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

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.