Slack, a messaging tool for groups and companies, broke social norms when they announced users could change the colour of emojis, like ‘thumbs up’ or ‘raised hands’. Rightfully so, they were celebrated for giving users an opportunity to react in ways that truly represented who they were, and didn’t default to a bright yellow tone (think most smile emojis). For me, it sparked an internal debate around who I associated with racially, and how I choose to portray myself on a day-to-day. Talk about an ‘aha!’ moment for a product, am I right?!
This post will primarily go through my thought process around race, culture, and heritage, including personal experiences and how I see the discourse.
About 2 weeks ago, I was staying with my parents in Mississauga and visiting some friends and former colleagues in Toronto. I missed the GO train and my dad was generous enough to drive me to the subway station. He also flagged down another man, probably in his late 20s, offering to give him a ride.
In the car ride over to Kipling, the man revealed that he worked in Toronto and had immigrated to Canada about a year ago. When asked about my dad’s path to immigration, he proudly revealed that he had been in Canada for 40 years. As someone born and raised in Canada, this didn’t initially register to me. My dad came to Canada at a relatively early age from Guyana (a Caribbean nation), and spent the entirety of his adult life in this country. He has an accent, a ‘brown’ name, and is of a dark brown skin tone. He also listens to Kenny Rogers, dresses in typical ‘Canadian’ clothes, and has fully adopted this culture.
My mom came to Canada at the age of 17 from Goa (India) — a Portuguese colony. Her maiden name is Portuguese and she was raised Catholic. Coming at such an early age, she too has ‘grown up’ in Canada — we bond over ABBA and Jim Croce more than any ‘brown’ music, and she makes the meanest lasagna, salmon casserole, and chicken divan that I know. Like my father, she too has a ‘brown name’ and an accent, but a very light brown skin tone.
Fast forward to marriage and having kids — my name is Trevor and my brother’s name is Richard. I grew up skiing and speaking French (via the immersion program) and listening to Nickleback and Greenday. I don’t know any ‘brown’ languages, I’ve never been to India, and, to be honest, I don’t identify with the culture at all.
I see posts on Twitter and Facebook go viral around people taking pride in their culture. The word itself, ‘culture’, is worth unpacking as well. To me, it embodies the norms and symbols (language included) that I most identify with. Culturally, I’m Canadian, through and through. This hasn’t raised much debate, and rightfully so.
The word ‘heritage’ is harder to come to terms with. To me, it doesn’t represent so much the culture you identify with, but rather your cultural background. My father’s side of the family is predominantly Hindu — I grew up going to brown weddings, jhandis, and participating in those ceremonies. My father, brother and I all showed up to these events in jeans and a polo — I didn’t have any of the traditional garments. However, this was my ‘heritage’. It felt foreign and was difficult for me to reconcile with.
In contrast, my mother’s side of the family is Catholic and I was raised Christian. Some of my earliest memories are linked to Sunday School and worship songs. This is a big part of my heritage, as it is tightly aligned with my mother’s background. However, it is very far from being stereotypically ‘brown’. I don’t have any memories of distinct ‘Indian’ experiences, aside from the occasional food item that makes it into a family gathering.
Finally, there’s the concept of race. To me, this refers to your ethnicity, and is determined more by what others see you as than what you see yourself as. This isn’t much an issue for me — Caribbean nations were populated by Indian slaves, with the colony of ‘British Guiana’ coming to be in 1831. Likewise, the former Portuguese colony of Goa was thoroughly Indian before it was conquered. Therefore, despite my colourful heritage and cultural overlap, I’m ethnically Indian.
I’m not sure how this works for people who are of mixed race, i.e. half-white (Caucasian) and half-black (African-American). There’s also people who claim a variety of racial backgrounds, such as being 1/8 Chinese and 1/16 indigenous. If that person looks white, are they racially classified as Caucasian? Does it really matter if they can still claim other elements in their culture and heritage?
21st century flaws
Growing up in Canada, I never found racial tensions to be that pronounced. Yes, I understood the positive and negative stereotypes associated with being ‘brown’, along with the possibility that some people might discriminate against me. However, I can’t think of an explicit time that I experienced direct racism — the stereotypes were often a joke or in reference to an episode from The Simpsons than an experience that would shape my personality and worldview.
One of the most confusing encounters I’ve had with race and heritage was several years ago in applying for American colleges. There was a detailed section where you needed to indicate your background, which referenced region (i.e. South Indian, Latin-American, etc.). Naturally, I selected both South Indian and Caribbean. Opposed to getting an ‘Indo-Caribbean’ option following that selection, the only option I could select was ‘African-American’. I asked my father, and he mentioned that he had a similar experience in immigrating to Canada back in the 1970s. The overlap in how we see ‘race, heritage, and culture’ in comparison to how various institutions define it and causes a great deal of confusion. Some of these inconsistencies, decades later, have yet to be corrected.
How this all relates back to community is what I’m most interested in. Culturally, I’m stereotypically Canadian and therefore a lot of my friends reflect that. Naturally, a great number of those friends are also Caucasian. This has rarely caused any discomfort for me, as our interests, tastes in music, and even sense of humour are very similar. Race plays a factor, as does heritage, but neither are as salient as culture.
In contrast, I have a number of ‘brown’ friends, but the sense of community isn’t nearly as strong. I don’t get all the jokes, mid-sentence switches to Hindi, and cultural nuances. I’ve taken heat for not being able to recognize a Sanskrit tattoo or for having a look of confusion when someone tells me what part of India they’re from (‘That’s North right? Close to… Bombay?’). An experience that shook me quite a bit was while I was in San Francisco and met my roommate’s (also brown) friends at a party. I introduced myself as ‘Trevor’, and immediately they asked ‘but what’s your real name?’. After a few minutes of back-and-forth, including a point where I pulled out my driver’s license to prove it, the conversation ended with ‘sure, whatever you want to go with’. I don’t blame this person, but it really questioned my identity and whether I take enough of an interest in my background.
The intersection between these two groups (culturally familiar and racially familiar) brings the idea of ‘assimilation’ into the discussion. Many viral debates and movements are centred around governments and institutions trying to stifle cultural expression and have those individuals adopt what is ‘normal’. I never had to assimilate, since Canadian culture has always been what’s most familiar. For my parents, however, I wonder if there were instances where that shift to Canadian culture was a conscious decision — and whether Canadian culture really fit our family more than our respective pasts.
Race, culture, and heritage are all distinct concepts that influence my day-to-day life. They dictate the way I present myself (language, clothing, interests) and the people I associated myself with (community, tribe). I’ve been making an effort to take a greater interest in my heritage, as I think it’s incredibly important and something that should impact how I define myself as a person. I often wish I could speak an Indian dialect (i.e. Konkani) or that I felt more tightly associated with my heritage. While neither of those are possible without a ton of force, at this point in my life, what is possible is making an effort to learn about it.
For any first-generation or second-generation individuals asking the same questions I am, I’ll finish with this: race is a given, culture is what’s familiar, and heritage is up for discovery. Take the time to ask your parents and relatives about these experiences, as those experiences are a significant part of you as a human being. Definitely something I’ll be digging into for 2019!