Just weeks ago, Christopher Bacon, 23, had a nasty tiff with the driver of a van in his quiet West Hill neighbourhood that climaxed in his being called the N-word and a “half-breed.”
Hard to imagine such a contemptible altercation in cosmopolitan Toronto, one of the most culturally, ethnically, racially and religiously diverse cities in the world.
But beneath the colourful face of our teeming populace there still lurk strains of stigma and racism.
Bacon, son of a Caucasian father of English and Scottish heritage and an East Indian mother, looks “racially ambiguous” with his curly black hair, dark brown eyes and light, though not white, skin. This incident was his first racist encounter since Grade 6, when he was beaten up by four kids at school.
“I used to say I was ‘mixed’ but after that fight, to protect myself, I started saying I was white,” he says. “I lied and told people my mother was English. When I was 16, I started telling people I was “mixed” or “Indian” and no one bothered me. Now I just say I’m mixed.”
York University sociologist Lorne Foster says the term “mixed” is increasingly becoming a label of choice with “racially ambiguous” children of interracial couples.
“It’s a new category describing people who are not readily defined or for whom it’s sometimes difficult to discern their ethno-racial background,” he says. “There’s a lessening of interracial boundaries, but stigma is still persistent especially with black-white couples.”
There are about 50,000 interracial marriages in Toronto, according to Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies. About 3.3% of white women and 3.9% of white men are in interracial marriages and that number is on the rise.
Race was never an issue in the Bacon household and Christopher admits he never considered his parents “interracial” until he sat down with them at their dining room table earlier this week to talk about it.
Early in their relationship, Richard, 52, and Denise Bacon, 48, occasionally and rather jocularly called themselves the “zebra” couple, but admit that consciously their inter-racial status was rarely an issue.
When they were engaged, her parents were more concerned with their religious than racial difference—she was and is a practicing Catholic and he is agnostic. His parents thought she was too young to get married at 20 and worried about their six-year age disparity.
Once, in North Bay, they noticed people staring and whispering about them in church, says Denise. “Someone once asked me, ‘What colour are your kids?’ I told them we made beige babies. Really, I don’t think this was racist, but more curiosity than anything else.”
Interracial couples and their families find levels of comfort and acceptance vary depending on where you are, geographically, in the city.
“In more homogeneous neighbourhoods, the level of acceptance of interracial couples and their children is not as high and these families have to work themselves in. It’s more challenging,” says Usha George, associate dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto.
In the downtown core, where there’s more anonymity and more mixed families, it’s easier for bi-racial kids to feel safe as individuals first, Canadians second and children of mixed-race couples third, she says.
“Often, if these children are born in Canada, they identify as Canadians and their level of comfort comes from their family environment if it’s not challenged and they’re not discriminated against. They will become less stigmatized as these mixed marriages become more prevalent. They’ll be tolerated more, but there will always be that sense that they are different.”
Christopher Jackson, 37, was born in Jamaica to a white mother and a black father. At the age of five, he and his mother moved back to her family home in Leaside, where he grew up in the loving lap of his mother’s enlightened family, which included his uncle Jason, also bi-racial, who happened to be a few months younger than him.
“Growing up in an all white neighbourhood, I have a jaundiced view,” says Jackson, who works at Madison Press, a boutique publishing house. “The world sees me as black, but I’ve never perceived myself as black. I’m not dark-skinned. I’ve never marked myself in terms of colours. I’m as much Scottish as Ashanti. My identity has more to do with culture than race. I consider myself Canadian.”
Admittedly, when he first moved to Toronto, his feelings of being “different” were more profound. He didn’t know the national anthem and he remembers kids laughing at his Jamaican accent. Occasionally, remarks were made to his grandmother when she took him and her adopted son, Jason, to the grocery store.
“The implication was, ‘Whose kids are those?’“ Jackson says. “But it’s always been an issue of other people’s perception of me. I’ve even had people say, ‘You don’t sound black on the telephone.’ And when people ask, ‘Have you ever dated a black woman?’ I say, ‘To date one, I’d have to know one.’“
At times, the way he’s perceived surprises him. A few years ago, travelling in West Africa, he expected to feel rooted. Instead, little school girls tittered at him and touched his skin.
“They thought I was white,” he says. “Yet in Leaside, I was perceived as black.”
Any stigma he’s encountered has emanated from the families of a few of the white women he’s dated. One Rosedale girl’s family threatened to kick her out of her house and cut off her university tuition, Jackson recalls.
“It was uglier for her than for me and I felt terribly sorry for her. She had never tested that system to know what their reaction was, but it didn’t hurt me as much as it hurt her. People are afraid of the different, but for 99% of the people I went to school with and their parents, it never even registered on their radar.”
Susan Mann, 48, and her husband, entertainer Aubrey Mann, 52, have been a couple for 13 years. It’s a second marriage for both and between them they have seven grown children, and they say all get along very well with each other.
However, they often notice stares and whispers, especially among older couples in Thornhill where they live.
“The stigma is a suburban phenomenon,” says Susan. Often, you can see it with Europeans. A lot of people make snap judgments, but we have no problems downtown.”
With her porcelain complexion, blue eyes and head of silvery hair, she is a stunning contrast to her dark-skinned husband, who was born in Guyana and raised in Barbados.
Sometimes, she says people stare out of curiosity, but sometimes they can be malicious. Once, in a Montreal elevator, a German woman remarked to her husband, in German: “Oh, that’s gross. I can’t believe that,” not realizing that Susan speaks German.
They’ll have problems crossing the border if Aubrey is at the wheel. He’ll be searched and they’ll be asked how they’re related. That never happens with Susan driving.
“They always associate everything bad with black,” he says. “But as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see the colours and we don’t consider ourselves interracial. We’re just a couple and she’s my wife.”
Anne-Marie Mawhinney, 41, Peter Malone, 48, and their two boys, Alexander, 12, and Evan, 4, live in a comfortable, racially-mixed neighbourhood in mid-town Toronto.
When they met and started dating 17 years ago, they knew almost instantly they were going to be a couple and their enlightened families were accepting from the start.
“When families of a couple are supportive, the marriage tends to work better and even more so with interracial couples,” says professor George. “If parents find fault with a couple, it will affect a marriage adversely, but if a couple is accepted for what they are by both families, the couple has a better chance.”
When someone does a double take, they admit it takes a second to register why they’re looking, says Mawhinney, who has auburn hair and works for Bell Canada.
“It’s the way others perceive us,” says Malone, a school teacher. “It’s not part of our everyday consciousness. We’ve had issues with kids saying things, but people are now more accepting. The vast majority of kids don’t even know the difference. If they do say something derogatory to our kids, it’s only what they’ve heard and there’s no value attached to it.”