Interview with Annahid Dashtgard, Author of Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation

by Mixed Up Mama
If you’re looking for a holiday read or you’re in the market to update your book collection with some real-life mixed race experiences, try this one out!
This memoir, Breaking the Ocean, was written by my sister, Annahid Dashtgard about our family’s and in turn, her experience, growing up mixed race and migrating from Iran to England, then finally to Canada. Her story touches on so many of the struggles that our children, as children of multiracial parentage face. The feelings of belonging, of isolation, of racism, body image and of migration from one country to another.
Today, I asked her a few questions about her newly released book, Breaking the Ocean, that might help us as new parents, or even as experienced ones, to understand our children’s struggles and identities and to help them navigate through adolescence.
Breaking the Ocean

1. Why did you decide to write this book?

Breaking the Ocean is my hopeful journey through exile, immigration, racism and social shunning, ultimately answering the questions: what does it mean to belong, what happens when belonging is absent and how to actively create cultures of belonging?
In our society, there is much space to grieve private losses… or ones that have a heroic public narrative like coming back from war, but the ubiquitous impact of systemic discrimination, the subtle ways you receive the message you are less than… this grief has no place. In fact, if you dare raise it, there is often doubt (is that true?) or denial (that can’t be true).  I wanted to blast open the idea that social rejection is somehow less impactful than other forms of harm.
It’s a journey that’s written on and through the body.  I write very vulnerably and honestly about the impact of identity trauma on the soft animal of the body… and what it looks like to reconcile that because part of it is ours, and part of it is society.  How do you reclaim wholeness in a system designed to keep you feeling less?
2. What impact do you think being mixed had for you in your story of growing up in Canada?
I identify as a woman of colour who is of mixed race heritage.  As a racialized immigrant I was made aware early on of the fact that my family stood out from the all the white people surrounding us.  Being mixed made it harder in some ways because there was no singular community that reflected my identity back to me… the absence of community made me feel like I was the problem, not the other way around.
3. What do you think is the most difficult thing for a child growing up mixed race?
Like I said above, being mixed race can make it hard to feel a sense of tribe– the group that I can be my full self with or take for granted a whole set of norms, and shorthands, cultural in-jokes, and ways of interacting.  In the book I write, “What differentiates the mixed race experience from that of people with a singular ethnic background is the consistent uncertainty about whether you’re in or out, as if belonging is an invisible skipping top one is forever jumping over, from one situation to the next. Self-identity is a Rorschach ink blot, always up for external interpretation.” (p. 187)
Not having an immediate racial/ cultural community can make it more isolating, but it can also be a gift in that you become a bit of an anthropologist seeing more easily the cultural norms because you often don’t fit them, you’re not given the option of fitting in.  And seeing this can offer the option of living OUTSIDE the box— potential freedom, no?
4. What would you recommend to parents who are raising mixed race children or who are raising multiracial families?
It’s essential to make children aware of both or all aspects of their racial/ cultural heritage… this is how they can be whole… developing a fluidity around their identity.  Also, though, we have to teach them about racial hierarchy, because not all racial/ cultural backgrounds are equal.
We live in a society where the darker ones skin colour, generally the more prejudice one faces.  How our children identify may not be how the world treats them.  If we don’t equip our kids early on with literacy around their identity they may easily fall prey to carving out parts of themselves that don’t fit the norm.
5. Do you think it’s important to acknowledge race- even if kids haven’t had a negative experience associated with it?
Absolutely.  We live in a world where skin colour is one of the most basic ways of sorting people (besides gender).  Getting kids to recognize their different identities– and when and how to navigate the world’s responses to these different aspects— is a key part of helping our children attain psychological well-being.  There’s a lot written about being mixed race: good-looking, more innovative, open-minded, adaptable etc.  But that’s only if children are given the awareness of their different backgrounds and how to navigate these differences in the world we live in.
For example, I realized very early on that going out with my British mother was a much easier experience than with my Persian father.  My experience was closer to my what my father faced but not having awareness of why the difference existed, why I was put in the same camp as him, made me ashamed of my brownness, the Persian part of my identity.  I have spent the duration of my adult life digging this part of myself out of the closet.  For many years, I just wanted to pass as white and couldn’t understand why it never worked.
Luckily, there are so many resources available to reflect more diverse identities today than there were fifty years ago— many stories, movies, books that have mixed race or racialized main characters like the new Disney movie coming out where the Little Mermaid is a black girl. About time, I say.
6. Is there anything else you would like to share? Or like readers to know?
In the book I wrote “Story is the original teacher, the oldest recipe for inclusion in the books”.  And it is!  I think stories are the oldest form of teaching, and the most powerful. It’s why I chose memoir. I just wanted to speak as honestly as I could about what I knew to be most deeply true because I knew that would stick in a way nothing else would… it’s also MY primary way of learning about the world, and one that has been a lifeline for me all along. Each time I read an authentically told story, my world expands and I feel less alone.  I hope that’s what my book will do for others.
Buy her book now!
Annahid Dashtgard (MEd) is the co-founder of Anima Leadership, an international consulting company specializing in issues of diversity and inclusion. Previously she was a leader in the anti-corporate globalization movement, responsible for several national political campaigns and frequently referred to as one of the top activists to watch in the 1990s. She is the host of the podcast series Breaking the Ocean: Soundwaves of Belonging and the director of two award-winning documentaries, Buy-Bye World: The Battle of Seattle and Bread. Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and Briarpatch magazine. Dashtgard lives in Toronto with her partner and two children. Breaking the Ocean is her first book, and she will be travelling to cities across North America this fall.

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Jasmine February 5, 2020 - 8:22 pm

Thank you for this blog. I enjoyed the entire interview. One question really stood out to me, about whether or not race should be addressed even if your child has not had any bad experiences, and I agree with the author. I am a mixed-race (black/white) woman I’m the USA raising a mixed-race (black/white) where my daughter has not had any issues surrounding race. Her public school goes as far as separating the categories “mixed-race/multicultural” from “black”, so that says it all right there. She is 12 and more or less the cool outsider mixed kid at her school, who has lots of “outsider” friends, and a huge social life, and she is into all of the things that her friends are into, without having to feel guilty or confused about it.

So I just warned my daughter that there will always be people in this world who will want to put her, and other mixed-race people, into a single racial category, but that it is for selfish reasons or to try and absolve their own insecurities, but to ignore them and just be herself.

Since she has been so lucky, I did not feel that it was neccissary for me to delve into America’s insideous One Drop Rule (not right now at least), but she has enough knowledge to reject any inaccurate presumption (or flat out denial) that she is not black.

I remember being the “white girl” who “thinks she’s better than everyone else” when growing up in a black neighborhood, even though I tried really hard to be black, and naturally I would fail. I realized as an adult that, if raising a mixed-raced child, racist black neighborhoods and racist white neighborhoods can be like torture chambers for kids who are not either of those races.

That is why I chose for us a progressive neighborhood that is predominantly white but also has a sizable international presence, and not one single has she been racially victimized or made to feel like she is not black or white enough (again, the other kids just see her as mixed) so she’s been allowed to just be a kid and to be herself, and the other kids seem to care less about her color. She’s been so blessed to just be able to be a mixed kid, and even be liked because it.

mixedupmama February 23, 2020 - 9:32 pm

Thanks for your comments. Choosing the right place to live is so important for your child to be comfortable with who they are- that, and the conversations you’re having at home. Even if her experience so far has been positive, giving her the language or radar to be able to call it when she sees it is also important. I think racism today is so subtle it’s easy for radicalised folk- especially those who have had positive experiences so far in life- to write it off and think it’s nothing, when actually it IS something and should be addressed. Try to give your daughter the tools to know it when she sees it and to have the confidence to stand up against it.

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