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Defined by mixed race

Differences make you stand out, Mckenzie Small writes, and it's something to be proud of

She just keeps staring at me – as if I'm from another dimension – and then she asks the all-too-familiar question: "So what are you, exactly?"

I have to ask myself: Is she asking about my race or my species?

I'm mixed with more than one race. It has defined me a lot more than you would think. This part of my life shaped the way I grew up and I never really noticed until I got older.

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Ever heard of the guessing game?

Probably not. It's a game people play where they try to guess where you're from, because "Canada" is never sufficient.

When asked, I could show my birth certificate that clearly states I was born 17 years ago at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga – on Father's Day, 1999 – but that will likely still be followed by: "But where are you really from?"

I explain that my mom is Ukrainian and Polish and my dad is from Barbados.

"Wow! That's so cool!"

That's synonymous with most of the responses I get, with eyes that look at me as if I'm from another planet.

You might think I'm exaggerating – and I wish I was – but this is my life.

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I remember travelling to Florida with my mom when I was 10 years old.

Looking back on it now, passing through customs was funny. I was pulled to the side and asked if I was my mother's daughter.

"Of course," I responded.

The officers just stared, as if it was impossible for a Caucasian woman to be walking around with a curly-haired, mixed girl. It takes two, last time I checked.

As time passed, I started to become more used to it.

This is what life is like. A blessing and a curse. Two cultures, two Christmases, so much good food – but a lot of questions.

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Writing provincial exams is always fun, especially when you get to the survey and can only circle one answer for each question.

Simple as A, B, C, and 1, 2, 3, right? Not so much for me. When I get to "circle your ethnicity," I circle both "Caribbean" and "European," but that voids the question because you can only pick one. What happens when you have two or more?

When my friends see my father pick me up after school, I hear, "I always forget that your dad is black."

Yes, he is. (I didn't think it was something they tried to remember.)

I've lost track of how many times someone has said that to me. Or this: "So, which one of your parents is black and which one is white?"

Common to a lot of mixed children, I have tanned skin and curly hair. Yes, it's time to talk about the hair. Mine is a huge part of my life, believe it or not.

Of all the questions I get, most of them are about my hair. Most are complimentary and I appreciate and am grateful for them. But – I don't mean to be rude – sometimes I would rather not have your hands in my hair. Ha, ha, yes, it's hilarious how I could hide anything in it. Yes, I do brush and wash it. Nope, I'd rather not straighten it, I kind of like it. Fine, touch it. My hair is a mobile museum for some people.

Every time I go out it's the same series of questions from at least one person.

One incident I adored was the time I was in a lineup – waiting for funnel cake – when a woman asked for tips on how to do her daughter's hair. I gave her a list of what I use and do to keep it healthy and she was so thankful.

Or once when I was sitting in a café and a mixed woman came up to me and told me that I've inspired her to start embracing her natural hair. This community that I'm a part of gives me the opportunity to have many interactions with people that I otherwise wouldn't have had without my genes coming from two different places in the world.

Differences make you stand out.

No matter if you're tall, green-eyed, black, white, Asian or all of them. If there's one thing I've learned through my experiences, it's that it's something to be proud of. I have two very different sets of genes inside of me and I feel lucky to say so.

It's okay that I look a little different, my hair is a little bigger and my parents don't look like they're related to me, because, like Michael Jackson said, it doesn't matter if you're black or white (or both).

Mckenzie Small lives in Mississauga.

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