Waiting for a streetcar at St. Clair West station in midtown Toronto, my father and I carefully navigate sharing our space with a man who is clearly having a moment. His pants keep slipping down exposing an uncovered rear-end, he insists on engaging everyone in conversation by resting with his long and unkempt nails on their shoulders. His clear violation of boundaries puts everyone on edge, but I was born and raised in the big city: I can handle this guy, he’s not dangerous. Just don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact, don’t make…

Our inevitable turn comes and his hairy hand lands on my father’s shoulder, he asks my father where he’s from. This is not an unusual question in a city like Toronto, and most of the sting of “you’re not from ‘round these parts” has been removed because of our city’s relationship with immigration and general ‘woke’ attitude. “Where are you from?” is less of an accusation of not belonging and more of a cataloging system for a city that has two Chinatowns, two Little Italy’s, a Koreatown, a little Vietnam, India, Portugal, and countless other neighbourhoods around the G.T.A. that celebrate the nuance of its diversity.

But my father’s answer has always been the same, even when his accent was much stronger: “I am Canadian.” The streetcar man is jovial when he responds, “You’re too tanned to be Canadian.” This is when I jump in as an overprotective middle-aged city kid protecting her senior citizen father. This conversation is bordering on racist and that he should shuffle off to harass the next commuter. “We don’t want to talk to you anymore.” I say, at the same time my father says, “I am not tanned, I am Canadian.”

This is no Rashida Jones at the SAG awards moment, being called tanned leading to a teachable moment on shadism and ethnic diversity. This is triggering, this reminds my father that he isn’t white, he isn’t normal, he sticks out. This has been my father’s shameful secret his whole life, and with one simple comment he’s fallen into over 70 years of processing the last thing he want to think about, he is a Muslim person of colour. 

In the motherland, San Fernando, Trinidad, he was too light-skinned to blend in with his dark-skinned world. He was put into a private school with Christian kids, encouraged to date and eventually marry my white mother, whose whiteness was her own burden because it didn’t accompany the assumed wealth, othering her from other white folk and the wealthy brown folk she was raised amongst. They moved to Canada, they were encouraged to raise their daughters as Christian-Canadians, they were model immigrants. 

Our relationship with Trinidad changed, my father took up cross country skiing, my mother insisted on teaching other West Indian kids at an elementary school how to adapt without facing the scrutiny she faced when she first moved to Canada. And while my mother was accused of racism by Jamaican parents who children she was teaching to code-switch my father was celebrated as the token ethnic friend amongst his white pals. 

As the years past and the distance grew from Trinidad to a life in the Great White North, his relationship with his faith evolved to something New Age-y, my sister and I succumbed to a city ruled by atheism, and our dear mother continued to practice her liberal Christian beliefs privately. Our family’s interest in Islamic culture was boiled down to defending it in an increasingly Islamaphobic world, appreciating cultural & historical achievements and participating in Eid feasts at my aunt’s house. I grew up knowing my aunt and grandmother fasted, but I thought that was a Trinidad thing, not our family’s faith.

In my mid-twenties, my grandfather passed away and we were thrust back into the traditions and practices of the Muslim faith. This was the first time I realized that I am Muslim, my father had just forgotten. As the only male in his immediate family, my father was on his own, navigating grief and a world that had been long lost to him, even if he had never been properly included to begin with. In tribute to his own father, my dad worked hard to remember anything about his time in the faith community.

This began our reintroduction to our family’s historical religious practices. Stumbling through Arabic greetings, fights with my mother about wearing a scarf in the mosque (I thought it was sexist, she told me to suck it up) and overwhelmed by the chest-pounding sadness of my now widowed grandmother. No one could process my father finally understanding how he wasn’t raised to practice a tradition that was now forcing him to confront his father’s dead body only hours after his passing.

When I look back on it now, I realize something that I just didn’t have the words for then: My father was whitewashed. In turn, I was whitewashed.

His parents made a choice when he was younger, their only son would be given all the opportunities of a white boy, their own version of thrusting white privilege on a brown child. The took the opportunity of their European last name and doubled down. Picture someone named Angus Muller in your head - a strapping Scottish-German - my dad is as skinny and bald and yes… as tanned as Ghandi. On paper he was going to be white, and they raised him to see himself as white as well.

And the first thing to do was keep him at arms length to his family’s religion. He never forced to practice the tenants of Islam and was never expected to join the family at Mosque, my father was allowed to put his cultural religious practices aside for the colonizers traditions. Then he did the same thing to his own daughters.

In the fifteen years since the death of my grandfather and the exposure to my heritage, I have been increasingly more and more interested in understanding Islam. This is a private practice that I don’t talk about much, much less expose to the world. Yet, untangling my family’s colonialism leaves me with no answers to my own claim on the the Muslim World. Am I a Muslim? Am I convert? Am I a GenX’r who believes that religion is an oppressive state? Am I a wanderer on the path to discover my faith past the doctrine? A Catch-22 of claiming your past and interloping on a religion that isn’t your own.

Over the last five years, I have been working with the BIPOC community to diversify diversity in Film and Television, and I am no stranger to a questioning glance at events. I read as white, a little exotic… maybe southern Italian who dies her hair auburn? One of those rare green-eyed Greeks? In high school I was rejected from the Afro-Caribbean Society. Even my own grandmother called me white. But I fit into the diverse community like a glove because they take my word for it. 

The diversity community understands that we don’t know jack-all about genetics, immigration patterns, or the plight of the reclaimers.  But what of the dominant classes, who celebrate performative diversity based on visual cues? 

As a member of an urban culture that uses the performance of cultural tropes as a shortcut to navigating a multi-ethnic world, what happens when you don’t preform to the standard that the average person can read you at.  My father, in order to live your day to day life without a whispered stare, rejected the fashion that would speak his culture for him, opting for preppy or sporty trends of the Mountain Equipment Co-Op leisure cultures. No one in our family wears religious or ethnic garments.

I am the living embodiment of the religious sanitation that North America demands of its city dwellers and that my grandparents thrust on us to help us blend. A double-edged sword. I am what my father longs to be, a person who COULD walk in the world and never think twice about race or religion. Is it because I was raised in a colonial state of mind that it’s in my nature to rebel? Is that rebellion a return to a faith? 

Streetcar man listens to me, and trundles off to accost the next one and I am left with my dad’s silent fury. This harmless micro-aggression is forcing him to confront with his non-ordinariness  (“I’m not Black, I’m OJ” repeats in my head whenever he explains to me that he’s not ethnic, he’s just Angus.) ignoring his own rich cultural heritage. 

But that’s when I see the silver-lining, his drive for ordinariness has given me something to buck against, a goal to return to family practices in a different world. It’s given me the privilege of being an invisible minority, I am not an interloper in my family’s religion, but rather an interloper in the whitewash. That the world has changed, that we choose to return to our faith because the generation of it being a burden has passed.

Gillian MullerComment