first color TV’s in her native country. My (white, rural, southern) dad’s childhood stories involve ketchup soup, and splitting happy meals 3 ways, and watching his mother get beaten, and getting beaten up for walking on the wrong baseball field, and re-teaching himself how to talk when he moved up north so people wouldn’t think he was a “back-asswards redneck”.
I kind of used to agree that certain disadvantaged groups of white people in Europe can’t be said to have ‘white privilege’ and / or be protected from racism, especially ethnic / linguistic minorities and immigrants, but I have seen the error of my ways. The thing is that as bad as the systematic exploitation of white Romanian immigrant workers is in Western Europe (and it’s pretty bad, I think it’s hard for North Americans to realise how big a problem immigration is in Europe, estimates say that currently 1 in 6 people with Romanian citizenship is an immigrant and most immigrants come from lower-class, often rural communities and work low wage manual labour jobs, often in hostile environments with openly xenophobic / abusive employers who frequently try to trick them into working longer hours, etc – Western economies have come to rely heavily on [our] cheap immigrant labour, meanwhile immigrant workers are vilified by right wing parties etc) we will always be more protected from violence than POC immigrants – we will always be regarded as relatively ‘assimilable’ so we’ll pose less of a threat to white Westerners. I’m from Northern Transylvania, and it’s a bit like how during WWII, although we were occupied by Horthy / Nazi troops and although thousands of Romanians had to flee the country, and there were several massacres, and Romanian language / culture were suppressed, and thousands of people etc etc, there were still no attempts to systematically exterminate us on the level of what happened to Jewish and Romani people. We’d be most privileged if we lived in Canada and didn’t have to live through the Horthy / Nazi occupation at all, but relative to Jewish and Romani people in our countries, we were and continue to be privileged. (Everything is made more complicated by the fact that not all Romanians are white, especially there are a lot of Romani Romanians as well as people who don’t identify as Romani and are not read as ‘non-white’ in Romania, but who nevertheless are read as ‘Romani’ in the West, but I’m talking about Romanian immigrants like myself who are both ethnically Romanian and hold Romanian citizenship and who can ‘pass’ as white in the West.)
There’s just this complex set of privileges that come from the country / community in which you grow up and / or live. I’m wary of trying to create a spectrum of oppression which shows North Americans / Westerners as the least oppressed / most liberated and ‘enlightened’, but the truth is that as an oppressed group, it’s slightly easier to fight your oppression when your country isn’t at war or under a repressive totalitarian regime, when there are no food crises / famines, when education is cheaper / more accessible etc etc – you have more time, energy and money to focus on activism when you don’t have to worry constantly about survival. I am constantly struggling to try to create stronger ties between white immigrant and POC communities because the white Westerners who hate one group typically hate and try to harm the other as well, but I think a big step in that direction is white immigrants accepting that we have white privilege, that what happens to us is not what happens to POCs (immigrants or ‘natives’ / citizens), that we most probably have a huge baggage of racist prejudices we have to work through and that we most probably come from white communities which benefited from racism for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Which is all to say I think that, while being aware of how complex and complicated histories / experiences of oppression are, you should feel comfortable calling out white Europeans, even those who are part of disadvantaged groups like immigrants or ethnic communities, on the fact that we have ‘white privilege’ and can’t experience racism, it does us good to be reminded of this.
This is so fascinating.
My great-grandfather was Romanian Jewish and fled Romania shortly before the massacres went down. His mother is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Iasi, and died around the time of the pogroms. When he came to the States, he told everyone he was Italian. We only found out otherwise after he died.
He was read as white here in the States. I mean, he was kind of dark, but he was never read as anything but white. It never made sense to me that he was so adamant about distancing himself from his heritage when it didn’t really affect him here in the States in a negative way, not in the same way that my grandmother had to deal with being obviously First Nation.
Hmmm. Food for thought.
I wanted to clarify, obviously I know that the pogroms were absolutely horrible but I didn’t know the history of Romania in comparison to the rest of Europe.
Even though you’re talking about people that are mixed race, this totally resounded with me as a person from mixed cultures. I remember constantly being grouped with other first and second generation immigrant kids because we “were all Asian.” But it’s kind of different when someone’s ties to Hong Kong still exist whereas mine were simply photo album records in Johannesburg.
It’s so fucking weird to have someone assume you belong to one group you hardly feel ties to, but you don’t know if you should tell them or not. You can recognize that there’s nothing wrong with being part of that race or culture or group so it feels insulting to correct them.
Thank you so much for reminding me that other people feel just as uncomfortable as I do in the in-between. And being brave enough to write about your worries in a public forum. I’m so upset that I won’t get to have this convo with you in real life at camp!
This is me too! Same with “we’re all Asian” I get that from the “Africa the country” perspective and it’s just blech weird. I’m also first generation in the States so with out my name, I get all kinds of assumptions thrown my way. I too don’t want to be like “nooo, I’m this or nooo, I’m that,” it’s frustrating at times because it’s almost like you have to negate something when I feel it is possible to be all.
Like sure I’m Nigerian-American but it is more complex than that and people want things to be simple which I don’t blame them for, I really wish people didn’t have to choose :(
As another Asian looking person who doesn’t have ties to Asia, I feel you. I’m adopted, so my entire family is white. Until I went to college, I didn’t have any sustained contact with anyone who wasn’t white. But ever since I moved out to southern California, I’m surrounded by Asian Americans with ties to the Asian community and everyone just assumes I’m “one of them.” Every time I meet someone new, especially other Asians, there’s this awkward period where I’m not sure if I should tell them I’m adopted by white people and don’t get their jokes about our Asian moms, or if I should just go along with it.
I was actually gonna make a comment about how even though I’m not mixed race, I feel like stories of mixed race people like this one are often closest to my experience as someone from an interracial adoption.
Oh God this conversation. YES.
I was born and raised in Malaysia by Bangladeshi parents. I barely have any ties to Bangladesh – over there I’m a foreigner. In Malaysia I was (bureaucratically and socially) the Other – being pushed aside and forced to assimilate at the same time. My earliest experiences of racism have been in Malaysia, but all of that gets lost in American POC politics because it doesn’t directly involve White people so it’s not really racism. Yet like Dhati my family was well-off; we got to mitigate a LOT of the worst consequences of racism because we had money.
I too feel much more resonant with stories from mixed-race folk despite not being mixed-race myself; they speak to this notion of never really belonging to any culture and the constant, CONSTANT “where are you from” more than anything written about or by people from South Asia or even Malaysia. Like Malaika I often feel like a fraud in American POC circles, not necessarily because I *want* to, but so much of it is centered around US politics and US ideology that I can’t share or speak to. It saddens me to look at “POC” resources and see just one particular culture represented…but even in Desi-related places I feel like a fraud, because I was born and raised outside South Asia, and don’t know much about what’s going on there.
Living in the hyphen indeed. Living nowhere, being nothing.
This is beautifully written!
I relate to a lot of this. I’m a first generation Canadian, my mother is Dutch-Indonesian and my father is Jamaican. I grew up in Vancouver BC and in Edmonton, I go between since my father my whole life has worked in Edmonton (my parents are still married though but I mostly lived with my Ma). Just thought I’d mention that Canada does have a history of treating blacks awfully (Africville is a prime example of the displacement of a black community which happened in Alberta to, though I forget the name). Along with that Canada’s last segregated school was closed in Nova Scotia in 1983. We do have a history, though not as awful as the States, of being awful to black people (my dad was big on teaching my Black-Canadian history). Just thought I’d mention that.
Kristen told me probably ten times that I need to read this, and I’m so glad I finally had a few free moments to do so! This was such a brilliant article, Malaika.
I remember you speaking about this or touching on this at the QWOC panel at September’s A-Camp and I wanted to pick your brain about it even more, but we never had the chance.
I am so fascinated by this in between space, or what I just found out a few weeks ago is called the liminal space (liminality is my new obsession in life). For weeks I’ve been associated liminality with gender, religion, culture, time, etc and it had never crossed my mind to associate it with being biracial. Maybe it was just too obvious for me to realize? Thank you for opening my eyes to this completely new experience. And from a Canadian perspective? Just even more fascinating.
Ugh, sorry, just fangirling over here.
Ha, my current MFA/art explorations are all around liminality. One of the core areas is race simply because that’s where I encounter it most often, but it does also encompass sexuality and gender and other things – mostly because people get stuck on me being Foreign and can’t imagine me being anything else.
Such a great article! I am a person of mixed background as well and it’s weird navigating all these racial and cultural differences. My mom is black and my dad is white and I lived with my mom after they divorced. I remember people in elementary school (I went to a mainly black school) saying I was adopted because I didn’t look like my mom. Now going to a mainly white school I hear all this racist talk about black people and it’s just an odd position to be in.
All I know is that I am whole person, I am more than my skin tone or my heritage. Living in between isn’t always easy but it’s the cards I’ve been dealt.
I’d like to offer a view that this doesn’t just involve mixed race folks, but in general, anyone who now lives in the U.S. who is not white – now suddenly find ourselves being categorized immediately upon arriving in the U.S.
I’m a Ghanaian who has lived all over the world, and never focused on the colour of my skin. And on forms, I never check the box that says “black or African American”, because that is not my race – it is purely the term used to denote the colour of my skin or its a nationality – I was not American, so calling me African-American seemed wrong, and I wasn’t Black – especially when the “race” categories seem very confused – you have “black” or “white” and then after that, there are no more colours – you have “asian”, “pacific islander”, etc. etc. – its just all messed up.
We need to stop focusing on this ridiculous colour of skin business. You can ask about ethnicity – I understand the difficulty is that some people do not have the information to trace their ethnicities like I do, but there has to be another way for those people.
Anyway, I’ll stop here – but wanted to share the perspective that even if you’re seemingly of “one colour”, you can still not relate to the terms “people of colour” or “black”
OMG yes! As an international student in the US I feel this too! It’s like every form is X-American (even and ESPECIALLY the POC stuff) and I’m like “I’m not American to start with”. So many international students I know feel alienated in POC spaces because we get lumped into some sort of “shared” political experience that isn’t actually shared at all.
I really appreciate this post and discussing how at times in POC spaces you felt like a “fraud”.
(Sorry, I can’t connect with non-american forms of racism being american myself)
In college, I’ve attended POC events or asian/pacific islander events and I’ve realized how much I don’t fit into that term at an academic/activist level. I’m very racially mixed (mom-hawaiian, filipino, chinese, spanish and my dad is half white american and half filipino) but, while attending these events I saw that there I was still suppose to choose a race, only one- sometimes two, in the end. And most of the time “mixed” which I use to think referred to me only means mixed black and white, or being just bi-racial and not multi-racial while simultaneously denying I’m white.
Anyway, sometimes my sisters and I think of ourselves as “raceless” kind of as a joke, but I realized it’s because there isn’t a language around being multi-racial/cultural. Plus, to me I feel like POC is an academic/activist term that it’s almost a privilege to know. (Kind of like the word queer)
oh jeez, i know this is late, but i just read this article and i’m so, so grateful. i’m western european and middle-eastern and frankly, i don’t know what what to call myself these days, and it’s messing with my head. leaving home made me realize just how much i identify with my mom’s side, my middle-eastern heritage. when i think about my childhood, my holidays and traditions — i feel like a 1st generation iranian-american. just like the rest of my family and friends.
but i don’t look it. people always ask me if i’m from spain, or maybe israel, but no one ever looks at me and thinks “iran.” i’m just a white girl. “exotic white”, at best. are middle-easterners ‘of color’? the us government says no, some people say yes. if they are, what does that make me? i don’t know. i don’t know. some days i feel half-fake, half-lie.
haha, god, i don’t even know why i’m sharing this here, or now, or at all. there was something about hearing from other mixed -in the article and in the comments- that was really important for me right now. so, you know. thanks for that.
I would like to recommend a few books to you (in case you haven’t read them): Persepolis is a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian-born French cartoonist and author, and “Unaccustomed Earth” by Jhumpa Lahiri, who is an Indian-American writer. Their writings might provide insights into the struggle to find a voice in a mixed world.
thank you so much for the recommendations. i have read persepolis — it’s amazing, and it really resonates with my family, as it shares a lot of similarities with my mother’s own story. i haven’t read unaccustomed earth, though, and you better believe i’ll be picking it up asap.
ahhh, thanks again! i can’t tell you how much i appreciate it.
No problem! I hope you enjoy it!
People can identify as a person of color or whatever they like. However, I agree that America’s practice of racism is unique and the terms person of color and non person of color are more relevant in the United States. I come from a mixed family and we have lived in different countries. I look white, but I code switch my vernacular of English frequently. I also speak Spanish, and throw in slang from different places. People are confused when I am talking and I am not mindful of my mannerisms and speech patterns. They don’t know where I am from, and many people are still perplexed by my bisexuality. I am a citizen of the United States, but I don’t think the term person of color or non person of color could ever apply to me or anyone in my family. Personally, I like to identify as a proud person of earth. :)