To Look Inside: West Indian whiteness & identity

Telling

Wide Sargasso Sea is one of my favorite books. There is so much in the book that feels familiar, especially in the landscape of “ginger lilies,” “leaning coconut palms,” “pink and red hibiscus,” “frangipani,” and “orchids.” The colors, and the “razor grass” that I have cut my own arms and fingers on before.  The lush textures and the richness of the landscape that Rochester complains is “an extreme green” with too much; “too much blue, too much purple, too much green.  The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near” (59).  This landscape along with Antoinette’s Catholic all-girls education and Rhys’s rendering of those nuns who populated my formative educational years as well. There is a haunting, Gothic feel of Rhys’s prose that draws me into its beautiful sadness. Perhaps because I know it is all about a descent into madness in the end.

If I tell the truth about this book the first time, I will say that when I read it — I mainly noticed the black people, first and foremost. The whiteness lay inside of the text itself, just outside of my periphery. I saw it but did not see it at the same time. I could not acknowledge what that was, did not want to, and felt no need to. In some ways, considering and writing about white creole identity forces me to peel away the landscape, the black people, the river -– all of the things that immediately struck me as places and people I knew well inside of this book. It is about interrogating the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, and some of the many things I’d missed before. It feels like extra work, partly because honestly, parts of me are resistant. I am resistant to this process of using the lens of white creole identity –- first acknowledging there is one -– then using that lens to crack open new considerations of this text. It also means disengagement from myself as center -– the black West Indian –- center here, only to a certain extent; yet liminal and liminal yet, within the larger structural constructs of race, color, class and identity. Whatever privileged self there is for a black West Indian is contained inside a relative, fixed, small space. And only there. Whenever I attempt to crawl into the deeper annals of race, identity and personal history.  I am a little afraid of what else I may find.

There are white people there?

In my first semester of my freshman year at university in the states, I remembered my roommate, a mixed-raced Canadian born, now American citizen to West Indian parents, asking about photos tacked up on the dorm wall that we shared. Who was this person?  And who was he?  She inquired about their personal stories and connections to me. And where was she from? And her?  pointing to two of my white looking friends in a birthday picture with me and other girlfriends, all of us smiling, out to dinner for my nineteenth birthday.  Trinidad, I say, confused that she would ask. There are white people in Trinidad?  she asked me incredulously?  Yes, yes, I told her, flabbergasted, how do you think “we” got there?

On the excellent Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago Facebook page, a fascinating thread was prompted by an irreverent, poignant and humorous observation that ” Living in Trinidad is real entertainment oui. Now its well known that white Trinidadians are an endangered species confined to the northwestern peninsula with stray populations sighted occasionally south of the Caroni River, particularly in Bel Air and Gulf View near Sando and another fledgling clutch thought to exist in Palmiste near a large park. You will practically NEVER find a white Trini living say, in Barrackpore or Palo Seco for instance and truth be told the odd one or two white folk in these wildernesses are foreigners who have married locals and are setting up for their own ‘dreadlock holiday’ lifestyles until the burgeoning crime rate exterminates them or forces retreat to the aforementioned Northwest or back on a plane. You will possible NEVER see a white civil servant these days although no laws prohibit their employment in the public service and as recently as the 1950s, they were the dominant upper echelons of government administration. Its also a common fact that all local whites know each other and are related in some way.
So long story short, your average country bookie has never really had any interaction with local whites , social or otherwise and thus still possess a pliant conviction that
a) All whites are the boss
b) Dey have money
c) May be aliens from Mars for all they know.
This in itself leads to some amusing encounters when my white friends make the long and dangerous trek into the badlands of south to visit me or else we go traipsing to some historic site, beach or forest. . .”

I commented noting, “the inherent contradictions that in a small place (relatively speaking), having the luxury to ‘not be seen’ by and large–say, waiting in line for a new birth certificate or ever catching a maxi, or other kinds of seemingly mundane, everyday life interactions one could list (something i’ve mused about myself on and off with regards to race, class & visibility) in and of itself contributes to the notion of not being visible and not recognized as part of a particular cultural landscape. people can then become a kind of phantasm in their own land of birth. there are of course, other factors at play as well. it also makes me wonder about how people remain tucked away inside exclusive enclaves and are happy to do so, selectively participate in sociocultural endeavours, then have to confront some kind of existential crisis when people don’t know that they exist! how would they?” I was glad to see this kind of conversation because I have been thinking for a while about (though, admittedly not vigorously explored publicly til now) how space and visibility become connected to cultural and racial narratives and their impact on the racial consciousness of the people inside of those spaces. Like inside small island societies like ours.

Part of the discomfort for the white West Indian is the supposed insider-outsider feeling that posits them both inside, yet distinctly outside of the larger Afro-, Indo- West Indian cultural narrative in some ways.  It is not a nice feeling, to feel this way.  I have felt this feeling before. I know some people who feel a similar discomfort crawling around their skin as they wander around The Falls at West Mall, a shopping center in Trinidad. Too many white people, they bristle. Or, whey de ass all these white people come out from? they’ll wonder out loud in certain other instances.  All the while, they remain tucked away inside upscale communities on the western part of the island.  You will never see too many, if you do not venture west, or select other places in Trinidad very often.

One of the problems with these select visibility instances I think, is that it highlights the obviousness that otherwise, it seems as though they are in hiding. Hiding and secluded from the rest of us. This (in)visibility is further complicated by Trinidad’s classism and social segregation and the fact that you can encounter many people (white and otherwise) who are actually proud to claim that they don’t go pass de lighthouse — that they don’t interact with certain places in the country and certainly not the people who live there.

Bridget Brereton’s anthologized essay in Engendering History, a collection about women’s roles in Caribbean history, sheds further light on these some of these issues. It is a fascinating examination of women’s writings from the 1770s to the 1920s, including several white women residing in the Caribbean at this time, who highlight similar sentiments about their superiority over West Indian born whites. Inside of this anthology, a range of essays by various authors examine where gender intersects with history through an “African feminist theoretical” lens.

This collection of writing covers the range of the English-speaking Caribbean, as well as a part of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. In Brereton’s chapter, texts by several women: Maria Nugent (an American white woman), Mrs. Carmichael (A British white woman living in and overseeing households in St. Vincent and Trinidad), Janet Shaw “an aristocratic and cultured Scottish lady”, (64) and Elizabeth Fenwick, “a well educated Englishwoman” (64) are among some of the voices lending testimony to the cultural division between creole born white women and the foreign born white women.

Both Nugent and Carmichael write in personal letters and journals complaining about “the narrow interests and lack of refinement among the white Jamaicans” (79). For Nugent in Jamaica, it was the “meagreness of conversation, which arise from an uninformed mind” (80), and this was not very different from Carmichael’s poor estimation of Antiguan white women. They both agreed that “white creole women were often undereducated and lacking in refinement” (80) for varying reasons during the 1800s in the West Indies.

Nugent also thought the vast majority of  white Jamaican women she met were “generally idle, ignorant, and horrible to their domestics” (Brereton 79). She described a one “Mrs C” as a “a perfect creole, says little, and drawls out that little, and has not an idea beyond her own penn” (Brereton 79). In addition to all of this, “both Nugent and Fenwick thought that ‘immorality’ was rife even among men of the elite in Jamaica and Barbados” (Brereton 73). As a result, these white creole women were extremely consumed with the scourge of black and colored women leading their men and boys astray. (Brereton 73-74).

Of special interest to them were any newly landed whites who then had to be warned about “the free colored women” who aimed “to allure young men who are newly come to the country, or entice the inexperienced, may be said to be their principal object” (Brereton 73).  At the same time all of this race, color and class segregation is being forced and regulated, the creole whites themselves were often regarded with a critical eye. This is evidenced too inside of Jean Rhys’s text, as Mr.  Mason notes ominously of Antoinette, “creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either” (Rhys 56).

The implicit “madness” of the Cosways in Wide Sargasso Sea is implicated by the conundrums of race, purity and nationality and how Bertha will signify Bronte’s mad white creole woman in the attic. I frequently think of this alongside the whispered ‘madness’ and alleged questionable genetic material of people of certain select, white monied families in Trinidad. They try to breed in ways to keep others out, some folks say. Island societies were rife with stories like this. And even still, black and mixed blood might have flowed in and out in some instances.

In Bridget Brereton’s chapter “The White Elite of Trinidad,” she illuminates how some of these innuendos and stereotypes were in fact historically rooted in “fear of the taint of ‘Negro blood’” (54) and as a result “inbreeding was the safest way to avoid undesirable connections” (54). In a small-island space, such as ours, this fueled a kind of blood-line paranoia ensuring that “creole whites had an extremely strong sense of the absolute need for ‘racial purity’. Much more than the resident Europeans, they were open to the suspicion of having (the dreaded) ‘negro blood’” (53). Thus, for the white “French creoles” of Trinidad, “inter marriage, inbreeding, social and familial incest were both a virtue and a necessity” (Brereton 54).

Across the Sargasso Sea

“I never looked at any strange negro.  They hated us.  They called us white cockroaches.” Antoinette “Bertha” Mason (née Cosway, Wide Sargasso Sea).

Like Jean Rhys’s protagonist Antoinette who muses, “between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong” (85), white creoles, in pre-emancipation times and even after, saw themselves as falling outside of the larger category of West Indianness, and inextricably, unfortunately for them, conflated with blackness. They sometimes saw themselves as floundering, particularly if they had no money to speak of. On the other hand, the white creole, was often left posited in contrast to the British born and bred, pure authentic white.

In Rhys’s text, Antoinette and her mother are not only “white niggers” because they are poor but also because they fall outside of the monied British class of white people. This is who Tia, in taunting Antoinette’s inferior status, refers to as “real white people” (21) unlike the Cosways. Outside of the clear racist motivation of division, the white creoles themselves, especially during and even after slavery, were in a tussle for an authentic identity of self in some ways. In the introduction to an edition of Rhys’s text, Francis Wyndham describes white creoles as “products of an inbred, decadent, expatriate society” (11) which aptly sums up some of major stereotypes of the time.

White people in Trinidad -– depending where you are, are really rare.  Like a strange pebble that you want to pick up and show-off.  In a truly fucked-up kind of way, this is very true.  Cruise ships used to never dock in Port-of-Spain -– they’d go as far south as Barbados or maybe reach to touch Tobago but hardly ever stopped in Trinidad because we’re not a long-standing tourist port.  And when they did, never in the kind of droves as you would see in other islands. For many years, the geographical position of Trinidad as last in the archipelago, just off the coast of Venezuela plus the absence of prime white sandy beaches that are found in abundance in Tobago and elsewhere, prompted this cruise ship inactivity. Later, the first discovery of oil in the 1960s allowed the government to focus elsewhere and pay no mind to wasting time wooing and courting foreigners to come tan and spend their money here. So much so, that it became part of the fabric of nationalistic narrative, we doh need tourism, we have we oil.

Eventually they started coming more often in the late nineties, and it was funny that you would always know when a ship docked in the port because of the reams of white-white people wandering through the city in a daze. With their pink skin, in their loud tropical shirts and panama hats that no one else even wears, living on the island. Because I am middle class, I actually know some white (and “pass-white” and off-white) people. Since my class and social privilege gave me access to them, being seen with them said something about my class privilege, that I am aware that I liked.  There are people in Trinidad who see more white people on TV, with the steady influx of American and British pop-cultural images, than they ever do or ever have in real life.  Some will see more “white tourists” than actual Trinidadian white (or local whites).  For some, white then, equals tourist. On a popular Trinidad social message board that I used to frequent a few years ago, I recall a Trinidadian poster asked something to effect of: “do you know you how many times a day I get told to go back where I come from?  Or called touris’?  Or something like that?  Just because I am white?”

Well, no, I never have.  And you know, I never once stopped to think about it before.  Because I exist in the larger cultural narrative that is subsequently in perpetual struggle with the larger dominant discourses of history, race, slavery, colony and empire.  I am inside that space and I really hadn’t taken the time to stop to seek out the white people on the outskirts.

And honestly, they don’t look like they need my help, half the time, anyway.

At the same time, I know someone who makes it his business to constantly make his life one that is engaged with movement around his island and participating in many aspects of the cultural, social and outdoor spaces that you will almost never see faces like his in. He is also acutely aware of how his whiteness, his Trini whiteness, becomes a site for dismantling certain notions just by him being present, being Trini, being actively and lovingly engaged with the community around him and in plain sight.

Elsewhere, inside the cultural landscape, the calypso in Trinidadian society becomes important for its expression of a kind of articulated whiteness in song themes, through the African descendant men who primarily sing it.  Soca, emerging as an off-shoot of calypso, tackles similar themes. The importance of this music and its messages, stemming from the historical ‘chantwell,’ who as Dr.  Hollis Liverpool explains, “‘the chantwell of pre Emancipation times, analyzed the happenings of the day and informed the masses present of the environmental changes and pressures” (9). It is no surprise then, that the conflation of whiteness with “tourists” is a frequent topical issue and theme found in soca and calypso throughout the years.  In this way, these songs reinforce widely held ideas about the white people who are seen yet not seen by the masses who do not have access to, or do not frequent those spaces where they are located.

When they are, they are frequently assumed to be foreigners.  Hit soca songs like The Mighty Shadow’s (Winston Bailey) “Stranger” (2001) about a white Australian woman who comes to Trinidad carnival for the first time and learns how to dance and participate in the culture, falls inside of this theme. Similarly Lord Kitchener’s (Aldwyn Roberts) classic “Miss Tourist” (1968) reflects a similar theme. Likewise, Colin Lucas’s ubiquitous “Dollar Wine”(1991) shows Lucas teaching a racially unidentified tourist and foreign woman, how to do the dollar wine in detail. In the West Indian cultural imagination, tourist often becomes code for foreign white or unspecified white.

Then I saw Pieces2peace from Add Fyah and Stir noting that there was an interesting sounding upcoming workshop in the Bahamas on “re-storying whiteness” focused on white Bahamian writers and concerned with transforming “the Columbus” of whiteness or, at least, of white Bahamian writers who are underrepresented in Bahamian writing by the workshop leader’s estimation. The workshop’s proponent seems really concerned with reframing and reclaiming whiteness (from what I don’t know. Whiteness hasn’t been systematically thrown off track,  unfairly excluded or marginalised, not in the Caribbean even) which reminded me of Elaine Savory’s quote about Kamau Brathwaite’s “contention with many readings of Rhys’s text” which was “rooted in the significant notion that a white colonizer cannot move to being [a] white victim in one straight line without some recognition of the place of white power in history” (Savory 207).

Bladow.

Residuals

Growing up, I had a dear friend who was the same age as me, born in Britain and outwardly white-looking with dark hair.  Her Indian mother went to the same university in Canada with my Dad, they were from the same area in Trinidad and she also knew my mother in school in Canada as well. When I got older, I realized that my friend was not full white, but rather white and East-Indian mixed. We were close play friends from the ages of seven through twelve, then remained cool but nowhere as close as we grew older.

I have pictures of us in trippy dresses, holding hands in dress shoes and fond memories of her endless collection of the latest dolls that her father would send from England for her.  Sleep overs and the baths that we would take together.  The creak of the floorboards in her mother’s big, old Victorian-styled jalousied house that no longer stands.  The scary shouts of their short-lived, pet monkey near the garage, whooping and banging her long metal linked-chain at me while I peered down from upstairs, inside the house.

I especially remembered that I liked doing things in public with her because of her whiteness.  I was very conscious of it–again, that rarity in a black majority place and that our pairing -– accompanying my mother to a dance show in Queen’s Hall –- signaled something about who I was that my skin color alone didn’t.  Because I was dark-skinned, certain kinds of people could easily default me to a certain social class even if other factors betrayed otherwise, but a white friend wouldn’t.  A white friend was an undeniable symbol of class.

And did I fear some menacing dark, black underclass?  I don’t think I did then and I don’t now, but I didn’t want to be automatically categorized as one I suppose.  Secretly.  Fearfully.  Truthfully.  Classism, racism.  All isms are harmful.  All need work to dismantle and they are frequently intertwined.  I am complicit in some of them too. And so in Trinidad, like many parts of the world, to be white is to be presumed to automatically “have money.”  To be brown, red, or anywhere near white is to have money –- relatively speaking.  To be dark is to not have money, or “class,” unless your trappings speak otherwise.  And you surely need them, to make sure that the right signals are being sent wherever you may go or else you stay inside your safe social circles, where everyone knows your background and you will never be read incorrectly.

Still, by sheer numbers, the visibility (or invisibility) of white people is evidenced in the average Trinidadian’s perhaps shocking perusal of West Mall on any given day, if they even venture to go there. This, plus recent ethnicity statistics: 1.2 percent “other” and 20.5 percent “mixed”, where some of those mixed people pass for “white” people locally and some of those “other” include a few remaining “pure” ethnic whites; this seeing and not seeing business becomes complicated in some ways.  So what happens to these white people inside of this space? And why do I care?

Some days, it is also because I am on the outside of their group and I just want to know.  I want to know if they tell their stories, what things will be said. What will I glean about myself, my own story. I want to know and most of all, I want to belong. I want to belong because I feel safe reminding myself that I have a home somewhere and there is tremendous comfort in that notion for me. Some days, it is this thought alone that keeps me adrift from revisiting the fear of social ostracism because of my looks and societal Eurocentric constructs of beauty, or the rootlessness of life in America. Between these places, my claim to a cultural space becomes paramount. No one can ever point at me and say I do not belong culturally. Part of my belonging is connected to knowing and understanding.

I know I am fiercely possessive of this. I have all of these things to claim culturally inside this island place and yet, I can still be jealous. And yet there is still much work to be done. I am jealous too of the streets that bear their names in Woodbrook and elsewhere, De Verteuil, Cipriani, Borde and others. Jealous of the exquisite properties, landmarks like Stollmeyer’s Castle and Lapeyrouse Cemetery, generational wealth, connections and access.  Somewhere between understanding, a ripple of anger bubbles to the surface, swells, bursts, simmers and wanes. There are no widespread lasting historical monuments for anything African, Indian — wonderful cultural expression — yes, but nothing else embodying the blood, sweat and tears of those ancestors. Nothing for the Mary Princes. Esteemed leading Afro West Indians (largely black males), even the black nationalist ones, will have to become esteemed gentlemen, well versed in the classics and such, having to offset their blackness. They will, some of them, have to know more about Europe than the interior of Africa.

There is some anger and shame. I worry that I am selfish, that I want “it” all to myself.  This thought embarrasses me. I, who easily becomes consumed with trying to make other people feel good and welcomed (however symbolically or not), I worry about my possessiveness over my cultural identity because I have felt the sting of exclusion myself, and I know what it feels like. Denying feels too close to what I have been denied. I have felt as though I am out of place socially but it is not the same, I try to tell myself some days. It is not. Is not.

I am protective of this space -– this island history that is mine historically and otherwise. I want to keep safe this tangible space where I can see parts of history forged by people who look like me, as well as the majority of the culture and music.  The inclination is to curl it, this ownership, into my chest, close to my beating heart and keep it there.  Perhaps, slavery entitles me to do so. By our sweat and labor, we made this place.  We cut cane, our backs bled and we led the “cannes brulee” riots.  We did; our  ancestors did. Sometimes I get angry and this is what I think.  Sometimes, it blots out everything else and I just think, white people -— white people, the bloody world over, just do not understand anything. As a black West Indian currently residing in the US, navigating the terrain with African-descendant peoples from all over that have ended up here, including black Americans, well, this makes me feel as though my cultural heritage is all the more precious.

I see Afro-descendant people from all over scrambling to hold on to legacies of their communities, collecting fragments and trying to voice and build their narratives in various ways, while fighting back (and succumbing to) violence, indoctrination, annihilation and white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values that work to maintain its power structure at all costs.  For black Americans, an ethnic minority here, it has always been a struggle. I see the black West Indian connected to a similar milieu of oppression, for people that look like me, here, there and everywhere.

The result, this nationalistic island-space identity is something that is mine and I do not want to lose that feeling or security of having that.  In that sense, I am never ambivalent about Trinidad in that respect, for fear of that loss.  The superficiality of some of the people there, the role of colonization in all of this mess and its role in helping to mould these post-colonial island societies — Jamaica is the same — obsessed with class, color, skin-shade, social standing, hair texture, money, looks, does not go unnoticed by me.  I siphon off bits and compartmentalize it in some places, when I think about my cultural ownership of this space. And sometimes, I could hardly have sympathy for the flailing white West Indian in the midst of all of this. Drowning in their supposed confusion of no one seeing and accepting them for who they are when they step outside of their comfort zone.

This is part of the crux of Wide Sargasso Sea for me, because it forces me to contextualize white creole identity and do some work in that arena, like I never have before. In regard to my particular identity with this place and with its people, some have been very bad, some have been very good.  Either way, it has helped make me who I am.  Until fairly recently, I hadn’t ever seriously examined what some of those experiences meant for me or attempted to bridge any connections between experience and my relationship to my national, cultural identity.

Still, I love this cultural identity in spite of it all.  Or, despite it all.  Perhaps I understand the subjective position of some white West Indians (sans color privilege), more than they know.  Maybe, more than I know. I want to know about and examine these things deeper: identity and text and lived experience because I believe it is valuable in doing so. I also have a vested interest in understanding the whole process of how we come to “be so.” It is part of the work of helping me understand me and my cultural heritage better.

 

Notes: This is part of a much, much longer essay. If anyone happens to be interested in an extensive reference list–just holla. This particular excerpt references Kaiso and Society by Dr. Hollis Liverpool, Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective eds. Verene Shepherd and Bridget Brereton, The White Minority in the Caribbean eds. Howard Johnson and Carl S. Watson, Jean Rhys by Elaine Savory and of course Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

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10 Responses to “To Look Inside: West Indian whiteness & identity”

  1. dwknight912 Says:

    Very generous piece of writing Soy. This “white creole” narrative doesn’t really encompass me, so I can’t speak to it – people in my society wouldn’t be kind to me if I tried to claim a “white creole” or “West Indian” identity. But it is obvious to me that this issue of whiteness in the Caribbean is ongoing – invisible not so much to other Caribbean people but especially to whites outside the Caribbean. I can’t tell you how many times white people approach me in the states saying all sorts of nonsense because they do not “other” me as a white Virgin Islander. They say things like “oh we own that place, right?” and I just think “who the hell is ‘we’?” I know this is a huge advantage for me in the states (that ability to not be “other’ed”) but I experience it very negatively at times. Not only do I find myself generally annoyed by white people but it also leads to being irritated with my own whiteness, which forever alienates me in the place that I paradoxically I feel I most belong. That is what that Bahamian writer meant when she talked about killing her whiteness. That article was actually sent to me by the Tobago-born St. Croix artist La Vaughn Belle a few weeks ago, so I was aware of it before seeing it pop up in your blog entry. One of the most striking things about your piece (for me) is when you mention Brathwaite’s feeling that whites cannot go in a straight line from colonizer to victim without recognizing white power. I would argue that they don’t have to recognize it, although this is desirable in all kinds of ways for the sake of the future, in order to be its victims. Not that anyone has to feel sorry for whites, but that sense of ugly white power that pervades the foundations of society is there whether people acknowledge it or not and isn’t healthy for anyone. Talking about this is really hard in a small island environment – I know – because people tend to be pretty conservative on racial issues. We like to say we don’t recognize race – I’ll grant it’s more complicated for us than it is for people in the states, but it is still there, and it’s not as if we don’t see the related issues. Enjoyed reading this from a Trinidadian perspective, especially from someone who also knows the eternally screwed-up racial dynamic of the U.S.

    • soyluv Says:

      You know, I composed a long reply to this comment once and I don’t know whatever happened to it. I guess I got sidetracked before it posted. I wish comments in progress were saved as you go! :-/

  2. nick bagshawe Says:

    I liked the article and appreciated the thoughtfulness. My grandmother left many years ago but the streets that you mention in woodbrook read like a family tree. I don’t think my grandmother thought of herself as West Indian until she arrived in England.

    She would often liken white WI creoles as Jews; a small minority widely viewed as having more money and power that was the actual case.

    • soyluv Says:

      That’s fascinating, Nick! She sounds a lot like what I’ve read about Jean Rhys, simultaneously West Indian but feeling adrift in that space but categorized as “Other” in Europe. Martin Munro’s “The French Creoles of Trinidad and the Boundaries of Francophone” might be an interesting read for you to delve into. I am sure you will see many family names in there as well. The author does some interesting connections between literature, cartography and naming on the island and shows its interconnectedness to the people who had the privilege and access to do so.

  3. Dandelion and Crusoe Says:

    While i appreciate some of the factual content of this piece and your delve into local white and French Creole culture, as a French Creole may i interject? Jean Rhys is one of my favourite authors as well, mostly because i understand her in a way most won’t. She like me, naively desired the ability to flow within the Caribbean diaspora accepted just as we are, white cockroach and all. I felt though, after reading your work that I’m considered more of an alien being, hiding in the shadows married to my uncle? Also In regard to our hiding, isn’t congregating a natural minority reaction? We are a minority after all. I’m very aware of my history and my “people’s” cultural impact and transgressions, i must defend and concede to it synonymously and have my whole life. I am not a victim and also claim no power within my own country, especially concerning our governance since independence. The “privilege” you speak of comes from our roots in French Nobility which i can say wholeheartedly has since expired. A few centuries will do that. Privilege these days seems more earned and self made, no? Therefore, I’m confused as to why the past is once again being rewound. It’s a different world now, and I am a french creole in the global community possessing an attitude far more progressive than my predecessors. All the while trying to find my place and also belong to my beloved island and people as i am. I guess what I’m trying to relay is that you shouldn’t speak so brashly of what you have never personally experienced. Interestingly also, “Commess” is derived from the french creole language, so it seems you can claim my cultural contribution but criticize it in the same breath? It is a unique, misunderstood existence being a white West Indian and is far more varied than any scholar can ever explain.That being said, I would be more than willing to exchange perspectives with you anytime.

    • soyluv Says:

      Thanks for your feedback. “I felt though, after reading your work that I’m considered more of an alien being, hiding in the shadows married to my uncle?” — Well that’s the point. The ugly insinuations vs. The Truth (whatever that is) and me being a literal outsider examining that identity–which wrangles between belonging and feeling like an outsider. To forget that “purity” of bloodlines was a factor is disingenuous to the discussion at hand, just like I could talk about black people “improving” their colour in another discussion and it be relevant and for the most part, true. It does happen and has happened. That doesn’t mean that that is the sole definitive factor of all members of that group of people and I never claimed that.

      “Also In regard to our hiding, isn’t congregating a natural minority reaction?” No, it isn’t. There’s nothing “natural” about it. I don’t buy into essentialism more than I have to. And it’s only possible if you have the privilege to hide and still exist fully and do so. I know some West Indians get squirmy about concepts of privilege but it exists. Being a “minority” in number doesn’t erase social, economic, racial and colour privilege. In another context, ethnic minories in the States can’t afford to hide. They have to get out and work and integrate and live in communities with various people and take public transport etc. and they cannot afford to hide away. How would they survive without extensive amounts of privilege that affords them the ability to do so?

      “Privilege these days seems more earned and self made, no?” No. Please Google “white privilege” and wheel and come again. You don’t have to be pure ethnic white or European white either to benefit from it. In different societies, people benefit from white privilege based on their approximate proxy to whiteness and it’s NOT earned at all. That’s the point. It’s a construct and an unearned privilege. The privilege that you think is self made is tethered to this, inextricably.

      “Therefore, I’m confused as to why the past is once again being rewound.” You’re confused because this examination makes you uncomfortable. And the references to the past does but those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it and I like learning from the past, personally. To me, it’s vital.

      “I guess what I’m trying to relay is that you shouldn’t speak so brashly of what you have never personally experienced.” It’s not at all brash. I was trying to be as honest as I could within the realm of my understanding. Your discomfort about historical references is not my problem. Really, it isn’t. Take it up with the authors! I fail to see why that is such a problem. I didn’t defame anyone. It’s a historical reference.

      “Interestingly also, “Commess” is derived from the french creole language, so it seems you can claim my cultural contribution but criticize it in the same breath?” Yes, because we can criticize what we love. The French Creole language is part of the Trinidad English lexicon (subsumed BY the English we speak I might add) and that’s what I do: talk about, write about, and think about issues pertaining to my culture. You can claim a cultural aspect and think critically about it as well, in fact I think we should. French Creoles in Trinidad don’t own the monopoly on French derived languages. Afro descendants speak French derived creole languages also throughout the region so it’s not a question of sole ownership in that respect. Also, I’m pretty sure that according to linguists, French patois/creole is the result of an Africanising (or creolising) of the French language. It’s the bastard child of pure French and creole, pidgin or African languages recreated in the “New World.” And if it falls in my diaspora–I’m claiming it!

      I wouldn’t doubt that lived experience is richer and more nuanced and more multi faceted than scholarly research. I’m a black female and a feminist–trust I get that and I get intersectionality more than the average joe. I never said that these sources were the last word in white West Indian experience but simply are referenced to form the basis of my historical angle. I welcome to the perspectives I get from my friends who live that identity and I would love to see more contemporary, critical or opinion voices from white West Indians on the matter.

  4. Dandelion and Crusoe Says:

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to me. I am fascinated by this discussion, and i agree it is one that needs to be had more often in the Caribbean. I’m also a feminist so I’m always happy to encounter another.
    Rebuttal! Firstly, i’m very comfortable just slightly pissed off, It’s my part of history and experience so of course I’m at ease hearing about all it’s nuances and statistics.
    I never claimed to own the French creole language nor can you, it stands on its own…though factually in this case the French chicken came before the egg and then some sort of latin before that… Forgive me, but a few of your sweeping statements lack a little humanity and that is essential to any sensitive discussion especially one concerning a person’s identity which I have every right to defend and own, as do you. It’s well and good to have a diverse and impressive vocabulary but where is the humanistic element? That understanding? You must expect that a French creole would pop up and have something to say about being picked apart in such a way. I suspect you wouldn’t wholly appreciate it if I examined the Afro-Trinidadian experience so freely, even with lots of evidentiary support and detailed research. What right would I have anyway? It’s not my story to tell or dissect. Your statement about proximity to white privilege is not completely correct, are you aware of the racial majority in Trinidadian government, my vote counts for zilch. I am judged and disavowed before I open my mouth in this country, all because of my ancestral strain? We are also targeted for violent crime because of this dangerous assumption of “privilege.” Also, I thought you were mainly speaking of white Caribbean identity, why should I google the general definition of white privilege? I don’t fit that. My French creole great-grandfather was a police officer, a civil servant by the way so my proximity to privilege is not that impressive. My grandparents worked damn hard to get my dad from a government secondary school to university and he worked damn hard to do the same for me.
    I think the problem here on both ends is acceptance, you of my loud existence and me of your cavernous opinion. I suppose we can’t help either. Though I will say, when examining a person’s identity you shouldn’t forget the actual person within it. We need to tell the story of our history and stop arguing it’s truth in all aspects. It’s the only way to progress.

  5. soyluv Says:

    “Forgive me, but a few of your sweeping statements lack a little humanity and that is essential to any sensitive discussion especially one concerning a person’s identity which I have every right to defend and own, as do you. It’s well and good to have a diverse and impressive vocabulary but where is the humanistic element? That understanding?” Ok, we’re on different planets with this one. I don’t have a lot of patience for sensitivity with certain discussions and it’s largely because of the spaces and people I frequent: social justice & critical race conversations where no fucks are given with regard to tone and tone policing. Or coddling. I hear what you’re saying but maybe we just can’t be in conversation that way, because I also deal with blackness in America and it all adds together to leave me not at all interested in sensitive discussions, in the slightest. I am all outta cans with certain topics. You can defend your personal identity all you want but you seem to conflate it a lot with systemic observations that are not one and the same though we can be part of both.

    You are free to examine the Afro-Trinidadian experience all you want, if you felt like it and I guarantee you will invoke systemic notions too that will not be relevant to me personally, as a black person but I will get lumped in the monolith on a systemic level of imagining. But how that happens for blackness vs. whiteness is different and rooted in different historical places. I am never free of the individual assumptions about blackness though I know me and know what applies to me and what doesn’t. And I get that. :-/

    I don’t care who pops up and says what. My writing is up there for discussion and that’s fine.

    If it happened to you, you own it. You own everything that happened to you. They are all your stories if it happened to you: you felt it, saw it, smelled it, etc. If I cite historical quotes, then that’s what that is. We can’t sense-make in a bubble. Research is valuable and not the only thing or the most important thing but it’s important too.

    White privilege can and does apply in a West Indian context, the differences are mainly nuances: what whiteness can look like for example, but the fundamentals are the same. It has nothing to do with simply government representation. It’s not just about tangibles. It’s about the assumptions people make and the American and British media that we are fed filled with positive images of people who like you/white/”mix”/fair what have you and the opposite (mainly) for black and brown people. It’s about colonial legacy. It’s about all of that. I could also say you haven’t had to or needed to be involved in post colonial governance as a group and progressed fine which is a privilege. For example, I could also take Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege” essay and rework it in another version to fit a Caribbean context, adapted to our societal framework and add things specific to us like, you will never end up in certain schools for a random example. The points would change but the underlying framework is totally applicable. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t white Caribbean people who have different experiences but overwhelmingly and systemically, what do we often see and know? Those individuals who are exceptions to the norm, by themselves, don’t negate systems in place.

    Being targeted for crime is a stereotype. The stereotype linking all white people with money. It’s not a working example of white privilege. An assumption of wealth might afford a privilege to a white person in a bank setting or investment opportunity just based on their whiteness. That unearned opportunity is privilege at work.

    I don’t forget people inside, but systems are systems and not people. I can’t voice that unique, personal white West Indian experience except systemically which I can because I interact with societal systems all the time and through texts dealing with identity, or through my experience with whiteness–still my experience and filtered through that–which is exactly what I did. Privilege too is systemic. If white West Indians want to do otherwise from their personal viewpoint then they can and add the layers you want to see expressed. I couldn’t do that anyway but I am not going to stop examining and musing about race and culture and identity in whatever ways I can.

  6. soyluv Says:

    And if you do decide to write that–I’ll be so interested in reading it!

  7. Dandelion and Crusoe Says:

    Haha…Would love your help! Truly! Thank you for allowing me the space on your forum to say my piece, well fought. Much respect, cheers!

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