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Writer Amanda Demeku spent much of her adolescence navigating her biracial identity, and it wasn’t easy.
I vividly remember the first time I was asked, “what are you”? It took place in the middle of cheerleading practice. I was twelve-years-old, wearing my best Adidas snap pants with a scrunchie atop my head when an eighth grader named Alyson approached. Somewhat confused I answered, “a tumbler?” to which she pointedly replied, “no, like what’s your background?” She wanted racial clarity.
I’d soon come to know this phrase like the back of my hand and over the years the question itself has elicited varying emotions from indifference to anger. Post-teenage years I’ve found it to be entirely intrusive and borderline offensive. What was once young naivety now serves as a pointed reminder of social constructs that need to determine my “otherness” and attempt to categorize my grey-area identity.
To put it plainly my mother is white and my father is black and, personally, I identify as biracial or mixed. As the product of divorce, my parents say I was raised on planes. I spent the better part of my life bouncing between Germany, California and Winnipeg where I would ultimately spend my adolescence alongside my mother and younger brother. Though it actually never occurred to me that I was any different until I landed in the Canadian prairies.
For some perspective, Winnipeg is overwhelmingly white. With a population of just over 700,000, black people make up 2.7 per cent of that demographic according to a 2011 census by Statistics Canada. It was in this racial uniformity that I would inevitably learn to navigate the complexities of my own identity.
Around the seventh grade I started being referred to as the “black friend” and it was clear I had no place identifying as white. When thoughtless remarks and careless racial jokes were made by my Caucasian peers, I had to assuage the awkwardness it created, and find a way to comfort myself. It’s no fault of their own often, but kids can be incredibly cruel. My skin colour and curly hair just didn’t vibe with my white, blonde counterparts and it proved to be especially hard to deafen the sense of privilege and small-mindedness that many of my peers demonstrated. I quickly grew tired of always being the only person of colour in a classroom, at a restaurant or on every single sports team I ever played on.
I’d find some solace in my summers spent in California with my father’s side of the family and my west coast friends. I largely felt accepted by the black community, though even there my opinions regarding race were often ignored because I’m distinctly less recognizably coloured. As someone who looks racially ambiguous, I understood from an early age that I don’t fully face the same prejudice that black people endure. But, unable to satisfy either party, not black enough for one side, too black for the other, I often felt defeated and alone.
The power of seeing yourself represented can open up a whole new world of possibility and acceptance.
It didn’t help that I rarely saw myself reflected in society. Save for Gabrielle Union and her secondary parts in 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That and Bring It On, I didn’t see versions of myself in ads, magazines or on television. My mother—bless her soul—was an integral part in shaping my identity. While the world was swimming in a sea of Sarah Michelle Gellars and Jennifer Anistons she put posters of Halle Berry and Mariah Carey on my bedroom walls, stressing that girls like me exist in Hollywood.
Not until the dawn of social media, when I began to follow a slew of biracial butterflies including Hannah Bronfman, Trace Ellis Ross and Elaine Welteroth, did I begin to see my own racial identity represented in a way that connected. I felt it in their struggles embracing curly hair, to toeing the line of both races yet not ever being a full member of either. In my own small social circle, I’d been hard-pressed to find another mixed millennial that I could bond with based on our shared experience. But the power of seeing yourself represented can open up a whole new world of possibility and acceptance.
Moving back to Toronto (my birthplace, and the most diverse city in the world according to a 2016 BBC story) helped significantly. Finally, I could breathe a sigh of relief as my biracial identity was met with welcome indifference in a city so multicultural. I now wholeheartedly embrace my ethnicity and lean into the “best of both worlds” as per my parents’ saying. Plus, I’ve since learnt how to address the inevitable “what are you?” questions that still follow me with a firm “Canadian.”