I used to be the only biracial kid in the room. Now, my exponentially expanding cohort promises a future where everyone is mixed.
Last fall, I was in Amsterdam with my parents and sister on a family trip, our first in more than a decade. Because travelling with your family as an adult can be taxing on everyone involved, we had agreed we would split up in galleries, culturally enrich ourselves independently, and then reconvene later to resume fighting about how to read the map. I was in a dimly lit hall looking at a painting of yet another apple-cheeked peasant when my younger sister, Julia, tugged at my sleeve. “Mixie,” she whispered, gesturing down the hall.
“Mixie” is a sibling word, a term my sister and I adopted to describe people like ourselves—those indeterminately ethnic people whom, if you have an expert eye and a particular interest in these things, you can spot from across a crowded room. We used the word because as kids we didn’t know another one. By high school, it was a badge of honour, a term we would insist on when asked the unavoidable “Where are you from?” question that every mixed-race person is subjected to the moment a conversation with a new acquaintance reaches the very minimum level of familiarity. For the record, my current answer, at 30 years old, is: “My mom’s Chinese, but born in Canada, and my dad’s a white guy from England.” If I’m peeved for some reason—if the question comes too early or with too much “I have to ask” eagerness—the answer is “Toronto” followed by a dull stare.
At some point, spotting mixies became a kind of sport for us. “Mixie baby,” Julia would hiss, chin-nodding toward some racially ambiguous kid in a stroller at Christie Pits Park. “Mixie,” I’d say, the moment Kristin Kreuk—the super-attractive but heartbreakingly boring Canadian star of Smallville—appeared on the television.
We pointed out others because…well, it’s hard to say why, exactly. Because we secretly longed to make a silent connection with people with vaguely comparable racial experiences? Because of some ingrained tribalism that made us seek out the genetically similar? Or maybe because, back in early-1990s Toronto, mixed-race people were rare enough that they were worth pointing out, the same way you might point out a cardinal flickering through the trees or an original Volkswagen Beetle.
My sister and I have mostly stopped whispering “mixie” at one another in crowded areas. It’s dawned on us that pointing out the race of passersby might be offensive. And in 2013, mixed-race Torontonians have become almost commonplace. At Lord Lansdowne, my elementary school at College and Spadina, I was the only mixed-race kid in my grade. Today, the school is thick with mixies bearing features from all over the map.
According to the 2006 census, 7.1 per cent of GTA marriages were interracial. In a city of immigrants, that number will rise exponentially over the coming years. In less than two decades, Statistics Canada predicts that 63 per cent of Torontonians will belong to racialized minorities, the current term for those of us who are a shade other than white. More than half of second-generation visible minority immigrants who are married have partners outside their race; by the third generation, it’s 69 per cent. Those couples are having kids and those kids will one day have kids of their own, marrying across racial lines and producing a myriad of mixie babies.
In the gallery in Amsterdam, I followed my sister across the room to a painting of some 17th-century merchant and his family. I looked closely at the wife. Dark hair, pursed lips, and something unmistakable around the eyes. The plaque explained it: Pieter Cnoll with his Eurasian wife, Cornelia van Nieuwenrode, the daughter of a Dutch merchant and his Japanese concubine. A mixie. Perhaps the earliest one I’d ever seen.
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.
For today’s mixies, growing up multiracial has meant inner debates about which parent to identify with, how to explain one’s background, and coping with the urge to blend in. Rema Tavares, a half-Jamaican 30-year-old with curly hair and light brown skin, says her looks have provoked strange responses in people. “I’ve had someone say to me, ‘Don’t say you’re black because you don’t have to be. You can get away with it!’ ” She was raised in a small town outside Ottawa and gradually moved to bigger and bigger cities. “I hated being the only person of colour on the bus in my hometown,” she told me. Another mixed-race woman, Alia Ziesman, grew up in Oakville and was so ashamed of her mother, an ethnically Indian woman from Trinidad, that she refused to walk on the same side of the street as her. Ziesman and Tavares and everyone else I spoke to agree that it is a pleasure to be in a city like Toronto today—a place where you’re guaranteed not to be the only coloured face on a city bus.
I feel my mixie-ness most acutely when I leave the city. When travelling through Latin America, I am constantly referred to as Jackie Chan, who is apparently the world’s most famous Asian. For a few years, I played in an indie rock band that toured across the country. A rock show anywhere is a conspicuously white event, but a rock show in Lethbridge or Fredericton is perhaps the purest white experience you can have without joining some CSIS-monitored fringe group. In these places, it feels like there’s little opportunity for you to explain the subtle intricacies of your background. Against such a white backdrop, I am pretty obviously Chinese, but when my sister travelled in China she was branded a gweilo westerner.
Returning to Toronto always comes with a palpable sense of relief. There are relatively few places in the world where a mixed-race person can walk around and be treated with such welcome indifference.
In recent years, mixed-race people have gone from a minor curiosity to the subject of a humming academic discipline. Ethnic studies departments have opened for the first time, driven in part by the ever-increasing number of mixed-race students on campus.
Minelle Mahtani, a U of T associate professor, is one of the pre-eminent Canadian authorities in the field, and has just written a book on multiraciality in Canada. Mahtani has long, dark hair, a toothy smile and a collection of features that are impossible to place on a map. When she was growing up in Thornhill, people would guess at her background without ever hitting on the actual mix, Iranian and Indian. “As a kid, I was one of the few minorities in my neighbourhood, and there was pressure to acclimatize to whiteness” she says. When I met her in a café near U of T in December, she had recently come back from the second Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference at DePaul University in Chicago, a four-day exploration of race and racial boundaries that also acts as a place for mixed-race academics from across North America to hang out and share nerdy in-jokes about the successful 1967 challenge to Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.
The Chicago conference included panels on mixed-race children’s literature and multiracial representation in museums. Academics with geographically specific interests could learn about the historical mixed-race populations of the Carolinas, Virginia and Appalachia, or sit in on a panel called “Historical and Media Representations of Mixed Race in Japan.”
Mahtani led a round-table discussion about the future of mixed-race theory in Canada, which addressed such subjects as mixed characters in African-Canadian literature and the continuing impact of Canada’s history of colonization.
Instead of being seen as tragic individuals, the mixies of today are being talked about in a far more romantic light. Mixed-race people are portrayed as the harbingers of a utopian future in which “race,” that petty construct, ceases to exist and we all live in harmony—beautiful and content in our exotic, beige-ish glory. Some studies have made the dubious claim that mixed-race people are biologically more attractive, turning those old eugenics-based theories on their head: the same “hybrid vigour” that creates a good sorghum crop apparently also produces healthy, symmetrical beauties like Halle Berry and Keanu Reeves.
There’s a basis for some of this optimism: the 2006 Canadian census showed that interracial pairings are on their way up, growing at a much faster rate than same-race marriages. As a group, mixed-race couples were young and urban and tended to be more highly educated: one in three people in mixed-race relationships had a university degree, versus just one in five people in non-mixed unions.
In the U.S., the Pew Research Center published a study on intermarriage based on the 2010 census that showed similar trends. Marriage across racial lines had doubled in 30 years, and the numbers around “acceptance” were striking. In 1986, only a third of Americans thought intermarriage was acceptable for everyone. Today, 63 per cent of Americans say it “would be fine” with them if a member of their family married someone outside their race. The study also showed that Asian-white newlywed couples tended to have higher earnings than any other pairing, including white-white or Asian-Asian pairs.
Both studies—along with the election of U.S. president Barack Obama, the world’s most famous mixie—prompted a flurry of media reports and articles hypothesizing that the increase in mixed-race couplings would usher in a new era of equality. The fact that Asian-white pairings were so successful was touted as the beginning of a “post-racial elite.”
The increase in mixed marriages, the Globe and Mail hypothesized, was evidence that “multiculturalism is working in Canada because mixed unions—and biracial children—break down barriers on perhaps the most personal of levels.” It’s tempting to dub the many new mixies, say, the Drake Generation—an idealized cohort of Torontonians who move fluidly through different identities and cultures. If you believe the hype, mixies promise a utopian post-racial future—the city’s motto, “Diversity Our Strength,” in human form.
The reality of being mixed is far more complicated. The Pew study didn’t reveal a world where skin colour is irrelevant: a newlywed Hispanic-white couple will earn more than the average Hispanic couple, yes, but less than the average white couple. The same is true of black-white pairings. What’s also clear is that mixing doesn’t happen evenly. The success of Asian-white couples like my parents can be attributed to a number of things, but the fact that immigration laws often hand-pick the wealthiest, most educated, most outward-looking Asians is surely part of it. It’s easy to imagine a future in which upwardly mobile Asians and whites mix more frequently, while other minorities are left out of a trendy mixed-race future. Marriage across racial lines is increasingly possible, but mixing across class has always been tricky. And class, it goes without saying, remains stubbornly tied to skin colour.
In 2000, Americans were allowed for the first time to mark themselves as more than one race on the official census. The new option came after years of lobbying by organizations such as Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally), a group led by the white mother of a mixed-race child. It was a victory of sorts, the kind of change that at last allows a young multiracial person to recognize all sides of his or her identity without being forced to choose camps. Some critics, however, saw it as an effort by white mothers to avoid having their child identified as “black” on the census. The celebration of a fashionable new mixed-race generation can threaten to leave other people behind. Proclaiming your “mixed-race” identity can be a way to opt out of being black or First Nations or Chinese and lay claim to a slightly higher status—“mixed race,” an exotic, desirable new identity unencumbered by generations of racial baggage.
Today, when I think clearly and honestly about my childhood mixie pride, it wasn’t just about celebrating my snowflake-unique cultural identity. There was something ugly there. To insist on being seen as mixed race allowed me to avoid being categorized as Asian. The unfair stereotype of the Chinese guy—some geeky, sexless striver who probably spent his spare time learning rote math at the Kumon on Bathurst Street—was so distasteful that I backpedalled away from it as fast as possible, never mind that none of my Chinese friends were anything like that. Back then, my answer to the “Where are you from?” question was a flurry of rhetorical attempts to distance myself from the heritage that read so obviously on my features: “I was born in Toronto and I’m fourth-generation Chinese on my mom’s side,” I would say. “She actually grew up in Don Mills and hardly even speaks Chinese. My British dad, now he’s the one who’s an immigrant.”
Kids don’t do this because they’re innately racist. They do it because there are real social advantages that come when you edge yourself a little closer to whiteness—advantages we don’t like to think about too much as adults but that are blindingly obvious to a 12-year-old.
Last September, my sister’s college friend Amanda Brewer started her first year teaching at a school in Regent Park. Brewer is the daughter of a black father and a white mother and has loose curly hair and copper skin. About once a month, an older man will casually start speaking to her in Portuguese, assuming she’s Brazilian.
The Grade 7 and 8 kids she teaches are from all over the place, many of them multiracial. Today’s 12-year-olds are keenly aware of racial subtleties that would likely be invisible to people of my mom’s generation—different shades, parental influences, subtle mixes. Living in an era of mixed races doesn’t mean the obliteration of race—it means the creation of whole new complex categories. But it also means, one hopes, that these categories cease to hold so much significance.
The second week of school, one of the girls asked Brewer a variation of the “Where are you from” question.
“Who’s white, your mom?” the student asked. “I bet it’s your mom.”
“You’re right,” Brewer told her. “My mom’s white.”
“I knew it,” the girl said, not aggressively, just matter-of-factly.
To this girl, it was clear that Brewer was culturally white. That meant her dominant parent, which to this 12-year-old meant her mother, must be white, too.
“I was amazed that she picked up on that,” says Brewer. “My students know way more about different cultures than anyone I knew growing up.” They see differences in their classmates, clock them, then take them in stride. Race isn’t invisible, but hopefully it’s just one of a litany of characteristics that inform how kids choose their friends, their dates and—who knows?—the people with whom they’ll one day have kids of their own.
Living in an era of mixed race doesn’t mean the obliteration of race—it means the creation of whole new complex categories
Is it too late to say I don’t like talking about race? It makes me uncomfortable, as it does so many other Canadians. There’s a distinctly Canadian feeling that, if we all act halfway decent and just ignore it, the race thing will more or less sort itself out. There’s also a sense, even in conscientiously liberal circles, that those who natter on about racism or “identity politics” are, if not whiners, exactly, then definitely a little tiresome. I feel it, believe me. Of all the many privileges that come with whiteness, being able to ignore race entirely is one of the most precious.
The promise of mixed-race people like my sister and me, successful enough and unencumbered by too many racial hang-ups, is an end to all that nattering. We are post-racial in the superficial sense that my friends and I—sons and daughters of Iranians and Malagasies and Russians and even Windsorites—can go out to eat dim sum or jerk chicken and make jokes about race that are actually jokes about racists. This is a lovely part of Toronto, one of the things I miss most when I’m away.
I love, too, that I have two worlds to draw on instead of one; I know what to order at dim sum restaurants and also how to make mince pies; I get Christmas and Chinese New Year’s. At times, I even like the “Where are you from?” question and the places it can lead—to conversations about my grandmother the Chinese opera singer escaping down the Yangtze, or my father’s defence of the cuisine of the British Isles. “My mother was the only Chinese hippie,” I say proudly. “This isn’t hyperbole, it’s the literal truth!”
In the future, Torontonians will produce babies in combinations the world has never seen—Yoruba-Polish-Malaysians and Estonian-Filipino-Crees popping out of hospitals across the GTA, toddling around messing with people’s neat conceptions of what race means.
A mixed-race city isn’t the same as a post-racial city, but it’s an improvement. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that a mixed-race baby was a pariah, not cause for smug back patting. The future of Toronto is mixie.