Where do I really belong?

As a woman of Caribbean descent living in this very multicultural scape of Toronto I feel most days that I am indeed invisible. Ironic I think since West Indians make up such a large number of the Torontonian landscape. The Canadian Caribbean identity is mainly Afro- Caribbean centric which leaves the transplants like me of mainly Indo Caribbean descent with a ‘likkle” bit of “sumthin” else feeling very displaced. 
As a milestone birthday approaches- its months away but, this year will mark the 15th  year that I have been a Torontonian, it will also symbolize what I have sometimes been dreading. This year marks the year that my Trinidadian born self meets up with my Canadian self. In a nutshell, I would have spent the same amount of time calling Trinidad my home as Canada. Time has caught up with me. The illusion that I had created however, that I can finally feel more Canadian at this milestone as well as simultaneously being fearful of leaving my Trini self behind is exactly  that- an illusion. I still feel displaced in both places even after all this time. 

Even though I yearn to visit Trinidad often, my entire path of interest has shifted since living in this reality. My perceived once cushioned life is not transferable in this context. 
I am so much more aware of my non privileged status her in the Canadian context. I hear about “white privilege” almost daily, the affect of being an educator in the inner city reality but little do many know that I myself had that equivalence of white privilege it just was named something different. It was the “Indian high colour child syndrome” where you had to succeed and live the life that your parents had wanted for themselves. This was indeed an ideology specific to the social class that I was a product of. I can definitely say that I lived a very sheltered life, very much as my colleagues on this site have admitted before.  I guess you can say I was one step away from white privilege and wanting to ascend that ladder at any cost. In my reality, ideas about superiority based on status and race was something that we tolerated silently rather than faced, it was the expectation that you married up the social ladder in both colour and money. It was the expectation that you were better than the rest and you made that clear by attending the best schools (as best your parents money could buy if you didn’t earn it yourself) and you fought hard for a place in the business world to make the money you needed to assert your importance in an already privileged working/managing class.
As a transplant I wished that those racist and idealist thoughts would have been erased especially in a place that boasts retention and acceptance of difference. Tolerance. To my horror, it’s been gentrified and renamed.

I deal with the consequences of biased thinking each day, that I somehow belong somewhere else than the place that I have made for myself in the life that I chose to lead currently. I fight everyday to unpack and delete the bias that I hear from colleagues and students and I feel as if I am fighting a losing battle at times. I am trying to work through my own displacement as well as try to de-code all the racism, sexism and many more ism’s in my students as they tackle the lessons of their own colonial past. 
This is really a full time job on its own—- 

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.

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.

‘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…”

Etc.

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.

Continue reading

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).

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.