How one comes to live on Nowhere Island.
When I look at my face, I see the plight of the indigenous Carib tribe, who, along with the Arawak, struggled to survive five centuries of European conquest and ravage. When I look at my face, I see Africans violently plucked from their home, brought to toil on the stolen land in heat the white man couldn’t bear. When I look at my face, I see my maternal grandfather and his brothers — teenagers, sailing from China to the Caribbean islands to escape communism, with no money and little knowledge of English. When I look at my face, I see my paternal, Italian great grandfather, living and dying by his work — his family crafting and building the churches and courthouses still standing in the Caribbean today. When I look at my face, I see his cousins who left the Azores for the plantations, as post-abolition labourers. When I look at my face, I see hard working people coming together to create a new life and home for themselves, sacrificing everything for their families and the generations that followed.
When I look at my face, I remember stories of how my grandparents met and how their love transcended social and racial boundaries of their time. When I look at my face, I am reminded of the greed of the powerful white man, who had no problem crossing those social and racial lines he created, taking what he wanted at the expense of an innocent baby, born much fairer than her sisters and sent away to hide the shame of what he had done. When I look at my face, I see the baby, now a young woman, brought back to the island to work. I see the scar on her forehead, the tell-tale symbol of occasional beatings by the black man betrayed — her fair skin, hair, and eyes a constant reminder of what that white man had stolen from him.
It is the judgement and discrimination from all races that cast mixed folks like me onto Nowhere Island, where one is of every race yet accepted by none.
When I look at my face, I see my history. I see the love, joy, struggle, pain, sadness, loss, and sacrifice it took to create this lineage. When I look at my face, I reflect on what set the tone for my adult life as a mixed-race Caribbean woman living in North America and I am reminded why we can’t live as one world, one people. You see, when I look at my face, I acknowledge the racism I have experienced from various ethnic groups living in North America. The racism I have faced from White people has been hurtful, especially when they feign ignorance, but when you are mixed like me, the pain is deeper and more disappointing coming from other ethnicities because you don’t expect or understand a racist sting from another minority. It is the judgement and discrimination from all races that cast mixed folks like me onto Nowhere Island, where one is of every race yet accepted by none.
When I look at my face, I remember my first day of University in upstate New York, waiting on the bus to campus when someone asked, “What are you anyway?” and when I responded with “I’m human…you?” it didn’t embarrass as intended, but encouraged more insensitive questions. “No, I mean, like…are you White or Black or Latina?” Nothing like the need for clarification to make the situation worse. “Yes, and more,” was my terse reply because I saw no reason to choose to be something I am not and so it was concluded by both black and white students that “she a Oreo”.
… in North America, it is apparent that you must be one race or another, so that it is easier for people to know what box to put you in.
Look at my face. Is it my responsibility to explain to anyone why I look the way I do? In the Caribbean we learn about the world in geography, history and social studies classes, yet many North Americans are comparatively ethnocentric when it comes to understanding who and what comprises the world in which they live. And while I am fine with inquisitiveness, I am better with polite curiosity about where I am from and what it was like to live there. Look at my face. Is it my responsibility to teach geography or anthropology to random strangers intrigued or off-put by my different appearance? Why is it my responsibility to define myself to anyone? I was not raised to be one race or another but to embrace all the culture, cuisine and traditions that were passed down to me by the many ethnicities that created the essence of who I am. But in North America, it is apparent that you must be one race or another, so that it is easier for people to know what box to put you in. Well, the box I check on the census form is OTHER because it’s the only option that applies to me. They might as well call it NOWHERE or NOTHING because that’s how that box on the form makes you feel in society. Look at my face. Can you understand it isn’t my responsibility to make anything easier for anyone, since I am the immigrant, trying to embrace a new culture and adapt to a new way of life? And for anyone thinking that I should have gone back to where I came from, know I would have if I could.
When I look at my face, I remember how refreshing it was to make friends with others who looked like me and had similar experiences. It was equally refreshing to find a few North Americans worldly or sensible enough to know the Caribbean was not in Africa or India.
They knew, as in every country, people in the Caribbean do not spend the day aimlessly walking about in beachwear and flip flops. When I look at my face, I remember the frustration and boredom of sitting through unfortunate instances when some vapid, underexposed soul would be flabbergasted by my Oh-my-God- neat-accent and would try to get me to say words like boat, classes and answer to hear how oh-my-God-totally-wicked I sounded. I look at my face, and I remember how little I thought of every White and Black North American who thought I was entertained by their absolutely shit impersonation of my NOT Jamaican accent by the way, when they said, “Yeah Mon, Bob Marley! De ganja irie!” To some North Americans, every Caribbean island is Jamaica and in their shallow minds, the only thing the Caribbean gave to the world is reggae and weed. Some people (in many cases white people) can be quite trite, and they refuse to try and understand how their “innocent” comments come off as insulting.
I know that some of the teasing and bullying my children have endured in school and in sports occurred when I showed up at their events and they waved and called me Mom, tainting their presumed whiteness.
When I look at my face, I remember how saddened I would become when the racism hurled at me came from minority ethnic groups. I replay the insults like movie scenes in my head because those were the times I was made to feel tainted. I remember the two Latino guys in a Miami club who decided it was okay to call me coño when they realized by my schoolgirl Spanish, that I wasn’t one of them. I remember my first Black American friends ending our friendship when I didn’t want to pledge a Black sorority even when I told them I wasn’t interested in pledging any sorority! I look at my face and I remember the Asian woman at my teller’s counter growing furious, when, at her request, I explained my jade jewellery was my connection to my maternal grandfather. I remember her calling me hak gwai under her breath and her consequent embarrassment when I told her what she’d said, gave me the right to not serve her at my counter since to her, I was too dark-skinned to don articles of my Chinese heritage. I look at my face and shake my head at some North Amerian East Indians I have met who aren’t too comfortable that I know as much as I do about their festivals, culture and cuisine, saying that East Indian culture in the Caribbean is not as rich or pure as true East Indian culture. I beg to differ. When I look at my face, I chuckle when North American Italians vehemently deny that my surname is mine and not my husband’s because I don’t look like them. I look at my face and I see that I am my father’s daughter. His name is my name, and it is the name I will take to my grave because I am proud of my Italian ancestors’ Caribbean architecture.
I look at my face and I know that some of the teasing and bullying my children have endured in school and in sports occurred when I showed up at their events and they waved and called me Mom, tainting their presumed whiteness. I look at my face and I am saddened that even in a time when we stand up and fight for our human right to matter, I have women of colour judgementally commenting, “she upgrade” when I pass by with my husband and children. Upgrade from what? From whom? Is that how little some women of colour regard men of colour? Regard themselves? You can’t help who you love. I have no restrictions when it comes to the package love comes in and as far as I’m concerned, a sexy, attractive man comes in every colour. I never saw myself as someone who would marry but I married a man who loves me and our sons and treats us with dignity and respect. He is ever present; always supportive. We see no colour when we look at each other in our family — only love and I will never apologize for loving my man who embraces my culture and everything that makes me, me.
I look at my face and I shake my head when I think of my most recent encounter with the hate of racial discrimination. I discovered a group of Caribbean parents of children with autism who were on a news program to attract members. They wanted people who spoke the dialect and who applied the tools of our upbringing and culture to enhance our autistic children. I reached out on social media and in one day I was accepted and rejected by the group. It seemed that one member trolled me on social media, saw the profile photo of our family and decided we were not Black enough. I regard myself as having a nationality rather than an ethnicity and when I saw them on television, I didn’t see them as Black but as fellow West Indians who had that Caribbean twang, just like me. The Caribbean is comprised of numerous ethnicities. My roots are there, and I know everything about my culture, and like them, I too raised our son differently from other North American families affected by autism. For ten years, I ran a charity for autistic persons in his name, that continues to financially help many families affected by the condition and no one is turned away. With twenty-one years of raising my son under my belt, I could have been an asset to the group, and would have also benefitted from their experiences.
In rejecting someone for their appearance, we miss out on the good they can bring to our lives.
I look at my face and that of my son’s and I am angry to have been treated in such a manner. I was particularly enraged when the organizer of the group insinuated that even with his very curly hair and light brown skin, my autistic twenty-one-year-old was paler than the other autistic persons in their group, and that I should try and join a South East Asian group or start my own.
Tell me, how does a woman with a face like mine start a group for only mixed-race families affected by autism? Would I be able to tell someone in not so many words they were not able to join because they were too light or too dark? I would be ripped to shreds and shamed for doing what they had done to me. I look at my face and I realize that so many who stand up against racial profiling, have no problem profiling a mixed person like me. In rejecting someone for their appearance, we miss out on the good they can bring to our lives.
When I look at my face, I remember leaving the US somewhat bruised by the prejudice I had experienced, wondering what to expect as I drifted on a sea of isolation further north to Nowhere Island. Back in 1988, Canadians in the major cities were more exposed to people of different ethnic backgrounds and while I felt more comfortable living there, I was acutely aware that racism ran deep under a cloak of Canadian politeness. I look at my face and remember how tough it was to be cast onto Nowhere Island. I look at my face and I know how uncomfortable and lonely it is to not really belong. Over the years, I made friends and acquaintances and I was outgoing when I wanted to be, but I never compromised who I was and so I never really fit in to North American society. Visiting my home over the thirty-four years of living abroad, I found myself on Nowhere Island there too. Things had changed drastically in many ways while the things that needed to change, stayed the same or had gotten worse. Never loving the idea of living abroad and not able to leave for numerous reasons, I learned how to find my groove on Nowhere Island. When I look at my face and reflect on the whole-lot-of-life I have lived between my twenties and now, I am grateful I stayed true to myself. When I look at my face, I know and love who I am. I am a mixed-race Caribbean woman, living in North America, raising North American children to have an awareness of the world while loving and embracing who they are. My husband and I have raised them to be kind, generous, respectful, non-judgemental, and loving human beings because they are our gifts to the world albeit one which still does not readily accept them.
When I look at my face, and I think of my disposition at this age, I realize that I might not be able to change the world, but I don’t have to subscribe to its bullshit double standards and hypocrisy. I am comfortable with myself and I have the courage to counteract racism, sexism and injustice with strength and dignity. I choose to surround myself with a handful of people who share my values. I don’t need popularity. I don’t need to fit in or be cool because I already am all of that for myself. I adhere to the priciples of a dear, admired friend in my homeland. She demands to be treated with the respect and dignity she readily gives to others and she will not form an opinion of anyone based on the colour of their skin. This is her living truth and she is the example I look to when injustice and racism blinds me with anger.
I look at my face and today I happily see it reflected more often in media. The media has blindly and rudely starved society of diverse representation for too long. I like that people are demanding to be seen, heard, respected, and not judged. I am happy that people are not going away quietly, because neither am I. We all must stand up for our rights and dignity, yet while I applaud anti-racist movements, I see that our society is one with irony abound. We are racist but we still want bits and pieces of the very people we hate– non-White people dyeing their hair blond, White people plumping their lips with collagen, or baking in the sun and at tanning salons to get brown. Curly haired people straightening their hair and straight-haired people curling theirs… Is anyone truly satisfied with themselves? While one can argue that we all have a right to express ourselves, a part of me sees people of all races trying to change the things they dislike about themselves because somewhere along the lineage, someone pointed out that aspects of their physical features were not good enough.
In his excellent article, The White People in the Comments, (pub. in Level, Medium) Steve QJ says “Misguided anti-racism already makes genuine anti-racism look ridiculous”. He says that “the enemy of anti-racism is racism”. Think about that for a minute. If you are fighting for your rights, is it wise to assume that eveyrace but yours is against you? Should you cast off a person’s support because of the colour of their skin? Revisit the history of the Underground Railroad. Enslaved people trying to escape to freedom did not refuse the help of the abolitionists, some of whom were White. We must be mindful that messages we deliver of anti-racism must not be fuelled by the racism that might be burried deep in our souls. Steve QJ makes this point when he refers to the present-day absurdity of the uproar of the press and social media with regards to the translation of Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb. Ms. Gorman chose International Booker Prize winner, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for the translation into Dutch, however when some Netizens and reporters felt that Rijneveld was not “unapologetically Black and female” like Gorman, they felt it would be better to withdraw from the project than be embroiled in an unnecessarily difficult situation. I look at my face and I recognize that though we may raise our fist in protest, equality will never be achieved if we fail to take a moment to look around at the different faces surrounding us, supporting the quest for solidarity. Racism will not end if we hold grudges. Racism will not end if we cannot forgive. It will not end if we judge or hate. We must forgive those who hurt us so we can heal and when we are healed, we can cure others by our example. To end racism, we need to shed the racism within ourselves.
I look at my face and at fifty-four, I am still living on Nowhere Island, descended from many races, belonging to none and watching humanity react to itself and I realize I only have control over my own actions. I have always been in the OTHER box and even as society claims to change, I always will be. And I while I still don’t belong anywhere, I fit perfectly into my mold, living my truth in my beautiful, brown skin with my crazy combination hair. In his piece, Steve QJ asks, “What does a world without this ridiculous prejudice look like?” I don’t have the answer, but I would like to think it looks like my face, your face, and every face. He wonders “how do we get there as quickly and painlessly as possible?” and again, I am not sure we can, but maybe we can start by helping and getting to know each other. Maybe we can stop ridiculing and judging each other and making ignorant assumptions about a person who doesn’t look like us. Maybe we can start by mindfully choosing our words so as not to be insulting. Maybe we can get there by freeing ourselves of the racism within us and raise the next generation of humans with the positive qualities so vital for humanity. Maybe we can end this ridiculous prejudice by utilizing the power of love to eradicate the weakness and fear that is hate. We must accept we can agree with someone who doesn’t look or sound like us and should we disagree, we must not assume it’s because of race. Humans do not like change, and we are a species that tends toward making things more complex than they need to be, so I am not quite sure we can live in a world free of prejudice.
A world without racism starts with simple acts of love, kindness and acceptance and as Steve QJ so brilliantly and simply states, “If we are ever going to live in a world where we stop judging each other by the colour of our skin, WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO STOP JUDGING EACH OTHER BY THE COLOUR OF OUR SKIN”. The solution to worldwide racism is a simple one. Racism is learned. Being racist is a choice and I believe if each of us chooses to eradicate racist thoughts, actions and vocabulary from our lives, dare I say, it can end.