Questioning Being Black and White in Canada

“Canadians have a favourite pastime, and they don’t even realize it. They like to ask—they absolutely love to ask—where you are from if you don’t look convincingly white. They want to know it, they need to know it, simply must have that information. They just can’t relax until they have pin-pointed, to their satisfaction, your geographic and racial coordinates. They can go almost out of their minds with curiosity, as when driven by the need for food, water, or sex, but once they’ve finally managed to find out precisely where you were born, who your parents were, and what your racial makeup is, then, man, do they feel better. They can breathe easy and get back to the business of living.” —An except from Lawrence Hill’s Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada

Lawrence Hill dubs it The Question and, indeed, for most black/white mixed Canadians The Question has become a reoccurring topic of conversation fielded in classrooms, workplaces, out with new friends, in busy line-ups and crowded bars…most any public place. Most commonly asked in the form of “where are you from?”, “what’s your background?”, or put ignorantly simply as “what are you?”, The Question has become a defining aspect of the black/white mixed race experience for people of black and white descent living in Canada.

But is The Question just harmless curiosity? Or does The Question unconsciously reveal deeply held racial assumptions, sometimes even racist values? Either way, The Question puts race centre stage in a society where, ironically, the topic is often avoided, evaded at best. Is it time to take The Question as an opportunity to educate Canadians about issues of mixed race and blackness?

What Mixed Race People Really Think About Being Asked The Question

“I actually don’t mind it at all,” explains Lisa Hansen, 23, a recent grad who was born in Germany to German and Trinidadian parents but has lived most of her life in Toronto. “Obviously, it’s nobody’s business but I’m not ashamed to say I’m mixed race. I know I’m ambiguous looking and people want to pin-point where I’m from.”

Alex Masters Lecky, 24, shares similar sentiments. Born to parents of Jamaican and English origin he describes his common reaction to The Question as complacent. “It’s been asked too many times to remember.”

For Charmaine Jones, 29, it depends on the day and how people ask. Part owner of the progressive-minded t-shirt company Global Warming which sells t-shirts with messages that address issues of race, gender, and bullying, Jones answers The Question by first stating she is from Toronto but then continuing with her parents birthplaces, knowing the person asking is waiting for her to reveal her “background.”

People not only assume Jones’s mother is black and father is white after she discloses her mother is from the Barbados and her father is from England (her parents are actually both mixed race), but she’s also had people attempt to visually dissect her features.

“I’ve had people be complimentary because they think I may look ‘unique’ and then I’ve had people literally try to dissect my features from my hair to freckles to lips to nose, making me feel like Mr. Potato Head and assigning each feature to each race,” Jones jokingly explains.

For many black and white mixed persons in Canada, The Question is not so much problematic and troubling as the assumptions it presumes. As author Lawrence Hill writes in Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada, “I suppose the reason many of us mixed-race people find The Question offensive is not just that it makes assumptions, which are often false, about our identity, but because it attempts to hang our identity on one factor: race.”

Multicultural Canada

Where did Canada’s obsession with people’s background, ethnic origins, and racial make-up come from? Scholars on the subject agree it starts with people assuming that a real Canadian is white (an incredibly false assumption!). Therefore anyone who doesn’t read as white is assumed to be from another country and as a result, not seen as a real Canadian and deserving of the ‘where are you from?’ question.

For people of black and white mixed race especially, their race is hard to place and because individuals cling to racial categories as a way of making sense of their worlds, The Question is a by-product of the confusion and sense of offence people sometimes feel when the racial binaries of black and white are muddled.

“People are socialized to uncritically accept racial categories. They want to know who mixed race people are affiliated with, perhaps as a guide to how they can engage with them,” explains Professor Leanne Taylor who studies multiracial and multiethnic identities at Brock University. Taylor adds that in Canada the idea of mixed race has even been commodified and exported internationally as the lived reality of what multiculturalism is—the message (falsely) being: ‘look at all these beautiful, mixed people as a symbol of how well people are getting along in Canada’.

For Taylor and others, this makes it difficult to address tough issues like race and racism in Canada. They argue that multiculturalism and the fascination with multi-raciality in Canada, while it comes from a good place, deflects away from real racial experiences and lived realities of coloured people. Not only is there still a disappointing amount of segregation outside of Canada’s urban centres (and even within major cities), but the fact is that people of black and white mixed descent still experience racism, especially when anti-black sentiments are inadvertently exposed by The Question.

What Happens to Blackness?

Whether black and white mixed race Canadians choose to identify as black or not, sadly The Question—and more accurately, peoples responses to answers given to The Question—reveals to what degree Canadian society has internalized North American racist values of the lighter the skin, the better.

Rema Tavares who is the founder of Mixed in Canada, an online community for mixed race people and dialogues on mixed race and anti-racism in Canada, says her experience of The Question and being black and white in Canada has been one which she can only describe as a “weird place where privilege and racism meet.”

Born to Jamaican (black-Jewish) and Canadian (Irish-Italian) parents, people’s responses to Tavares’s disclosure of her racial background have ranged from ‘exotic’ to ‘you don’t look black’ or even ‘make sure to tell you’re husband you’re black because if you have kids he might think you cheated on him’. Comical, considering Tavares is married to a Black man.

“To me, [The Question] perpetuates colorism, shadism, exoticism, objectification, and fetishization of mixed race bodies,” expresses Tavares, adding that this causes a problematic rift within the Black community between Blacks and people of black and white mixed race.

Tavares chooses to identify as black politically, partly in solidarity with the Black community and partly because she believes there is a real danger in identifying as black and white because it perpetuates and, at the same time, deflects serious racial stereotypes.

How so? Positive stereotypes about black and white mixed race persons that are socially acceptable such as light skin as beautiful and exotic and curly, long hair as soft and desirable are meant to be compliments but unintentionally suggest that being mixed is just a little better than being black. Sadly, the implication is that real blackness is undesirable and if you’re mixed, you’ve (luckily) escaped that. Many people’s responses to answers given to The Question depict mixed race individuals as the most beautiful people—but as a mixed race individual, do I want to feel that I’m more beautiful because I’m not as black? How does that make me feel about blackness? How does that make me feel about my own blackness?

Time For Another Question?

Race is incredibly important in the multicultural landscape of Canada and whether or not The Question can be chalked up to innocent curiosity, which is often the case, The Question still demonstrates the importance of race in Canada and the deeply held racial prejudices, stereotypes, values, and assumptions Canadians of all colors continue to hold in attempts at navigating the various ethnicities, cultures, and racial backgrounds present in Canada.

“If we were as multicultural as many optimistically naively assume, then we wouldn’t be so attached to pinning down people to these racially prescribed categories. It simply demonstrates the ongoing racial stratification in this country,” explains Professor Minelle Mahtani of the University of Toronto, an expert on mixed-race studies.

Instead of The Question, why not ask people how they see themselves?

“I would prefer it if people asked me, ‘where I’m at,’ and then let me reveal aspects of my past and my vision of the future at my own pace,” explains Professor Daniel McNeil of De Paul University in Chicago and author of Sex and Race in the Black Atlantic: Mulatto Devils and Multicultural Messiahs. “I would prefer it if people took a bit of time to find out what I value and my hopes for the future before they ask ‘where are you from?’”

We forget that the weight of race in people’s lives can be profound and extremely personal. As McNeil, scholars of mixed race identity, and mixed persons in Canada suggest, perhaps it is time to re-imagine The Question as a more authentic, sincere, and honest conversational exchange; one which educates, reflects and challenges dominant understandings of identity, mixed race and blackness.