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Growing Up Ethnically Ambiguous in a Not-So Mixed Town

Edited by: Jina Aryaan

My ethnicity has never been a big part of my identity. As a kid, I never really contemplated this aspect of myself. I grew up in one of the smaller towns in California––a beautiful place, with beaches and mountains, 75 and sunny weather the typical day––but one thing it lacked was diversity. The majority of the population is white, specifically 71%. As a kid, this wasn’t really something I paid attention to, but as I grew older, I started to think more about my background and my place in this town.

            When people ask me about my ethnicity, I tend to ask them how much time they’ve got because it’s kind of complicated. My mom was born in Australia, but her family moved to Canada when she was 3 or 4 years old. Her dad was from Sri Lanka, but he also had a Dutch and Portuguese background. Her mom was Anglo-Indian, as her family was English. Not to mention, there is also Irish on her mom’s side, and I recently discovered that she may have Armenian roots as well. But that’s just one half of the picture. On my dad’s side, there is Scottish and English, and he is also from Canada. Like I said, it’s complicated.

My family

            Most of the kids in my school were white, as were most of my friends. But again, this wasn’t something I paid attention to. However, I do remember an experience from second grade that has always stuck with me. It was Martin Luther King Jr. day, and the teacher was explaining to the rest of the class that he had a different skin color than they did, and used me as an example of what his skin color looked like. I remember feeling very confused because as an eight-year-old child, not understanding the complexities that surround race and ethnicity, I had never really considered myself to be different from my friends. It was the first time I remember someone drawing attention to my skin colour, how I looked and how I was different from my peers.

My sisters, cousins, and I 

            I began to notice these little incidents more and more as I matured, as I was learning more about race, ethnicity, and culture. In my history class in high school, we were discussing the racial inequality that marked the culture of the 1960s in the U.S. My teacher pointed me out, and said that had I lived in that period, I would have been profiled and searched. Once again, I remember that feeling of having attention drawn to my skin color and how I was different from the majority of this town.

           The final incident in high school that was most upsetting to me was an experience from my economics class. On the first day, the teacher was taking attendance and mispronounced my name. I corrected him, but he laughed and said he was going to call me “Ta-LIA” because it was more “ethnic”, and he was just being respectful of my culture. The entire class stared and laughed at me, and he continued to purposely mispronounce my name throughout the entire semester, despite my numerous attempts to correct him. This was infuriating to me because he was projecting his misperceptions of my ethnicity onto me, in the name of being more respectful of my supposed culture. Had he bothered to ask me, he would have learned that my name has nothing to do with my background, and that all he was doing was yet again highlighting the differences in my appearance. Being the shy, nerdy kid that I was, all I wanted was to blend in and just survive the misery that was high school, but because of him I had to endure the snickers and looks from my classmates every time he mispronounced my name.

            I suddenly became more aware of the differences in my appearance: my tan skin-further darkened by the California sun contrasted against the skin of my white classmates; my thick, dark curly hair differed dramatically from their long blond hair. Yet, growing up, I never identified with my Sri Lankan background, as I never knew much about the culture or heritage. My ethnicity was not one of the defining aspects of my identity, but yet it was one of the main things people paid attention to or questioned about me. Because I don’t look much like my dad or my older sister, people were often shocked to find out we were related and that always hurt a little bit.

Me, my older sister, and my twin sister

            Filling out any demographics form is always confusing. I don’t fit neatly into one category or another. Am I white or am I brown? So far, I haven’t come up with a clean cut answer. I’m not really sure, and sometimes that’s frustrating. I think the reason for that is because of what I know about our world. Unfortunately, we live in a world where prejudice and racism still exist. Appearance heavily influences perception, and I know that people’s perceptions of me can influence how I feel about myself.

            That said, coming to school in a place as diverse as Toronto has given me a new appreciation for the beauty that lies in our differences. While my ethnic background is not something that I consider to be a strong defining aspect of my identity, it is still a part of who I am, and is a reflection of my family’s history and where I come from. But who I am extends far beyond the box I check on a demographics form. It’s still taking time to work through much of my confusion, but I am slowly working to understand that what should be most important to me is what I know about myself, not other people’s misperceptions. While I may look “ethnically ambiguous,” there is no ambiguity when it comes to my hobbies and my passions, what I stand for and what’s important to me. These beliefs and values are what make up my identity and who I really am.



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Tali Main

U Toronto

Tali is a second year psychology student at University of Toronto. She enjoys singing, reading cheesy teen romance novels, and cooking/eating delicious food!
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