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Illustration by Maia Boakye (@/ghostyboi)

We Can’t Screw Ourselves Out of Racism

Multiracial kids won’t end racism. Stop acting like we can.

Nuance Media
Mar 28, 2019 · 12 min read

by Daniella Barreto

Author’s Note: This piece does not and cannot address the multitude of mixed-race experiences or mixed-race relationships. It is written solely from the author’s point of view as a Black mixed-race person. Other experiences may exist simultaneously.

In case you’ve been living under a six-ton boulder for the last five years, featuring mixed-race couples is the hot new thing in advertising. It’s edgy! It’s progressive! It’s absolutely adorable! Best of all, it is accessible to anyone who’s willing to test out their new Diversity Strategy™ and choose to see the backlash as free PR: banks, clothing brands, jewellers, mattresses, cereals, you name it. We haven’t stopped at plain old mixed race heteros, lord no. Ever heard of representation? Give me mixed race gays. Add some kids! (Just don’t get into that queer or trans business much because there’s not a lot of expendable cash in that.) Diversity’s the in-thing! The opportunities are endless.

Our obsession with diversity reveals far more about us than we think. And serves as a convenient distraction to avoid doing any real equity work.

Mixed race relationships are not inherently progressive, radical, or even healthy. That includes queer ones. The mainstream gawks at multiracial people and mixed-race relationships, turning us into superheroes or weirdos, statistical outliers divorced from the historical impacts of colonization and anti-Black racism — particularly in a Canada so smitten with itself that it has started to believe its own lies about multiculturalism.

It is a gross misunderstanding and a cruel oversimplification of the magnitude and insidiousness of white supremacy (and basic genetics) to think that if we all just fuck each other more or have mixed babies that we will get along better, turn the same shade of beige, and lo, racism will vanish.

In Canada, interracial relationships have become a lot more common, but racism is not going anywhere. Canada is built on a history of ongoing colonial violence and oppression of Indigenous people, a history of enslavement of Black people, and exclusion, surveillance, and violence against all racialized, marginalized groups.

At the end of 2018, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released the chilling fact that in Toronto a Black person is 20 times more likely to have a fatal encounter with a police officer than a white person. Robyn Maynard in “Policing Black Lives” has documented the acute and longitudinal violences enacted on Black people in Canada. Yet, most Canadians are either willfully ignorant to the influences of systemic racism on people’s daily lives or blatantly, painfully, unaware.

According to the most recent census, the proportion of “mixed union couples” has almost doubled since 1991. What does this mean for our society and the mixed race kids living in it?

Canada never had laws against miscegenation, an antiquated term for the mixing of races, but was generally not pleased with the idea — the social taboo was aggressively policed. The term “miscegenation” was often used in the historical context of the United States but the Canadian arm of the KKK, and others hellbent against mixed-race relationships, terrorized and made examples of those who dared. People who crossed racial lines were violently harassed. Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States were often framed as a public health issue — one of protecting white bloodlines from the “pollution” of other races. Truly, the public health issue here is one of white supremacy and its hunger for the blood of anyone “other.”

In white mainstream culture, multiracial people are frequently mythologized, confronted with hurtful questions and assumptions, and sidelined, even by the different groups we come from. Many also do not acknowledge the various privileges afforded to us simply by virtue of being multiracial.

How we are perceived is decided by the society in which we live. Mixed race kids, particularly Black kids in North America, don’t get to choose how broader society codes them.

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I was born in 1991 in Apartheid-era Southern Africa to a Black Ndebele woman and a South Asian Goan man. My parents dared to cross racial lines in 1980s Zimbabwe and my father’s family did not attend the wedding. Then, even worse for the prevailing sentiment of time, they dared to have children.

Zimbabwe’s extralegal version of apartheid was always read as milder than South Africa’s. It was still a fundamentally white supremacist state operating on analogous grounds of segregation and racial discrimination. Not dissimilar to the comparisons of racism between the United States and its ostensibly kinder northern neighbour, Canada.

One of the first questions my mother was asked when I was born was “how dark is she?” My South Asian grandmother, fingers coated in coconut oil, spent hours upon hours pinching the bridge of my nose to banish any spectre of Blackness that might appear on my face. My kinky Black hair was apparently a lost cause.

I experienced being multiracial most acutely as a child in a deeply racist Zimbabwe, where I wasn’t necessarily considered “Black” until my family emigrated to Canada in 2003. Diasporic multiracial people are heavily criticized, because once they come to North America they suddenly become Black, whereas they may not have been so easily categorized before, and likely experienced privileges not afforded to them in North America. At the same time, multiracial Black people can still experience some privileges in the North American context for appearing to be visibly mixed-race or, “less Black.” It is a bizarre paradigm that comes with being a Black multiracial person. I have returned to different parts of Africa to be treated differently from Black people who live in the countries, fetishized for my assumed proximity to whiteness, and privileges ranging from a Canadian passport, accent, and relative wealth — all things that changed when recontextualized to Canada. Moving back and forth, colourism has been a shared thread.

Occupying the peculiar liminal space between the fiction of race and the realities of its imposition has presented me a strange reality as a multiracial Black adult of the African diaspora: Black to some, mixed race to others, generally confusing to many; white women touching my hair without permission; South Asian old ladies looking at me with suspicion; sideways looks from cops who presume I’m up to no good. If you’re a Black-coded mixed-race person, the cops don’t care who your parents are. I identify as Black because that’s how the world interacts with me. I am also mixed race. The language of halves and quarters does not serve us. We are whole, complex human beings.

This fall I travelled to the US for a conference and stayed a night with my cousin, a Zimbabwean-born Indian woman working a high-powered job in D.C. I swirled a glass of merlot in my hand sitting at the dinner table with my aunt, who was engulfed in an impassioned conversation with her white South African son-in-law about what box to check for her white-passing grandchild’s race on a school form.

I felt my chest get tight. I examined their high ceilings to combat the micro-shrapnel behind my eyeballs, a familiar prickle — tears of childhood frustration held at bay. I found myself wanting to comment but held back because of the dull sting of conversations past. I’d lived in the world of not knowing what box to check for 27 years and yet again, whiteness was talking over me. It was curious that they didn’t think this was a conversation I might have a thing or two to say about. Maybe because I didn’t have white ancestry, my opinion didn’t matter. I’ve encountered this many times in public multiracial discourse. The dominant equation is white + “ethnic.” Anything and anyone else is sidelined because “there aren’t enough of us anyway.” I felt small and invisible again, gazing upwards while they clumsily stabbed at their dilemma across the table.

Feeling invisible isn’t only relegated to family. Being Black and queer has been an arguably harder experience to navigate.

LGBTQ2S+ spaces are not exempt from the twisted delusion that “interracial love” will solve the problem of white supremacy. Being Black and queer in the predominantly white LGBTQ2S+ world in Canada is the unsettling condition of always needing to be on guard in places you should theoretically feel safe. People who are your friends and accomplices in certain realms of social justice advocacy reveal themselves as apathetic and sometimes even callous towards issues that don’t personally affect them.

I was an organizer with Black Lives Matter in Vancouver in 2017, when everyone and their “not-racist-just-old-fashioned” grandmother had an opinion about whether or not police should be allowed to march in the Pride parade. The answer is no — don’t @ me. That conversation is thoroughly exhausted. The emotional labour of explaining and defending your own humanity over and over again is draining.

Being white and gay in this day and age is very different from what it was 50 years ago. One would think that white gay men who, in living memory, were the targets of police violence and state oppression would understand that this still hasn’t changed for everyone. Being Black and queer today is both amazing because we have survived so much and, yet, terrifying because we’re still being actively marginalized to death.

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Amidst the outré hatred and violence we faced as a group of queer and trans kids tackling Vancouver’s racism around Pride, there were disturbing ulterior threads and arguments I couldn’t shake. And they turned my stomach.

“I’m not racist! I think our black brothers are so sexy. Why can’t we just fuck this out? ;)”

“We let you into OUR parade, stop making this about race when we can all love who we want now.”

I came home to Vancouver for Christmas this year. One evening, a clear full moon, I went to a holiday party hosted by my incredible Black friend and her partner. It was a raucous, bubbly gathering of people from different parts of their lives overlapping, some meeting for the first time. Amongst the ugly sweaters and boozy conversations, one thing stood out, gleaming brighter than the Christmas lights. Most of the women were women of colour. All of their partners were white. Including hers. Including mine.

Contrary to popular belief, the saying goes: the blood of the covenant is thicker than the waters of the womb. Meaning, your real friends are closer than your family. Among my friends, some of whom I do consider closer than family, I saw very similar dynamics.

I thought about my cousins then. They and their families all left Zimbabwe for a better life somewhere else, and all ended up in predominantly white parts of the world: England, Ireland, the United States. We, of course, came to Canada. Did a better life for immigrants or children of immigrants mean partnering with a white person? “Marrying up”? Some sort of social mobility only unlocked by proximity to whiteness? I’m sure they would all deny it. Hell, I’d deny it. Vehemently. But when every single one of us is currently snuggled up next to a white person, some having mixed kids, it’s a pattern worth interrogating.

Can we really chalk every single one of these interracial relationships up to population statistics or is there something more insidious influencing our dating choices? How deep do the violent tendrils of colonization run?

On the other hand, what does survival come to mean in deeply racist societies, and, how conscious are we of the psychological subtleties of staying alive?

Having been in relationships with people who share my gender or who don’t, who are white or people of colour, there’s a need to first navigate and assess every systemic connection between the other person and myself. There’s always work involved to challenge oppressive views. The people who consider this work the least are white and/or men, and the energy I’ve expended in educating white people and men feels like enough for more than a lifetime. If I go on a date with someone, I am wary of whether they will be unwittingly racist and betray the hurtful things they really think, while the only thing they’re worrying about is whether we’ll have a nice time. I have to be this vigilant or expose myself to violence. (If I ever get to date a multiracial Black-PoC queer woman and don’t have to explain a thing, I’ll let you know how it goes!)

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Recently, in a Facebook group for Black people in Vancouver, someone posted a question about whether it was inherently anti-Black to date people of another race. The same boring binary answers popped up. I don’t comment on threads like that anymore to protect my mental health but one clearly exasperated commenter shared the sentiment I did: these are not useful conversations. It’s an undeniable fact that mixed race relationships and multiracial people exist (hi!). We’re asking inconsequential, outdated and lowkey totalitarian questions about whether mixed-race relationships are anti-Black or not. They exist. We exist. For a myriad of reasons including colonialism, violence, and even love. The real question is: what do we do now?

Our exasperated commenter posed a few questions I see as key and have added to:

  • How can we help multiracial kids feel more connected to their communities?
  • How can partners of people of colour challenge their own families and create supportive safe environments that are positive for their partners and/or multiracial children?
  • How can we address anti-Blackness in our own communities of colour and create positive media representation around Black people’s many experiences?
  • What can PoC who are trying to critically reflect on their relationships with their white partners do?

People need to be encouraged to listen. Challenge your partners on race and watch how they react. That’s all you’ll ever need to know.

I think it is incumbent on white people and white partners to truly listen to a diversity of Black voices as well as educate themselves on Black experiences. And if corporations are going to exploit multiracial people and mixed race relationships to sell things, it is incumbent on them to appropriately address the inevitable racist backlash, make equitable hiring strategies a priority, and fundamentally change their organizational culture. Ending capitalism would be ideal but I’m not sure we’re quite there yet.

Maybe, just maybe, it seems that the problem is bigger than who you’re fucking or who your parents are. This is the nature of the system of white supremacy. It attempts to veil and make individual an issue that is systemic while it carries on its destructive path. In all realms, superficial remedies to issues of racial inequity deliberately obscure the real systemic and institutional perpetuation of oppression.

Particularly in this alarming political climate, where the horrors of complacency and white liberalism have revealed themselves yet again, passive complicity and inconsequential self-absolution will not stop white supremacy. We need to actively and systemically address the range of its progenitors and manifestations, not just close the curtains and get into bed.

The physical dangers of white supremacy affect all marginalized people and it is unfair to place the burden of faux bridge-building and creating “racial harmony” on multiracial kids, especially those who are Black. I’d much rather be fighting for a world in which all Black people are truly liberated because that helps everyone. If the most marginalized among us are safe, we will all be safe.

We need to challenge ourselves to do better. We need to address the systemic and underlying causes of racism. We can’t ignore the deep structural problems while we slap on band-aid solutions to feed feeble fantasies of a racially beige denouement. Fucking each other hasn’t changed anything — and won’t — without radically addressing the history and spectrum of ongoing racial violence.

We must work together in meaningful ways to undo white supremacy, starting with our assumptions about the inherent progressiveness of mixed race people and relationships.

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Miscegenation: the mixing of different racial groups, interracial marriage and/or interracial sexual relations. An act/process considered to negatively affect the “purity” of whiteness and therefore a concept white supremacy is opposed to.

White supremacy: the belief, consciously or not, that white people are inherently superior to other racial groups, particularly Black people, and that white people should dominate society. This belief is both individual and systemic, explicit and implicit.

Colourism: prejudice and/or discrimination against people whose skin tones are darker, both within and external to racial/ethnic groups

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