Are we all going to be latte?

Jul. 9, 2006. 07:07 AM

Ukrainian-Jewish-Hindu marries Ghanian Chinese. German-Swiss marries Irish French-Canadian. While it looks hip and hot, like the United Colours of Benetton, these mixed-race people are constantly asked What are you?” The numbers are on the rise and, with them, an attempt to forge a brand new identity and culture defined by common interests and challenges. By Andrew Chung

They were waiting at the stop for the bus to Runnymede subway station. As Rita Asare checked the stroller to make sure year-old Charmaine was okay, the thin Asian woman they encountered there every day looked at the baby, and then at Asare, who is black.

“You’re such a good babysitter,” the woman said.

“Sitter?” Asare replied. “This is my kid.”

Despite Asare’s efforts, there was no convincing that bus stop stranger a few years ago that she was Charmaine’s mom. Their faces were too different. Asare concedes Charmaine, now 5, does look more Chinese, with her round face, flat nose and Asian eyes. And Asare, 22, says people still question her maternity. “No one ever thinks she’s my kid. At times it makes me feel like I’m not valued, that it’s impossible to have a light kid when you’re dark. Like there’s something wrong with it.”

Charmaine is half black – Asare was born in Ghana. The girl’s other half is mostly Chinese. But also East Indian, Spanish, and black – all the ethnic parts that make up her father, whose family emigrated from the Caribbean.

Kids like Charmaine are the new faces of Toronto. As one of the world’s most ethnically diverse cities continues its long simmer as a racial and cultural melting pot, there will be more children like Charmaine who blend traditions that were once locked into geographical and ethnocentric isolation.

They are the New Metis. While there are mixed-race individuals a generation older than Charmaine, experts say that today there’s a much greater willingness among such adults to define themselves as mixed-race rather than allying themselves with the background of one parent.

Just like the Metis, a culture is emerging around mixed-race people, with its own distinct identity – they have their own websites, books, clothing lines, even dolls. No matter how diverse their backgrounds, these individuals share remarkably similar experiences – including the feeling they don’t belong in the culture of either parent.

It’s not just happening in Toronto, of course. Statistics Canada reports that 452,000 people were in mixed marriages and common-law unions in 2001, up 35 per cent from 1991.

Furthermore, 328,115 people marked more than one box in the 2001 Canada census question on visible minorities. That’s probably an underestimation, sociologists point out, because for a variety of reasons, some people might still check just one box, and recent studies show that many parents also designate their children’s background as that of one parent.

In Toronto, where visible minorities are expected to represent more than half the population within the next decade, we’re in for a lot more blending.

“The numbers are skyrocketing,” declares University of Toronto geography professor Minelle Mahtani, who studies mixed-race identities. “I think all the statistics are indicative that this is a social trend that’s going to continue.”

It’s instructive to look at the Metis. In the 17th century the Metis were born of the mingling of European fur traders and Indian women. They suffered discrimination, but a distinct culture flowered, as did separate Metis communities. Today, the Metis are one of three recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and, at 292,310, make up the fastest-growing Aboriginal group, according to Statistics Canada.

The New Metis already outstrip them in numbers, and seem likely to exceed their social clout as well. Still, the future of this culture is anything but black and white. It is fraught with unique challenges, from encounters like Asare’s to getting caught in a tug- of-war in which there’s pressure to identify with one ethnic or racial group, to concerns that people of mixed race are harbingers of dangerous cultural dilution.

People of mixed race have experiences that are singular, which, Mahtani says, is one of the main engines of the growing multiracial culture. “There is something unique about the perspective of growing up multiracial. You see things from both sides,” she says.

At the same time, she notes, you can experience racism just like any visible minority, but also feel as if you don’t fit into either of the groups to which your parents belong.

The feelings of 19-year-old Justin Baptiste are typical. His father is black, with some European heritage, from Trinidad. His mother is Greek. He says that people like him “feel like outcasts.” When he is with his Greek relatives, “I don’t look like anyone, I don’t speak Greek. We are family by blood but we don’t look like family.”

Similarly, Baptiste, who is finishing up high school at Central Commerce Collegiate, says, “When I do something black, like listen to black music, some people look at me, unsure if I am black or not. I have to act as if I’m this or act as if I’m that.

“I want to be just mixed – but no one can accept that.”

As Baptiste’s words reveal, a complex heritage can lead to a complex life. It often means others find it hard to pinpoint ethnic origin. Questions like, “What are you?” are common.

People of mixed race must often jockey two completely separate cultural worlds. Shanti Thakur, a Canadian filmmaker living in New York, says of her East Indian and Danish roots, “There is an acceptable way to communicate, a certain kind of humour, etiquette, protocol on gender, and all that can be flipped upside down by another culture, within your own family.

“So you learn early, because you’re negotiating these differences, you become a cultural translator of sorts.”

Nikki Mah, 22, who is half-Chinese and half-Italian, has had to deal with both appearance and cultural issues. “You feel lost and don’t know where you fit in, Chinese or Italian?” she says. “Out for dinner with my Chinese family for birthdays or Christmas or whatever, people will be looking at me like, ‘Who’s the white girl?'”

Mah recently returned to Calgary from Toronto after making it to the finals during MuchMusic’s popular VJ Search. Her background became a mini-obsession within the show. Internet forums were abuzz with speculation on her origins. Another contestant asked Mah point blank, “Don’t you wish you were fully Chinese?” She says she felt offended.

Asked during the final episode what her “trademark” was, she replied, “Maybe the half-Chinese girl?”

But Mah and others say these common experiences are what make them feel most comfortable in the midst of other mixed people. “You meet someone mixed and you bond instantly,” Mah explains. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, my long-lost brother!’ You automatically feel comfort, like, ‘I understand this.'”

Mahtani, the scholar, says this is an integral part of the formation of a mixed culture – “critical mass …

“I think mixed-race people gravitate toward each other because the experience is so different; that experience of not fitting in,” says Mahtani, who is herself of East Indian and Iranian descent. “We’re moving into a stage where finally there are things happening with respect to the recognition of multiraciality as a real category and a real experience of identity.”

Reginald Daniel, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who specializes in mixed-race issues, says that being multiracial is not as mainstream in North America as in Latin America, particularly Brazil, where it’s been a fact of life for 500 years. “It’s not even something people think about,” he says.

However, in Canada and the United States, mixed-race people are beginning to define themselves proudly as such, he says. “That normative, matter-of-fact expression of a multiracial identity is very new.”

People like Toronto photographer Michelle Yee are helping to shape a mixed-race culture. She wrapped up an exhibition in May at the Inabstraco Gallery, on Queen St. W., for which she photographed solely mixed-race subjects. “I remember from my opening night,” she says, “people were saying, ‘This just looks like a single culture!'” Yee, who is Chinese and Filipino, says, “These people really felt like I had given them a voice, that this was a project long overdue.”

The mixed-race critical mass is showing its face more and more, particularly on the Internet.

Five years ago, there was one North American website dedicated to multiracial people.

Now there are dozens of sites and blogs where individuals can meet, communicate, even date.

Most are U.S.-based, such as,,, and, the website of a Seattle-based foundation established specifically for mixed people that puts out a magazine and school materials, runs a multiracial bone-marrow-donor recruitment program (see sidebar), and last year organized a cross-country RV tour and documentary called Generation Mix to celebrate the mixed-race experience.

Now you can buy clothes that speak to the mixed-race identity. One company, Mixed Apparel, sells its shirts by mail and Internet, with messages such as “Beautifully Blended,” “Mestizo,” or new terms for any mix, like “Latinasian.”

There are more and more books about multiracialism – not just academic texts, which have been around for decades, but children’s books that talk about what it’s like. You can buy mixed-race greeting cards, and interracial cake-top figurines for weddings.

There are even dolls for mixed-race children. A Brooklyn company called Real Kidz sells a line of biracial dolls. “Goodwin” has a Caucasian mom and a black dad, “Quincy” has a white mom and Asian dad. The dolls’ tag line “My parents are from two different ethnic backgrounds. They created me out of love.”

Mixed couples have become more common in movies and on television since the 1990s. Top-rated TV show Grey’s Anatomy has Canada’s Sandra Oh, who is Asian, in a relationship with a black man. Commercials, too, are coming around. Ford is currently running an ad in Canada with a black and white couple. The TTC has a print advertisement showing an Asian woman and an Indian man.

Advertisers are highlighting models that have an “ethnically ambiguous look,” says Daniel McNeil, a doctoral student at the U of T who studies mixed race. “Youth culture has become so infused with the idea that cultures interact,” he says. “That comes back to consumerism.”

The picture’s not entirely rosy. When it comes to the entertainment business, for instance, mixed couples may be in vogue, but are their children?

Nile Seguin doesn’t think so. A Toronto-based comedian, he has had success with his show “Fear of a Brown Planet,” in which he lampoons the entertainment industry’s response to race and multiracials. “Black people act like this, white people act like this, and then there are people like me,” he laughs.

Seguin, 33, who is Rwandan black and French-Canadian white, says that when he’s up for auditions, “I’ll often fall between the cracks in terms of casting.” Even for a radio ad, he was asked to try out for the part of an angry urban black man (which he didn’t get), but not for the part of a white French chef.

Then there is the skepticism experienced by people like Rita Asare and their mixed-race kids. Karen Suzuki, 31, who has just completed a film about half-Japanese Canadians like herself, says, “I get the question ‘What are you?’ all the time. Native, Italian, Portuguese? I was told vehemently once I looked like an Ojibwe woman. I almost had to get out my driver’s licence to prove I wasn’t. People haven’t clued into the fact that mixed marriages exist.”

Meanwhile, mixed individuals sometimes find themselves in a kind of racial tug-of-war. This war began in the U.S. before the 2000 census, in which people were allowed for the first time to check more than one racial box. The African-American community was especially concerned this would diminish its numbers and affect affirmative action programs.

Similar sentiments exist in Canada. Dudley Laws, executive director of the Black Action Defence Committee, says mixed-race people have been historically considered black, and that has not changed.

“You suffer the same kind of discrimination, so why would you put mixed race?” he asks. “I don’t see the benefit of making this separation, especially within the race itself. When we begin to do that, when we have children of lighter complexion and we make a separation, we weaken our position in society.”

Pressure is brought to bear in other ways too. Rivka Krakofsky’s mother is Japanese and her father is white Jewish. “They want their Jewish daughter to marry a nice Jewish boy,” says Krakofsky, 31. “I’ve used it against them quite a few times. When I’ve dated someone who’s not Jewish, I say, ‘How can you give me grief? Look at you two.’ Their concern is about how we would raise our children.”

As it turns out, cultural dilution is a major concern within Canada’s Japanese community. It happens to have more mixed marriages than any other group – 70 per cent of all couples – and the current intermarriage rate is 95 per cent, according to the National Association of Japanese Canadians. That’s higher than any other Nikkei (Japanese outside Japan) community in the world.

“It concerns me a great deal,” says Christine Seki, who is half- Japanese, half-Irish, and events manager at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. “I imagine in a couple of generations we’ll be so assimilated that the (Japanese) community may not exist anymore.”

Seki, 40, says she’s trying to do more outreach to young people who are paying less attention to Japanese culture. “They’re on with their Canadian lives, and it takes bit of effort to keep in touch,” she says.

Henry Kojima, the national association’s president, jokes that “when you go to a Japanese-Canadian picnic today, it isn’t like the old days when a bunch of kids with black hair were running around.”

The high intermarriage rate, says the 62-year-old Kojima, whose own children are biracial, is a direct result of the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, when they were seen as enemies to Canada. Following the war, the community was distributed thinly across the country, leaving little room to find another Japanese partner. As well, the experience made the community feel it had to integrate at all costs.

While it shows Japanese Canadians are part of the mainstream, he says, the worry is that people are drifting from the Japanese identity. “Once you start getting half and then a quarter and so on, they can say, ‘I’m not that interested in that part of my background.’ It’s not only their appearance, but their headspace is different. I don’t want to use the word ‘diluting,’ but there’s the idea of getting away from the cultural values and beliefs.”

Where is this headed? Mahtani says there are major implications for multiculturalism. Will the government eventually begin to fund multiracial groups? What happens when mixed-race kids grow up and marry others of mixed race? How will they define their identities?

Sociologist Reginald Daniel says that in the future, ancestry will be less and less meaningful in terms of defining identity. “Appearance will be more important, and even then it will be hard to define people.” In this way, he says, Canada and the U.S. will resemble Brazil.

It’s not clear how ready Canada is to handle this. But Daniel points to one group in which there has been some success the Metis.

“Why,” he asks, “do you have this group called Metis, whereas mixed blood is redefined (in the U.S.) as Native American? How do you get this category in Canada but not the U.S.?”

Perhaps the path is there. It’ll be up to the New Metis to take it.


Karen Suzuki, 31, left, who is half Japanese, half German and Justin Baptiste, 19, right, who is half Trinidadian, half Greek reflect the new face of Toronto’s mixed-race culture.

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