'What are you?': Canadian author using multi-racial background to break down racism in new memoir
TORONTO -- In grade school, Guyanese-born Canadian author Tessa McWatt was asked by a Toronto teacher 'What are you?'
She recalls that the teacher then filled the silence trying to prompt McWatt’s response by calling out different nationalities such as Mexican, Brazilian and Filipino.
McWatt -- who was eight at the time -- told CTV's Your Morning that she didn't know how to answer, so she ignored the question by folding her arms on her desk and burying her head there.
That memory is a jumping-off point for McWatt’s new memoir "Shame On Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging." The book follows McWatt's interrogations of historical ideas of race through the lens of her own multi-racial identity.
However, McWatt said the shame referenced in her book’s title belongs to everyone.
"We can safely say, given the events of the last few weeks that the shame is all of ours. It's the shame of still a structurally and systemically racist society after so many centuries of struggle and resistance and attempts to do otherwise," McWatt said in a video interview on Tuesday, from her home in London, U.K.
While everyone shares that shame of racism, McWatt said it is also specific to her personally, because of her multi-racial background.
McWatt was born in Guyana and came to Canada when she was just three years old. Her heritage is Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Indigenous Guyanese, African and Chinese.
"It's the shame of being a product of the sugar plantation in the Caribbean, which was founded on slavery and indenture, and it's the shame of being associated for me with the white planter class in that hierarchy, but it's also the shame of poverty that first led to enslavement and indenture," McWatt explained.
McWatt argues in her book that the structures of racism today are rooted in the "plantation hierarchy" in which a few people of power presided over enslaved Africans, placing Black people at the bottom of the hierarchy from the 16th through the 19th centuries and keeping them there long after.
"It's the shame of the eradication of the Indigenous people in British Guyana, from whom I'm also related, but it's also the shame of growing up in a so-called liberal society in which I believed that the issues around race were improving, and that my so-called success was evidence of that, but… it's still obvious to us that the structures haven't changed," she said.
To dissect this hierarchy of racism, McWatt uses her body parts to structure the book with chapters named lips, hair, nose, eyes, ass, bones, skin and blood. McWatt said every anatomical part is a racial signifier with the body fragmented into its "coloured" components.
"With my own body, it was a way to unpick stereotypes of race and to undermine that race science that has led so much of how we are still entrenched in thinking about race," Mcwatt said.
She said she wanted to use the body parts to undermine scientific notions around race in the historical context that justified the dehumanization of Africans for the transatlantic slave trade.
"My background is Scottish, African, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Indigenous and French and I think with that unique combination, it was a way to undermine the fact that race is not biological but it's a power structure. It is created by power and racism creates race," Mcwatt said.
McWatt has spent a lot of time trying to find an answer to her grade school teacher’s question over the years, only to realize that the question everyone should be asking is not 'What are you?' in regards to race, but 'Who are you as a person?' in times of racial inequality.
"It's really important for me that journey from 'what are you' to 'who are you.' Who are you in the face of these structural questions? Who are you in the face of anti-Black racism? Who are you in the face of cultural genocide? Who are you in the face of poverty and migrants drowning in the sea?," McWatt said.
She added that shifting to this thinking of 'who' people are rather than 'what' is an important turning point for all societies.
"It's urgent that we dismantle the structures that perpetuate inequality, and we have the capability through our imaginations, through art, through literature that shows us all the time that we can reimagine realities and we can reimagine new worlds," McWatt said.
"I think it's absolutely urgent for us to do that for ourselves and for our societies, but also for the survival of the planet."