Mixed Ancestry

I am a mixed ancestry person.  My ancestors are from all around the Mediterranean Sea (including North Africa), the UK, and Eastern Europe.  Growing up, my mom always talked about this mixed ancestry and particularly the fact that we have African ancestry; though we didn’t know exactly who these ancestors were, it wasn’t hidden from us as kids.  It wasn’t until I went to visit relatives in South Africa that I saw how challenging life is for people with African ancestry that have darker skin than I do.

In South Africa at that time, if you didn’t look “white” or “black,” then you fell into the “mulatto” category: you were not accepted by “white” communities or “black” ones.  I was traveling in South Africa with my sister when we learned this the hard way.  My sister looks more like the people who are descended from Vikings who live in the north of Portugal and although we are full sisters, I look more like our African and Middle Eastern ancestors.  As I got more and more tanned during our trip, people began treating me differently.  I got harassed on the streets, grabbed, taunted, and I could not figure out what was happening.

It wasn’t until I walked into a general store one day and the owner told me to “mind my colour” that I began piecing together what was happening.  I had never been treated with this level of disdain my whole life and it really had an influence on my psyche.  It wasn’t until I was on a tram in Cape Town and I met another mulatto man who made eye contact with me that I understood what was going on.  He told me about the extreme bias against mixed ancestry people in South Africa at the time (1997) and that these folks didn’t fit in anywhere except for in their own community.

I came home feeling so guilty and sad: I could come home and my skin colour would revert back to what it was.  I did not have to live with being treated in such a way every day, but other folks did not have that option.  In an effort to figure out the reason behind what just happened to me, I started studying African history in university (I minored in history). Understanding history is far from a redundant exercise. History is important in the present because it shows us where we came from and, hopefully, helps us to make different choices than our ancestors did: more life-giving ones.

In today’s world, there is a popular narrative in the mainstream world that there is equity in society for all. My take away from my experience in South Africa is that the prejudice that people with darker skin experience is very real–even here in North America.  As a lighter skinned person, this was not even on my radar until I was on that trip.  Now, it’s an awareness I live with and have compassion for. And it also got me thinking that this idea of race (a term I dislike for a lot of reasons) is really human-created.  We are all part of the same species. And it’s time for the separation along cultural, ethnic, gender, and religious lines to stop if we want to evolve and survive as a species.

I experience my cultural identity as being very fluid.  It’s not based on how I look. When I was interviewed recently, it became evident that the interviewer was very uneducated when it came to mixed ancestry and identity.  She wanted to put me down as “caucasian” and when I insisted that she put me down as a mixed ancestry person, she said: “Well, you don’t look African.”  So we have a long way to go as a species in educating people and breaking down these made-up separations between people.