Out in the Open

Why being asked 'What are you?' is a form of 'silent racism'

For Sandra Modiste, Canada’s multicultural dream ‘didn’t come true.’
Sandra Modiste:“I remember I was always the ‘it’ in every class” (Courtesy of Sandra Modiste )

When someone asks Sandra Modiste, "What are you?," she wants to tell them she's simply "Canadian."

She was born and raised here, after all. 

But that doesn't seem to satisfy people. It's an experience many people of colour in Canada talk about.

"They'll say, 'No, really, where are you from?'" Modiste told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Modiste says that underneath that question, she feels like people are really saying, "You don't look Canadian." 

"I'm angry because it's a sort of silent racism in Canada."

Perhaps it's the product of a "Canadian etiquette" in talking about heritage, she says. But Sandra feels it's a constant measuring of how long you and your family have been here.

So, she often identifies as "African Canadian." 

Modiste was born to a mixed race couple in the Toronto area in the 1950s. She's African American on her mother's side, Irish Canadian on her father's. She says that was hard on her family when she was young — both for her parents, and for her.

"I remember I was always the 'it' in every class," she said.

"I felt ugly."

What Modiste doesn't identify as is 'black.'

She says that label wasn't something people of African descent had to consider prior to slavery in the Americas. "If you're in Africa and you're black, you're not thinking, 'I'm black.' You become black if you come here."

As Modiste got older, she had high hopes for Canada. 

"I lived through the [Pierre] Trudeau era, multiculturalism. When I was young, nothing was going to stop me. It was the right place to be.… I just thought I would be one of many."

But she feels it didn't turn out that way.

"The sort of dream didn't come true — the mix of people, and that it was a new place, a place where everybody was safe and welcomed. I don't think that plan worked out," she said. 

This story originally aired on July 2, 2017. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Hyphen State".