By Maya Mohan
I was sixteen years old and sitting in the back of Krista’s car. She was a perky, blond, cheerleader – party girl type. We went to the same high school in small town Ohio. She was an acquaintance of my good friend Nell. Krista had some hip hop playing in the car, she turned to Nell and asked “Will your parents care if I listen to ni**** music?” My friend nonchalantly assured Krista that it wasn’t a problem. I was so surprised, that I didn’t say anything. I was surprised that Krista would use a racial slur in front of me. I was surprised that Nell didn’t seem phased by it at all.
This is one of many instances during the three years I lived in Ohio in which a friend or acquaintance said something in my presence that I am positive they would not have said if my skin was darker. I am half white and half south Asian. Most people with a genetic make-up like mine are classified as visible minorities. However, I am a genetic fluke. I have dark hair, but my eyes are blue and my skin is fair. Most white people just assume that I am fully white (although if I have enough of a tan in the summer people do recognize me as Indian or some other sort of visible minority). I am what I like to call an “undercover minority.”
Being biracial has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me. I have always felt love and acceptance from both sides of my family, though there are plenty of accounts of other biracial people feeling as though they don’t belong or feel alienated from one particular part of their cultural make-up. I grew up within the West Indian community in Calgary, Alberta until I was fourteen years old. Many of the other families we socialized with were multiracial or multicultural. Being biracial was perfectly normal, and I never felt out of place.
I recognize that this is not a common experience among visible minorities in Canada. Many face racism and discrimination. But I have the buffer of white privilege. White privilege has several definitions, but it boils down to an unearned social advantage that affects all aspects of life. Despite my very Indian name, no one has ever questioned my proficiency in English (it’s my first language). I am not afraid of the police, in fact I have relatives in law enforcement. I have never been called a racial slur. I am not seen as “other.” I am welcome in the vast majority of social situations and am privy to the conversations that take place.
This buffer also puts me in the unique position of experiencing both sides of cultural divide. Someone can mention something they dislike about another cultural group as though I will not judge them because I am one of them. However, I feel the very personal sting of intolerance and exclusion. Even if they know my cultural background, they may still make comments, as though my fair skin doesn’t make my minority status real in their eyes. The inherent assumption is that I have similar cultural experiences even when intellectually they know that I don’t.
Today among my friends and acquaintances, I can think of many examples of multicultural families with biracial children. The numbers support this observation. Statistics Canada has seen a rise in mixed unions from 2.6% of all marriages in Canada in 1991 to 4.6% in 2011. This number is likely to rise as 20% of people living in Canada in 2011 were born abroad. According to current projections, 25% of people living in Canada could be immigrants as soon as 2031. This increases the probability of more intercultural marriages and biracial children.
As Canada becomes more diverse, it is important that we foster the concept of inclusion. There are parts of the world, both near and far, where immigrants become political scapegoats and minorities become targets for violence. People are dividing themselves based on race, culture, and where they were born. Perhaps, as undercover minorities we can play a small part in changing these attitudes using our privilege and cultural experience to bridge the divide.
This article is the first in a series on “undercover minorities.” Through this lens we will explore topics such as confronting casual racism, white privilege, and Canadian identity.
The names of the individuals mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities.