I Know Where I’m From, Thanks

One of the joys of being mixed race is that you are a participant in the “Guess Your Race” game on a semi-regular basis.

It’s not that you want to play the game but your existence seems to bring out the overly-curious and the people who feel the need to put you in a specific box in their mental filing cabinet. I play depending on my mood, day of the week or if I’m feeling cranky and want to play with someone’s mind.

Here’s how it can start – there’s some conversation – mostly about the weather because we’re Canadians – then the person will ask, “So what’s your background?”

“Trinidadian.”

“No, I mean your… ”

Oh. Right.

“Mixed race,” is my usual response.

Usually this ends the conversation though sometimes you get the “Mixed race children are so beautiful!”

Fyi, not all mixed-race children are beautiful but that’s a post for a different day.

Then you get the extra special Guess the Race games where people will look at you and start the conversation with their assumptions. I’ve been mistaken for South African, Indian, Brazilian (usually when the hair is down), Southern Italian (I don’t even know) and Somalian (I can’t explain that one either.)

My first experience with this was at university. There I was walking across campus to my next class when this girl, who I vaguely recognized from a class, stopped me to ask,

“Are you Indian?”

“What?”

“Are you Indian?”

“Partly. Why?”

“I was wondering but your cheekbones are wrong.”

I am not making this up.

“What?”

I’m not going to pretend that I had a witty comeback to that comment because no one has ever told me that my cheekbones were wrong. How could cheekbones be wrong? After mulling over that frankly ridiculous comment for the rest of my walk to class, I decided that the girl was nuts.

The second instant of the surprise “Guess Your Race” game was two years ago. I was in the Terminal Building on Queen’s Quay and had walked into a cafe to get a coffee. The Indian gentleman manning the counter asked me my background. I gave my standard answer. Then the conversation went sideways. He decided I was Indian (okay), I obviously must have relatives in India and therefore must have some connection to India.

I looked at him and said, “No.”

“But you look Indian.”

“Yeah but that don’t make me Indian,”  I said. On and on this went. I could have shut the conversation down earlier but his insistence on me being something I’m not made me curious to see how far he would take it plus I was in a bad mood and happy to take it out on someone.

“You must have relatives over there.”

“I don’t know,” I said tersely. “My Indian ancestors came over on a boat 200 years ago. It’s not like we kept in touch. My white and black ancestors also came over on boats. Haven’t kept in touch with any relatives there either.” At this point I really wanted my coffee. Was I going to have to haul out a chalkboard and diagram my family tree just to get some caffeine?

When I mentioned my non-Indian ancestors, he immediately dropped the subject and cashed me out. I almost felt bad for him but considering he spent 10 minutes trying to squish me into his mental filing cabinet just so he’d feel better – yeah, not so much.

And the coffee was horrible.

This post is part of the Ethnic Aisle, a blog about issues of race, ethnicity and culture in the GTA.

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