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On Growing Up Mixed Race, and Where We’re Really From

Acclaimed BC author Charlotte Gill explores her interracial upbringing in her new book.

Paloma Pacheco 6 Jun 2023The Tyee

Paloma Pacheco is a Vancouver-based journalist who writes about art, culture, social justice and how humans and the natural world interact. Find her on Twitter @paloma_hazel.

The question haunted me for much of my young adulthood. I would brace myself for it whenever I met someone new, readying my answer like a calling card, prepared to hand it out if asked. “Where are you from?”

Four little words that meant so much more than they let on.

“I’m from here,” I would respond.

And then the footnote, if pressed further: “But my father’s from Mexico.”

It’s a question many mixed-race people are intimately familiar with. The desire is often innocent enough: strangers, confused by a combination of phenotypes or names that don’t seem to add up, are eager to understand how to slot us into predefined categories — that thing humans seem so hellbent on doing. They want to know where we’re really from.

The second question underlying the first is: “What’s your ethnicity?” But it could just as easily be: “What’s your race?”

Sometimes, we don’t have the answer ourselves.

B.C.-based author Charlotte Gill knows this confusion well. Born to an Indian father and white English mother in the 1970s, Gill refers to herself as a “vintage biracial” — someone who came of age in a time when mixed-race couples and children were far less common in North America than they are now. In 2019, data from the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre showed that interracial marriages in the U.S. had climbed from three per cent of the general population in 1967 to 19 per cent in 2019.

In a 2020 essay published in the online literary magazine Hazlitt (and aptly titled “Where Are You From?”), Gill explored the topic of mixed-race identity through a journalistic deep dive on race theory informed by her personal experience. From the existential crisis provoked by official forms with limited racial-identification categories (Gill and I have both grown accustomed to selecting “other” on these forms), to outings with the parent whose race you least resemble (inciting further confusion from strangers), Gill’s Hazlitt essay gave language to an existence many can identify with.

Gill writes: “When you are of mixed race, identity is often contextually decided, either contested or confirmed by others.... Halfsie, mixie, mongrel, mutt. If I’m among light-skinned people, I’m closer to white than brown. If I’m in India, I’m same-same but different — brown but westernized.” Though my own experience has been the inverse, I read it and felt seen.

Now, three years later, Gill has written a book on the subject. Almost Brown: A Mixed-Race Family Memoir pulls the personal to the fore and mines the story of her parents’ respective histories and the forces of colonialism that shaped their destinies. She tracks their eventual union and what it produced: three almost-brown children and one cross-cultural family.

Using mixed-race identity as an entry point into a beautifully unclassifiable family saga, Gill crafts a memoir that’s part immigration story, part classic coming-of-age tale and part love letter to a father she was distant from for decades.

In advance of Almost Brown’s publication, Gill spoke with The Tyee about its creation, her family, and the many complexities inherent in mixed-race identity. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Tyee: I’m very curious about the beginnings of this book and what made you decide to write it.

Charlotte Gill: You know, I’ve been asked this question several times, and I think with the childhood story it’s kind of always something that's rolling around in your brain as a writer. It’s not so much, "Am I going to tell the story?" as it is a question of when.

When I was younger, I don’t think I had the right tools to convey everything I wanted to say about what my family life had been like.

And then it was also a question of timing in the writing. I had a really long falling out with my dad that lasted a couple of decades. It took us awhile to get to a place where we could even talk about these things. Eventually I felt that everything was sort of settled enough that I could write from a place that was fair.

In terms of using being mixed race as an organizing force for this story, was that something that was always in your mind when thinking about writing a memoir?

No, definitely not. And certainly not when I began writing. Because I don't think there was much out there in the ethos about what it's like to be a part of two worlds and yet not have full membership to either, really.

People who are mixed race, we’re a huge umbrella group: we have a lot of similarities but an incredible amount of diversity as well. So finding that language to talk about it really took me awhile. I had to read so much to even conceptualize what it meant, because it was sort of not tactile to me for a long time. And I think I'm one of those writers that needs to type something out in thousands of words before I really understand what I think about it. It’s just my way of processing the world.

The second reason why is because I think if I had pitched this book 10 years ago it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find a home for it. I don't know that we really would have had the space in the publishing market to talk about these things. I think race has been something that has had a lot more coverage in the last five to 10 years. So I'm very grateful for that.

As you were doing your reading and research about mixed-race identity, did it make you think back on parts of your life through a different lens?

A lot of the experiences that I lived through as a child of an interracial couple, and that my parents lived through, I didn’t really recognize as being racially derived. I think my parents experienced quite a bit of discrimination, but people in my family didn't really talk about it, because it was confusing and painful. I also think they didn't want to make too much of it or give it a ton of airtime because it would just make things worse. But in looking back now I realize what an uphill struggle they had in so many parts of their lives.

I think in probably many of our families, we believe that we’re just average people — we're affected by our own personal decision-making and not really subject to the winds of history. But I could really see, when I started thinking about colonialism and even how my parents arrived in each other's company way back in the ’60s, how influenced everyone had been by the winds of history. Because if the British had never been in India I doubt my dad would have shown up in London when he did, and I probably wouldn't exist.

The book is not just about race and being mixed race; it’s also very much about culture and immigrant culture and growing up not just in a racially mixed family but a culturally mixed one, with all its inherent tensions. Race and culture often get intertwined in our society. How do you understand their relationship?

I’m going to work backwards on this, because there are a lot of tangled threads that took me a long time to tease apart. I feel as if culture is the thing that happens behind the closed front door of people's households.

Certainly it was in my household, because we had two people who had come from in many ways quite conservative, traditional backgrounds — English and Indian. I saw the ways in which those cultures were totally complementary — the way that they fit very well together — and the ways that they clashed completely.

And this was all sort of further exacerbated by the fact that nobody was in the homeland anymore. And they were navigating what it was like to be raising a young family in North America, according to these customs that they didn’t really understand, and raising what were, for all intents and purposes, very North American kids. So there were like three cultures in the house all sort of jostling for primacy.

In many ways that sounds kind of curious and heavy, but it was also very funny, too. And I really tried to find the humour in that. Because I didn’t set out to write a trauma memoir. I think I put that in the proposal: this is going to be a trauma story but funny.

I think that being funny about some of the stuff is like a bit of existential relief; it’s like a little pressure valve that allows people to look at some of these heavier issues in a lighter, more comfortable way.

The book is about many things, but I read it, in part, as a love letter to your father, who you had this long distance from. Has he read the book?

No, my dad has not read the book, and I've had many conversations with him about reading the book. [Laughs.] I'm like, "Dad, do you want to read it?" I've asked him for months. You know, my dad’s in his late 80s now, and I just think asking him to sit down with a book that’s a few hundred pages long is a challenge at this point. And literature and art are not the area of expertise of my family. My family members will often tell me that I’m the only person in the family with any creativity at all, and it is not a compliment. [Laughs.]

I don't judge them at all for this. I think it’s sort of the classic immigrant thing: you come to a new country and you become a doctor, lawyer, accountant or engineer. Everybody else in my family has read it and they think it’s great and fine, but I don’t think my dad’s going to read it.

You write about being mixed race as having become increasingly “on trend,” but how difficult it is to find your place as a mixed-race person in a world that still bends towards categorization. How do you grapple with this now, at this stage in your life?

This is something I've talked about quite a bit with other people who are mixed who fall into this "half-brown" category where it's difficult, if not impossible, to gauge their ethnicity from the outside. There's always this tension between what the world offers with its impression of people who are mixed race — you know, there's a lot of media and advertising that features mixed-race people these days. But there's a slight disconnect between the ubiquity of these images of mixed-race people — don't get me wrong, representation is absolutely fantastic and necessary — and how the world in many ways still really insists on racial categorization and binaries.

People aren’t quite sure what to do with racial fluidity; it feels uncomfortable in some ways. And I think a lot of people of mixed descent experience that out in public.

Probably the hallmark of that is — as I'm sure you've experienced, too — when you get a lot of questions about what your ethnicity is. Sometimes they aren't even really questions; they're more like statements where people impute an ethnicity onto you. In some ways it doesn't really matter how you self-identify, because the world's perception is the more dominant one.

Do you think that will ever change now that there’s so many of us out in the world?

Oh yes, I do. And it’s because I think that kids these days have no problem with being mixed race. They don’t see it as a huge difference. I think they know exactly who they are, and in some ways I think all these questions that I and others have — hopefully eventually they will just expire. I could be being a little idealistic, but that’s my hope.

Me too. I mean, I’m a solid millennial, but I see that happening as well, with younger generations. It seems like that is increasingly the trend of our world. But I know what you’re saying about the disconnect, still: whenever I go to the movie theatre or watch network television, all the ads are just mixed-race couples and their mixed-race children. It just feels like the executives need that. They’re like: “OK, let’s get the diversity! This is the future! We need mixed-race children.”

[Laughs.] Yeah, I know that it’s marketing, and it feels superficial in a way. Because the deeper questions of, say, what it means to be Black and mixed are very different from the questions that I deal with and think about, being half-Indian and half-white. But it’s still something.

What do you hope, or think, this book has to offer people in general, but also other mixed people?

Well, I wrote this book for people who also had these questions. I definitely had that reading demographic in mind. I follow a lot of mixed-race communities online and I hear this thing that’s very common: that we need healing, or that in some ways our identity is broken or halved. I don't know that we are broken, after having thought about it for a long time.

I think there's some reconciliation that needs to happen, but it's not between the parts of ourselves. I think it's just trying to find a place in a world that still insists on having binaries, that must have an answer, with just one checkbox, to "What are you?"

If you’re in a place where you fit multiple checkboxes, then there’s still a lot of explanation that needs to come out of your mouth for you to feel like you can justify taking up space in the world.

That’s the misfit that I see: that we are somehow inherently broken. But I think it’s slowly shifting, and we can see it in these young people who know exactly who they are.

Check back to The Tyee in coming days to read an excerpt from Charlotte Gill’s ‘Almost Brown: A Mixed-Race Family Memoir.’  [Tyee]

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