Nicholas Hune-Brown is half Chinese, half English, and only feels

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Nicholas Hune-Brown is half Chinese, half English, and only feels
Nicholas Hune-Brown is half
Chinese, half English, and only
feels conspicuous when he
travels outside Toronto
Mixie
Mixie
me
I used to be the only
biracial kid in the room.
Now, my exponentially
expanding cohort
promises a future where
everyone is mixed.
Will Toronto be the
world’s first
post-racial city?
by nicholas hune-brown
p ho t o g r a p h y by k o u ro s h k e s h i r i
March 2013 toronto life 35
By high school, it was a badge of honour, a term we would insist
on when asked the unavoidable “Where are you from?” question
that every mixed-race person is subjected to the moment a conversation with a new acquaintance reaches the very minimum
level of familiarity. For the record, my current answer, at 30
years old, is: “My mom’s Chinese, but born in Canada, and my
dad’s a white guy from England.” If I’m peeved for some reason—
if the question comes too early or with too much “I have to ask”
eagerness—the answer is “Toronto” followed by a dull stare.
At some point, spotting mixies became a kind of sport for us.
“Mixie baby,” Julia would hiss, chin-nodding toward some
racially ambiguous kid in a stroller at Christie Pits Park. “Mixie,”
I’d say, the moment Kristin Kreuk—the super-attractive but
heartbreakingly boring Canadian star of Smallville—appeared
on the television.
We pointed out others because…well, it’s hard to say why,
exactly. Because we secretly longed to make a silent connection
with people with vaguely comparable racial experiences? Because
Jason Pizale, 12
Charmaine Asare-Chuck, 12
Mix: South Korean, Polish
Neighbourhood: Casa Loma
School: Forest Hill
Mix: Ghanian, Chinese-Trinidadian
NeigHbourhood: Humewood-Cedarvale
School: J. R. Wilcox
“It never really occurs to me that I have a mixed background.
I look more Asian. When I was younger, sometimes people
at school would ask me where I was from, and they thought
it was cool when I said I was Asian and Polish. But usually no
one notices. There are a lot of different cultures at my school.”
“When I went to Africa with my mom, the kids there called me
‘white’ in their language because of my colouring and my eyes.
Lots of people here say I look more Chinese than black. Once,
I went to the store with my mom, and the lady was just looking
at me like my mom wasn’t my mom—like she’d kidnapped me
or something.”
36 toronto life March 2013
interviews by jasmine budak
L
ast fall, I was in Amsterdam with my
parents and sister on a family trip, our first
in more than a decade. Because travelling
with your family as an adult can be taxing
on everyone involved, we had agreed we
would split up in galleries, culturally enrich
ourselves independently, and then reconvene later to resume fighting about how to
read the map. I was in a dimly lit hall
looking at a painting of yet another applecheeked peasant when my younger sister,
Julia, tugged at my sleeve. “Mixie,” she
whispered, gesturing down the hall.
“Mixie” is a sibling word, a term my sister and I adopted to
describe people like ourselves—those indeterminately ethnic
people whom, if you have an expert eye and a particular interest
in these things, you can spot from across a crowded room. We
used the word because as kids we didn’t know another one.
of some ingrained tribalism that made us seek out the genetically
similar? Or maybe because, back in early-1990s Toronto, mixedrace people were rare enough that they were worth pointing out,
the same way you might point out a cardinal flickering through
the trees or an original Volkswagen Beetle.
My sister and I have mostly stopped whispering “mixie” at
one another in crowded areas. It’s dawned on us that pointing
out the race of passersby might be offensive. And in 2013, mixedrace Torontonians have become almost commonplace. At Lord
Lansdowne, my elementary school at College and Spadina, I was
the only mixed-race kid in my grade. Today, the school is thick
with mixies bearing features from all over the map.
According to the 2006 census, 7.1 per cent of GTA marriages
were interracial. In a city of immigrants, that number will rise
exponentially over the coming years. In less than two decades,
Statistics Canada predicts that 63 per cent of Torontonians will
belong to racialized minorities, the current term for those of us
who are a shade other than white. More than half of second-
generation visible minority immigrants who are married have
partners outside their race; by the third generation, it’s 69 per
cent. Those couples are having kids and those kids will one day
have kids of their own, marrying across racial lines and producing
a myriad of mixie babies.
In the gallery in Amsterdam, I followed my sister across the
room to a painting of some 17th-century merchant and his family. I looked closely at the wife. Dark hair, pursed lips, and
something unmistakable around the eyes. The plaque explained
it: Pieter Cnoll with his Eurasian wife, Cornelia van Nieuwenrode,
the daughter of a Dutch merchant and his Japanese concubine.
A mixie. Perhaps the earliest one I’d ever seen.
If you’re a certain type of mixed-race person, you don’t look
for your tribe in the faces of people over a certain age—after all,
how much mixing really went on in Toronto bedrooms in the
1940s? I’d never spotted my arrangement of features in a senior
citizen on the streets of Toronto, let alone in an oil painting in a
national museum. For a moment, though, I took a little pleasure
Brandon Kirton, 13
Emily Fraser, 10
Mix: Chinese, Scottish-Irish, African-American
Neighbourhood: Richview
School: Lord Lansdowne
Mix: Trinidadian, English-Irish
Neighbourhood: Port Union
School: St. Brendan
“I feel like I’m special because I’m mixed. I stand out more,
and I don’t have to be part of only one culture. On my mom’s
side, they speak Chinese and we celebrate Chinese New Year.
Any opportunity to eat squid—anything Chinese—I will take.
I’ve also eaten haggis, not the genuine stuff, but the kind you
can get here.”
“I follow both cultures and traditions. We do normal stuff,
like Christmas, but then we go to Caribana every year. We also
have a lot of Calypso music around the house. Having more
cultures means you get to do more things, see and experience
more than other kids. No one really asks me where I’m from,
but when I was a baby people thought my mom was my nanny.“
March 2013 toronto life 37
in imagining a future in which art galleries and magazines and
television shows were filled with mixies. It’s a future that, if it
happens anywhere, will start in Toronto.
istorically, mixing the races was a sin and
then a crime and then, after years of slow
progress, merely a terrible thing to do to an
innocent child who would be forever torn
between two worlds.
This last period was surprisingly long-lived.
In the 1860s, a French anthropologist argued
that mixed-race people, like mules, would
forever be sterile and miserable. Theories by
people such as Charles Davenport, a leading, early-20th-century
advocate of eugenics in America, posited that multi­racials suffered from emotional and mental problems. There were studies
by sociologists and psychologists well into the 1980s claiming
that biracial individuals were inevitably confused, anxious and
poorly adjusted. Multi­racialism was
seen as a pathology.
Crossing racial boundaries could
result in awful consequences, in Canada
as much as other places. In 1930, 75
hooded members of the Klu Klux Klan
caravanned from Hamilton to Oakville
to prevent a young white woman from
marrying her black fiancé, burning
crosses with the indulgence of local law
enforcement. In 1939, 18-year-old Velma
Demerson was deemed “incorrigible”
and jailed after taking a Chinese lover.
The first big Canadian examination
of what it meant to be mixed was the
book Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence
Hill, the journalist and novelist best
known for The Book of Negroes. Published
in 2001, Black Berry, Sweet Juice is part
memoir about growing up the son of a black father and a white
mother in Don Mills in the 1960s, and part survey of other biracial Canadians.
For Hill, growing up black and white was a puzzling and
painful process, trying to sort out an identity at a time when the
options available to a brown-skinned man in lily-white Don Mills
were limited. Hill says he’s always thought of himself as black,
though he’s not sure he had much choice. “When I was a boy,
I suppose I could have walked around telling people, ‘I’m not
black. I’ve got one black parent and one white parent, and I
consider myself biracial,’ ” he writes, “although any person who
felt negatively disposed toward black people would hardly have
been kinder to me as a result of this self-definition.”
Little more than a decade later, Black Berry, Sweet Juice feels
like a relic of another time. This isn’t to say that the difficulties
and anxiety Lawrence Hill wrote about have disappeared, particularly if you’re part black, which remains fraught with a
specific set of complications. But many things have changed,
and drastically. The Toronto that Hill and his generation grew
up in was overwhelmingly white. The Hills were the only black
family in their suburban neighbourhood, just a bus ride away
from my mother and the rest of the Hunes, as far as they knew
the only Chinese family in theirs. My mother casually says things
that sound like hyperbole but are literal truth, like: “I was the
only Chinese hippie and your aunt was the only Chinese divorcee.” For a mixed-race person in 1960s Toronto, there was little
chance of blending into the background.
For today’s mixies, growing up multiracial has meant inner
debates about which parent to identify with, how to explain one’s
back­ground, and coping with the urge to blend in. Rema Tavares,
a half-Jamaican 30-year-old with curly hair and light brown skin,
says her looks have provoked strange responses in people. “I’ve
had someone say to me, ‘Don’t say you’re black because you don’t
have to be. You can get away with it!’ ” She was raised in a small
town outside Ottawa and gradually moved to bigger and bigger
cities. “I hated being the only person of colour on the bus in my
hometown,” she told me. Another mixed-race woman, Alia
Ziesman, grew up in Oakville and was so ashamed of her mother,
an ethnically Indian woman from Trinidad, that she refused to
walk on the same side of the street as her. Ziesman and Tavares
and everyone else I spoke to agree that it is a pleasure to be in a
city like Toronto today—a place where
you’re guaranteed not to be the only
coloured face on a city bus.
I feel my mixie-ness most acutely
when I leave the city. When travelling
through Latin America, I am constantly
referred to as Jackie Chan, who is apparently the world’s most famous Asian.
For a few years, I played in an indie rock
band that toured across the country.
A rock show anywhere is a conspicuously white event, but a rock show in
Lethbridge or Fredericton is perhaps
the purest white experience you can
have without joining some CSISmonitored fringe group. In these places,
it feels like there’s little opportunity for
you to explain the subtle intricacies of
your background. Against such a white
backdrop, I am pretty obviously Chinese, but when my sister
travelled in China she was branded a gweilo westerner.
Returning to Toronto always comes with a palpable sense of
relief. There are relatively few places in the world where a mixedrace person can walk around and be treated with such welcome
indifference.
Well into the 1980s,
psychologists claimed
that biracial individuals
were inevitably confused,
anxious and poorly
adjusted. Multiracialism
was seen as a pathology
38 toronto life March 2013
I
n recent years, mixed-race people have gone from a
minor curiosity to the subject of a humming academic
discipline. Ethnic studies departments have opened
for the first time, driven in part by the ever-increasing
number of mixed-race students on campus.
Minelle Mahtani, a U of T associate professor, is
one of the pre-eminent Canadian authorities in the
field, and has just written a book on multiraciality
in Canada. Mahtani has long, dark hair, a toothy smile and a
collection of features that are impossible to place on a map. When
she was growing up in Thornhill, people would guess at her
background without ever hitting on the actual mix, Iranian and
Indian. “As a kid, I was one of the few minorities in my neighbourhood, and there was pressure to acclimatize to whiteness”
she says. When I met her in a café near U of T in December, she
had recently come back from the second Critical Mixed Race
Saima and Aulaja Romito-Kalluk, 9 and 11
mix: Inuit, Italian
Neighbourhood: Lytton Park
School: Allenby
Aulaja: “Our mom grew up in Resolute Bay, and our dad is from Edmonton. Our grandma was born in an igloo. We lived in Iqaluit
until two years ago. When we moved to Toronto, at first we were like, ‘There are squirrels here!’ When I tell people about Nunavut
and my Inuit culture it feels really awesome because it’s so different. But they ask if we lived in igloos. Uh, nooo, we have houses
there, it’s a civilized place!”
Saima: “I’d hate being the same as other people. It’s nice to be different.”
Studies Conference at DePaul University in Chicago, a four-day
exploration of race and racial boundaries that also acts as a place
for mixed-race academics from across North America to hang
out and share nerdy in-jokes about the successful 1967 challenge
to Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.
The Chicago conference included panels on mixed-race children’s literature and multiracial representation in museums.
Academics with geographically specific interests could learn
about the historical mixed-race populations of the Carolinas,
Virginia and Appalachia, or sit in on a panel called “Historical
and Media Representations of Mixed Race in Japan.”
Mahtani led a round-table discussion about the future of
mixed-race theory in Canada, which addressed such subjects
as mixed characters in African-Canadian literature and the
continuing impact of Canada’s history of colonization.
Instead of being seen as tragic individuals, the mixies of today
are being talked about in a far more romantic light. Mixed-race
people are portrayed as the harbingers of a utopian future in
which “race,” that petty construct, ceases to exist and we all live
in harmony—beautiful and content in our exotic, beige-ish glory.
Some studies have made the dubious claim that mixed-race
people are biologically more attractive, turning those old eugenicsbased theories on their head: the same “hybrid vigour” that
creates a good sorghum crop apparently also produces healthy,
symmetrical beauties like Halle Berry and Keanu Reeves.
There’s a basis for some of this optimism: the 2006 Canadian
census showed that interracial pairings are on their way up,
growing at a much faster rate than same-race marriages. As a
group, mixed-race couples were young and urban and tended to
be more highly educated: one in three people in mixed-race relationships had a university degree, versus just one in five people
in non-mixed unions.
In the U.S., the Pew Research Center published a study on
intermarriage based on the 2010 census that showed similar
Christopher James, 11
Haylee Castillo Smid, 8
mix: South Asian, Chinese
Neighbourhood: Moore Park
School: Brown
mix: Nicaraguan, Dutch and Native Canadian
Neighbourhood: West Hill
School: Highland Creek
“My dad told me about this one time we were at the airport
when I was really young, and a police officer asked me if my
dad was my dad because we looked so different. But that
doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t feel any different than anyone else. It seems pretty normal to be mixed. The one cool
thing is getting to eat different kinds of food. Most people
think I’m Filipino, which I think is funny.”
“I like that I have a mommy from Canada and a daddy from
somewhere else. I like that I can go and see the rest of my
family in Nicaragua on vacation. One of my favourite things
is dancing to salsa music with my dad. Also, we get to open
our presents on Christmas Eve, like they do in Nicaragua.”
40 toronto life March 2013
trends. Marriage across racial lines had doubled in 30 years,
and the numbers around “acceptance” were striking. In 1986,
only a third of Americans thought intermarriage was acceptable
for everyone. Today, 63 per cent of Americans say it “would be
fine” with them if a member of their family married someone
outside their race. The study also showed that Asian-white
newlywed couples tended to have higher earnings than any other
pairing, including white-white or Asian-Asian pairs.
Both studies—along with the election of U.S. president Barack
Obama, the world’s most famous mixie—prompted a flurry of
media reports and articles hypothesizing that the increase in
mixed-race couplings would usher in a new era of equality. The
fact that Asian-white pairings were so successful was touted as
the beginning of a “post-racial elite.”
The increase in mixed marriages, the Globe and Mail hypothesized, was evidence that “multiculturalism is working in
Canada because mixed unions—and biracial children—break
down barriers on perhaps the most personal of levels.” It’s tempting to dub the many new mixies, say, the Drake Generation—an
idealized cohort of Torontonians who move fluidly through
different identities and cultures. If you believe the hype, mixies
promise a utopian post-racial future—the city’s motto, “Diversity
Our Strength,” in human form.
The reality of being mixed is far more complicated. The Pew
study didn’t reveal a world where skin colour is irrelevant: a
newlywed Hispanic-white couple will earn more than the average Hispanic couple, yes, but less than the average white couple.
The same is true of black-white pairings. What’s also clear is that
mixing doesn’t happen evenly. The success of Asian-white couples
like my parents can be attributed to a number of things, but the
fact that immigration laws often hand-pick the wealthiest, most
educated, most outward-looking Asians is surely part of it. It’s
easy to imagine a future in which upwardly mobile Asians and
whites mix more frequently, while other minorities are left out
Brennan Robillard, 10
Sophie Mehta, 15
mix: Jamaican, Italian-French
Neighbourhood: Oakville
School: Emily Carr
mix: South Asian, Scottish-English
Neighbourhood: Casa Loma
School: Branksome Hall
“It feels pretty normal to be mixed—nothing special. My mom
sometimes speaks Patois, and my dad is Canadian and plays
hockey. You can sometimes see the differences between my
parents’ cultures. My mom sometimes acts dramatic, and my
dad can be more serious. We travel down to Jamaica a lot to
see family. There, I feel more Canadian than Jamaican.”
“We are Zoroastrian, which is a Persian monotheist religion.
My sister and I had our coming-of-age ceremony in Bombay
when I was eight. It’s like a bat mitzvah. We say prayers and
there’s a big celebration afterward. At school when I was
younger I gave presentations to my class about it. I liked
showing my classmates something about the world that they
definitely didn’t know anything about. Also, with all the travelling to India, I got to learn about the world at a young age.”
March 2013 toronto life 41
Carina Colmenares, 10
mix: Japanese, Colombian
Neighbourhood: Cliffcrest
School: St. Agatha
“I like being mixed because I get to speak two languages. I’ve been to Japan five times. I feel closer to my mom’s Japanese culture
because I’ve travelled to Japan a lot. I want to go to Colombia someday. Sometimes it can be hard to have parents of different
cultures, because when I want help with my homework in English, they can’t always help.”
of a trendy mixed-race future. Marriage across racial lines is
increasingly possible, but mixing across class has always been
tricky. And class, it goes without saying, remains stubbornly
tied to skin colour.
In 2000, Americans were allowed for the first time to mark
themselves as more than one race on the official census. The new
option came after years of lobbying by organizations such as
Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally), a group led by
the white mother of a mixed-race child. It was a victory of sorts,
the kind of change that at last allows a young multiracial person
to recognize all sides of his or her identity without being forced
to choose camps. Some critics, however, saw it as an effort by
white mothers to avoid having their child identified as “black”
on the census. The celebration of a fashionable new mixed-race
generation can threaten to leave other people behind. Proclaiming your “mixed-race” identity can be a way to opt out of being
black or First Nations or Chinese and lay claim to a slightly higher
status—“mixed race,” an exotic, desirable new identity unencumbered by generations of racial baggage.
Today, when I think clearly and honestly about my childhood
mixie pride, it wasn’t just about celebrating my snowflake-unique
cultural identity. There was something ugly there. To insist on
being seen as mixed race allowed me to avoid being categorized
as Asian. The unfair stereotype of the Chinese guy—some geeky,
sexless striver who probably spent his spare time learning rote
math at the Kumon on Bathurst Street—was so distasteful that
I backpedalled away from it as fast as possible, never mind that
none of my Chinese friends were anything like that. Back then,
my answer to the “Where are you from?” question was a flurry
of rhetorical attempts to distance myself from the heritage that
read so obviously on my features: “I was born in Toronto and I’m
fourth-generation Chinese on my mom’s side,” I would say. “She
actually grew up in Don Mills and hardly even speaks Chinese.
My British dad, now he’s the one who’s an immigrant.”
Kids don’t do this because they’re innately racist. They do it
because there are real social advantages
that come when you edge yourself a
little closer to whiteness—advantages
we don’t like to think about too much as
adults but that are blindingly obvious
to a 12-year-old.
Last September, my sister’s college
friend Amanda Brewer started her first
year teaching at a school in Regent Park.
Brewer is the daughter of a black father
and a white mother and has loose curly
hair and copper skin. About once a
month, an older man will casually start
speaking to her in Portuguese, assuming
she’s Brazilian.
The Grade 7 and 8 kids she teaches
are from all over the place, many of them
multiracial. Today’s 12-year-olds are
keenly aware of racial subtleties that would likely be invisible to
people of my mom’s generation—different shades, parental influences, subtle mixes. Living in an era of mixed races doesn’t mean
the obliteration of race—it means the creation of whole new
complex categories. But it also means, one hopes, that these
categories cease to hold so much significance.
The second week of school, one of the girls asked Brewer a
variation of the “Where are you from” question.
“Who’s white, your mom?” the student asked. “I bet it’s your
mom.”
“You’re right,” Brewer told her. “My mom’s white.”
“I knew it,” the girl said, not aggressively, just matter-of-factly.
To this girl, it was clear that Brewer was culturally white.
That meant her dominant parent, which to this 12-year-old meant
her mother, must be white, too.
“I was amazed that she picked up on that,” says Brewer. “My
students know way more about different cultures than anyone
I knew growing up.” They see differences in their classmates,
clock them, then take them in stride. Race isn’t invisible, but
hopefully it’s just one of a litany of characteristics that inform
how kids choose their friends, their dates and—who knows?—the
people with whom they’ll one day have kids of their own.
I
s it too late to say I don’t like talking about race? It
makes me uncomfortable, as it does so many other
Canadians. There’s a distinctly Canadian feeling that,
if we all act halfway decent and just ignore it, the race
thing will more or less sort itself out. There’s also a
sense, even in conscientiously liberal circles, that
those who natter on about racism or “identity politics”
are, if not whiners, exactly, then definitely a little
tiresome. I feel it, believe me. Of all the many privileges that
come with whiteness, being able to ignore race entirely is one
of the most precious.
The promise of mixed-race people like my sister and
me, successful enough and unencumbered by too many racial
hang-ups, is an end to all that nattering. We are post-racial
in the superficial sense that my friends and I—sons and
daughters of Iranians and Malagasies and Russians and even
Windsorites—can go out to eat dim sum or jerk chicken and
make jokes about race that are actually jokes about racists.
This is a lovely part of Toronto, one of the things I miss most
when I’m away.
I love, too, that I have two worlds
to draw on instead of one; I know what
to order at dim sum restaurants and
also how to make mince pies; I get
Christmas and Chinese New Year’s.
At times, I even like the “Where are you
from?” question and the places it
can lead—to conversations about my
grandmother the Chinese opera singer
escaping down the Yangtze, or my
father’s defence of the cuisine of the
British Isles. “My mother was the only
Chinese hippie,” I say proudly. “This
isn’t hyperbole, it’s the literal truth!”
In the future, Torontonians will
produce babies in combinations the
world has never seen—Yoruba-PolishMalaysians and Estonian-Filipino-Crees popping out of hospitals
across the GTA, toddling around messing with people’s neat
conceptions of what race means.
A mixed-race city isn’t the same as a post-racial city, but it’s
an improvement. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that a mixed-race
baby was a pariah, not cause for smug back patting. The future
of Toronto is mixie.
b
Living in an era of
mixed race doesn’t
mean the obliteration
of race—it means the
creation of whole new
complex categories
March 2013 toronto life 43