Thoughts from an immigrant Mom

I have these flashes of memory sometimes. They are intense, visceral kernels of memory that, for a singular moment, take me back home. My favourite moments are actually the the most mundane memories. Just the other day, I was talking to my partner when all of a sudden I remembered standing in a big parking lot in Point-a-Pierre, Trinidad. The parking lot is opposite the tennis courts my friends and I would to frequent. For a moment, though standing in my Toronto kitchen, I could feel the gentle Marabella breeze and see the swaying palm trees that line the perimeter of the lot. I could remember smelling the mild saltiness of the air and feeling the exhilarating warmth of a great tennis workout. That memory was not particularly significant. It is valuable to me only because it was a perfectly ordinary day that belonged to another incarnation of my life. Those perfectly normal moments from when I lived in Trinidad – the moments I took for granted for their plainness – those memories are now irreplaceable nuggets of nostalgia.

My daughter is 5 months old now and in having her, I’ve reopened a trove of memories and emotions that I’d long forgotten. When I was young I didn’t think I’d have children. When I allowed myself that fantasy though, I imagined taking my child to see practices at steel pan yards or to play traditional Red Indian Mas in south Trinidad. I imagined pushing her on the swings at San Fernando Hill Playground or rolling about in the sand at Mayaro Beach. Even in my dreams, I find myself thinking about my childhood and the places that meant something to me. Though I’ve been in Canada for a long time, still, the stories of my life are layered onto the most mundane places, in Trinidad. Places where I loved and laughed. But I don’t live there anymore. And in some senses those places no longer exist.

The truth is though, that my daughter will likely grow up in Toronto. These streets will be her stage. I might take her to visit those places. But really? She’d just be visiting. Her story will be vastly different from my own. This is part of being an immigrant. I have not yet made this place mine, but she certainly will by virtue of the fact that this is the first world she will come to know. I wonder about that. I worry about that. It took me 10 years to figure out how to dress appropriately for winter. How in the world am I supposed to guide her in a land that I don’t really know myself?

I look at events across the border and I worry; what if one day she’s not wanted here? I made a gamble by trading community ties and familiarity in Trinidad for freedom and safety from crime here in Canada. What if that gamble backfires and this place becomes more dangerous to her?

I’m encouraged by the new found community here that motherhood has shown me. I’m encouraged by the liberal values that Toronto exhibits. In the present political climate, though my gamble is currently safe, I mourn for non-white immigrants in America and Syrian refugees everywhere. In them I see my own worst fears played out as the caprice of nations sell out human rights and dignity. I wish I could promise my daughter certainty. Certainty however, appears to be fools gold.

Ms. Wright Says: God Please Make Me Black

Courtesy: Ms. Wright Says 

If you don’t know, I will tell you… I prayed that God would make me Black. People who know me might be perplexed by such a revelation. I am “Black” by the “one-drop rule” and I do have African ancestry. Although I self identify myself as a Black woman other people both Black, White, and in between have often asked “What are you?”

Like Andromeda Turre’s PSA ‘What are you?’ in the Huffington Post, I too had to answer that question daily as a child and even into adulthood. Some of my canned responses were “I am a little girl” or “human being.” Their response would be “No. I know that. What race are you?” I would say “I am Black!” They would pause and stare at me then reply “No you’re not!” or “You gotta be mixed with somethin.” As an adult I would be annoyed by such ignorance because most Black folks are mixed with something due to our enslaved ancestry in the United States and later interracially marrying. That mixture is what actually makes us “African Americans.”

The irony is that I was born in Washington, D.C. or “Chocolate City” as it is affectionately known. I spent most of my formative years in the suburbs of Southern California. I remember the first time race became a topic of conversation. I was in the first grade, it was lunchtime and a Mexican girl named April began to categorize all the kids at the table by race. When she got to me she said I was Black. My response was “No. I am actually fried chicken color.” When I got home that afternoon I asked my mother if I was Black? She looked at me, laughed and said “of course, honey!” I told her that if I was Black, why didn’t I look Black? She said “Black people are like flowers, a rose is no more beautiful than a lily, but they all are classified as flowers. We are like a chocolate rainbow of many beautiful hues.” As a 10 year old, I can’t say that I appreciated the analogies. Ultimately, she said “if people have a problem with the way you look then tell them to take it up with God because God made you.” I replied “If I am Black then why don’t people recognize it? Why didn’t God make me Black?“


Later, we moved to Roxbury, a disfranchised community in Boston, Massachusetts, after my single Mom fell on hard times. Although we lived in the “hood” we went to a private Christian school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was teased and taunted by the predominantly African American class for not looking, sounding or being Black enough. I recall while living on both the East and West Coasts, coming home crying everyday because kids of all ethnic backgrounds bullied me for talking and dressing too “White.” It was the mid 80’s and when most kids were wearing faded jeans, Reebok pumps, and Jellies; my Mom dressed me preppy. I was sporting pigtails, pleated skirts, knee high socks and Buster Brown and Oxfords shoes. If that wasn’t bad enough, she encouraged my brother and I to enunciate our words and the use of slang was not allowed in the house. Back then I didn’t feel like I belonged to any ethnic group.

As an adult, I now understand that we are acculturated in the United States to see race by skin tone and not socioeconomically. Many people define “Blackness” not just by the complexion and features of a person but how they speak, dress and even walk. Such a narrow definition of what it means to be Black in America is based on stereotypes and that idea of “Blackness” is a perceived monolithic culture that often eluded me growing up. Ultimately, I grew up to appreciate my articulate proper diction and LOL when people still tease me for being so formal.

However, before I became comfortable in my own skin, I like People® Magazine’s MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN Lupita Nyong’o, prayed for God to change me. But, unlike the Oscar winning actress who wanted to be fair skinned as a child, I prayed for God to make me dark skinned. Growing-up as a kid, to me the most beautiful women I admired had the complexions of my late Mom, Adelaide Smith and women such as Angela Bassett and Grace Jones. When I heard Lupita’s acceptance speech at ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood, I thought of my mother’s own personal agony of being a brown skinned woman with beautiful full lips, a broad nose and wide hips. She was the living incarnation of Rick James Song “Brick House.” However, her self-image was formed in the 1950’s, before Black was beautiful or Alek Wek could be considered a supermodel. Up until her death in 2012, my mother spoke about hurtful incidents throughout her life when her complexion and physical characteristics that made her a beautiful Black woman in my eyes were criticized and diminished. She was told Black women with “big” lips should not wear red lipstick. My brother and I wonder if she chose to date our fathers, who are fair skinned Black men, as a result of such psychological abuse from both Blacks and Whites.


There are constant reminders in the media that my fair skin is beautiful, hair texture is “good,” my freckles are cute and my look is “exotic.” Despite the compliments I do receive, all I ever longed for is to look like a girl who went to my church when I was a teenager. I think her name was Kia and she favored Lupita, but she had a fuller figure and I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I wanted to look just like her. A chance encounter during a slumber party made us confront the inner desire that I had to look like her and her inner jealousy toward me. We both cried about how we wanted to look like the other. However, her pain and perception of herself was distorted greater than mine. She screamed and wept that I was pretty and the boys wanted to only date girls who looked like me. I did not know how to comfort her. At the time I thought she was right.

Looking back, it wasn’t so much that Kia was right but her perception was based on what her experiences and expectations were. In her mind perhaps she wondered how would she find a boyfriend who thought she was beautiful if she didn’t think she was beautiful. Despite the ugly comments online about Black women being the least desirable on dating sites, along with Asian men, there are plenty of men who do love women with rich skin tones. I think that the self-esteem issues many women struggle with regardless of complexion and body type is based on the way we relate to ourselves more than what men are attracted to. As little girls we often internalize and accept what the media portrays as the standard of beauty because there have been so few alternative and relatable examples.


Finally, at 35, I now love me some me and proudly sport an Afro… although I still wish my natural hair texture was kinkier. Traveling the world, I have met women of all hues who are dying to fit a Western standard of beauty that was given to them. It is a standard that excludes most of us and one we can never achieve or sustain no matter how much weight we lose, surgery we have, and tan or lighten our skin. It forces us to look in the mirror and accept ourselves as beautiful, live life just the way we are or die trying to look “White,” “Black,” or anything other than “who God made us to be” as my Mom would say.

When Daughters Don’t Return Home From School


Courtesy: batangablog

The South Korean ferry tragedy is not the only bit of sad news about school children this month; days before, gunmen had stormed a girls’ school in Chibok in Nigeria’s north-eastern state of Borno, and abducted more than 200 students. Dozens managed to escape, with no trace of the remainder. The police called off the search this week, leaving frantic parents to search the forest themselves.

The mass kidnap was allegedly by Islamist group Boko Haram, which is linked to the al-Qaeda. Boko Haram means “western education is a sin”, and the group has been waging a violent campaign to impose shariah law, which appears to be particularly opposed to girls’ formal education. Earlier this year, it killed more than 50 students elsewhere in the country. 

More people are obviously familiar with the story of Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban in Swat Valley as she returned from school, for refusing to back down on her activism for education for girls. The U.N. has declared July 12 Malala Day.

There is very little media coverage, let alone accolades for the millions of marginalised children who are denied an education because of discrimination. A Human Rights Watch report this week highlights the widespread discrimination against Indian school children belonging to tribal groups, so-called lower castes and minority communities. It cites Unicef’s estimate that 80 million Indian children will drop out before completing elementary school and lays some of the blame on discrimination and intimidation. This, despite the passage of the Right to Education Act in 2010, which mandates free and compulsory education for all children aged 6 to 14 years. Most examples in the HRW report are of boys, because girl children are often not allowed to go to school at all.

What is a harder problem to have: fearing discrimination against your child in school or fearing your child’s safe return from school?

The Big, Fat, Gender-Biased Indian Election


Via: WSJ

You may have heard the numbers: 815 million voters; 543 lawmakers; 9 rounds of voting in the world’s largest democracy. You also know who’s projected to win: the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party led by divisive leader Narendra Modi, with the ruling Congress party set for its worst performance ever.

What you probably haven’t heard is how skewed India’s voter gender ratio is: 883 women voters per 1,000 male voters. Give or take. That’s an improvement from 715 per 1,000 male voters in the 1960s, according to data compiled by Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor, professors at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. But it is lower even than the national gender ratio, embarrassing as it is, of 940 women per 1,000 men.

How has this come about? Not for want of legislation. Indian women were granted the right to vote and run in elections three years after India’s independence in 1947, the same year as men. Women have played a significant role in Indian politics down: from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to present-day chief ministers Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa Jayaram.

Still, India’s largely patriarchal tradition and cultural mores that require women to acquiesce to the opinion of men has meant that women have often not been a part of the political conversation, or showed up to vote on election day. That has also resulted in very few women lawmakers: of nearly 5,000 lawmakers across the country, less than 10 percent are women.

While the Indian government did implement a law in 2009 that mandated the reservation of at least half the seats at panchayati raj or local government institutions in villages and districts for women, it has dragged its feet on the Women’s Reservation Bill. The bill proposes to amend the Indian Constitution to reserve a third of all seats in the lower house and all state legislative assemblies for women, and has not been passed by the lower house after the upper house passed it in 2010.

India ranks 101 out of 136 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 global gender-gap index that examines economic participation, education, health and political empowerment. That is the lowest ranking among the BRIC economies, and is lower than Botswana and Bangladesh.

In this election, the year-old Aam Admi Party has the highest percentage of women candidates, about 15 percent, while the Congress has 12 percent and the BJP has 9 percent. That doesn’t bode well for the future of women’s representation in India.

Secular loneliness

Lately I’ve been thinking about loneliness and wondering; can urban celebrations or urban interventions combat the loneliness of secular life?

For religious people there is an innate sense of community. Essentially they are just like minded individuals sharing their passion which is cemented by community rituals. Rife as those communities are with problems of repression, expectation and judgement, there’s a portion of the experience that draws people – a sense of home and belonging without the fear and uncertainty of secular life.

The church as an urban artifact and as a point of locus is a grounding point for the community. It’s where you go for togetherness and meditation. It’s a free, available space that you can go to for solace. In modern secular society the only go-to places are capitalist machines. You can go to the mall and hang out, go to the market, go to the gym or go to a bar. In a cold place especially – there’s no where outdoors that is a refuge from the relentless media bombardment of this age.

Urban celebrations are an opportunity, I feel, to ground people together without being a proprietary event. Communal ritual is fundamental to place making. All our ancestors knew that. In every race and culture around the world, you will find some public ritual that involves possessing a space for that group. Hell, dogs pee on things to claim them. It’s all about territory – marking something introduces it to your world narrative. Effective public space is fundamentally about territory and ritually reclaiming city space as ours. Anyone who has taken part in Carnival understands that. This is fundamental to how West Indian people engage space.

The problem with some North American festivals is that people generally don’t understand the notion of reclaiming public space. In fact I suspect that they believe that secular means non-ownership. Therefore public space is not everyones space – it’s no ones space. So the city squares and public domain are occupied only by the homeless and spaceless. People are afraid of each other and they believe that ignoring others is respectful. To them they are giving the other space and time to exist separate from the interference of others. But I don’t think they understand how awful that is when you are a stranger in a strange place and no one is willing to make eye contact with you.

There are places in the world where this is not true. Especially in Europe, there are public places where people gather without the input of the church or government. I remember seeing in Italy how the public squares filled with people each night – playing music, drinking and just being rowdy, happy humans. You see it in small neighbourhoods too – even ghettos. People hang out outside on the street, in front of their building – somewhere visible. They’re marking the space theirs. Graffiti is like this too.

All this is to say that we can do better. People don’t need to feel so isolated in the cities that they live in. Simple interventions can completely change the way people interact. An example is making a public parkette an internet hot spot. Another is by allowing public celebration without the interference of decibel levels and waivers from time to time. These things create a collective narrative of place. They bring people together organically.

A Bank of Women, by Women, for Women


Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week opened the first branch of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank (Indian Women’s Bank) in Mumbai, which will employ only women, and accept deposits from and lend mostly to women.

Importantly, this bank will have branches in smaller towns and villages where its services are most required. And while men may also operate accounts here, the focus will be on women, and making educating women financially-aware.

Why a bank – primarily – for women? Only 26 percent of women in India have an account in a financial institution – be it a bank, a credit union, a post office or a microfinance institution – compared with 46 percent of men, according to a study by the World Bank. 

Financial inclusion is a big challenge in many developing countries where barriers to opening a bank account or taking a loan include physical distance, lack of documentation and high costs; only 35 percent of Indians have access to banking services compared to a global average of 50 percent, and a developing-nation average of 41 percent, according to World Bank data.

In India, even as more women are getting an education and jobs, millions still have no access to basic financial services and are reduced to being dependent on their fathers or their husbands to manage their money. At the same time, some of the top private banks, from ICICI Bank to HSBC Plc and JP Morgan in India have women CEOs. 

Microfinance institutions and self-help groups have done much to improve access to financial services for women, as have the advent of mobile phones and the rollout of India’s unique identification system. Simply setting up a bank of women will not solve entrenched social issues and traditions which continue to favor men. But it is a start, and much like India’s popular ladies’-special-trains, the bank may lower the barriers for women in a deeply patriarchal society.

Fading Opportunities for Women in the Land of the Rising Sun


I am just back from a vacation in Japan (highly recommend it), where I was as struck by the cutting-edge technology in everything from toilets to trains and the wondrous aesthetic sense of shop assistants and chefs alike, as I was by the appalling gender gap.

Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy (overtaken by China in 2010, in case you missed it), is the world’s most rapidly aging advanced country, with also the widest gender gap among developed countries. This is not something to be proud of; yet, one leader after another, one CEO after another, has failed to address the issue, to Japan’s great detriment. 

Global female labor-force participation has stalled at about 50 percent for two decades, according to a report in September from the International Monetary Fund.  More than half the nations in East Asia and the Pacific have restrictions on the types of jobs women can do, according to the World Bank. Failure to integrate women fully into the workforce is costing the Asia-Pacific region about $89 billion a year in unrealized output, according to the United Nations. 

Japan’s 63 percent of women in the workforce is comparable more to developing countries, and most women are confined to lower-paying and lower-rung jobs. Even in fancy offices, women until very recently were required to serve tea to their male colleagues and  having a baby is a sure route to career-wilderness, as there is little by way of public daycare, and hiring a nanny is an expensive process.

Christine Lagarde, among the most high-profile women in the world as managing director of the IMF, has made it something of a personal crusade to call out countries on their female participation, and in asking them to report on gender issues. In a paper last year called ‘Can Women Save Japan’, the IMF highlighted the many hurdles to working women in Japan, and suggested ways to remove them – primarily, with policies to reduce the gender gap in work and better support for working mothers. The economic outlook for Japan would be much brighter if more women joined the labour force, it said.

In April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced measures to elevate the role of women, calling for women to fill 30 percent of senior positions across different parts of the society by 2020 and vowing to eliminate waiting lists for childcare and provide training for mothers returning to work. While Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba and Daiwa have all recently pledged to increase the number of female managers significantly in the coming years, Japan resolutely refuses to mandate quotas for women in the government or in company boards. The sun may well be setting, and quickly.  

Women Are Less Equal in Natural Disasters


Pic: CNN/Getty Images

The Philippines is still assessing the destruction wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan, which is estimated to have killed at least 10,000 people and caused damage costing billions of dollars. The super typhoon may have a greater economic impact on the country than Hurricane Sandy did in the U.S., according to estimates from disaster modelling by Kinetic Analysis Corp.

What’s definitely clear though, is that the country’s women will be hit harder than the men. This is true not just in the Philippines, but pretty much in any disaster area, particularly in a developing nation.

“There is a pattern of gender differentiation at all levels of the disaster process: exposure to risk, risk perception, preparedness, response, physical impact, psychological impact, recovery and reconstruction,” the World Health Organization notes. “Due to social norms and their interaction with biological factors, women and girls may face increased risk to adverse health effects and violence. They may be unable to access assistance safely and/or to make their needs known. Additionally, women are insufficiently included in community consultation and decision-making processes, resulting in their needs not being met.”

Fortunately, the Philippines has the smallest gender gap among developing nations and its women are a feisty, resilient lot. Even so, the government, aid agencies and donors would be well-advised to keep women front and center as the country recovers from the tragedy.

When Saudi Women Went For a Drive


A bunch of Saudi Arabian women went for a drive on Saturday. There’s no punchline to that, because there’s nothing funny in the fact that these women risked imprisonment – or worse – in defying a ban on driving in the kingdom.

This was the third such protest staged by Saudi Arabian women against a de facto ban that has led to women being arrested, sentenced to flogged and losing their jobs for defying orders. There have been calls from various quarters to lift this ban – which really has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with exercising control over women. Saudi women also need a man’s permission to get a job or travel abroad.

But the Saudi government – and the country’s men – appear divided on whether it should lift the ban on driving. While the king has made some noises about lifting the ban in 2015, and various men showed their support on Saturday, one particularly enlightened cleric last month said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and producing children with clinical problems.

Limiting the mobility of women is a time-honored practice in many countries, kept alive and well by politicians and religious leaders pandering for votes and afraid to incur the wrath of the religious conservatives. Clerics in Afghanistan this year barred women from leaving home without a male chaperone. Politicians and police in India advised women to not stay outdoors after dark following a brutal gang rape in Delhi last year. Movements such as Take Back the Night haven’t quite had an impact here; what we really need is more women going for a drive or a walk. Free and unafraid.

Mind the Gap. Your Fortune Depends on it.

Just a few surprises in the latest Global Gender Gap Report, 2013 released by the World Economic Forum. For the fifth straight year, Iceland tops the list and is followed by its Nordic peers Finland, Norway and Sweden. The surprise is in No. 5: the Philippines. It’s the only Asian country to make the Top 10, and handily beats mightier rivals from Germany to the UK. The U.S. is a distant No. 23, in case you were wondering.

The Philippines has steadily climbed up the ranks: in 2010 it was ranked No. 9 on the index that measures the gap between women and men in terms of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The country is the only one in Asia and the Pacific that has fully closed the gender gap in both education and health, the report said.

Much of the improvement can be attributed directly to President Benigno Aquino, who has appointed women in top posts from chief justice to chief tax collector in a bid to end corruption. He has even taken on the Catholic Church to push through legislation to allow free access to contraception as he seeks to reduce poverty.


Today, Chief Justice Maria Sereno and the gun-toting head of the Bureau of Internal Revenue Kim Henares, are household names in a country whose most famous – ok, notorious – woman was known only by the extent of her shoe collection.

It’s not all good news, though. While the gender gap narrowed slightly across the globe in 2013, with 86 of 133 countries showing improvements, “change is definitely slow”, the report said. And as for why closing the gender gap is important: it is not only a matter of human rights and equity; it is also one of efficiency.

Little wonder then, that the Philippine economy is growing at more than 7 percent annually – second only to China in the region – and the country has been awarded its first investment-grade rankings by all three ratings agencies this year. Philippine women can take some credit for that.