“Little Dark One” — Who decides if I’m black, white, or brown?
Traveling through life as a mixed race Canadian.
People mistake me for being Indian or Pakistani all the time.
In 2007 I was competing in a track and field race in Abbotsford, B.C. and twenty older Sikh men who were playing Sunday cricket next door came to cheer me on. They lined up to shake my hand and congratulate me when I won just because they heard my name over the loudspeaker.
A woman once asked me for directions on the street in Winnipeg in Hindi, I think, because I guess she thought I looked like I spoke it.
No one in my family speaks Hindi.
I’ve been called a lot of derogatory names, “towel-head” or “Paki” or the extremely awful “sand n****r”.
This is frustrating from a couple of perspectives.
- Racism is terrible.
- It’s born of an ignorance that means I’m not even on the receiving end of racism that “matches” my race.
- The fact that I wish people could “at least get their racism right” is a weird first thought to have when they are trying to insult you.
My mother is…extremely white, with light reddish blonde hair and freckles that clearly proclaim Scottish/Irish decent.
My father was black, from Trinidad, with a historical combination of Indian settlers and African descendants that has become so mixed in some families that people only even attempt to trace the last name.
Moolchan is an Indian last name.
Kieran is a Gaelic name for a “dark-haired one”, or a “little dark one”.
It sounds the same as Kiran, which is a name that “brings bright light” or a “shaft of light” in Hindi.
But I don’t speak Hindi.
When I was younger people saw a little brown kid between a white parent and a black one and that meant they were usually able to do the color math and were pretty light on the questions.
But when I’m alone, it’s complicated.
I don’t often know what to say.
I identify with black people because of my black father, and his stories of his struggles with racism and discrimination in Canada and the U.S. in the 60’s and 70’s are stories that I carry with me. And there is heritage from India there too, through my last name and my father’s mixed parents. But my stories from my father’s past start in Trinidad and end in Canada.
I identify with white people because a whole side of my family respected my mother’s love for my father and accepted me as their child, and I was raised under the umbrella of that privilege coupled with the experiences that an interracial couple encountered throughout their lives and travels around the world.
I’m a Moolchan.
I was born here in Canada and while I have inherited Trinidadian citizenship, courtesy of my dad, I only have one passport.
A Canadian passport is one of the highest privileges to be born with.
I’m so lucky that I was born in this country, but I haven’t always been so lucky when I leave it.
I’m naturally wary while going through airport security.
When I was 15, I was flying with an entirely white group of Ukrainian dancers (yes, I was a Ukrainian dancer; no I’m not Ukrainian) from Winnipeg to Orlando to perform in Disney World, with a stop in Minneapolis.
It was also the first time I would be traveling without my parents since 9/11, and it set the tone for almost every trip I would take to the U.S.
In 2004, airport security in Winnipeg had two stages.
First, you would show U.S. Customs representatives your passport and get cleared for security and then head through a security checkpoint that was separate from domestic flights.
While the rest of my dance group moved smoothly through security, I was asked additional questions.
I had to go to a table with a Customs agent and they searched my carefully packed bag. It was frustrating that my efforts to pack in a logical fashion were so quickly thwarted, but I understood.
They were just being thorough.
Once I got my belongings organized again I headed toward the second security point before boarding the plane.
I got pulled aside for a second time while my friends went through security.
“This is a random security check.”
People who look like me know by now that these checks aren’t really that random.
They scanned my passport and talked to someone on the phone, and after a wait I rejoined my group.
We joked about me being the only colored kid in the group and that it totally made sense that I’d be the one to be called out by U.S. Customs, and then we got on the plane.
I honestly don’t know if the U.S. Customs agents in Winnipeg were from Winnipeg or if they were stationed there from the U.S. At the time I was just excited to be heading to Disney World.
When we landed in Minneapolis we didn’t have much time before our next flight, so I grabbed a burger with the guys in the group and headed for our gate.
As we boarded the plane I got pulled aside by security again.
The parent chaperones who were traveling with our dance group gave me a worried look as I got asked more questions about where I was going, and there was a look of disbelief when I said I was going to be Ukrainian dancing in Disney World. The security officer walked me back over to my group and asked them if my story was true.
The chaperones confirmed, and I got to board the plane.
By this point the running joke in our dance group was that if we actually DID need security for some type of emergency, I was to be sent to get help because they’d immediately respond to my presence.
When we landed in Orlando and were getting our luggage I was approached again, and I’ll never forget that moment.
The security officer was a motherly looking black lady, possibly in her early forties. She had a younger officer with her, but she was definitely in charge. She asked me who I was traveling with, and I pointed at the large group of young people all along the baggage carousel.
She asked why we were all down in the U.S., and I said we were going to Disney World.
And then, because it was the 4th time in one single trip that I’d been approached or stopped or questioned by security, no matter how cordially, and because she reminded me a lot of my aunt in Trinidad, I asked her why everyone wanted to ask me questions about what and where and why I was traveling in the United States.
She replied with a weariness that seemed to contain a perspective based on experience that I had yet to understand, and I’ll never forget what she said.
Honey, lookin’ the way you do…it’s not about YOU…but, I guess it’s something we all get used to.
And that still makes me sad.
It makes me sad for the state of fear people can live in when people look different and that difference seems like it’s a threat.
It seemed like the black lady knew what I was going through, but there was something different too. I still looked different than her, even though she was the same color as an entire half of my family, and I could feel like that changed how she spoke to me.
I build extra time into my road trips in case I get searched at the border.
When I was in university I went on a road trip with some friends to see a couple of my favorite bands.
We left Winnipeg early in the morning, planning to drive all day to get to Omaha.
Now, my friends are…quite white.
Not just in appearance, but also in name.
Their European heritages seemed to jump out from their passports.
We pulled up to the border crossing, and I was sitting in the furthest back seat of the Volkswagen Jetta from the border agent, with my passport on the bottom of our stack.
He opened each passport and glanced inside the car, confirming that each face matched each document.
When he got to my passport, he leaned further forward, looked at me, looked at my passport, looked at me, and then said:
“If you’ll just pull your car around to bay 2, an officer will be with you to perform a routine search of your vehicle.”
Routine…well, we were students in our 20’s crossing the border, they could have been checking for anything…
I just felt like I was a catalyst for the search.
“Randomly” selected, again.
At least we made it to the concert on time.
Am I brown, black, or white?
So I face discrimination or prejudice when I travel, but it comes out in the little interactions with people every day too.
And it can be frustrating.
Frustrating because my heritage is complicated.
Frustrating because I don’t always know what “group” I belong to.
Frustrating because it shouldn’t matter what group I belong to, because I’m just a person, who happened to have been born in Canada.
Many people treat me like I’m brown, like I have a family from India.
Until they meet my mother.
Then they treat me like I’m white.
Until they find out that my father was black.
And if they’re black too, then, I’ve been told, “I get to be part of that club”.
Or then they ask, “but what are you?”
“But, like, where, before that?”
And if you’ve randomly selected me, I’ll tell you all about it.
Just let me take off my shoes and belt and then put my arms above my head first.