If you’re a certain type of mixed-race person, you don’t look for your tribe in the faces of people over a certain age—after all, how much mixing really went on in Toronto bedrooms in the 1940s? I’d never spotted my arrangement of features in a senior citizen on the streets of Toronto, let alone in an oil painting in a national museum. For a moment, though, I took a little pleasure in imagining a future in which art galleries and magazines and television shows were filled with mixies. It’s a future that, if it happens anywhere, will start in Toronto.
Historically, mixing the races was a sin and then a crime and then, after years of slow progress, merely a terrible thing to do to an innocent child who would be forever torn between two worlds.
This last period was surprisingly long-lived. In the 1860s, a French anthropologist argued that mixed-race people, like mules, would forever be sterile and miserable. Theories by people such as Charles Davenport, a leading, early-20th-century advocate of eugenics in America, posited that multiracials suffered from emotional and mental problems. There were studies by sociologists and psychologists well into the 1980s claiming that biracial individuals were inevitably confused, anxious and poorly adjusted. Multiracialism was seen as a pathology.
Crossing racial boundaries could result in awful consequences, in Canada as much as other places. In 1930, 75 hooded members of the Klu Klux Klan caravanned from Hamilton to Oakville to prevent a young white woman from marrying her black fiancé, burning crosses with the indulgence of local law enforcement. In 1939, 18-year-old Velma Demerson was deemed “incorrigible” and jailed after taking a Chinese lover.
The first big Canadian examination of what it meant to be mixed was the book Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill, the journalist and novelist best known for The Book of Negroes. Published in 2001, Black Berry, Sweet Juice is part memoir about growing up the son of a black father and a white mother in Don Mills in the 1960s, and part survey of other biracial Canadians.
For Hill, growing up black and white was a puzzling and painful process, trying to sort out an identity at a time when the options available to a brown-skinned man in lily-white Don Mills were limited. Hill says he’s always thought of himself as black, though he’s not sure he had much choice. “When I was a boy, I suppose I could have walked around telling people, ‘I’m not black. I’ve got one black parent and one white parent, and I consider myself biracial,’ ” he writes, “although any person who felt negatively disposed toward black people would hardly have been kinder to me as a result of this self-definition.”
Well into the 1980s, psychologists claimed that biracial individuals were inevitably confused, anxious and poorly adjusted. Multiracialism was seen as a pathology
Little more than a decade later, Black Berry, Sweet Juice feels like a relic of another time. This isn’t to say that the difficulties and anxiety Lawrence Hill wrote about have disappeared, particularly if you’re part black, which remains fraught with a specific set of complications. But many things have changed, and drastically. The Toronto that Hill and his generation grew up in was overwhelmingly white. The Hills were the only black family in their suburban neighbourhood, just a bus ride away from my mother and the rest of the Hunes, as far as they knew the only Chinese family in theirs. My mother casually says things that sound like hyperbole but are literal truth, like: “I was the only Chinese hippie and your aunt was the only Chinese divorcee.” For a mixed-race person in 1960s Toronto, there was little chance of blending into the background.