V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Mixed blessings

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers, January, 2009

Danielle Lafond has what's called an "ethnically ambiguous" face.

Her features are inscrutable, defying any tidy categorization of race or ethnicity.

Her big chocolate-brown eyes are deep-set and the arch of her brow high. Her skin is a deep shade of olive, her hair black and straight, and her nose small and pert.

She's been mistaken for Mexican, aboriginal and Caucasian — depending on where she is or who's addressing her. Lafond, 30, is half Chinese and half French-Canadian but like U.S. president-elect Barack Obama, who is largely referred to as simply black by both media and himself, she identifies with her more visible half — her Asian heritage.

"I find it interesting that Obama is half white and half black, but the world sees him as a black man," Lafond says in her Toronto home. "He's never described as a mixed-race president. It says something about the colour line to me."

It's a topic that has captured the public's imagination since Obama's emergence on the global stage.

Both the public and pundits hold Obama aloft as a messianic symbol of the new America, the man who will bridge the distance between the races, a thorny, ugly past and a new and brighter future.

"Barack Obama's navigation of the mixed race experience is the most important thing to happen to the multiracial population since the 2000 U.S. census which allowed people to check more than one (race) box," said Louie Gong, president of the MAVIN foundation in Seattle, Washington, a support group for people of mixed race. Gong is also a Canadian citizen, born in Mission, B.C., and of mixed heritage.

"Obama has shone a floodlight on the issues."

In 2001, Time Magazine called the face of Eurasians, "the poster children for 21st-century globalization." In an increasingly shrinking world, experts said, an ambiguous face can sell products in different countries all over the world: You see the world in their face.

People of mixed race often describe going through life as a chameleon, ascribed different ethnicities by different people. As a result, they're often hyper-aware of their environment.

"By virtue of the fact that my appearance is ethnically ambiguous, people project expectations on my physical appearance," Gong, 34, says. "People look at us as a blank slate."

Gong is a mix of Chinese, Nooksack native, Scottish and French.

When in the U.S. for example, Lafond is often mistaken for being Mexican. In a San Francisco hotel, a presumptuous guest ordered Lafond to bring her new towels, mistaking her for a maid. When trying to board a gypsy van in Chinatown, the Chinese driver took one look at Lafond's highlighted hair and yelled, "No white girls on the bus."

When she lived in Moose Jaw, Sask., she sported two long braids and was mercilessly taunted in her predominantly white school for being native.

Paul Bramadat, director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, is also used to being incorrectly read, as Turkish, Greek or Palestinian, but isn't bothered by the constant misinterpretation of Indo-Trinidadian-Scottish-Irish descent.

"People get nervous if they can't place you or label you," he says. It's human nature to take "shortcuts" when assessing people, he continues. The quickest shortcuts are gender and race.

"The problem is when you rest there, don't go past that point and make assumptions," Bramadat says.

People of mixed-race are forced to deal with their ethnicity at an early age, when they begin to field the one question that will forever be omnipresent in their lives: What are you?

"It's a question of power," Gong says. "People want to know what you are and where they stand against you in the social hierarchy."

In the magazine Psychology Today, a 2006 article entitled Mixed Race, Pretty Face? published a study out of the University of Western Australia which found that Eurasians were rated as most attractive, beating out Caucasian and Japanese faces.

If you cross races, experts said, you create more genetic diversity which leads to greater health and enhanced beauty.

It's the indefinable exoticism of beauties like actors Halle Berry, Keanu Reeves and Canadian Kristen Kreuk, singer-songwriters Alicia Keys and Norah Jones which is extolled or sought after by baby-making couples.

On the social networking site Facebook, about 200 people joined the group "I want multiracial babies," while other groups boast of their collective attractiveness under "Mixed Race, Pretty Face."

"The overwhelming expectation is that because Obama's a high status figure, he's going to make the multiracial identity more desirable," Gong says. "We expect more people of mixed heritage who didn't come forward before will

come out now because Obama validates that identity."

But neither Gong or Lafond seem thrilled at embodying the new beauty ideal. "Mixed people are objectified, where people are focused on the physicality," he says. "You hear it all the time, when two people (of different races) have a baby, 'You two will have a beautiful baby.' But what's in vogue in appearance changes all the time. You have to address the multiracial experience beyond physicality."

And while flattering, assigning beauty ratings to races creates a dangerous "hierarchy of desirables," says Lafond, who is also working on a masters in sociology of education on partnering patterns among mixed race males.

"It scares me when one group is upheld because that means another one is held down," she says.

Sean Baptiste's experience as a mixed race Trinidadian and Filipino man living in Edmonton is an enlightening one.

Any trace of Baptiste's Asian heritage is eclipsed by his 6-foot-4 frame. Like Obama, both Baptiste and others read him as a black man, even though growing up he was raised by his Asian mother who fed him Filipino food.

"To me, mac and cheese was exotic," said the 36-year-old.

Growing up, he had few friends at his predominantly white school. But when he switched to a black-dominated school, he enjoyed a popularity he never had.

"Girls though I was attractive, more exotic," he remembers. "But it was the opposite in the white school, where I was looked down upon."

Mixed races that get the most exposure have one thing in common, Gong points out — they're half white.

"The experiences of the dual minority can differ greatly with people who are half white."

But because of Obama, there's a reinforcement of the "black and white binary," Gong says. "It's absurd to apply Obama's election to a post-racial experience. Obama doesn't represent all the experiences of biracial people."

Obama benefited from social privilege, Gong explains, rarely experienced by the majority of black men in America — a Harvard education.

"The impulse is to define people with a series of bullet points. But the reality is that depending on where people live, the family background, experiences can vary widely."

 

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