It happens the same way every time. The stranger approaches, smiles curiously, and asks the question I’ve been getting asked since I was five: “Excuse me, but what are you?”
Mixed-race people are increasing in Canada. Between 1996 and 2001, the number of mixed-race marriages in Canada increased by 35%. This is probably related to the fact that immigration continues to draw hundreds of thousands of minorities into our country, with these minorities increasing threefold between 1981 and 2001.
Canada, a country known for being not a “melting pot” but a national community open to appreciating the diverse people entering its borders, encourages its citizens to learn about each other’s cultures and religions. As Canadian comedian Russell Peters once predicted, the world’s population will mix and before we know it, “Everyone’s gonna be beige.”
Being mixed used to be looked down at as exclusion from either of their “pure” heritage races. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel popular in Ontario high schools for teaching about racism, describes half black, half white children as the unluckiest of all. One character describes their sadness, saying, “Colored folks won’t have ’em because they’re half white; white folks won’t have them because they’re half colored.”
Being mixed is now considered a privilege in our society. Mixed children are revered for an image of being more intelligent, beautiful, and even healthy. Why have the standard brown eyes and black hair, or blue eyes and blond hair, when you can have green Chinese eyes, light brown hair, and olive skin? Celebrities like Mariah Carey, Tiger Woods, and Keanu Reeves are increasing in popularity as they proudly declare their mixed heritage.
Yet many still believe that children of mixed races face psychological issues. Studies show these children often tell friends that they are only of one race, feel uncomfortable with their appearance, and don’t think they can relate to their non-mixed peers. As a result, they are reportedly more likely to engage in dangerous behaviour, such as drinking or theft, to prove that they can fit in.
Other mixed-race individuals are happy to not fit it. They embrace their unique looks and diverse heritage. They also say that because of their mixed cultural backgrounds, they can relate to more than one cultural group. They have a better understanding of “cultural mentalities”, sometimes speak at least two native languages, and fit easily into so-called “mixed” groups at school.
A potential drawback of sharing more than one racial background is the tendency to be asked by classmates, new friends, and even strangers about one’s heritage. A lot of the time, such questions stem from genuine interest. However, a new issue that accompanies the growing number of mixing races is whether or not the question should be asked.
In an increasingly politically correct society, many mixed-race people are irritated by being constantly asked questions like “Where are you from?”, “What’s your race?”, and—probably the most offensive—“What are you?”
Several online forums dedicate threads to the question of how to interact with mixed people. One woman on Wordreference.com asked if “half-breed” and “half-caste” are appropriate names to call someone of mixed race. Her question was met with a resounding “no”. Likely, if you’re not sure if someone may get offended by being asked what their race is, it’s best not to ask at all.
Besides, if you did know, would you treat them differently?
Our North American society seems obsessed with categorizing people by race. For instance, one of the most famous mixed people in our society is the president of the United States, Barack Obama. If you didn’t already know, Obama is half white and half black, yet both Canada and the United States refer to him as the “first black president in American history”. There is little mention in the media that his mother was white.
So why this need to simplify and label people by race? Hasn’t our society moved beyond all that?
The truth is, our society will probably never stop being curious about each other’s skin colour or cultural background. It has been argued that the desire to split people into groups is an innate biological characteristic of humans, while others say that it is strictly a social concept.
Those who argue for a biological basis claim that ancient tribes had to quickly distinguish friend from foe by physical appearance. Each tribe consisted of people who looked, spoke, and acted similarly. An enemy could easily be judged by being physically different.
Those who argue for the social construct approach claim it was and continues to be a way to quickly classify someone’s place in the social hierarchy. When an African slave had a child for a white European master, for instance, that child was classified as simply “black” and could not have the same social and financial power as their white parent.
Even at UTM, whether a person is mixed or not, students often ask each other about their cultural background. Comments like, “Oh, you’re Asian? You probably don’t even need to study,” or “Hey, I noticed you’re brown. You can help me with my taxes,” are common in the classroom. These are usually taken as jokes, but some students are frustrated at being judged solely by their looks.
Sometimes people feel more comfortable forming groups with others who speak the same language, share the same cultural background, and look similar. Others enjoy learning about their classmates’ different backgrounds, and more and more groups are forming that comprise a variety of visibly different groups.
Personally, I have never been offended by “the question”. I actually enjoy listening to people guess, always incorrectly, what I am. Mexican? Italian? Pakistani? Egyptian? Spanish? Persian? I have yet to hear someone correctly say, “I’ll bet you’re of Indian, Russian, Cornish, Irish, and Scottish descent.” But it’s fun to keep them guessing.