I’ve alluded to this a few times here and there but never fully articulated my thoughts so here goes:
I am half Trinidadian and half mélange of western European. On my dad’s side of the family I was the first “mixed” kid born amongst his 10 brothers and sisters. On my mom’s side I may still to this day be the only person of colour in that family. So my birth was an event in some ways. I marked a departure for both sides of sticking with their own.
My maternal grandmother sent my aunt to verify my colour before she would come and visit me in the hospital because she didn’t want a black granddaughter. Apparently I passed the test and she doted on me for the rest of her life. My maternal uncle disowned my mother when she married my dad because he was black and to this day he does not acknowledge my existence. But these are things I did not learn until I was a teenager.
Growing up I saw both sides of my family – often. My paternal cousins babysat me (they were quite a bit older than I was) and I played with my maternal cousins. I ate Caribbean food (love it!) learned the culture etc. while also experiencing my mom’s family’s traditions. It never crossed my mind that this wasn’t what it was like for everyone. That everyone didn’t live in two worlds.
I had an Afro as a little girl – I looked like a boy – so I started wearing dresses all the time. But that’s the way my hair was. I have white skin with freckles, almond shaped-eyes, my dad’s flattish nose (much cuter on my face), and incredibly pouty bottom lip and some of the nappiest-kinkiest hair you’ve ever seen (even my hairdresser agrees! Broke a plastic comb in my hair once!) I straighten it now I have since I was 8 or 9.
The way I look is often the topic of conversation even with complete strangers. People like to try and figure out just what I am. Not who I am but what. By looking a me a lot of people have a really hard time putting me in a box. And people want to be able to identify you and when they can’t somehow they think it gives them free reign to ask incredibly rude questions. When I was younger this used to embarrass me or humiliate me in some ways because no one else was being asked. As I got older, I decided to make a game of it. Someone asks what I am (no, not where I’m from or what my background is but what I am) so I reply, knowing full well the answer they want, I’m a Canadian. Not what they wanted to hear. What are your parents? Canadians (it’s true my dad’s been a citizen since the 70s). Again still not what they were after so more specifically now, what’s your heritage? Ah, Trinidadian and Canadian. That’s what they wanted to hear. Now they can label me, put me in a box so they feel safe and can move on. Sometimes I like to make people guess my heritage I’ve heard everything you can think of: Japanese, Italian, Native, Indian, Irish, South African, etc. It makes me laugh really.
What frustrates me in all this guessing and trying to label me is the fact that very often, the word exotic comes up. I do not view myself as exotic in any way shape or form. I am who I am. Simply the product of my parents’ combined DNA. This exoticism that has become part of my life has also served to alienate me in many ways – not allowing me to truly fit in either in the Black community nor the White one.
It’s not easy to find your way in the world but when people look at you, label you and determine who they think you are based on that, it’s frustrating.
People marvel at how different I can look depending on whether my hair is up or down, straightened or natural. I have been mocked for its texture – in grade 5 I was called woolly mammoth. My own aunt has even said that the only part of me that decided to be Black was my hair. I have been teased for having such pale skin. For trying to “pass” as white. Being labelled a mulatto (I hate that word it makes my skin crawl) and yes, I know the origins and the history of the word, still don’t like it.
Maybe some people relish being labelled exotic but for me it’s a loaded word that I do not want associated with me – sadly, I don’t get a say in it.