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.

Colourful Woman Wednesday: Charmaine Joseph

This week’s Colourful Woman feature showcases Charmaine Joseph.  Charmaine is an Atlanta-based Marketing & Sales Coordinator for corporate apparel agency, The Gingerich Group.  She is also the co-owner of a socially conscious t-shirt line: Global Warming. Charmaine partnered with Social Media maven, Lauren Shirreffs, and together they created t-shirts that touch on different issues from stereotyping, bullying, racism, body image, etc.

Our concept was to create “walking billboards,” these shirts are text based with pointed messages that are meant to educate, enlighten or provoke dialogue at a glance.

Recently, Global Warming started an initiative called “Global Change.” For this project they team up with different schools and have classes create designs on varied topics and then choose a winning design and have proceeds from the t-shirt sales go towards their charity of choice.

It’s very refreshing to go into classrooms and hear students talk about their visions for their designs and hear the passion that comes from their own life experiences, whether it be racism, bullying, body image etc.

The Global Change initiative’s winning design for Anti-Bullying. On sale at from November 1st.
designer: Martin Kondrat / The Academy of Design.

What makes you a “colourful woman”?
I have to take this very literally when you say “colourful woman”!  I actually think it may just be appropriate to insert a photo from my wedding here, the photo really says it all.  I may just be the most colourful person I know (laughs).  I actually gave my bridesmaids little Kate Spade coin purses that said “Live Colourfully”…it’s definitely my life theme.

Who or what are some of your colourful inspirations?
I’m not sure if it is part of my Caribbean roots, but of course it’s a possibility having family from Barbados and growing up seeing the vibrant costumes for carnival, and that rich aspect of our heritage.  Then there are the tropical flowers, the sea etc. Being nurtured in such a vivacious environment has a great impact.

What message would you like to share with our readers today?
Be the best version of you. Don’t get caught up in someone else’s definition of success, beauty, love, or happiness. As Lauryn Hill once said, “God made us all different, on purpose.” I think our differences make us beautiful so just learn to love your shortcomings, your imperfections, your struggle, because they all add to the masterpiece. A painter mixes colours before they touch the canvas, nothing and nobody is perfect.

So what are you anyway?

Image source:


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).