Sports & Health Editor
People have always seen me as different. It doesn’t matter where I went, when it happened or who it was; I’ve too often come face-to-face with puzzled looks and people examining me, trying to dissect what I was. That curious look prefaced the inevitable question: “Where are you from?”
“This question of ‘where do you come from?’ has become normalized. For people that is a normal way of trying to figure something out about someone,” said Arun Chaudhuri, an anthropology professor at York University.
“It’s a very profound expectation of how you’re supposed to understand someone in terms of talking about where they came from and their origin.”
I’ve been called Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and a few other names that weren’t even close. But what people don’t know is that I’m mixed race.
Growing up I had a father whose ancestors came from China and a mother who was very much from a traditional Spanish family. They got married, and just like that, I was born into a mixed family. From my Asian eyes to my beige skin, I was neither Chinese nor Spanish, but both. The hardest part was constantly being surrounded by scrutinizing eyes and getting past their judgments to accept what I was.
“[Being multi-racial] is still approached as a question and an abnormal thing needing to be figured out,” says Chaudhuri. “People see it as something that needs explaining, which automatically means it’s not normal.”
The term “mixed race” goes all the way back to the Métis people from North America.
Jennifer Neamtzu, president of the Mixed Students Association at York (MSAY), has a similar definition of race: “The Mixed Students Association defines being multiracial as not only having two or more racial backgrounds, but also multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic.”
Coming from two different family backgrounds was hard. I often recited and practiced my little speech that explained to people that instead of one race, I was two; and despite how I looked or talked, I would always be both. People grouped me in one group because it was easier, and sometimes I gave up on explaining the situation.
“Mixed students are often grouped together with others they physically resemble,” said Neamtzu. “I’ve been told by other mixed individuals that they think people with mixed backgrounds are grouped together the same way, based on appearance, and [it is] not always what they really identify with or believe in.”
The same can be said of today’s pop icons. Consider Halle Berry and President Barack Obama; everyone identifies them as “black.” The “first black actress to win an Oscar,” or the “first black President of the United States of America,” but the fact is they’re mixed. Halle Berry grew up with a mother who was caucasian and a father who was African-American, while Barack Obama grew up with a white mother and an African father.
It’s hard being a multi-racial student at York. Since I was a child, I’ve always had a deeper connection with my Spanish background, because I was raised by my Spanish-speaking grandparents on my mother’s side. I was never really exposed to my dad’s Chinese culture except for the occasional trips to Chinese restaurants. In some ways, I was more Spanish than Chinese, but I identified as both.
Chaudhuri says there have been many cases where people have been grouped into one category as opposed to both because they spoke the same language as the person identifying them. “A very big symbol in drawing lines of whether you’re part of one group or part of that group is language,” she says. “Language is one of those deciding factors. It probably shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be that concrete.”
It’s something that resonates in MSAY as well, as a lot of York students have gone to other clubs because they find a closer tie to one of their races more than the other, noted Andrew Marc, the social representative of MSAY:
“MSAY has struggled to represent itself over other clubs because we don’t define ourselves as one culture. Some people who are mixed, either racially or culturally, may feel connected to one ethnic group over the other. For example, someone who is mixed with black, Chinese, Jamaican and Filipino could feel more connected to their Jamaican culture, or vice versa. Consequently, they would feel more inclined to join the Jamaican club, or Filipino club, over MSAY.”
MSAY was founded five years ago, and has grown from eight members to over 150. To make sure all mixed students feel comfortable, MSAY holds events that cover many cultures at York, from salsa dancing to karaoke nights.
The population of mixed individuals is said to grow alongside the number of multi-racial marriages in Canada.
Identifying myself as multi-racial has always been hard for me, but finding out what mixed meant to me – and overcoming judgement and scrutiny from the public – brought me a long way toward accepting who I was.