Asking a mixed-race person about their background can get problematic. Elena and Harv welcome Rema Tavares, who founded Mixed in Canada. Also featuring educator Charlotte Henay.
By Sara Lee
Sara Lee is a non-binary, mixed-race copy editor whose favorite place to relax is in their backyard veggie garden, currently based in Oregon, USA. They can also be found making comics and zines, writing lyric essays and science–fantasy stories, or procrastibaking enough pastries to feed an interstellar outpost.
Rema Tavares is a Black-mixed womanist artist/educator and whose work has shown in several exhibitions both nationally and internationally. She is the Founder of Mixed in Canada, a national cultural resource centre for mixed-race identified Canadians, and co-founder of the MIXED Art Conference, an art conference focused around racialized mixed-race identity and intersectionality. She has been invited to speak at the University of Toronto, Ontario Public Services, CBC Radio, CTV Canada AM, etc.
Mixed in Canada
Charlotte Henay is an interdisciplinary Bahamian diasporic writer, scholar and teacher. Her current research remembers and recentres Black and Indigenous womxn’s voices as witness, through poeisis and sitting with the bones. Charlotte’s professional background in critical race theory, and personal experience of being exiled, inform her work in black diasporic feminisms and indigenous feminist studies. Charlotte makes relative indigeneity and blackness as a protocol for imagining Afro-Indigenous futurities. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Comparative Perspectives and Cultural Boundaries, at York University.
Resources & Other Information
Founded by guest Rema Tavares, Mixed in Canada is a community for racialized mixed-identified Canadians to connect, share, and find a place of belonging through documentation of mixed-identified Canadians, anti-racism/anti-oppression education, and community engagement.
Named after Richard and Mildred—the interracial couple whose case lead to ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the US—LovingDay is an organization that strives to establish a “common connection between multicultural communities, groups and individuals” and “build multicultural awareness, understanding, acceptance, and identity.”
Established in 2013, the Mixed Remixed Festival brings together film and book lovers, innovative and emerging artists, and multiracial families and individuals, Hapas, and families of transracial adoption for workshops, readings, film screenings and live performance including music, comedy and spoken word.
The Parent Voice is an online parenting magazine that celebrates multiracial/multiethnic families and multicultural lives.
Voice 1:What are you, where are you you from, where are your parents from?
Voice 2: What it was like to "grow up an oriental half-breed in Canada."
Voice 3: It's not the innocent question that a lot of people try to make it out to be.
[mid-tempo music fades out]
Elena Hudgins Lyle: We're talking to Inappropriate Questions producer Sabrina Bertsch.
Sabrina Bertsch: Hi!
Elena: And we're doing this episode on the question "What are you?" all because of you.
Sabrina: Yeah, so-
Elena: We do most things all because of you.
Sabrina: Yes. [laughs]
E: Go on with your story.
Sabrina: I'm mixed-race and throughout my entire life I've gotten lots of questions about my ethnicity both personally and professionally.
Elena: Can you tell us about a time someone has directly asked, a stranger in particular?
Sabrina: Uh yeah, so...I was at a hot pot restaurant with my sister, I went to the bathroom and another lady exited a stall and we're both like, washing our hands. We did the thing where you both make eye contact in the mirror, and I smiled. And she just kind of just, like, looked at me, and she's like "Oh, you know, like, what's like, what's your background, where are you from, you just look very like..." She didn't say different, she just kind of trailed off, and it felt very, like…you don't know me, we're just strangers in the bathroom at a restaurant, like...you don't care about who I am, you just kind of care for your own reasons, like satisfying your curiosity.
Harvinder Wadhwa: What you said there Sabrina was very very interesting. I don't know if you guys have noticed, I wear a turban.
Harv: So at times people look at me funny. Like they're uncomfortable around me.
Harv: I'd rather people ask me that question even if they're strangers, than be uncomfortable because that's what makes me more uncomfortable.
Sabrina: Well see that's interesting to me, because you should be able to talk to anyone without having them, like, quantify or explain themselves or legitimize themselves based on their ethnicity or background or religion or any of that. Like you shouldn't allow people to perpetuate that's because it's not okay.
Elena: Right. Alright Harv, I think it's time for us to talk to some actual experts now.
Harv: I guess so.
Elena: Get out of here!
Sabrina: Okay. This was fun, I probably won't come back anymore.
Elena: Get her out Harv, chase her away!
Harv: Thank you Sabrina, thank you so much.
Harv: People are curious and that's great.
Elena: But there are some questions you just shouldn't ask, or at least not like that.
Harv: I'm Harvinder Wadhwa.
Elena: I'm Elena Hudgins Lyle.
Harv: And this is Inappropriate Questions.
Elena: Let's get inappropriate!
[theme music ends]
Elena: In studio with us, we have Rema Tavares. Rema is an artist and educator who identifies as Black-mixed. She founded Mixed in Canada, a resource centre for mixed-race Canadians, and also co-founded the Mixed Art Conference. And she's here with us to help us break down the question "What are you?"
Harv: Welcome Rema.
Rema Tavares: Thank you, thank you for having me.
Harv: It's going to be lots of fun talking to you and learning a lot from you today.
Elena: Rema, could you tell us about an experience you've had being asked "What are you?"
Rema: Yeah, so I was at a meeting to ask for donations because I was working for charity, and the person, you know, kept looking at me. It was a guy, I believe he was Italian. Eventually he was like "Rema, what kind of name is that?" which is another word for "What are you?" of course. And so I explained. You know, I try my best to take up as much space as possible when people ask me what I am because it's an invasive question and people usually want an answer like this, but no one's entire identity can be responded to in an answer so small. I know you can't see me right now but my fingers are very close together.
Rema: And so I answered, and I gave him the full answer. And he responded "You-you shouldn't, you shouldn't say that you're Black, you don't look it. You can just say that you're Jewish." And then continued to say "But make sure to tell your husband because one of your kids might turn out Black and Blackness is carried on the female line."
Rema: So you know when you break that down, there are a lot of assumptions about anti-Blackness, about if you don't have to be Black why would you ever chose it. There are, you know, assumptions about whether I would lie and pass for white and not tell my husband that I was Black. It's not the innocent question that a lot of people try to make it out to be. Like "I'm just curious" is often not actually true, you know, whether they realize it or not.
On the flip side, I actually like most of the time when people ask me and it helps to, I think in my mind, avoid future anti-Black comments in my presence. So when people assume that I'm not Black, they will say things about Black people that they wouldn't necessarily say in front of someone who they can read as Black. So I like when people ask me but I think I'm unique in that situation sometimes because of the privilege I have of being racially ambiguous, of being able to pass for white sometimes.
Harv: Wow, so much to unpack. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.
Harv: So people are just curious, and not in a negative way. If we were all the same we would be very, very boring. So at times it could be an opening, or a breaking the ice, as I would say. That knowing a little bit about you, that's how maybe the friendships develop. So have you ever looked at those angles of things?
Rema: Yeah absolutely, I think that it's more about how and when. So for example, you know, if I meet you for the first time and within, you know like "Hi, what do you do," you know, the usual questions, "What are you?"—that's pretty invasive. You know, I think if we, on the other hand, let's say we're colleagues and we work together. And then one day you're like "By the way I was wondering, like, what's your background?", that's, to me, less invasive. You kind of know me a bit already, you're not just a stranger approaching me in a park—which happens, you know. I think that is a bit of a difference. I think sometimes the idea is, instead of "What are you?" which is objectification, in the truest sense, "Who are you?", you know? "How do you identify?" Those are ways that you can ask people about themselves where they get to own the answer a little bit more and is a bit more humanizing. And it's really about who gets asked the question. You know, from my understanding most white people are not asked "Where are you from?" or "What are you?" And that really speaks to who is Canadian and who isn't in our minds, unconsciously and consciously, but mostly unconsciously.
Harv: Does it matter who asks you that question? In terms of say, gender, or…it may be more offensive coming from a white person than from a brown person...
Harv: From an Oriental...is that a fair term? Oriental I hope is not a bad thing to say.
Rema: I think Asian is…yeah.
H: Sorry, sorry! Cut that out guys!
Harv: See and that's exactly my point. Sometimes we use the terms, we don't realize they're wrong terms to use.
Harv: And when we absolutely mean no harm in any way, shape or form.
Elena: Constantly evolving, language and terms.
Harv: Exactly, exactly.
Elena: And what is and isn't appropriate, which is part of why we are making this podcast and why we're all here today.
Harv: But does that really matter, who asks the question?
Rema: I do feel more comfortable when people of colour ask me because I have the feeling they're asking more for a community thing. A lot of people come to me and ask me what I am thinking that I'm one of them. So I'll have, you know, for example, Lebanese people when I was living in Ottawa. I think Lebanese is probably what I pass for the most. I would constantly have Lebanese people coming, speaking to me in Arabic and asking me if, you know, where in Lebanon am I from. It's very heartwarming because it's from a place of love and looking for community. And then I feel guilty because I'm like “I'm sorry! I don't speak Arabic and I'm not Lebanese,” and they're like, confused. So it really depends on the asker as well.
Elena: This question seems to try to classify people, you know, break people down into boxes or sort people. Why do you think humans like classifying other humans so much?
Rema: You know, I think as human beings, especially in modern times, we are bombarded with information. And so when we compartmentalize, it helps us store information in smaller boxes, literally compartmentalizing, and it helps us store more information that way. So I think it's our natural proclivity to compartmentalize and to put people, and everything in boxes. But sadly it doesn't work for people the same way it does for say, like, plant life, or you know, data on computers.
Elena: We don't have Latin names or file names.
Rema: Exactly. And yeah, so that would be my short answer is that it's just the way our brains work, it's the way we like to condense information, the way we can store the most information. However it doesn't allow for the complexity of our variety and our diversity as human beings.
Keisha: Hi I'm Keisha. I've never seen somebody who is Black ask somebody who's white “What's your background?” I'm realizing that the reason people are curious about that isn't that they're wondering what my culture is. That the reason this is being asked is just sort of to assign like a stereotype. Obviously, you can't know what somebody's motivations are, but when it's only asked to people of colour, that even we have to assign stereotypes to people, that we don't to the majority.
Harv: We'll be back with Rema in just a moment. Our producer Sabrina spoke with Charlotte Henay who is a PhD student at York University. She has been an elementary and high school principal, predominantly in Indigenous education. Here is part of their conversation.
Sabrina: Have you ever been asked the question "What are you?"
Charlotte Henay: I mean yeah, in a variety of different ways. It used to be "Where are you from?" My cousins and I, when we were kids, determined that when people said where you were from we would say things like Pluto or Jupiter. Or you know, when they would say, like, what's your background. I've had people ask, you know, “What are you?” right, like, “What colour are you?” and we'd say things like “Purple.” Now people phrase it a little differently, right?" They'll say “What's your background?” Or some people come right out and say “Are you mixed?”
Sabrina: So there are a lot of ways to be mixed, and there's obviously no right way or wrong way to be mixed, but have you seen any, in your experience, have you seen any constants in mixed-race culture?
Charlotte: I think the term itself, like mixed-race culture, is problematic because it implies that there's some sort of synonymous experience, right, across the way that people identify and the things that go along with those identifications, as well as, you know, their cultural experiences, their upbringing. And that's not true. There is no monolithic Blackness, there is no monolithic Indigeneity and there is no monolithic mixedness. It varies from person to person, from situation to situation and according to people's experiences. But identity isn't just what you think of yourself, it's also what other people think of you, right? It's a two way street. For a lot of folks there's no way we can imagine ourselves outside of the way other people place us.
Sabrina: I often find with mixed race people that you're treated as your parts, it's like are you half-this, a quarter that, or an eighth whatever, and you're not seen as a whole person.
Charlotte: Yeah. There is this woman named Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond who's a Cree lawyer. I remember hearing her speak at a First Nations education conference and her talking about mixedness and saying, you know, when people asked her which part of her was Cree, how she was really confused about whether she needed to say her nose, her elbow, her shoulder, her ear, her knee, right? That sense of belonging or identity isn't something that can be dismantled. And that there is an expectation that we can do that as people, that is the problem in and of itself.
Sabrina: Are there any other problematic associations society has with mixed-race people as a whole?
Charlotte:Mixed-race can be mobilized and it can also limit. There's a book that's written about the power of mixedness, right, and how mixed race people are better looking and smarter and the future of the world, right? Because they're gonna be genetically resistant to all different things, and they're going to take the best of all societies and bring those things together. It's hugely dangerous and problematic, but it's also a rhetoric that exists in this whole notion of multiculturalism, and what what the film industry purports to do, political society purports to do,which is include everybody.
Sabrina: For a genuine person who is interested in you and wants to form a connection, and wants to learn more about the community, is there a better way to ask "What are you?"
Charlotte: I think you shouldn't ask. I think that there's a lack of humility in the assumption that someone that you barely know would be would be interested in sharing that information with you, or should share that information with you. Because right away by asking you're saying “You're different than I am,” right? And though, you know, we live in a world of difference, I don't know that I want somebody sticking their finger out and reminding me all the time. Like, I am quite aware of, you know, how different I am than most people. So they're questions, right, that we ask each other to sort of suss out what your connections are. My mother used to say "Where you from, what's your name, who your people?" I think those things are questions that we can ask each other. "How do you see yourself?" you know, "Who are your people?" But I have yet to have someone say “So what's your background?” you know, whether that person is white, whether that person is Black, whether that person is mixed - and for me to not think, “Why are you asking me this question?”
Kelly: My name is Kelly and I'm from Ottawa, Ontario. I think as a mixed-race person it's really important for me to identify as mixed-race because that bridges both my ethnicity and my race, because it's difficult to kind of capture both. Like I'm not gonna say I'm Swiss-Japanese-French, like that's so weird. But saying mixed-race really like acknowledges my ethnicity as much as my race, and I feel much more comfortable in that.
Jono: I'm Jono Hunt. The most offensive one, given that I am half-Caucasian, "Well don't you think you're gonna be fine in society because you're white-passing?" That shouldn't be why I am fine in Western society. It shouldn't be because I can play the “white card” or the “privilege card” or whatever you like to call it. I think that there's a changing landscape in Canada and the world now, actually in the Western world, of “mixies,” as we call ourselves. I say that with some pride.
Harv: And we are back with Rema.
Elena: You work with Mixed in Canada which you founded. What do you do in your work to support mixed race people?
Rema: Growing up in rural Canada surrounded by white people, in every sense of the term, I had no language to articulate my situation. I had no language to discuss my experiences. And I think that when you cannot talk about yourself and you cannot talk about your experiences, and there's no words for your experiences, it's...it can cause a lot of mental health issues because it's almost like you don't exist.
You know, words like fetishization, or objectification, words that as soon as I heard them I felt like my whole paradigm shift, being like "Oh my god there's a word for that! That thing that I've been experiencing all this time, that I had no words for, that people told me didn't exist. There is a word for it and it does exist and I'm not the only one who's experienced this!” I think is so, so important. So one of my big goals in the lot of the work I do is actually to share language, so that people can talk about these things.
Elena: Could you give us like an example, break that term down maybe?
Rema: Sure, yeah. So fetishization is when one person objectifies another person and sees them only for the elements of what they are. So you know a lot of people fetishize mixed-race people because they see them as non-human, either more animal or like super-human.
Rema: So even the word “mulatto” comes from the word “mule.” I mean some people argue that, but the similarities are too obvious. So a mule of course is a horse and donkey's child that is unable to have children of its own, so it's this, you know, kind of sad animal, mixed-race animal right.
Elena: And “mulatto” is a term for mixed, Black-mixed people?
Rema: Exactly, that's right. So it's an old term that was used for people who are Black-mixed or mixed with Black or multiracial Black, so it's very dehumanizing, right? And on the other side as well, you get, you know, exotic fruit. You know chocolate, caramel, honey, comparing mixed-race people to like foods that are considered, you know, sexual in nature almost.
Elena: I'm cringing so hard right now.
Rema: Right? It's as simple as, you know, hearing, like, a white guy saying "I love half-Asian girls, like they're so hot!" That's a very easy example of fetishization.
Harv: So what makes having a preference for half-Asian people any worse than having a preference for Asian people?
Rema: Well, the thing with mixed-race people, in this particular example and in most literature, mixed-race means half white. People who are mixed with white tend to get the most attention in the mixed-race world, again because of white supremacy, and it's normalized as being what mixed is. Where a lot of mixed mixed people are not mixed with white at all, you know like Black and Indian, or Asian and Indigenous. When you take a person of colour and add whiteness, there is this really problematic mixture of exotification with this kind of dampening field of whiteness. So, you know, she's Black but she doesn't have all the negatives attributes that we attribute to Blackness because of the whiteness. So to put that in real terms, you know, I've been complimented for having European features, that my Blackness isn't scary because I have light skin and my hair is curly and not kinky. So it's this idea that being mixed with white brings them closer to being human but also still has that exotic flair of somewhere else. It's a good question because there's a definite difference when it comes to people who are mixed with white.
Elena: Going back to our question, to being asked "What are you?", we want to conclude by talking about if there are ways people can be more respectful with their curiosity. Or would you just say that if you are someone who - this question should not be asked. If you're a stranger and you meet someone and you want to ask about their background, just don't.
Elena: Is this…yeah, what do you think about that?
Rema: Well, you know, I think that, you know, always take into account the ways that you access privilege when you're asking somebody about themselves. Is this an identity that, you know, if you are white and you're asking a person of colour where they're from, do you actually have to ask them? Is your curiosity that deep? And if it is, fine, but be prepared for the repercussions. If someone gets offended you can't act like the victim. And there are ways to ask that I think are more respectful such as, like, "Who are you?" and "How do you identify?" And waiting to ask until you get to know them a bit better.
And you can always ask yourself “Do I need to know this and why do I need to know this?” And I think it's a good way to kind of add some self-critique to the question. What information am I expecting to get from this person? How will that change how I see them or read them? I think it's, you know, the more interesting questions are those. I'd be more interested to hear those questions and those answers from the people asking.
Elena: There we go listeners, Rema has some questions for you!
Rema: Yeah [laughs].
Elena: Look inward, ask yourself!
Harv: Rema, you have really opened my eyes. I always thought that it would be way better to be a mixed person. And to me mixed necessarily does not mean mixed with white, mixed could be any two, and that would be more from the interesting point of view- that life would be interesting, I will have a more interesting history. My father is a Sikh, my mother is a Sikh, it's so boring!
So from that point of view, I always thought that it would be so exciting, but keep in mind also that I'm a male, so that may bring in a little dynamics. And I never thought that anybody who would get privilege because of being mixed, as in your case, would also have the other part, that no, that's still not right, even though I have privilege.,I'm still not good with it.
Harv: So those are the two things definitely that are take aways for me, I guess, in my real life.
Elena: So much of what we've been discussing today's been so interesting. Thank you so much for joining us Rema!
Rema: Thank you for having me, it's been an honour.
Elena: Where can our listeners find your work, where can they check you out?
Rema: So you can just Google Mixed in Canada, the website should come up, but it's also mixedincanada.com. And yeah, all of my contact information is there, so feel free to reach out at any time and I'm happy to chat about these things at any time.
Elena: That's so awesome.
Harv: It was a privilege and a pleasure talking with you Rema.
Rema: Same, same.
Harv: I'm Harvinder Wadwha.
Elena: And I'm Elena Hudgins Lyle.
Harv: Thanks for getting inappropriate with us!
Elena: This episode you heard Rema Tavares and Charlotte Henay.
Harv: You heard voicenotes from Jono Hunt, Keisha James, and Kelly Kitagawa.
Elena: You can find the accompanying webcomic for this episode at iqpodcast.com. This episode it was illustrated by Sara Lee. You can find their work at saraleewrites.com. Follow us on all the socials @iq_podcast and talk to us!
Harv: We want to hear from you!
Elena: The evil geniuses behind this podcast are Sabrina Bertsch, Erin Guerette, Cindy Long and myself.
Harv: And thank you to our interns and associates Nuha Khan, Pia Araneta, Fariha Ahmed and Hailey Krychman. We are supported by the Ryerson University Transmedia Zone.
Elena: An inappropriate question is like spending half an hour writing an email and then they reply “k.”