photos: Anya Zoledziowski and her partner Kareem Sheikh have been treated like outsiders because of their mixed cultural heritage. Photo courtesy of Anya Zoledziowski.

Where are you from, really?

Viewpoints: Multiculturalism is having weird side effects on those of mixed cultural heritage

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By Anya Zoledziowski


My first encounter with racial prejudice was in junior high. I received a message from a girl I didn't know on Nexopia, a social media platform that was popular at the time. The note read, "You are the ugliest Paki I have ever seen."

Receiving this message was especially shocking because I was raised by a single Polish mom. Although I am part Armenian, I grew up in a Polish household and identified as only Polish for most of my life. Even on my father's side, my Armenian relatives have been Polish citizens for generations. As a result, I've never felt justified to identify as Middle Eastern when my Polish culture gives me a number of privileges, including a European name to put on my resume, and immunity from the worst manifestations of racism.

After my social media encounter, I became acutely aware of how my race was, and continues to be, the topic of endless conversation. I’m asked where I am from constantly; I've even had strangers run across the street and stop me just to ask the seemingly harmless question. Unfortunately, "where are you from?" is a spark that has ignited a constant struggle with self-identification— and I am far from the only one.

Experiencing stereotypes
My partner's light-skin/dark afro combination has led to constant speculation surrounding where he is from. Kareem Sheikh, who is half Dutch and half Egyptian, is no stranger to the various stereotypes others attribute to his racially ambiguous exterior.

"He looks like he should be playing ball in the streets of Harlem," I heard one guy joke.

Unfortunately, Kareem's biracialism causes him to feel excluded more often than not; when he is with his Caucasian friends, he is treated like a person of colour (POC), but when he is with friends who are POC, he is treated as white.

Originally from a predominantly white community, Kareem explained how he was denied entrance to parties for being a "n****r" and how his football coach called him a "terrorist." Labels like these successfully "othered" Kareem throughout high school.

When Kareem moved to a diverse urban centre, the labels attached to Sheikh starkly contrasted those that were thrown at him in school. "Black friends would say I am 'acting light-skin' and Arabicspeaking co-workers would expose my monolingualism by excluding me from conversations spoken in Arabic," he says.

Ardo Ahmed, 22, is half Filipino and half Somalian. When asked to define herself, Ardo explained that she views herself as "just Ardo." Yet, whenever people ask "Where are you from?—No, where are you really from?" Ahmed starts thinking about her two racial identities.

"Whenever race is brought up I am asked where I'm from," says Ardo. "Everyone expects me to be all Black, but no." Worse, people also expect Ardo to "act Black" and attribute to her what she describes as "hood ratchet" stereotypes.

The same coin/the issue is gendered
People who make a big deal about Ardo's full-black appearance not only add to her confusion by delegitimizing her Filipino side, but also expose her to their own ignorant and racialized world lens.

"I think it's worse for girls," Ardo says. "You become a fetishized object and, like your racial identity, your sexuality is no longer in your control."

The exoticization of women whose appearances challenge western beauty standards is something I have grappled with myself. Countless white men who have hit on me have expressed excitement about engaging with a woman who is "exotic."

The problem with sexual exoticiziation is that it further isolates women from western society. If you are labeled "exotic," it implies a geographic and cultural separation between you and your compatriots.

For women like Ardo and myself, self-identification becomes even more difficult when men define our ethnicities based off of their own sexual desires.

Overall, one of the biggest struggles that multiracial or racially ambiguous people experience is the lack of legitimacy that their voices command when talking about race issues.

Kareem explained how he often feels reluctant to speak up about problems, such as his experiences with racism, because he doesn't feel there is space carved out for him to share his feelings.

"I don't feel like my opinions hold as much weight as darker-skinned peoples," Kareem says. "That makes me reluctant to draw attention to myself during racial discussions, unless I am the darkest in the room."

Even I had a hard time finding my voice in this discussion—I rewrote this article about 16 times.

Defined by race
The mixture of oppressions and privileges that multiracial people experience are undoubtedly unique. I know that as a result of the privileges my Polish culture gives me, I will never understand racial oppression to its fullest extent. Subsequently, the inability to define one's self pales in comparison to the aggressive, and often violent, prejudices that others face.

Nonetheless, the powerlessness to define your self can pose an incredibly painful internal struggle.

Every time "where are you from?" is asked, many of us are reminded that we don't have a concrete answer.

Additionally, the question is a subtle form of "othering" that isolates us—and entire demographics—by acting as a reminder that we are somehow different.

So, next time you experience the urge to ask someone where they are from, ask yourself why you're curious.

Maybe it’s time to focus on what makes others similar to you, as opposed to what makes them different.

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