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.

We are all light and shadow

I’ve been thinking about white pigment. When it comes to racial politics, I can give no merit to any view that holds race as a concrete thought form. For me, it comes down to pigment. We’re all just variations of similar tones. No matter how hard I try to see it, I simply wasn’t raised with the mental hooks onto which to hang ideas of racial superiority or inferiority. Perhaps emboldened by my artistic sensibility, my reflections on skin colour politics are always attached to pigmentation of paint.

Historically, people have died for the whitest white in art as well as make up. Lead based white pigments have caused a legacy of pain, death and sickness in those who used them. Nevertheless people have continually sought to appear lighter. This can be seen in the wide world of skin lightening poisons that pervade every culture. There seems to exist a strange and base instinct that suggests lightness will bring you bounty – even if it kills you slowly.

If only we could short circuit the assumption that lightness was inherently better. If only we could see racial gradation as the arbitrary thing it is. There is so much beauty in variation and so much bounty in natural reality. It seems the most absurd mind trap and yet we continue to abuse and destroy lives based on these arbitrary distinctions.

When I started painting people in high school (at around 17 years old), I first started painting light skinned people. I think I did that because light skinned people were primarily the people I saw in media (TV & magazines). They were also the people deemed most attractive in my social circles. Light skin automatically elevated you in the eyes of everyone around you. In an environment with North American TV amidst a population of darker skinned people, a light skinned person was a kind of social unicorn. I’m exaggerating a bit for effect but that’s essentially the environment I began painting in.

The point is though, that I began painting light skinned people and so I learned about tones of colour; how to mix paint to arrive at pigments that captured gradation of shadow and light as they reflected off pale skin. I learned that in order to paint lighter coloured skin, you travelled around the palette to include a range of pinks, purples, blues and browns. White skin therefore, was not literally white in any sense. Not even teeth are absolutely white. Painting teeth white, looks strange and malevolent.

Later on in high school, I wanted to paint people that looked like me. I had started learning my way around brown skin tones. I needed to visit other colours on the palette for my own skin tones to make sense. In fact I was hindered by the notion of whiteness in that it didn’t occur to me to mix my tones with white because I was not white. I mixed with yellow to lighten my browns and I was never entirely happy with the result.

Painting skin tone is a unique skill. The technique is very different from painting abstracts or landscapes. I think, in part, because of how ingrained our auto-response is to facial recognition, our tendency is very strong to autofill incorrectly. To paint a face I learned, it is very useful to turn your source image upside down, in order to confuse your mental autofill and allow you to paint what you see instead of what you think you see. The same goes for colour – you have to see the tones as literal tones in order to create resemblance. Only very recently have I begun to capture people similar to my skin tone, because I needed to build a mental map in order to arrive at the colours needed to create that semblance. Arriving there did indeed require some white, along with pink, orange, purple, brown and black. This is still a work in progress.

Colourful History

The way i see it.
My world in my most formative years shaped me into a certain kind of someone.
Vermicious Knids (crop) - Roald Dahl

Vermicious Knids (crop) – Roald Dahl

The cultural landscape that formed me, was shaped by all of the generations of individuals before me. It was not only made by my immediate family or neighbours. The physical landscape of my cities and my forests all hold shadows of the history of the power structures and conflicts that have shaped me.

if we accept this as true…

Why is it that my particular ‘history’ as far as history class is concerned, dictate history as conqueror and conquered? Why is my history preselected by my familial ancestors when the embodied history of my Region is what most strongly influences me? Why is the history of indentured labourers from India supposed to be more relevant to me when the history of african slavery and white colonial power equally shaped the cultural context of my world?

I have long felt that this sort of racialised view of history is truly useless.

It is useless because the past does not exist in any tangible way, but in artifact and memory. We tend to be defensive of the artifacts and memory that we identify as our own. In multiethnic societies, that ownership tends to be racially polarized. My question to you today is – what is the real value in that? What is the value of that when the story that belongs to a particular place is comprised of the victors AND the defeated – all sharing the same landscape and different sides of the same coin. Not only is the racially polarized version of events inaccurate, but it’s also dangerous. It allows people to either hate themselves or think far too well of themselves. It encourages blindness and ignorance. It makes a very rich history into propaganda.


I saw a video with one mans reflections on the Ferguson events that really stuck with me. Click here. He articulates very well something that’s been lurking in my mind for a long time. What if we were able to accept a non racial view of history as our own story? Wouldn’t that be more helpful in understanding the real give and take of civilized society? Wouldn’t a less polarized view of history teach our children more about the actual shape of our world and the real cost of development and growth? Couldn’t we make a more sustainable future for ourselves with a more integrated view of global events and a more level headed view of the people around us?


The shape of your value system and your expectations arises out of the palimpsest that is your silent but ever present cultural id. 

For myself, being from the Caribbean, I’ve internally claimed African and Indian history as my own. Never before though have I integrated European Colonial history as a part of my own story. Internally, I’ve held on to the oppressed and oppressor roles. I’ve come to realize though that that’s neither right nor helpful. Without understanding both sides of the equation – without claiming both roles of Caribbean history as part of my own – I am leaving out significant territory in my cultural understanding of myself and the world as I’ve come to know it. I’m also leaving out the knowledge that comes from the mistakes of our ancestors, claiming only the seeming virtues. Every side is ripe with knowledge that can only bring growth.

Vermicious Knids-Roald Dahl-Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Vermicious Knids-Roald Dahl-Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

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?

Colourful Histories

The first chapter of my Master’s thesis looked at the history of Carnival in the Caribbean. In order to represent the syncretic nature of the festival, I chose to tell 3 separate narratives: the African story, the European story and the Indian Story. One story would not have done it justice. Now, having lived in metropolitan societies with many cultural groups, I’m beginning to see how the history of any given place is layered by many stories. Neighbourhoods become defined by cultural and racial borders, so that the city itself becomes a tapestry that immediately reflects the cultures that constitute its parts.

That being said, although there is great beauty in seeing the diversity of a place and people, I can’t help but wonder at the effect of separating the larger historical narratives of a society into racial counterparts. Why, for example, is the history of Black Americans segregated as Black History? Why isn’t their narrative equally represented as American history? Why is Native American history in Canada, taught as Native American studies? Why isn’t it just Canadian History? I can’t help but wonder if allowing history to be represented in racially skewed narratives does more harm than good. Is it still useful in society for the prevalent history to be by the conquerors? I would argue that there is nothing to be gained through a polarized history of a place or people.

There are many more useful insights to be gained from stories like those presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s books or Freakonomics or from podcasts like This American Life that look at real stories of real people. There’s a great Ted talk from novelist Chimamanda Adichie called ‘The danger of the Single Story’ that illuminates what I’m getting at with much more poise and eloquence. In her example she talks about the narrow way in which people respond to her, when they discovered she is from Nigeria. She talked about moving to America and being perceived as ‘African’ for the first time. She talks about the danger of creating single visions of entire cultures that preclude the opportunity for true empathy between cultural groups.


In a world that is learning to incorporate many cultures into the mainstream, we need to ease up on looking at individual histories as ‘us’ and ‘them’. That is no longer really useful. As an immigrant to Canada, it’s sometimes nice to be recognized for my cultural differences, but at the same time there’s danger in being seen as outside of what’s normal or expected. Being different makes it hard for people to respect you and impossible for you to feel like a real member of the society, when you are constantly reminded of how ‘other’ you are. People take for granted that they know my history because they have some vague notion of what being from the Caribbean might mean, based on all inclusive vacations, bad movies and Reggae music. They’re not interested in being corrected either. They’re already convinced of their own imagined story of my ‘otherness’.

Maybe there’s a more temperate way for everyone to look at history and cultural diversity. I wonder for example in the modern situation of world travellers, if we can demand truer histories of the places that we inhabit that are more inclusive of all the stakeholders of places and events. I wonder if it’s possible for people to back off on believing that they know everything about everyone and look at the world without the need to polarize things.

Credit where it’s due: Anne-Marie Slaughter

Critical, us? Yes. Absolutely. All the time.

Case in point: we flagged this piece in the Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter on what Obama doesn’t get about gender inequality with no small degree of snark:

And then we were completely taken aback (positively so) when Slaughter replied to and engaged with us:

And then she updated the Atlantic piece to reflect the conversation. Examples in bold:

Equal pay for equal work certainly remains an issue for women, particularly women of color, but white women who do not have children earn the same or more than men.

One step at a time.

Did the NYTimes just call Michelle Obama an uppity negro?

Let’s just get this straight. According to Cathy Horyn and the NY Times:

many people, disappointed that [Michelle Obama’s] clothes get more attention than her values and leadership, hope that a second term will give Mrs. Obama more latitude to speak out on issues that are more controversial, like educational reform and work-life balance.

But it’s a funny thing: four years ago she denied conservatives the chance to vilify her as “an angry black woman” by taking immense pleasure in traditional first lady pursuits, like fashion, entertaining and gardening.

Issue one: if you’re into ‘traditional first lady pursuits’ [read: white first lady pursuits, because there’s never been a black first lady prior to Michelle Obama] like ‘fashion, entertaining and gardening’, you remove any fodder for critics to accuse you of being ‘an angry black woman’. Ok.

One designer, who doesn’t dress Mrs. Obama, observed, with some accuracy, “Her clothes are too tight.”

Issue two: Too tight? Too sexy? Too revealing? Too body conscious? Would ‘mom jeans’ and sweaters be more ‘appropriate’?

Even more astonishing is that Mrs. Obama’s spending on clothes has attracted little scrutiny. Clearly that’s because she is seen as helping the American economy. Still, she has spent tens of thousands of dollars on clothes and accessories. She was criticized for wearing $500-plus Lanvin sneakers at a food bank, in 2009. But at a time when economic inequality is a serious issue, you wonder why the first lady’s fashion spending hasn’t caused more fuss.

Issue three: Michelle Obama, high powered attorney, should be criticized for spending her own hard-earned money on clothes that have played no small part in making her palatable to ferocious critics. Got it.

One clue was Mrs. Obama’s decision, in late 2008, to accept an invitation to pose for the cover of Vogue. As Ms. Kantor wrote, her advisers were divided, with some concerned that Mrs. Obama, a woman of substance, would be seen as a fashionista. She argued, “There are young black women across this country, and I want them to see a black woman on the cover of Vogue.” In the end, there was little criticism of the Vogue cover.

Issue four: Oh, see what you did there. Dare not criticise her for appearing on Vogue and wanting to inspire young black girls, because then those social justice types might call you the r-word.Clutches pearls

Still, he hasn’t changed his view that Mrs. Obama can be a powerful voice on issues like equal opportunity and work-life balance, given her own background. “The engines of the American dream and meritocracy have slowed down dramatically over the past 20 years,” he said. “She is a person who has lived through that, came from the South Side of Chicago, went to Princeton and Harvard. It ought to be something she’s addressing. And the more she dresses in glamorous clothes, the more it looks like she’s cut off from her roots.”


‘I felt like I either didn’t know the rules, or I was breaking them’

In this episode of The Broad Experience, Ashley Milne-Tyte interviews one of the Colourful Collective about her experience of being a brown-skinned woman at a very white, male-dominated company. Ashley also talks to a white man who’s been through – and actually enjoyed – diversity training, and discuss how it changed his attitude to the workplace.

Who’s who….? Where?

I recently had the privilege of becoming part of the team at whoswhoinblackcanada.

WWIBC is not-for-profit website geared towards bringing awareness to all the successes that we in the Black community many times never take the time to appreciate.  We are often too self-involved to notice that there are others who have paved the way or set the bar. These are the ones who prove with a little hard work and a lot of dedication dreams do come true. As cliché as that sounds – it’s true.

Which brings me to the trigger to today’s topic– why don’t we support each other more? What happened to the saying “there’s power in numbers”?

As a community, we are so quick to judge and disparage one another and our goals. How many times have we heard: “How is she going to do that, and we all know she has no money?” .It’s like people forget in almost every success story you read, these people literally started with nothing.

So where’s the occasional pat on the back or words of encouragement? Or the interest to ask: ‘How’s it going?’? Is it indeed lack of interest, or a deep-rooted envy that someone is doing something with their life, where some may be held back by fear? Whose fault is it that some choose to sit at home doing nothing, while others choose to do something? It’s not going to come to you – you have to go out and find it. Hell, stick your face in its face until it acknowledges you. But you have to do. That’s all – do.

The problem is that it’s easier to break down than build up. We are more comfortable knowing that someone else failed and is down on our level, than seeing someone succeed and rise to levels we never dreamt of. But here’s the thing; even those who failed have already succeeded because they chose to do something. And the fact of the matter is that trying and failing is better than never trying at all. And true failure isn’t really failure unless you’ve given up.

I think it’s better to congratulate, support, and acknowledge someone’s success. It just may ignite something deep inside and inspire you to get up and get on. You start to think: “Well if she could do it, why can’t I? What am I waiting for? Where do I begin?” Take pride in knowing that someone did something, that someone took the chance. Take pride in knowing that someone just like you followed their dream.

Yep I said it – someone  just like you. Be a part of the domino effect this community needs. Become inspired to inspire others. The negativity continues to break us down. This goes beyond the black community, naturally, but I speak on what I know. The great thing is that the domino effect starts off small and continues to grow.

All you really need to do, is just that – do.