When Did I Notice My Ethnicity?

In order to commemorate UK Black History Month, I’m going to spend the next few blog posts talking about ethnicity and blackness. If you don’t wanna read about it then.. um… see you in November I guess?

Anyway this post is sort of in response to a video I saw on Chescaleigh’s Facebook page (if you don’t know her then get to know her. Especially if you’re into social justice). She posed the question in the title above to a group of people of colour, which triggered me wondering when I noticed my ethnicity. Eventually this is what I came to realise.

See, growing up in the Caribbean means race really isn’t a big deal. It’s just a thing like “oh yeah she’s black, he’s Indian, but we’re all island people”. We didn’t so much have a conversation about ethnicity as much as we knew it was a thing… but it didn’t matter. I always knew I was black, I always knew I was darker than some of the other girls, I always knew I had “nappy” hair. It was what it was. It was part of my identity but we all shared the shade under the much bigger “Islander” mentality. We were St. Lucian and that’s that. I think I’ve mentioned this before…

But my mum is South African, so I was aware of discrimination in other countries from a young age. Apartheid was a part of my history through my mother, who had lived a starkly different life to my own. Her life before leaving was one of segregation, of unavailable opportunities, of lost histories and a pervasive storyline of imposed inferiority. In short, she was the second class citizen of her own country. And as her child, I was educated on this at a fairly early age. I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about this too…

That being said I don’t think it really hit me until we went to visit South Africa when I was 13. Ostensibly under the hope that we could find extended family on my mother’s side, we went in December during my Christmas vacation. We stayed in Cape Town for most of it and I remember being floored by how lovely everything was. I wasn’t one of those ignorant people who thought that Africa was 99% huts and 1% lions, but at that age I hadn’t been to that many big cities and the whole experience left me awestruck. We went on safaris and to Robben Island and ate in high-class restaurants and visited museums that my mother wouldn’t have even been able to stand in front of a few decades before. For the most part I couldn’t understand my mother’s emotions. Freedom of movement was something I was born into. I’d never experienced anything less.

But then we went to a predominantly white area where some of the old values were still left over from apartheid. Everyone stared at us like we were aliens. The continent of my mother, the continent of my father’s ancestors, contained people who not only saw my mother and I as weird but unwelcome. I remember feeling so exposed, like my skin was shining brightly and no one could look away.But they were fixated on us not because we were beautiful but because we were glow worms.

We were treated so differently as well. We went to a few restaurants where larger parties that came in after us would be seated before us and we were left to wait even when we saw empty tables for two. In one case we ended up asking to take away our food instead, seeing as we had waited for so long. The food arrived cold and poorly packaged, stuffed into a paper bag unceremoniously. We had to heat it up in the microwave in our hotel because it was as icy as the waiting staff’s glare. Suddenly I realised that being black meant something more than what colour I was. I wasn’t black. I was Black with a capital B. And I was always going to be Black, and my experiences in some places would be affected by this Blackness.

That’s a heavy thing to learn when you’re young because the next step is to figure out what you want to do with the information. For my part I never let it stop me or alter my decisions. Only black in the village? Whatever. Only black in a committee? Bring it on. But every once in a while someone does or says something (sometimes innocently, sometimes not) and I realise that my Blackness is showing. And then I become 13 years old again and I have to decide what I want to do with that information all over again.

And sometimes I become aware that this is what the rest of my life will be like if nothing changes.

One thought on “When Did I Notice My Ethnicity?

  1. Erica says:

    You described how you felt at 13 in SA so vividly that I felt like I was walking down the street with you and your mom. I felt the chills run down my back. “Deciding what to do with that information” is indeed the choice we all have to make, some of us can carry that burden and successfully navigate the BS, and some of us can’t handle it. It’s a constant fight, daily for some people. I’m Black in America and have always wanted to travel to places where I could “fit in” and just BE for a while. But even when you described not being so “aware” in St. Lucia I couldn’t help but imagine all the systemic oppression taking place quietly in the background…who owns the land there, who owns the wealth, do the people native to the island have control over the resources? That kind of awareness follows me everywhere, even when I just want to be a tourist and lay on the beach. I see my brothers and sisters working for resorts owned by people in far away places, when they should be the land owners. It makes me sad and mad. I just have to decide what to do with that, like everyone else. Please keep writing and sharing!


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