The culture puzzle

In my own skin I’m more than enough. It’s the rest of the world that is a challenge.

When I moved to Paris last January, I was pretty sure of what my adventure would be about: learning French, writing, seeing the world and living life on my terms. Instead, Paris has turned into an adventure of self-discovery, race, culture and belonging.

Every day that I live in Europe, I realize more and more what a culture puzzle I am. To some I’m a woman of African descent, but not a ‘real African’ because I  was born and raised in Spain. For many I’m not a real Spaniard, because my skin is black. And for the rest who feel the need to label me, I’m the American in Paris.

And that label – ‘American’ is what surprises me the most. During the 20 plus years that I lived in New York, I never felt American – but now I feel that more than ever. Maybe that old cliché really is true: you can take a girl out of Brooklyn, but you can never take Brooklyn out of the girl.

For now, I define myself as an Afro-European who was raised in New York, and who for the moment lives in Paris.

When I lived in New York, I was proud to say that I was born and raised in Madrid. Always reminiscing about my childhood, my family and friends. How being the only black kid from kindergarten to 7th grade didn’t faze me, because when I went home there were kids my age who looked like me. Children who called Spain home, the only country we knew. So what if nobody played with me during recess? I was happy to read and dream imaginary worlds. It was the beginning of an isolation that eventually became a part of me.

I think that isolation (or wall, as my best-friends would say) is what helped me survive moving to New York as a child. Where once again everything about me was different. Yes I spoke Spanish, but for the Latin Americans I had the accent and traditions of the “Conquistadores”, so I was never really part of their of culture, because I didn’t have the Latino experience. I had many African-American friends, but for them I was a ‘different’ kind of black, because no one in my family was born on American soil. A blend of many, but not enough of anything.

So where does that leave me now, as the Afro-European woman raised in Brooklyn traveling through Europe? Who am I? What culture do I identify with? Today, this is the answer to the puzzle that works: I am a woman who belongs nowhere, but makes a home everywhere she goes.

Kobayashi Maru

“Puffy-faced” Ashley Judd laid the proverbial smack down on critics recently, to which I responded from the other end of the cyberverse with a hearty punch to the air and a resounding “in yo face bitchez!”

From this, was a haunting reminder of a similar issue I have tangoed with all my life.

The female body.

Growing up in the Caribbean, the “coca-cola bottle shape” reigned with sensuous superiority.  As with Latin America, parts of Europe, and other splashes on the global design, curves are synonymous with fertility, vitality, passion and lure. All the things that make a woman womanly right?  Wrong.  All the things that make a woman more of a thing, or a ting and less of the influential woman that she is, atop those sturdy legs of hers.  But it took me a while to learn this.

Cursed with the blessing of a high metabolism, lanky limbs and ectomorphic genes, I have spent the majority of my life being a twig.  Scrawny, “magga”, flat and toothpicky, and generally deemed unattractive by my male counterparts.  Compounded by very short hair, I spent most of my early teen years being mistaken for a boy.  In a society that drilled into me that I just wasn’t “womanly” enough, I ate the fattiest of foods in hopes that I would somehow develop the curves that would ascend me into this private club of bombshells stupifying men with the faintest twist of a hip.

In these years, I migrated to Canada. Now in North American territory, I was surrounded by girls who starved themselves in order to become “sexy.” WHAT? But I– What the hell was going on.  I spent all these years trying to get “thick” and now you tell me I should be thin??  And not just thin! Meatless. Buttless. Thighless.  You show a smidgeon of curvature and you are FAT!

Swimming through the murky waters of the physical female identity, I spent years learning that the checklist of qualities a woman must have changed faster than a stripper working double duty.  Hair this length, this colour. Serum to make eyelashes that much longer.  Boobs big, waist small, the ideal form being presented to us by a Mattel factory belt.  36-18-33.  Do they know that Barbie can’t stand up on her own?  Oh wait, of course they do.  It seems that this is what they want.  Docile, attractive arm candy, that needs support to keep her upright.

In my own quest for Adonis status, I have discovered strength.  Muscle mass, toned physique, abs, hamstrings, biceps.  My relationship with the Body, and the female form, has led me to decide I want to represent myself physically, the way I feel mentally. Which is what we of the fairer sex tend to do anyway, with fashion, with grooming, a first impression is all that much more important for us, than it is them.  I have found a harmonious relationship with fitness, where I can develop curves of a different nature.

Until I hear, “Oh my god, she looks so manly.” More criticism, yay. There are many women who tote the motto that Strong is the new Skinny.  And without fail the critics come running in to bash women with visible muscle definition, calling them “unfeminine” and “manly”.  I didn’t realize men were the only ones with muscles.

If you’re curvy, they’ll find something wrong with you.  If you’re skinny, they’ll find something wrong with you.  If you’re muscular, they’ll find something wrong with you.  We just cannot seem to catch a break.

I have come to realize the only way to win at a game specifically rigged to see you lose, is to walk off the field.  Removing oneself from the equation. I’m going to keep lifting these weights. I will finally feel just as strong outside as I do inside.  And if they have a problem with me, I welcome them to come say something to my face.

I doubt they will.

‘You mad, bro?’

tweeted once that there was no upside to being a non-white female under 40. Put another way, white men over 40 are unlikely to have had to deal with any of the following situations:

– “Of course they hired you! You’re a poster-child for diversity!
– “Excuse me, when is the tea being served?”
– “I hear you on this, but…”
– “So when next are you going back to [insert name of Caribbean island that is not actually person’s country of birth or domicile here; if in doubt, default to Jamaica]”
– “You should be grateful that…”


Yet the most frustrating/soul-destroying part of the non-white female under 40 triumvirate is contending with the angryblackwoman stereotype. A stereotype that means any opinion, any dissenting viewpoint, any suggestion, any email, any comment, any expression at all – no matter how innocuous – by members of this cadre risks being interpreted as “disrespectful”, “rude”, “cold”, “combative”, “non-cooperative” or the ever-popular, “hostile”.

This in addition to the adjectives commonly applied to women who lead or manage – all of which may be summed up in another word: “bitch”.

And in addition to bodies of research that show, definitively, that women are penalized for speaking up or appearing to be ambitious, for asking for salary increases.

(Then, of course, there’s the other end of the gaslighting spectrum: “You’re so sensitive. You’re so emotional. You’re defensive.” Further excellent reading, featuring the oft-forgotten observation that ‘privilege is revealed more clearly to those who don’t have it’ from Hugo Schwyzer, here)

To quote a  commenter at the Atlantic (in the context of a particularly infuriating piece on Michelle Obama):

Imagine if every time you said anything, someone said “you mad, bro?” I imagine being a powerful black woman involves pretty continuous trolling of that sort.

Because, yes, exactly.

A version of this piece first appeared in the Galavant Times.

Feel it in the One Drop

This post first appeared at The Liming House on July 16 2008

I feel an identity crisis coming on.

This most recent bout of mixed-person-itis was triggered by a post over at What Tami Said, in which the eponymous author comments on “black people” (italics mine) who claim mixed heritage.

While she makes some interesting points, two of her affirmations thereupon unsettled me:

Mixed ancestry is often what we bring up to prove that we are different from other “just black” folks.

It is about elevating ourselves in the hierarchy of race–from “just black” to something special.

The folks in question are not those “bi-racial people who rightly claim both family cultures,” Ms Tami said, but those “who reach back 100 years in the family tree to tout a Cherokee princess who may or may not have existed.”

Oh dear.

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So what are you anyway?

Image source:


Thoughts of race/ethnicity/identity always leave me feeling somewhat bemused, somewhat like I have an existential stomachache.

Our society tells us that in order to know who we are, we must know “what” we are- that is to say that much of our identity is built around our racial and ethnic categorization.

Unless you don’t fit into any category but “other”. Cue identity issues.

Trinidad and Tobago boasts of being a cosmopolitan or “rainbow” twin-island nation, where “every creed and race, find an equal place”. Again, no proviso made for those belonging to a number of creeds and races.

Questions of race in T&T are largely influenced by each group’s historical experience, in particular by the conditions of immigration to T&T and the pattern of experiences once there.

Not surprising then, that the colonial imprint of white privilege still affects us today, manifesting itself in a preoccupation with “fairness”.

The phrase “if yuh not red yuh dead” is a prime example of the duality of these attitudes. It implies superiority on the part of these red-skinned Trinbagonians (whoever they may be, since no two people have the same idea of what it is to be ‘red’ in T&T), but is this assigned to them or assumed by them?

My childhood was defined by conflicts such as this- I was cushioned by my parents (particularly my ‘red’ mother) because they predicted that we would always attract extra attention (and mostly of a negative nature) due to our skin tones. Unfortunately these fears were borne out. I was always struck by the stiffening of shoulders, the frigidity of the air when I entered certain social settings. I learnt to carry myself with self-assurance (if only feigned) because I was often met with hostility merely because I appeared to belong to a certain group, and therefore, the assumptions went, I must be an uppity so-and-so… All this, as a child, and coming from children.

That feigned self-assurance could not mark the real hurt caused by such treatment at the hands of my so-called peers. Something else with which to regale my hypothetical therapist.

Note carefully what emerges from the above account of childhood encounters- I began to develop a veneer of aloofness so as to protect myself from the inevitable sneers. At least for myself I can say that if I seem like an uppity so-and-so, is allyuh make me so. Self-fulfilling prophecy indeed.

Yesterday, mom declared that she was going to found a new race, so that we would no longer have to self-define as “other”. Her life has in large part been defined by her appearance. She recounted a recent experience which lead her once more to lament the fate of we mixed individuals, forever lost in racial/ethnic/cultural limbo. At a discussion about the propriety of the Prime Minister bowing to the Indian President, several commentators interjected with perspectives based on what they saw as their particular culture’s position. My mother realized anew that her mixed racial background meant not that she could identify with all, but rather that she could identify with none.

This is what most people don’t understand. Although we can attest that T&T’s culture is this, or it is that, ultimately one’s sense of rootedness requires something deeper, something more primeval.

Fortunate individuals may identify with one or more ethnic influences which they find around them- bi-racial people come to mind here, depending on the circumstances. Others may have a higher degree of mixing but identify with one majority group. And then, there are the “Callaloos” like my family. We are the product of several generations of a high degree of mixing (i.e. across a range of racial groups). We have also inherited several generations’ worth of feelings of racial/ethnic/cultural displacement.

As an aside, I will admit that in my case, dysfunction within the family unit went a long way to exacerbating this sense of displacement, as extended family ties have long been tenuous at best.

Back to the point- when asked “so what are you anyway?” my response is usually- shrug, list various things which make up my racial/ethnic profile and then shrug again, this time internal, at how unsatisfactory an answer that will always be.

Have I mentioned that having a riot of curly hair and a complexion which defies UV rays and, just to make things fun, a seemingly-random Muslim last name really adds to the confusion?

Suffice to say, I am not easily defined.

(FYI, the ‘Muslim’ last name originates from Indian ancestors who can be traced back to that fateful journey aboard the Fatel Razack. Note how proud I am of having at least some ancestry to claim).

The Bus Dilemma

When you walk onto a bus or onto a train, who do you choose to sit beside?

Mostly I go with the dark skinned woman of whatever race and most often that’s who chooses to sit next to me too. I see white people of all ages decide not to sit next to me. I don’t mind so much because they aren’t my first choice either.

The thinking behind this is that if anything bad were to go down, who would have your back? Who would most likely be the aggressor?

The other day at a concert there was a group of very loud people behind me. I think I was one of two coloured people at the show. It was a Canadian folk rock band so I wasn’t surprised. Anyway, the people behind me were in their late 30’s, white and very loud. But I didn’t tell them to keep it down. I deferred to someone white in my group to do it. I do stuff like this all the time and for the longest while I thought I was just cowardly and had to work on self assertion. I’m actually not a coward though in any other part of my life, how could I be a coward about this? What’s really happening is that deep down I don’t think I have a right to say anything because this isn’t my country. You see on some level I am afraid of these people.

The deeper feeling is that if things were to go awry, that I would be the first to be voted off the island. I am afraid that those loud, annoying people at the concert would attack me and that no one would come to my defence, because I’m just that coloured girl. I feel that at the very sight of me, I am relegated to second class citizen and that my preferences and opinions belong to a different world from the world in which I live.

Part of writing this blog is to help me come to terms with that. It’s okay that I am afraid and that I feel like an outsider, because I have made a world for myself with good, strong people (of all colours, shapes and sizes). It doesn’t matter that strangers treat me with ill disguised dubiousness at my intelligence, because I know who I am.

I have heard Jewish people say that they are sometimes afraid that they will be treated with disdain because of their background and I’ve heard Eastern Europeans say the same thing. When I went to university though I could hardly tell the Iranians from the Greeks, from the Jews, from the AngloSaxons. We all feel insecure and we are all over compensating for something.

Being different in sexual orientation, religious affiliation or skin colour from the majority is always difficult. As a visual minority though, I don’t have to wonder if anyone will notice the colour of my skin. It’s out there. I’ve spent enough time from country to country being afraid of drawing further attention to myself. This writing is part of my healing and part of my self empowerment.

Thanks for tuning in.

Maybe I am my hair

This post first appeared at The Liming House on July 16 2008

(Pace India.Arie)

I started growing my locs five years ago. Since then, I’ve fielded a host of questions from friendsfamilyclassmatescolleaguesrandomstrangers, including but not limited to:

– Do you wash it?

– How do you wash it?

– Can I touch it?

– Does it itch?

– Is it real?

– Does it hurt?

– Don’t you miss your real hair?

– Are you a Rasta?

– Why did you do it?

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