Studying my cinnamon-coloured complexion in the mirror, I wash my hands, and then twirl my curls with my dampened fingers to smooth the frizzy flyaways. I smile at my reflection, giddy to be going away, and apply my lip gloss to my plump lips. I’m in the first-class washroom on a flight that I have just boarded on my way to Varadero, Cuba with my parents—a university graduation gift and my first time visiting a country outside of Canada.
I slide the door open, step out and make my way to my seat. As I step forward, however, a red-faced flight attendant stops me in my tracks, the open palm of her hand uncomfortably close to my face. “Excuse me! Don’t you realize that this is a first-class washroom!?” she snaps. “It’s reserved for first-class patrons only! Return to your seat.”
Frozen, I study her frenzied face, and then shift my gaze to the other passengers that are seated (and staring) in the first-class cabin. All of them are watching in awe, awaiting my reaction, and at that moment, I realize that all of them—including my parents, are white.
I stare blankly at the furious flight attendant, and then walk confidently down the aisle, without saying a word. Sitting down in my aisle seat next to my parents, I glance up at her coolly, and take comfort in watching as her face turns 50 shades of red. My parents, outraged, offer to help me file a formal complaint, but I am convinced that she has already learned her lesson.
Since that flight to Cuba nearly 20 years ago, I’ve travelled to many places, some for pleasure, and in more recent years, through my work as a travel writer. And with each new stamp in my passport, I’ve been forced to further examine my identity as a woman of mixed race.
Until my encounter with the angry flight attendant, I had never—to my knowledge—been judged or treated differently based solely on the colour of my skin. I was adopted when I was five years old, and raised by Caucasian parents in a predominantly white community in Vancouver. While I knew that I didn’t exactly look like everyone else, my outer appearance had never been more than a prompt for some prying questions about my background.
The genealogical guessing game became a regular occurrence as I grew older, and while I didn’t really mind when people tried to guess my nationality, I was bothered by the mystery of my makeup. Scarce information existed on the background of my biological parents; my biological mother was also adopted and her genetic makeup was unknown. This meant that for the first 37 years of my life, I didn’t have a lot to go on when it came to figuring out the origin of my dark skin and kinky hair.
Because of my racial ambiguity, I seemed to fit in everywhere, but I also felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere at all. In Los Cabos, locals kept speaking to me in Spanish. In response, I would shrug shyly, embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t Latina. During a visit to Barbados, a Bajan asked if I was an island girl and seemed surprised when I confessed that I wasn’t from the Caribbean, but in fact a first-time visitor from Canada like my travel cohorts. And during a trip to Kauai, a stranger asked if I was a fellow Hawaiian, and was surprised to learn that I didn’t have any island roots. Every time, I was left feeling a very distinct sense of imposter syndrome—looking like I was of a certain ethnicity when I actually was not.
The shift in political power that took place in the USA in 2017 further complicated my conflicted feelings about my background. When I visited a small rural town in Texas only months after Trump was elected, I was suddenly hyper-sensitive to the fact that I looked different than its predominantly white residents. Strolling through the crowds at a large rodeo event with my bouncy curls and brown skin, the stares of onlookers burned a deep blush into my cheeks.
The more I travel, the more I realize that the same feelings of simultaneously fitting in and feeling left out have emerged at home as well—especially after I took a DNA test three years ago. While I’m now able to answer confidently when asked that I am Macedonian, Irish, English, German and Nigerian, I still don’t feel like I belong to any distinct cultural category.
One thing that I’ve come to realize throughout my travels, however, is that I’m not alone in my struggle to identify with one specific culture. I’ve met other travellers along the way who are also regularly misidentified as locals when they visit other countries, and I take comfort in knowing that I’m not alone. From Bermuda to British Columbia, the world is filled with individuals of mixed race like myself who are trying to find a place in a society that still strives to fit people into one specific cultural category.
Racial identity is not black and white, and as a result of not being able to put a name to my own ethnicity, I believe that we as a society should stop trying to push labels on people. I now recognize myself as a woman of colour, but I don’t identify with any one race. I am mixed, I am me and that is all I want to be.