Crude first steps to finding a new way to talk about racial reality
Ethnic baby! the nurse shouted. I thought I’d heard wrong. It was 3:30 a.m. After two failed inductions and hours of labour, my partner had given birth to our first child. I picked up my son, told him in his mother’s language that I was his father, and posed for baggy-eyed photographs. Only then did I ask the nurse what she had meant by calling him an ethnic baby.
An increasing number of children born at the hospital, the nurse explained, had parents who came from different ethnic backgrounds. Many of the pairings consisted of one person who looked white and another who did not. These couples’ babies, emerging with skin of a shade that the nurse described as “yellowish,” were often incorrectly diagnosed with infant jaundice. The nurses used the “ethnic baby” call to remind each other not to make a hasty jaundice diagnosis on the basis of skin colour.
The term “ethnic baby” verges on the odious, yet the fact that the nurses who attended my son’s birth found it useful testifies to changes in how we perceive race. The days when government documents were able to presume a clear division between “white” and that other odious term, “visible minority,” are passing. We’ve known for a long time that race is a fiction invented to separate individuals between whom no species difference exists. “There are no races,” the Cuban independence hero José Martí wrote in 1891. “Puny thinkers reheat races that exist in bookstores.” The deciphering of our DNA has proved Martí correct: everyone alive today descends from East Africans. Yet, though Martí’s statue now looms over Havana’s Revolution Square, I’m informed by those who know that Cuban government documents still offer individuals the opportunity to identify themselves as belonging to one of eleven different racial categories.
The Americas is the only large region of the globe where people who are a result of racial mixing that has occurred in the last five centuries may be a majority. This is less true in Canada than in the United States, Latin America or the Caribbean; but we are catching up fast. Like our neighbours, we struggle to express the mismatch between large mixed-race populations and a model of national unity, inherited from nineteenth-century Europe, which assumes that a country coheres around a single, or dominant, ethnicity. The French are Gallic and the Germans Teutonic; Americans, Mexicans, Brazilians and Canadians all respond in different ways to the challenge of matching race to nation.
The United States, where a mixedrace president was seen as “Black,” has no language for this phenomenon. US definitions of race remain as rigid as they were in 1894, when Mark Twain satirized them in Pudd’nhead Wilson. Mexico, by contrast, enshrined the mestizo, a person of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage, as the quintessential representative of the nation in the 1920s. Yet Guatemala, next door to Mexico, rarely uses the word mestizo, dividing people into ladino (implicitly “European”) and indigenous American. The coat of arms of Jamaica uses the slogan “Out of many, one people” to capture its population’s mixed heritage. In the 1970s, Brazil, where over fifty percent of the population is African descended or of mixed race, promoted itself as a “racial democracy.” No one believes this claim today: it is exceedingly difficult for Afro-brazilians to become middle-class professionals; the current government consists almost entirely of white men.
Presenting mixing as a norm cements unity by re-creating the European ideal of the distinctive national phenotype, whether it is the Mexican mestizo or the multicultural Canadian. The more mixed a person is, the more they draw their sense of belonging from national identity rather than ethnic identity. A Canadian all of whose ancestors were Italian or Chinese or Ukrainian or Pakistani has an ethnic identity that competes with, and may supersede, their national identity; a Canadian who has some mixture of Italian, Chinese, Ukrainian and Pakistani heritage has little choice but to identify as Canadian. Making the mixedrace citizen exemplary, though, can obscure the status of people who are not seen as mixed. By defining Mexicans as mestizos, official discourse bypasses the country’s ten million indigenous people and conceals the
fact that white people are over-represented among the elite. In Canada the debate over whether our ideology of multiculturalism is a form of benign acceptance, or a way of keeping newcomers at a distance, ignores the long-standing suppression of First Nations cultures.
Widespread racial mixing is not simply part of official discourse, but the central trait that distinguishes the Americas from Europe, Asia or much of Africa. Though the proportion of racially mixed marriages in Canada remains low—4.1 percent according to the 2011 census—it is rising fast. Since racial categories are unlikely to vanish—“post-racialism,” as recent strife in the United States makes clear, is a mirage—the meanings of traditional labels will be obliged to blur as each band accommodates a wider spectrum of people. I don’t know how my children—i have two now—will be categorized by their peers. All I am sure of is that racial categorization is not going away. Since my partner and I have had our DNA tested, we know that, in addition to various northern and southern European lineages, our children have inherited a block of indigenous American ancestry and have a small African genetic inheritance. If they are “white,” it is not in the way my English grandmother was white; many of the students I teach are similarly ambiguous. Front-line workers have a practical need to name these incremental changes. I was startled by the nurse’s shout until I began to see it as a necessarily crude first step in developing a language to talk about a society that is just beginning to take shape. In the future traditional racial categories will melt further, and Canada, aloof and European oriented, “America’s attic,” as Patrick Anderson wrote, will become more like the rest of our mixed-race hemisphere. We will find our own way of describing our realities, as our hemispheric neighbours have done, and, like them, we will struggle to fit the bald divisions created by labels to the ever more intricate constitution of who we are.