CW: Discussions of overt racism, uncensored anti-Indigenous racial slurs and "jokes", reference to Islamaphobic slurs
I was living in St John’s about 12 years ago, when I had an encounter from which I have never fully recovered.
I was walking in my neighbourhood a little after dark, on my way to a party a few streets away. It was winter, and the snow was falling. I had done my hair, and didn’t want it to get wet, but the style would be ruined if I wore a hat. I opted to cover my hair with a bright red scarf as a stylish and practical solution.
I saw the light from the headlights on the snow first as the black truck drove up behind me. I kept walking, but as a woman alone at night, I was hyper-aware that the truck was slowing down as it approached.
It slowed to a crawl as it passed me. The window was already rolled down, a white man in his 20s leaning out to get my attention.
He looked right at me, took a deep breath, and at the top of his lungs he screamed:
Over, and over again, until the driver hit the gas, and the truck peeled away.
As scared as I was standing alone in the dark after being verbally assaulted by a racist, and as angry as I was at said racist for intending to harass someone whom he believed to be of Middle Eastern descent walking alone at night, the first thing that came to my mind with any clarity was based on a joke comedian Margaret Cho once told.
What I thought was:
“I’m not even Middle Eastern, I’m Indigenous – if I’m anything, I’m a Squaw. If you’re going to be a racist, the least you can do is get the terminology right.”
Then I immediately burst into tears and ran the rest of the way to the party.
Cho’s actual joke was about being called an anti-Chinese slur as a Korean woman, but the message had always resonated with me. While this was one of the scariest times I was ever misidentified, it certainly wasn’t the first.
I am a proud First Nations woman, so I have dealt with my fair share of encounters with anti-Indigenous racism – overt and covert, intentional and unintentional, screaming and civil, everyday and institutional.
Nothing really surprises me anymore.
Funny story: A guy at a party once found out I was Indigenous and spent twenty minutes telling me racist jokes about the reserve near his hometown. Like this one:
Q - What’s red and black and blue all over?
A - Rez wives.
...What can I say but “yikes"?
I honestly think he thought he was flirting. I was laughing along to avoid upsetting him, just long enough for my ride to come pick me up.
Upon reflection, maybe that story isn’t so much funny as it is cringey and kind of disturbing. Maybe you just had to be there.
Anyway, the point is that yes, bigotry against who you are hurts, and it is something each person who experiences it must learn to navigate for themselves; but it isn’t exactly surprising that, if you belong to or identify as a member of any marginalized group, some people will always have a problem with who you are.
What can be harder to navigate, and explain to others, is when people have a problem with who you aren’t.
If I may?
I am a person of mixed race, who has pale skin due to French, English, Irish, and Scandinavian genetics. I also have thick, dark hair, dark eyes, high cheekbones, and a pronounced nose, due to my Indigenous heritage.
This makes me “ethnically ambiguous” in the eyes of many people. This term means many things but in the most basic sense it means that the combination of my inherited physical features makes it hard for people to categorize me comfortably into an ethnic or racial group without a cultural signifier to go by, like clothing or hairstyle.
And I'm not alone - especially in the arts. Many celebrities share the trials (and occasional triumphs) of being ethnically ambiguous - Keanu Reeves, Angelina Jolie, Meghan Markle, Wentworth Miller, Fred Armisan, Dwayne Johnson, Rosario Dawson, Lou Diamond Phillips, Maya Randolph, Mila Kunis, Cliff Curtis and Rashida Jones, just to name a few. Each has found themselves responding to curiosity and misconceptions around their racial and ethnic identities throughout their careers.
Rashida Jones, for example, was walking the red carpet for the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2015 when she went viral for her reaction to someone's misconceptions about her skin colour. A stunning woman by any metric, Rashida looked perplexed, then annoyed, when TNT reporter Danielle Demski exclaimed:
"You look like you've just come off an island or something, you're very tan, very tropical!"
To which the Rashida replied, with more grace and class than I could ever hope to achieve in the same moment:
"I mean, you know, I'm ethnic. It's just being ethnic. That's what it is."
Demski laughed awkwardly, and probably wished she had done her homework on Jones' background - Rashida is the daughter of Jewish actor Peggy Lipton, and black music producer Quincy Jones. She has spoken many times about her experience as an ethnically ambiguous performer.
As for me, I’ve spent most of my life on the island of Newfoundland, surrounded by people with whom I share at least one common ancestral heritage. Here at home, I am usually considered white-passing, as long as I’m not wearing anything that could be seen as an ethnic indicator, such as the head scarf in the above example.
The true test of my otherness really begins if I’m living or traveling off-island. It becomes very clear, very quickly, that I am not quite white enough to pass a cursory inspection – and the more diverse the area, the more obvious my ambiguity becomes.
For example, I am always chosen for extra screening at airport security.
Every. Single. Time.
I am fully acquainted with the full body scanner and pat down procedures while my carry-on is unpacked and scrutinized. And not just during international travel – it happens during domestic and inter-provincial travel, too. On a trip from Deer Lake to Goose Bay with a group of eight other people, my carry-on was the only one chosen for a drug search. Both ways.
There’s also a pattern of people across my whole adult life assuming I’m Jewish. Like a cab driver in Dublin, totally unprompted, suggesting that my husband and I might like to visit the Irish-Jewish history museum during our stay, being sure to make eye contact with me in the rear-view mirror. I do think he was trying to be welcoming in a way many Newfoundlander's can understand - when your motherland is known widely for stereotypes about drinking, fighting, ignorance, and a highly imitable accent, you might want to remind visitors that there is more culture to it than just kitsch and codfish.
Meanwhile, when I told a friend about the encounter, they looked confused and said, “You’re not Jewish?”
I’m flattered, really – and I know the words to Hava Nagila, because that song is a jam - but I’m simply a recovering Catholic. Plus, now I have no idea how many people I’ve met who think I’m one of their Jewish friends but have never thought to confirm it outright.
On other occasions I am simply labelled “vaguely ethnic.”
For a while, I wrapped my hair up in a scarf to work in a commercial kitchen, because hair nets and baseball caps were not enough to keep my mane contained. Apparently, this was a dress code violation, but the manager didn’t point it out for months because they were afraid of offending me on the off chance it was a “cultural thing.”
A person I met in Montreal asked what my ethnic background was at a party. When I invited them to guess what it might be, they guessed Italian, Greek, Armenian, Jordanian, Turkish, Romanian, Lebanese, Iranian, Jewish, Portuguese, and Welsh, among others, before getting around to guessing French. And we were in Montreal. Indigenous never even made the list.
These are just a few of the ways I have been reminded of my otherness, and subject to people’s interpretations of it. It can be hard to understand until it happens to you, but, when someone decides that you are affiliated with a group that they don’t like, it sometimes won’t matter what the truth is - they have already decided which box to place you in, for better or worse.
But what does any of this have to do with art?
For one thing, the ethnically ambiguous actor can find themselves asked to play several cultural and ethnic identities over time, but rarely, if ever, their own. I, myself, have never played an expressly Indigenous character in my educational or professional career, while I have played expressly Italian, Jewish, Eastern European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern characters.
Again, I am not alone in this. There is a long history of white and mixed race actors portraying members of racial, cultural, and ethnic groups that they are not a part of. Just a small number of examples are outlined below.
Personally, my relationship with the non-white, non-Indigenous roles I’ve played is deeply vexed and fraught with ethical and moral considerations. All this of course begs the question of whether it is ever okay for an actor to play a person of an ethnicity to which they do not belong.
What if there were real efforts made to find an appropriate actor for the part, but casting agents came up empty?
What if the only other option is putting a white actor in the role, instead of an actor of another racial or ethnic minority?
What if you feel the story deserves to be told with or without actors who share the ethnic pedigree of the characters they have been cast to play?
What if you declining the role means production will be cancelled because there are no other minority actors available?
What if you haven’t worked in a year because there are no roles being offered for people of your ethnicity?
What if you’re a student, and the role is tied directly to your education and could possibly influence your professional career prospects?
If I were to hypothetically accept to play the part of a non-white, non-indigenous character, am I complicit in a colourist system that I abhor? As a minority, is it my duty to denounce the lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of producers and advocate on behalf of all people of color in the industry?
How do you speak truth to Power when you know that there are a dozen people ready to step into your place and shut up when Power tires of being spoken to that way?
It can be a complicated position to find yourself in. Like all groups, the experience and opinions of ethnically ambiguous people varies from person to person, and the conclusions I reach may not be shared by others in the same situations. I have yet to find any satisfying answers, myself, though I have learned a few things about these issues through many conversations with others in the milieu.
I have learned that I have not always made the right decision, even if I was sure at the time. That I have tried to be respectful, and sometimes I have failed. That I have less power than I need and more power than I want. That I must sit in my own discomfort to truly learn from my mistakes. That I can make better, more educated choices as I move forward.
I have also learned that I am as much a victim of colourism as I am complicit in the systems that uphold it, because three things have been made clear to me as a performer:
1) That I sufficiently register as the correct level of “not quite white” to be able to play characters of some ethnic groups believably. Whatever that means.
2) That I am paradoxically “just white enough” to be able to pass for your run of the mill European characters. Whatever that means.
3) That, in the grandest of ironies, I am “too white” to play Indigenous characters, despite my literal Indigeneity.
So, what is an ambiguous Indigenous performer to do? In the grand scheme of things, I am just one person among many in a constant battle to reconcile how their experience fits into a larger societal narrative.
I do the only things I know how to do: I try to use the privilege I have for good. I try to sincerely listen to members of groups that have been historically silenced and amplify their voices. I try to support and speak up for the equity and equality of all disenfranchised people as I advocate for my own right to thrive amidst systems designed to destroy my heritage.
It isn’t always easy to talk about race, culture, or ethnicity as someone who doesn’t quite know where their voice fits into the conversation. I know there are people for whom these factors play a much bigger role in their experience; whose life is more dangerous, more segregated, made more difficult by others. I also know that I have been the target of racism, xenophobia, colourism, and bigotry, and that my experience is valid, despite the misconceptions of others.
I don’t have any of the answers. At least not any that don’t involve massive social change and fundamental shifts in how the arts and culture sector operates. And that can be a lot to grapple with because, while change starts at the ground level, the people with the power to enforce that change usually work on the top floors.
While I don't even have my own dressing room.
Leahdawn Helena (she/they) is a member of Qalipu First Nations, is Two-Spirit Lnu, and is the Indigenous Sociocultural Consultant at PerSIStence Theatre. She has a BFA (Theatre) and a BA (Sociocultural Studies) from MUN, Grenfell Campus. Born in Stephenville and raised in Corner Brook, she has been involved with theatre and film since her teens. She currently lives in St John’s with her husband, Chris, their cat, Montgomery, and their dog, Chevrolet Chase. Her favourite book, film, and colour are The Colour Purple.