When I arrived in Canada for the first time, I became aware that the use of the term 'white' was very different from what I had been using internally for many years. To me, a 'white' was a person with white skin. 'white', 'brown', 'black' were solely used to identify skin colour, which could change as one aged.
I became aware that people are put into general boxes labelled 'Asian', 'Blacks', 'Natives', 'White', etc. This was new to me. Formerly, I used 'Asian' as a way to describe a person who has lived the majority of his/her life in Asia. It also never occurred to me to use 'Blacks', because 'Blacks' were either simply Canadians, or upon further inquiry, they were Canadians of X descent, who happened to have dark skin. There only things that interested me in describing people were their physical features (of which skin colour is a conspicuous component), country of origin, and ancestral origins. Therefore, in my mind, a person can be East Asian, White, of north African descent, and Canadian, all at the same time.
The difference chief lies in how I used some terms differently. 'Asian', 'African', 'European' solely refer to physical locations where people live out their lives. 'Black', 'Brown', 'White' refer to skin colour.
I have made significant effort in understanding the Canadian categorisation of people into 'White', 'Black', 'Asian' categories. It looks like a social construct, given how much effort I had put in before I could categorise people on my own. The very first 'mistake' that spiked my interest in this new categorisation method was when an Armenian girl with fair skin said that she was sometimes mistaken as 'White'. One of the last mistakes I made was when a girl who was adopted as a child said that she wasn't 'White' although I could clearly see that her parents were fair skinned Canadians of European origin.
This has been a very confusing learning experience. I've definitely learned a lot from this novel way of classifying humans. However, I am not yet ready to use this system internally. When I was classifying people, I felt that these convenient labels are doing people a disservice by classifying them into these restrictive boxes. Maybe that's how stereotypes develop and persist. Maybe that's what makes people try to suppress their own cultures in order to fit into one of the boxes. Maybe that's why mixed race children are frequently torn between one box and another and sometimes struggle to feel at home anywhere they go. For now, I'll use my own classification system; I feel uncomfortable with mass generalisations.
"Where are you from?"
"I was born in Hong Kong, and grew up in Japan. My father is a Indian, and my mother is Scottish. We moved to Canada when I was 15."
So in my books, that person is a Canadian who was born in Hong Kong. He is of Indian and Scottish descent. His life's experiences makes him an East Asian. He has brown skin. For most people here, he is 'South Asian'. That sounds like a gross oversimplification, to reduce a person to a single label. It's about time to recognise the complexities of human classification instead of using simplistic labels/categories. It doesn't help that some of the labels come with negative or positive connotations (and stereotypes). This feels like a social issue. If that's the case, I don't see any progress being made. Maybe I just don't understand. Maybe I still have lots to learn about racial issues in Canada. For now, I'll just see individuals as individuals.