Charlotte Gill’s latest book is Almost Brown: A Mixed-Race Family Memoir.
My parents met in London in the sixties. My dad was a turban-wearing Indian man from a former colony, and my mother was British and white. They were both in medical school in London. The city was a fast-changing, exciting place back then, but wasn’t really ready to embrace interracial love. They faced blowback every time they stepped out together. Sometimes my mother was physically assaulted in the street. It seemed there was a special reserve of animosity saved just for her, a woman foolish enough to date a brown man. And then there was my dad, who was much too bold, who took more than what was granted in his adopted country – even if that country had taken so much from India.
When they got engaged, there were consequences closer to home as well. Neither of their families were especially happy about the union. Their marriage resulted in my dad’s disownment, a lot of immigration paperwork and a move to Canada, where they hoped to start all over again. Eventually they’d have three kids, all in gradient shades of tan. But at the start of this story, I stop to consider how risky and brave all of this was. Their romance radically changed the course of their lives and reshaped our family tree.
June 12 is Loving Day, which marks the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down laws banning interracial marriage in 16 states. Miscegenation, as it was called, was never illegal in Canada, but nevertheless we have our own complex history with racial segregation and, by extension, with interracial couplings and multiethnic people.
For much of the 20th century, mixed love was taboo, if not outright dangerous, as demonstrated by the cases of Velma Demerson and Ira Junius Johnson, both Ontarians whose lives were marked by prejudice in the 1930s, by that particular brand of moral outrage reserved for couples who dare to cross the line.
Johnson was a Black man born and raised in a tight-knit African Canadian community in Oakville. As a young man, he was an athlete and a musician, well-liked by those who knew him. Johnson enlisted during the First World War and fought at the front in the Battle of Passchendaele. He suffered a serious shrapnel wound in France the following year and was invalided back to Canada.
Johnson was 36 when he met Isabel Jones, a young white woman. They fell in love and got engaged in 1930. When Jones moved in with Johnson, her mother went to the police, who lacked the power to intervene, since Johnson had committed no crime and Jones was a consenting adult. Jones’s mother resorted to notifying the Hamilton branch of the Ku Klux Klan, who dispatched a brigade in plainclothes to “rescue” Jones. They roamed Johnson’s neighbourhood and discovered the couple playing cards at a relative’s house. Jones was essentially kidnapped, taken away to the Salvation Army. The Klansmen returned later that night in white robes and hoods. They installed a cross on the lawn and set it ablaze.
The couple still married later that year.
A few years later, in 1939, police showed up at the door of Velma Demerson, a white woman living in Toronto, and arrested her for conducting a relationship with a Chinese immigrant, a waiter named Harry Yip. Yip was her fiancé, the man she’d eventually marry. Demerson was charged with being an “incorrigible” under Ontario’s Female Refuges Act, a law designed to curb the wayward behaviour of young women.
Demerson was remanded to the Andrew Mercer Reformatory, Canada’s first prison for women, where she was confined to a small, windowless cell. She was 18 and pregnant. She’d been ratted out to the authorities by her own father. During her time in custody, she was subjected to numerous invasive and unanesthetized medical procedures that seemed devised to shame and degrade her rather than treat any physical ailment. Demerson delivered her baby while incarcerated, but eventually emerged from Mercer unrepentant. “My fiancé and I are lonely people who have found each other,” she’d later write. “We share the same enemies.”
These episodes might seem like ancient history, especially when Canada is now viewed worldwide as a multicultural haven. But traces of intolerance still exist in living memory, including my own.
My parents left the United Kingdom for Canada in 1971 with my twin brother and me, their first-born children. If they’d tried to immigrate just a handful of years earlier, they probably would have failed. In the decades before their arrival, newcomers to this country were mostly white, by design.
Immigrants from non-European countries were denied by exclusionary policies including the Head Tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the “continuous journey” rule, which discouraged migrants from Asia and resulted in the tragedy of the Komagata Maru. For much of the 20th century, legislation didn’t name ethnicity as an explicit selection factor, but applicants could be refused for a variety of bureaucratically whimsical reasons, including medical concerns about parasites, or bodies “deemed unsuitable to the climate” of Canada.
While 1967 brought the legal end of interracial marriage bans in the U.S., it was also an important year for Canada. It’s when the national immigration system was revolutionized by a skills-based points system, which opened the country to thousands of people of non-European descent who in subsequent years would change the face of Canada, almost literally. My parents rode this wave all the way to the Toronto suburbs.
Today, Canada is almost one-quarter immigrants. More than a million people of South Asian descent live in the Greater Toronto Area alone. But in 1971, when immigration reform was virtually brand new, fewer than 70,000 South Asians lived all across Canada. Back then, it wasn’t so easy to be a dark-skinned foreigner with a heavy accent, to be an Indian without a Little India.
Not knowing any better, my parents moved into an all-white neighbourhood because it was close to work. Nobody brought them welcome cookies or invited them over for barbecues. We stayed for just a handful of years, through my preschool to the first grade, but I still remember that house with its stone façade, arched wooden door and soft, dappled lawn in summer. I remember the first day my brother and I rushed out to play with the local kids, who’d gathered in the road, lurking traffic be damned, for a game of chase. When we showed up, their play stopped dead. One of the bigger kids informed us that we weren’t allowed to play with them, or perhaps they weren’t permitted to play with us – almost the same thing, but not quite. We slunk back to the shade of our porch to watch them from the sidelines.
I never told either of my parents about that afternoon, not until many years later, perhaps sensing even then that it wasn’t just my brother and me who were the problem. It was all of us, the whole family, even if I couldn’t see precisely what the trouble might be. These things weren’t explained in our house. They were better off left unsaid and then forgotten, even if this created the opposite effect, to singe it into memory like a little burn hole.
If it was complicated to be a very brown man married to a very white woman in a homogeneous neighbourhood, then it was also an uphill slog to be the sole Indian doctor at the hospital where my father worked. He spent a long time waiting to climb the rungs but unable to find the ladder. By then he’d cut his hair and lost the turban, not to fit in, not exactly, but to avoid the costs of standing out. Despite all of this, my dad has always loved being a Western man. He embraced the Dream with open arms, even if it didn’t always love him back.
We never talked about race in our house, yet it blew in the front door whenever one of us came home. It seemed to reach into the corners of our lives. At home, we were just a normal, regular family, but it felt impossible to separate the public from the private. The silence concealed a curried mess of social rejection and downward professional pressures stirred in with the old family beefs – the intergenerational rifts and estrangements caused by my parents’ marriage in the first place. We never talked about it, even if its effects were undeniable. In retrospect, there seemed to be no instruction manual, no language to contain it.
These days, mixed-race kids refer to themselves as “Wasian,” “Blasian” and “Hafu” with ease, but I never knew the word “biracial” applied to me until I was almost an adult. Books on multiracial parenting didn’t really appear until the 90s, and by that time, I’d graduated from high school. Without the words to describe a way of being, how best to conceptualize its contours, or to know that it even exists?
In my travels as a young adult, I gravitated to other people of mixed descent. No matter how many people filled a room, somehow we always ended up in each other’s company. We talked, sometimes haltingly, with sprinkles of shame and comedy, about not speaking our heritage dialects, not knowing our relatives, customs or even our own history, due to intergenerational ruptures. We belonged to multiple cultures, but never with full membership. We compared childhood adventures, such as going out in public with a biological parent – the one who bears no pigmentary resemblance – only to be mistaken for an abducted minor, a kid with a nanny, a fortunate adoptee.
Commonly, they’d fielded a lot of curiosity about their appearance. They’d been asked one question for much of their lives: “What are you?” I’d also received this inquisitiveness, and I thought I’d had only my siblings to share it with. I’m still asked by strangers about the genetic ingredients that make me look the way I do, which is to say, ethnically ambiguous. With my dark hair, brown eyes and half-brown complexion, I’m often presumed to be Latinx, Middle Eastern or white with a nice tan, but rarely the original combo, a white mom and a brown dad, as if that were still just outside the realm of plausibility. I’d always struggled to answer this question, to say half of this, half of that, like a broken whole in need of mending.
For many years, I didn’t have a syntax for multiracial identity because it was never simply about phenotype. It was never just about skin, however mine might be interpreted from afar. Mixedness was an outward-facing phenomenon, but it seeped into every part of my being and consciousness. It seemed to influence my family dynamics, my interpersonal relationships, even my emotional life.
When I was a kid, there was no internet, but as an adult, social media gave me new, late-breaking ways of thinking about identity, and even a kind of home. Here I found mixed-race communities built by people decades and generations younger than me. They were finding ways to tap into their roots using language classes, traditional cooking and even good old-fashioned research. Like me, they were connecting their tiny lived moments with the larger historical and sociopolitical forces that had shaped their families, their places across many diverse diasporas. They’d found ways to talk about belonging that made perfect sense to me, that penetrated deeper than the images of mixed-race actors and models who appear ubiquitously in marketing these days.
What does it mean to be a “person of colour,” where does it transition to whiteness when many of us live in the middle? Race is all about the classification of human beings, and although it’s a sociohistorical construct at heart, this concept still has the power to govern much of what happens to us in our personal, professional and economic lives. And what do these conversations mean for multiracial people when whiteness doesn’t factor into their provenance at all?
Millennials and Gen Z showed me that it’s possible to talk about mixed-race identity as something more than the fractional sum of parental parts. Multiracial people are a hugely diverse umbrella group with as many divergences as similarities, but a common theme emerges: a sense of misalignment, a search for an in-between fit in a world that still demands, in tangible ways, race checkboxes and pigeonholes.
At the same time, mixedness isn’t special or unique. It’s common, as it always has been through human evolution. The very idea of “hybridity” leans on pseudoscientific beliefs about race and its stratifications popularized during the Enlightenment, concepts undermined by the fact every person alive today is descended from a small group of African ancestors. We all share 99.9 per cent of our DNA, regardless of ethnicity or skin colour.
According to the latest U.S. census, almost 34 million people, or roughly 10 per cent of the total population, identify as multiracial, a demographic explosion largely because of enhanced self-identification options. In other words, mixed-race populations have always existed, even if they were statistically invisible.
Canada doesn’t enumerate directly by race, and the question of how the government accounts for its multiethnic population is complex, ever-shifting and, according to critics, incomplete. But according to the latest census, nearly two million Canadians belong to multiple ethnocultural populations that include at least one racialized group. Interracial unions accounted for 4.6 per cent of all couples in 2011, a number that doubled over the preceding two decades. By recent estimates, mixed couples make up 7 per cent of all legal partnerships in Canada.
No matter how they are counted, multiracial people comprise one of the fastest-growing demographics in the Western world simply because they are being seen and accepted for the first time outside mutually exclusive race categories. But no matter how we self-report on our census forms, I’m definitely not alone.
I doubt my parents ever thought of themselves as trailblazers. I don’t know if they imagined a world, 50 years after their wedding, in which interracial couples could be common and visible, their mixed kids enrolled in every school. Multiracial people can never be the cure for racism, but if things changed that much in a lifetime, imagine how much further we might go.