Colourful Woman Wednesday: Jeneba Jalloh “JJ” Ghatt

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This is the fourth post in our “Colourful Woman Wednesday” series, which features stories of colourful women surviving and thriving. If you’d like to share your story, or nominate a colourful woman for this feature, email us or get in touch via Tumblr,Twitter or Facebook.

Jeneba Jalloh “JJ” Ghatt is an entrepreneur, attorney, advocate, columnist, author and the founder of JJG Communications, a strategic consulting company.

  As an attorney, Jeneba has represented the nation’s highest profile civil rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts, Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission, all while authoring six influential and visible political and personal blogs and maintaining an active social media profile on LinkedInTwitter, FourSquare and other platforms. Jeneba was born in Sierra Leone and raised in the United States by a Catholic mother and a Muslim father.

Here she talks to the Coloured Collective about what drives and inspires her:

‘What makes you a colourful woman?’

I am an eternal optimist, that person who always sees the glass as half full and who makes lemonade when life gives lemons. And with that perspective on life, I fully appreciate beauty in all shapes, sizes, colour, persuasions and perspectives. I try to pass down that value to my children and aim to spread it among all those in my life, in person and online. I value my friendships and am always looking to enrich myself with knowledge and information and freely share gems and nuggets of wisdom I discover with all those I love and care about and who are around me. That is the definition of colour if you ask me.

‘Who are some of your colourful inspirations?’

I am inspired by other people around me living their dream, sticking their necks out; people who are not afraid of rejection, trial and error and who are resilient and steadfast. I see these traits in some colleagues, in some celebrities I follow for some of the blogs I own and in members of my family who surmount the odds and accomplish great things.

I also love fashion and taking the question literally, I’d say I gravitate towards those who exude confidence and wear the skin they’re in effortlessly and who select clothes and pieces that accentuate their best assets.

‘What are some of your projects right now?’

I’ve been promoting my blog Bellyitch, working on partnerships with other notable and established brands and will be putting out some new and exciting products in the very near future.

I’m also pitching a book that will be based on a blog I author at The Washington Times communities section called communities section called Politics of Raising Children which deals with the challenges of raising conscientious and balanced children in the very political times we live in.

I write for a political website Politic365.com which covers politics from the perspective of African and Hispanic Americans; and I’m a pundit on a nationally-syndicated weekly radio show called Week in Review.

Currently I’m on hiatus from a weekly online radio show I co-host with a friend that tackles politics, policy and pop culture from the perspective to the right of traditional black pundits in America who are generally very liberal. It’s called Right of Black.

‘What message would you like to share with our readers today?’

Take some time getting to know yourself and find your passion. Stop striving to be who someone else wants you to be; look within and rediscover yourself. Once you do that, find someone out there who has done what you want to do and to follow the path they’ve blazed. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Hold your cards to your chest, sharing your intimate desires with only those who matter and who will support you. There are plenty of haters and naysayers out there, and who despise seeing friends aim higher. Such people are toxic. Don’t let them occupy precious and valuable mental space in your head with their negativity. Keep them at arms-length and keep striving to accomplish your goals.

Don’t let rejection get you down because all the most accomplished people in the world have been told “no” plenty more than they were told yes. Remember that and you won’t wallow in self-pity over small bumps along the way! That is the formula for success.

Thank you for your inspiring words and example, JJ!

Standing out from the crowd

As an adult, I have attempted to rise above the feeling of ‘sticking out like a sore thumb’ which I constantly experienced growing up. I now realise that 3 years of living in London had given me a false sense of belonging or at least blending in. Once more resident in T&T, that façade has been summarily shattered.

Although the population of Trinidad and Tobago has a relatively high percentage of inter-racial mixing, the proportion of said population with lighter skin tones is quite low (in my experience). Low enough that one tends to do a double take when a very light skinned person walks in, and some people even assume that you are not from Trinidad. An important caveat: this is definitely a more common phenomenon in South Trinidad as the proportion of “Trinidad whites” is much lower there than in Port of Spain and environs. 

Some would say that I should be used to being singled out for my appearance. Yet it never ceases to discomfit and unsettle me, and even more so when it happens in the work place.

There was a recent and unfortunate incident at work which left me reeling. I sought the opinion of a varied cross section of people to gauge their feelings on it, and the majority viewed it as coming with the territory of being “fair”. In their view, being singled out and taken to task for imaginary infringements of a non-existent dress code policy, and by the least appropriately dressed person in the Company, is something which I must expect because I am “fair”. In their words, I stand out, so my appearance is highlighted and attention is focused on me and clothing missteps real and imagined.

That was actually the second time I was ludicrously singled out for work attire, previously, and incredibly, being informed that I would no longer be able to wear very sensible, neat ballet flats to work but instead should wear high heeled shoes. Seriously? Only me, mind.

No matter how much you rationalize discrimination, whatever the category, it still rankles.

So what are you anyway?

Image source: http://www.breakingperceptions.com/neither-black-nor-white-the-confusion-of-being-mixed-race/

Mixed?

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).