Half and half: growing up mixed-race

My South Korean and Croatian heritage

Half and half: growing up mixed-race

Intersections is a new Features subsection exploring multiculturalism and diaspora in Toronto. Students consider how their cultural backgrounds have influenced their experiences, perspectives, and stories.

If I had an Instagram follower for every time someone told me my mixed-race heritage was “exotic,” well, let’s just say I’d give Kim K a run for her money.

Comments like these always confused me; it never struck me as weird growing up in a biracial household. My father is Korean, and my mother is Croatian. While definitely an uncommon combination, it was normal for me to start the week off eating bibimbap and finish the week eating ćevapčići. However, I’ve never been able to escape the curiosity about my mixed heritage. What seemed like normal to me was a foreign concept to many.

Up until entering U of T, the reservoir of snide comments that had accumulated throughout my life convinced me that my family deviated from the norm of single-race ‘purity.’ But before I explain how U of T changed that perception, we need to recount a bit of history first.

A Chu family history

My dad grew up in Busan, South Korea. He immigrated to Canada when he was in elementary school, and his family settled in Etobicoke. Like a lot of immigrants in the 1970s, he grew up relatively poor, he didn’t speak a lot of English, and as the first-born son, he was under a lot of pressure to become a successful professional.

By contrast, my mother was born in Timmins, Ontario, the perfect example of a tiny northern Ontario town. Despite being born in Canada, she grew up in an extremely Croatian household in a town where there was a strong Croatian community. She and her parents eventually moved down to Oakville and lived a relatively comfortable life.

Despite their vastly different upbringings, both of my parents ended up at U of T for their undergrads. My dad studied Commerce at Vic, and my mom studied History at Trin. Not only are my parents a great example of interracial dating, they are a great example of intercollegiate dating as well. Eventually, they met while working at RBC in Toronto and the rest is history.

I credit the city of Toronto for bringing two people with wildly different cultures and backgrounds together, and for that I will always be grateful. I often think about the circumstances necessary for my existence. If my dad had chosen to immigrate to the US instead of Canada, if my mom never moved down south, or if their parents were stricter about who they wanted them to marry, I might never have been born. But I shouldn’t sweat the details, regardless of the circumstances.

I arrived as a mixed-race kid in a world that had a lot of trouble reconciling that with an overwhelming presence of single-race relationships. It is probably for this reason that my identity was in flux for many years.

Half and half

One of the most relatable songs I’ve ever heard is Miguel’s “What’s Normal Anyway?” Miguel, of mixed Black and Latino heritage, describes the feeling so many mixed kids feel daily when he sings, “I never feel like I belong, I wanna feel like I belong.” Many mixed kids feel the tension between their multiple ethnic identities and often feel pressure to identify with one side more to solidify their identity it often seems much easier to wear one name tag instead of two. There is never a normal for us, only a constant changing of identity to ‘fit in.’

After reflecting on my biracial-ness, I find it interesting that for the vast majority of my life, I was defined by the half of me that was most foreign to the people I was hanging out with. In elementary school, since I was one of the few ethnic kids in a predominately white school, I was known to others as the ‘Asian’ kid. In high school, I searched for a group of friends that wouldn’t tokenize me for my ‘exoticness,’ and so I hung out with a group that was largely Asian. I ran into other issues here because I was considered pretty white, since I couldn’t speak Korean and couldn’t relate to a lot of their cultural traditions.

So, how did U of T help me embrace my mixed identity?

I know people like to complain about this place every chance they get, but truthfully, I have never felt more comfortable with my identity than in my two years here. Sure, maybe you can attribute this to a boost of self-confidence after those crippling, insecure teen years, but I believe that it’s the diversity of the U of T student body that has allowed me to feel the most confident in my skin I’ve ever felt.

There is something particularly unique about our school environment. I have met people from all over the world who speak multitudes of languages, practice different religions, and teach me new things every day. Perhaps it’s the demographics of the GTA, but I think it speaks to the inclusivity of the institution that such a diverse group of students want to attend this school.

Most importantly, I’ve met so many other mixed kids who can relate to everything I’ve just described. Unlike high school, the lack of cliques means your relationships aren’t defined by labels. People are more interested in what I’m studying or what I’m passionate about than my heritage or hometown. I feel like here, we care more about what people are than what people should be.

Of course, the ‘exotic’ comments will never truly stop, but it’s incredibly heartening to say that over the past two years, more people have told me my mixed ethnicity is ‘cool’ than ever before.

Op-ed: In living colour

Reflections on race, respect, and responsibility from the outgoing president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union

Op-ed: In living colour

Becoming president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) was a life changing experience. I got to work with an amazing group of people and work on some great projects; the skills I gained will stay with me for life. But, more importantly than anything else, I am leaving my position with a stronger understanding of how I fit in the world as a person of colour.

Growing up as a son of Sri Lankan immigrants in a fairly mixed community, I never really thought about race. I didn’t really see myself being treated differently from my peers. This bubble was shattered when I became president of the ASSU. I began to notice subtle things, from the way I was addressed, to criticisms of my personality, to double standards in how I was treated compared to others. At times, criticisms would be personal and tinged with words that speak to an individual’s character, not their work — ‘corrupt,’ ‘angry,’ ‘bully.’ Of course, I experienced this as a male person of colour — women of colour on this campus have had it even worse, and are constantly singled out.

Dealing with this can be disorienting and confusing. While you try to make sense of it all, your mental health takes a toll. There are few mental health supports for student representatives, and few of the supports that do exist are prepared to deal with the intersectionality of race and mental health. As a result, you are left to navigate it mostly alone, or with like-minded people who have been there.

After a while of dealing with seemingly unfair criticism, some people learn to just dismiss it all, especially if it comes from a student who is white. The effort and energy to go through each criticism and analyze it is far too taxing on people, so some choose to shut down and learn to see a lot of criticism — including valid criticism — as being a product of this racial double standard.

This is undoubtedly a bad thing, and harms dialogue on our campus. People of colour are not immune from criticism and should not be put on a pedestal. We are not asking for special treatment, just fair treatment. But this is what happens when the status quo is not challenged — it is not just harmful for people of colour but everyone involved.

It is difficult to verbalize these experiences. People may think you are pulling the race card or just looking for sympathy. After all, you signed up for a position that few students get the chance to hold. I’m aware that I have talked about race and student politics many times before in the past, and there are probably people who think I make everything about race. But it is important that we talk about it.   

It is especially crucial to have discussions about race when the people who treat people of colour like this probably don’t see themselves as racist. Many of these individuals probably have friends who are black or brown who don’t see them as racist, either.

Yet, acknowledging racial bias in student settings is not about individuals, but about systems that make people subconsciously enact this bias. Racism in student politics is paradoxical in that it is often invisible to the general student body, but painfully visible to those who have to experience it. The more we understand these systems and processes, the more we can take steps to tackle underlying experiences.

I learned a few things from my experience as ASSU president. I learned that, while this work is rewarding, it is also difficult, and the added sphere of being a person of colour can make the load feel even heavier.  It is necessary to take care of yourself and take time for yourself. I learned that you won’t be able to do everything you want, but just being able to hold this position is an accomplishment in itself, powerfully cognizant of the existence of people in colour spaces where we are typically underrepresented. Beyond everything, I learned that what I was feeling wasn’t necessarily new. It just took context after holding the position of president to understand that things I experienced growing up were indeed related to my identity as a person of colour.

Across campus, we have just elected new teams and new leaders — I hope the people of colour elected know that their experiences matter and that they should be able to talk about it. I also hope that other leaders and the rest of the student body respond by listening and re-analyzing their priorities and any problematic behaviour. It will take more than empty platitudes on privilege to fix problems of racism on campus; what we need is genuine dialogue, and I hope our campus is prepared to have that conversation. 

Abdullah Shihipar is the outgoing president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union.

Strength in numbers

Race-related data collection is a step in the right direction

Strength in numbers

This November, students on campuses across North America protested in solidarity with Black students who had been targets of racism at universities in the United States. These students presented a set of demands to their respective schools in order to address systemic racism. At U of T, the Black Liberation Collective asked the administration to commit to increasing Black faculty and student representation in order to better reflect Toronto’s population. 

Commendably, our administration has made a small stride in education equity by deciding to collect race-related data on campus. While the exact commitments are unclear at this moment, the broader policy of tracking quantitative information about racial representation in our faculty and student populace is a very welcome step in achieving educational equity.   

As a person of colour, I am acutely aware of the underrepresentation of racialized faculty and students. Some have the privilege of not seeing this reality. It can take less than a semester of classes for someone to note that we have a low number of Black and other racialized students in leadership positions. Without statistical data, however, students have long had trouble proving the problem exists. The collection of race-related data can help bolster causes for equity by simply providing evidence of an issue that students know anecdotally to be true.

It is not hard to find instances in which similar initiatives provided an impetus for positive social change. Back in 2004, for instance, the Toronto District School Board  — the largest school board in Canada — acknowledged the benefits of a census similar to the one our university may implement. They accounted for the race and socio-economic backgrounds of their students in order to  “identify and eliminate systemic barriers to student achievement.” With the data collected, the TDSB was able to quantify a considerable gap between economically marginalized and racialized students. With this information, a problem was identified and a solution more easily and meaningfully created. The TDSB was able to establish the Model Schools for Inner Cities initiative, which seeks to close “the opportunity gap to support equitable outcomes for all students.” 

For those who question the necessity of increasing diversity in university classrooms, it is important to remember several things. First, our society defines itself by principles of equality — as a subset of this, it is important for all persons to have the equal opportunity to attend post-secondary institutions, and it is thus our responsibility to actively investigate barriers that unfairly prevent certain students from succeeding.

Second, while the call to begin this type of census was brought on by students in the Black community, there are universal benefits to solving the problem of underrepresentation. From an equity perspective, diversity means there will be challenges to mainstream narratives, and thus a more wholesome understanding of society. In fact, in 2015, The Atlantic published an article that argued non-white educators “can help disrupt what are often one-sided portrayals of the world and offer invaluable insight to students from different backgrounds.” Comparably, a 2014 Scientific American article extensively traced how “[d]ecades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers” have shown how socially diverse groups enhance innovation and creativity. 

Lastly, race-related data collection at U of T is also an important symbol of administrative accountability. While the university has not yet released the specifics of this initiative, it is clear they are listening to students and engaging in dialogue with them. In doing so, our school is recognizing the legitimacy of student voices — significantly, those that have been historically marginalized by educational institutions — and reaffirming the importance of diversity. We should thus be cautiously optimistic about how this data will serve as a catalyst to create programming that works towards increasing the participation of all visible minorities, in faculty and within undergraduate and graduate student populations.

Milen Melles is a first-year student at Victoria College studying humanities.

Canadian identity and the refugee crisis

Rhetoric of “relative tolerance” hinders meaningful dialogue on racism

Canadian identity and the refugee crisis

The Canadian media has emphasized our country’s warm welcome of Syrian refugees, as well as our rejection of the fear and bigotry that characterize conversations about refugees elsewhere in the world. In a similar vein, after the pepper spray attack on Syrian refugees during a welcome event in Vancouver earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded on social media: “This isn’t who we are – and doesn’t reflect the warm welcome Canadians have offered.” His remarks show the way in which the discussion of refugees has been dominated, sometimes unhelpfully, by the language of Canadian patriotism.

This rhetoric does have value, especially in affirming newcomers’ sense of safety and belonging as they start their lives in Canada. A man who was hit in the pepper spray attack, Youssef Ahmad Al-Suleiman, told The Globe and Mail that, to refugees leaving behind political instability in their home countries, Trudeau’s clear and immediate condemnation of the violence is a meaningful gesture. Still, the public response to the Vancouver attack, which mirrors Trudeau’s comments leaves little room for exploring nuanced approaches to racism and Islamophobia in Canada.

It is comforting but not entirely accurate to claim that exclusionary violence “isn’t who we are” as a nation. Compassion and respect cannot be called inherently Canadian qualities any more than intolerance can. While Canada ha stated a commitment to advancing human rights, Canada’s history is marred by the legacies of Japanese internment camps, immigrant exclusion acts, and the residential school system, among other institutions of racial discrimination.

If the majority of Canadians today value compassion toward and acceptance of refugees, it is not because of the example of our national history, but in spite of it. Recent violence motivated by racism and Islamophobia, although committed by a minority of Canadians, shows that bigotry is still alive and well in Canada, often very close to home, whether or not we represent bigoted acts as Canadian, or acknowledge their place in Canadian history.

In the last few months alone, a mosque was set on fire in Peterborough; several incidents were reported in the Greater Toronto Area of Muslim women being harassed or assaulted in public places; Muslims were asked whether they were sorry for the Paris attacks; and a Muslim U of T student was spat on and harassed outside Robarts. This is to say nothing of smaller-scale acts of bigotry that often go unnoticed or are trivialized in classrooms, online comment sections, and other daily interactions, which Iris Robin noted in The Varsity last week. 

Characterizing inclusion and compassion as essentially and even uniquely Canadian qualities is of limited value in uncovering the roots of racism in Canada and reducing violence and bigotry in the future. We have no hope of addressing the problem if we cannot acknowledge it first.

By writing off violence against refugees and racialized people as isolated incidents, and not representative of Canada as a whole, we risk minimizing the real threat of violence many Canadians face on a daily basis. If we are committed to making our campus and our wider communities safe and welcoming to everyone, refugees or otherwise, then we must commit to conversations about racism and bigotry that move beyond simple characterizations of Canada as an almost universally accepting place. 

Language matters; let us be clear, direct, and honest in articulating the values and commitments we hold above all else. We welcome refugees into our communities today not because it is the Canadian thing to do, but because it is right. In the same way, we must condemn attacks against refugees not because these acts are un-Canadian, but because they harm real people, reduce refugees’ humanity, and violate our shared commitment to building a just and equitable world.

Rusaba Alam is a third-year student at Victoria College studying English.