Queer Women’s Film Project Showcases Racial Divide
"Toasted Marshmallows" is a film, performance, and community-building project created by two mixed-race queer women of color who’ve identified a gap in popular culture’s representation of mixed-race narratives. Since founding the project in 2012, the co-creators have collected stories from their families and other mixed-race women in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Portland, Vancouver, and in August, in Oakland. Next on their destination list - Sri Lanka.
Anoushka Ratnarajah, the daughter of a Sri Lankan father and white Canadian mother, is a brown mixed-race femme who grew up in a suburb of Vancouver. Marcelitte Failla, a black mixed-race femme, is from a rural Oregon town known for its surrounding tree nurseries. Growing up in white environments, Ratnarajah and Failla knew they were people of color, but neither understood yet what kind of people of color they were. One race, one culture, one identity did not define them, and that set them apart from the other children they grew up with.
"I’m very light," Failla, 27, said, "but I knew I was brown in this white context. At the same time, it was hard for me to identify as black because I didn’t know black people could look like me. My mom was black, but me, I was just a shade of something."
Similarly, Ratnarajah’s upbringing was littered with experiences of being othered, too.
"When I was a teenager, I knew I wasn’t a desirable young woman because I wasn’t white," Ratnarajah, 27, said. "The moment I knew it was going to impact me for the rest of my life was when I didn’t get a part in a community play because I was ’too dark.’ I went home and cried to my [white] mom who had no idea what to say."
Upon meeting in 2012, both as fellows in the New York City-based Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics’ Emerging Artist Program, the two shared their experiences with each other - the day a very young Ratnarajah witnessed her brown father called "dirty" in the local grocery store, the time Failla’s first childhood friend told her she had "hair like a horse," and also, how it’s felt to sometimes be the darkest person in a room, or the lightest.
They put together a funny, honest, and poignant performance piece for the emerging artists’ program and called it Toasted Marshmallows; a simple, yet fitting, euphemism for their parallel experience.
"The name just happened," Failla said. "It symbolizes our feeling of being white on the inside, brown on the outside. We’re not ’Oreos,’ but sometimes we feel like we don’t have a connection to our brownness, or our cultures."
Discussing the differences between their experiences has been necessary, too. For Ratnarajah, transnational identity has been especially important to highlight. Many mixed-race people are children of immigrants, or are immigrants themselves.
"My father is Sri Lankan by ancestry but was born in Malaysia," Ratnarajah said. "He immigrated to the U.K. for school where he met my mother, and then to Canada much later after they’d been married for over a decade."
For Failla, talking about how passing for white has complicated the claiming of her identity, has felt essential.
"I pass," Failla said. "People see me as white. In white spaces, people see me as the safe black person, the one they can say offensive things around. In black spaces, it’s a question of whether I’m black enough. I’ve been accepted to some extent but some people still question my authenticity, which complicates the way I feel about being in those spaces."
Collection of Interviews