Is love the last frontier of racial bigotry in Canada?
It's a question that intrigues Minelle Mahtani, who has dared to ask whether interracial couples and their families still test the limits of tolerance in this country.
In her recent book Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality in Canada, Mahtani, an associate professor in human geography and journalism at the University of Toronto Scarborough, questions whether we've not just put rose-coloured glasses on our multiculturalism, especially where mixed-race families are concerned.
While interracial relationships are on the rise in Canada (we had 360,000 mixed-race couples in 2011, more than double the total from 20 years earlier), the numbers remain slim. Just 5 per cent of all unions in Canada were between people of different ethnic origins, religions, languages and birthplaces in 2011, the last year Statistics Canada collected such data. That figure rises only marginally in urban areas: Just 8 per cent of couples were in mixed-race relationships in Toronto, 10 per cent in Vancouver.
How do people in interracial relationships experience that multiculturalism on the ground, when they introduce their boyfriends and girlfriends to family, or hold hands on a date? How do mixed-race families and their children feel about it, in their communities and in their schools?
Mahtani was the keynote speaker at last month's Hapa-palooza, an annual festival celebrating mixed heritage in Vancouver, and she will present at the next Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference in California in February. She spoke with The Globe and Mail about the daily realities of mixed-race families.
How tolerant are Canadians of interracial relationships today?
It's an early kind of euphoria around celebrating multiracialism in Canada. We've romanticized this notion far too quickly. All the numbers from Statistics Canada show that yes, we are seeing more interracial relationships, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the racism is decreasing. People who are in interracial relationships are still experiencing a lot of racism.
What kind of criticism do mixed-race people in this country still get for their dating choices?
So much depends on where the relationship is happening and the class background of the people who are getting involved. Even though there's a greater tolerance of interracial relationships, some researchers talk about this as a kind of "repressive tolerance": it's not quite acceptance but a kind of toleration.
So many of the mixed-race people I interviewed spoke about the challenges that their own parents faced as interracial couples. We're talking about kids whose parents met in the seventies and earlier when there was much more outright, blatant racism experienced by interracial couples.
Often, the parents did not talk to their kids about the racism they faced, even though it was considerable. It's something I call "cocooning": These parents wanted to create a little, happy home for their kids, the progeny of the interracial relationship.
This silence had a huge impact on the way mixed-race children felt growing up. When they experienced racism themselves in the school system, they didn't want to tarnish their parents' experience of race, assuming that it was fairly pristine simply because it was never discussed in the household. And so a chasm was created.
It's why today, so many of these now-grown-up mixed-race people are very upfront with their own kids, talking through the racism they have experienced.
Beyond parenting, what happens between people in interracial relationships when they struggle with racist family members, or encounter stares or slurs in public?
It corrodes the trust that can exist between them because of misunderstandings. And it becomes very tiring for the person of colour always to be explaining to the person who is white the challenges that they face, explaining, "This is what it's like for me. These are the consequences of the choices that we're making that I have to face in my community." It's not easy.
It's only through partnering and being on a really deeply intimate level with somebody that we see how they live out their lives. For people who are not racialized on a day-to-day basis – people who are white – they see how the person of colour experiences race every single day. They understand the racial gaze a lot more. Having that window is really interesting and it's key for the white person. They get to experience a whole different dimension of how race is lived out in Canadian society.
Let's turn to mixed-race Canadians: What type of decision-making goes into how they choose to partner up in this country?
We have very little information about how people who are mixed – like myself, I'm Indian and Iranian – approach dating. Most of the research has been about monoracial people, however you define that, because of course that's a mythology too: We're all mixed in some way, but we tend to forget that.
What I found interviewing women of mixed race in Toronto is that they changed who they decided to partner with over time. A lot of mixed-race women between the ages of 16 and 20 tend to look for partners who are white. A lot of it has to do with the kind of internalized racism they felt when they're younger. They want to become more white because they saw it as much more appealing racial group to identify with.
But then something happens between their university years: They start looking for somebody from their more racialized side, meaning if they're Asian white, they try to find an Asian partner, or if they're black and white, they choose a black partner. That pattern sticks around until they're about 28.
Then around 29, something else happens: They recognize that choosing a partner is about so much more than basing it on their racial category. They choose partners because they enjoy the same kind of music, hobbies or passions. These are the partnerships that tend to stick.
It's heartening to hear that what people ultimately land on goes beyond race.
It shows how the backdrop of living and growing up in a multicultural country influences how they think about racial categories and the choices that they make in partnering up.
What about babies? We hear that patronizing gushing, that mixed-race babies are the most beautiful babies. How does this bode for new generations of mixed-race Canadians?
On the one hand, mixed-race people are caught in the mythology of, "Oh no! What about the children? How are they going to survive coming out of an interracial relationship?" And now we have this hybrid vigour: "Mixed-race kids: They're so beautiful! They have the best of worlds" – this notion that they have access to everything and are the world's national, rational ambassadors with a foot in all these different camps.
It's so much more complicated than that. The only thing that mixed-race people have in common, if they look racially ambiguous, is an understanding of the fluidity of the cultural capital that they have moving through the world.
One of the best racial barometers was the attention after that Cheerios commercial, where a black dad and a white mom and a mixed daughter were featured. There was such backlash. So many people were surprised by that, but those of us who do work in this area, we weren't surprised at all. It showed that the anger over racial mixing has such a long and tortured history that has nowhere near been banished.
Do we need to see more commercials like that?
We need more media that is more representative of the actual population in which we live, that reflects what it is that we're choosing in our own lives. We now have access to more examples of interracial coupling in Canada. It offers a different window into thinking about the possibility of successful interracial partnering. The reality is that so many people who are mixed are choosing partners who are also mixed. It's now moving beyond race.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Hear Zosia Bielski talk to Minelle Mahtani on Colour Code, a podcast about race by The Globe and Mail. Episode five, "First Comes Love," can be found at tgam.ca/colourcode.