Redefining How I See Myself in a Society That Defines People by Skin Colour
Since the whole movement of Black Lives Matter (BLM) reared its head amid COVID-19, I found myself thinking more and more about my own coloured identity. I voiced my thoughts on the incidents that preempted the uprising, and I wholeheartedly condemned them. There were too many unnecessary deaths and I guess the stick finally broke the camel’s back for many of us. This civil uprising stirred up thoughts in my mind about my heritage, my own “blackness”, especially as someone who now lives in a world of white privilege.
My coloured background through my lens
Growing up, I never aligned myself with being Black, or I should say, I did not have cause to question it. My skin is light brown or fair, my hair is soft and curly, and I am of mixed ethnicity. Where I come from, the street hecklers would call me “Reds” or “Red Woman”.
Through DNA testing my relatives found out that we have, on average, 41% of Nigerian ancestry derived from the maternal side of our family. This itself was not particularly shocking because we knew a lot about our ancestry; we’d been researching it for a while. I completely acknowledge and love all parts of my ancestry; the parts that I inherited from my Scottish, East Indian, Amerindian, Portuguese, and Nigerian ancestors. I am quite comfortable in my skin, moving to North America and the recent BLM civil uprising taught me that I needed to redefine how I saw myself.
Setting the framework for my multi-ethnicity
I grew up on the twin island of Trinidad and Tobago where skin colours range from white to dark brown. This was because of the first settlers and the immigrants who settled on the island before and after the abolition of slavery ended in 1838. There were South American native Indians, immigrants from Europe, and Africa (from the slave trade), and indentured labourers from India, China, Syria, Lebanon and Venezuela. My island was the “model island”, so immigration was prominent. With the inter-racial relationships that formed and the children born of these relationships, our people became a racial multi-ethnic melting pot, a callaloo, as we Trinis like to call our mixed bloodline; probably the most heterogeneous of all the Caribbean islands and perhaps throughout the world.
Defining ourselves by skin colour
Before migrating to North America in 2008, I never thought of myself as Black; I was simply a Caribbean woman. In this part of the world, if your skin is not lily-white, you are a person of colour, and if your skin is a certain shade of brown, then you are deemed to be Black. Depending on where you are and the time you’re in, the concept is even simpler, if you are not white, you are black. Society created this construct.
It was frustrating when I had to fill out data about my ethnicity because the available choices did not seem to describe me. There was no option for being multi-ethnic, so I left the response blank. This kind of thing forced me to question my identity and change the lens through which I saw myself. Since I started redefining, I no longer grapple with the options on the ethnicity section of forms, my option is now Black.
I never felt the negative effects of being Black as some of my friends said they did. I did not experience racial undertones or tensions among peers or colleagues, nor did I ever feel discriminated against. One of my friends said this was so, perhaps, because I am not physically seen as Black. This was colourism, something I was not aware of at the time. Nonetheless, I cannot ignore that it happens to my friends or relatives who have a darker skin colour. It is their lived experience, and I acknowledge the realness of the social construct of racism and colourism and condemn their existence.
Systemic racism infiltrates every fibre of our society
History dictates that skin colour and ethnicity should define us as a people; and, rather than celebrate our uniqueness, the ideologies result in divisions among us. This divisiveness has become the norm and occurs in societal systems: religious, social, educational, legal, and political. The European slave master’s rhetoric drove this divisiveness over two centuries ago, and yet, with all the modernism and democracy we boast about, the rhetoric continues to be prevalent and dictate our everyday lives.
Systemic racism is everywhere we turn in our communities. Our workplaces show a preference for Whites when they hire or promote. Our schools show favouritism for White students as opposed to Black students. The social programs deny access to the most vulnerable in the Black communities far more than those in the White communities. The legal system also seems to carry on this rhetoric. Where is the equity? Why does skin colour define and divide us as a people? No person, regardless of colour, is better than another or deserves less than another. Why do some of us in this 21st Century refuse to acknowledge the engrained failings of the age-old rhetoric of Racism?
The changing of the tide
The civil uprisings during COVID-19 shed a renewed spotlight on the inequity, inequality, and injustice experienced by the black community and the conversation is changing. Organizations and institutions across the globe have been called out and forced to take a long, hard look at their policies. Advertisements now include blacks, donations are pouring in for non-profit organizations that support Black communities, and companies are forming Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committees to dissect their policies and create new ones that are more reflective of the changing rhetoric. Is this to appease the Black voice? I do not know. What I know is that the Black voice is not going anywhere soon, not until it affects the change that has been long coming.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”Barack Obama
Yes, we are the change that we seek. It starts with each one of us. Together we can change the rhetoric, change the discourse, and change the lens through which we view ourselves. The BLM movement and the other communities and organizations that have come forward to support ending systemic racism have a long road ahead of them. Dismantling a 200-year-old reality requires endurance, support, resourcefulness, and empathy.
My skin may not be black, but I am Black because this is who I am. For many, being Black puts them at a social disadvantage. I attribute this to the Looking-Glass Self theory coined by Charles H. Cooley in 1902. The theory refers to our reflection on how we believe others see us. It is unfortunate that society views blacks as anything but beautiful and smart. Instead, the societal lens sees them as ugly, violent, and a menace to society with nothing worthwhile to contribute. Is it any wonder why the black community is so oppressed? Black people have to change their mindset and not wait on society to alter its view. They need to change the lens through which they perceive themselves, raise their heads high and walk tall.
I support the Black voice because it makes up a large part of my ethnic identity, and I have acknowledged myself as Black; but, it does not define the essence of who I am. I have decided that I will not allow society to define me based on skin colour or where I come from; I am more than that. What I see in the mirror is the diasporic medley of my ancestors, the rainbow colours of my people, the legacy of the people whose shoulders I stand upon, and the values they taught me. These are the true elements that make me who I am.