What It’s Like to Live Between Two Cultures
When you look mono-racial, shit gets weird and racist real quick.
Photos by Jeff David King via ThroughMyTelescope.com
Looking back, I probably looked like one confusing-ass kid.
Despite my circle of racially diverse friends, I was one of the few kids with an actual multi-ethnic background. To make matters worse, I didn't exactly fit the stereotype of what a "mixed kid" should look like. I didn't have long, flowing curly black hair. My skin was not a banana boat complexion. I was on the chunkier side and had extremely dark, heavy-set eyes. I had thick lips, nappy hair, and mocha-coloured skin to match.
To put it shortly, I was a mono-racial-looking biracial kid.
I was considered an oddity amongst a relatively small group that could bond over loose curl patterns and "less black" features. And amongst that group, I didn't have a single trace of whiteness in my background.
To make matters worse, my sister and I could not look any more different. While my hair defies gravity, she has long, lustrous curly locks that are often an object of envy (for problematic reasons) in the black community. Her skin complexion is slightly lighter than mine. She has thin lips, almond-shaped eyes, and was saved from the cursed thick "African arms" that were so graciously bestowed unto me from our father.
As a minority in a then-growing minority group, it also didn't help that my parents were both minorities in their own respect. My father is a black African from Ghana. My mother is a South American of East-Indian descent from Guyana.
Being raised in the suburbs with a slowly—but steadily—growing multicultural population, getting asked about my ethnicity became part of my daily interactions.
It took me awhile to feel comfortable calling myself mixed-race. I always had this underlying guilty feeling inside that I was somehow abandoning one half of me whenever I chose to identify with one ethnicity. On my mother's side, I was the black cousin. I listened to "black people music" and did "black people things." On my father's side, I was never seen as black enough. I could only understand choice words from my father's indigenous language and because of my mother, was doomed to never being able to fully identify as a "real black woman."
My identity was and still is constantly under scrutiny.
Growing up mixed-race in Toronto for me meant chicken curry and roti on Saturdays, and fufu and soup on Sundays. It meant listening to afrobeats at African parties and dancing to chutney at my cousins' Hindu weddings. It meant rocking the Ghanaian flag at Afrofest and the Guyanese one at Caribana.
It also meant correcting my black friends when they made derogatory comments about Indian people, and having to explain black discrimination to my Indo-Guyanese family members who just didn't get it.
It can be tough choosing which side to identify with (or trying to equally represent both). In my case, finding and owning my identity became a specific crisis because of the history of my background.
There was a time in Guyana when Indians and blacks didn't mix. Land that went to indentured Indian labourers versus freed black slaves in the early 1900s gave way to strong tensions between the ethnic groups. Colonialism benefited off of the British-spun narrative that Afro-Guyanese people were lazy, and Indo-Guyanese folk were greedy, further heightening racial disparity between the two.
In Guyanese, Surinamese, and Trinidadian culture, those of Indian and African descent are referred to as dougla—a term that originated from the Hindi word doogala, which means mixed or many. In northern Indian culture, the word doogala is considered highly pejorative and often associated with terms like bastard or illegitimate.
When I first found this out, the only solace I could find was in the fact that those who do identify as dougla fully own who they are. Melanie Fiona, Vashtie Kola, and Nicki Minaj (to name a few) are all douglas who aren't afraid to represent and wear their heritage proudly.
It's also tough living in a North American society that's become so socialized to the idea that being mixed-race is based on its proximity to whiteness. Stanford University put out a study concluding that in North America (specifically the US), there is a strong racial hierarchy placed on those who identify as half-white based on the higher social status afforded to white Americans. This meant that more people were likely to identify as half-white/half-minority than those whose backgrounds include multiple minorities.
This also meant that more visibility would undoubtedly go to those of a half-caucasian background.
As someone who clearly doesn't fit this description, I constantly felt like I had to defend the fact that I even am mixed in the first place.
In the black community, self-identification politics is a sensitive issue. Mainstream society makes it difficult for us to even want to identify as black in the first place for the very reason that our existence has now become an act of resistance. And for those of multiracial backgrounds, the personal becomes that much more political.
According to race-relations expert and journalist Nadra Nittle, self-identification can be even more problematic with omission.
"[It's] problematic when people act as if being mixed-race means they're not black. Being multiracial doesn't mean that the races cancel each other out. It's not a math problem," she told VICE.
"[If] someone looks one way, society is probably going to treat them as such. [But] it doesn't mean that that's how they have to identify," Nittle told VICE.
It took me a really long time to understand that no matter how I chose to identify, I would always be viewed as black first, and "other" second. This is how our society has been set up, especially with a long history of slavery and remnants of the "one-drop rule" mentality that are still prevalent today.
"When it comes to multiracial identity in the 21st century, people who fall into that category now have more freedom to identify as such than they've ever had before. [That's] a positive thing." says Nittle.
So where does this leave monoracial-looking biracial person today? While the questions, raised eyebrows, or shocked look on people's faces will probably never end, I've found comfort in the fact that although I'm not the only one with an exhaustive identity crisis, my identity is still mine, and mine alone.
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