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I grew up in the smallest house, on the cheapest side of the tracks in one of the whitest neighbourhoods in Toronto.

From that experience, I grew up with the following assumptions:

• People are usually white
• No one except my dad has an accent
• Everyone is thin except us
• Everyone comes from England – except us
• Everybody goes to university
• Everyone can go to university
• Everyone owns their own home – and at least one car
• No one has to worry about having enough to eat
• We live in an equal society
• There is no racism
• You can always tell where the washroom is regardless of whose house you’re in

Then there’s Catharine, my partner, a brown-skinned woman who comes from generations of interracial families. Catharine’s siblings are varying shades of white and brown. She has biological nephews who are blond-haired and blue-eyed, and others with olive skin and dark hair.

Her family was one of two or three families of colour at her small-town high school. Her older brother had the unenviable position of bodyguard for the younger kids, frequently stepping in to ‘educate’ bullies (youth and adult) who were giving his siblings a hard time – almost always due to racism. When she was young the racism was overt. It’s far more subtle now, but we wonder about our kids, Lileith and Rosa, and what their experiences will be.

When Catharine saw my high school yearbook her first reaction was: “Wow, you had a lot of people of colour at your high school.” (For the record, it was probably Toronto’s whitest graduating class of 1995.)

I tell you this to provide context. When I wrote here recently about the racist backlash to the interracial Cheerios’s commercial, I said:

As parents in an interracial, lesbian family, we have made a vow never to live anywhere where my partner, a woman of colour, will be mistaken for “the nanny.” Which totally happens, by the way, depending on where we are in Toronto.

And we mean it. When we visit friends who live in a much better -built and more spacious co-op nearby, we struggle with the ‘Should we move here?’ question. But we stay put. Even though that co-op is close by, it’s not a very racially or economically diverse neighbourhood. It’s one of the so-called “marshmallow pockets” in Toronto, like the one I grew up in. We love visiting but it’s not for us.

Diversity breeds tolerance, we think.

I’ve been Women Studied, anti-oppression workshopped and I’ve lived in downtown Toronto for half my life. I spent my twenties working in non-profit organizations, serving many clients who lived in poverty. I’ve spent hours in a white women’s anti-racism group. It doesn’t matter.

I still wear the assumptions I grew up with. When I see an olive-skinned person, I assume they’re white. I forget not everyone had piano lessons growing up.

This is un-learning I don’t want my girls to have to do.

A few blocks makes a big difference in our city. Where we live, if people don’t get that we’re a two-mom family they assume I’m Catharine’s daughter. It’s not the most awesome feeling to be mistaken for your partner’s grown child, but at least people ‘get’ interracial.

And at least people understand that Catharine is family, and not hired help. Which has happened, as I said, in Toronto.

And you know what I mean. There are neighbourhoods where any woman of colour pushing a baby stroller is assumed to be a nanny because often – but not always – she is. Those are the neighbourhoods where playgrounds are divided into the stay-at-home moms and the nannies, and the divide is most often racially visible than anything else. An environment  like that would not feel good for our family.

Our girls talk openly about colour in the way kids do. Lilieth likes to put her arm next to Catharine’s — with her tanned skin tone she identifies as being ‘brown’ like her Mommy Catharine. Yesterday while biking she asked again:

“What colour am I, Mommy?”

And then Rosa with her creamy white skin asks as well. With their own line of genetic and familial mixed ancestry, these questions are sure to come up again in our girls’ lives.

So far, our kids have been raised with the help of a local daycare with a strong anti-opppression mandate and a diversity of families, where “Parent Day” cards are as common as “Father’s Day” cards. But they still face questions.

Last year, a young grandmother picked up her granddaughter at daycare regularly – and both she and Catharine got questions from our kids. How come Catharine is our mommy – while that girl has a nanna and a mom?  How come Mommy Catharine wears clothes that looks like men’s clothes? Race just gets mixed in with everything else.

So much is about neighbourhood. Our health clinic serves the community. The posters and pamphlets in the waiting room are addressed to the people the clinic serves:

Our health clinic serves the community.  The posters and pamphlets in the waiting room are addressed to the people the clinic serves:

newcomers, people who are homeless, drug users, young families, teenage parents, LGBTTQ families. In this mix, my family is hardly interesting.

I don’t want to sugar-coat the reality of where we live now; it’s not all rainbows and fusion cuisine. A neighbour lost her teenage son to gun violence a few years ago. His friends still graffiti RIP tributes to him. There’s poverty, there’s sadness, there’s racism.

Like a phoenix, Regent Park is being destroyed and re-born at the same time and who knows how the community will change.

Neighbours might assume the brown-skinned teenager at our family gatherings – my much-loved stepbrother – is related to Catharine. And the olive-skinned young man who visits frequently – a very devoted older cousin of the girls – is from Catharine’s side. When we’re all together, sometimes I think people assume Catharine and my stepmother are sisters.

Then again, where we live I don’t think people care either way. And to our girls, it’s just normal.

 

 

 

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