But You Not Even White! Prejudice and Light-skinned West Indians

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I have a friend whose recent Facebook status read: “A policeman to me- why u pullin on me eh white girl doh make me lock you up this morning.” To which she followed with, “I not even white!”

Another female friend of mine also recently complained that she feels subjected to prejudice in Trinidad, for modelling locally and being white. She too posted her disappointment on Facebook, to which one of her friends replied, “But you not even white!”

Both these girls, as fair as their skin may be, compared to 80% of the Trinidadian population, are in fact not fully Caucasian. The fact is, few “white Trinidadians” are.

So-called “white Trinidadians” become most acutely aware of this fact, when we become Egyptian, Palestinian, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, Italian and Black when we visit or live in predominately non-Black countries. It’s happened to me! I kid you not. In places – from Morocco to Scotland to New York City – I have been asked if I belong to each of the ethnicities/nationalities I just mentioned.

I, like many “white Trinidadians”, and, as evidenced by both of my friends’ Facebook anecdotes, do not feel completely comfortable with my forced racial classification. It’s not only because in reality we may be mixed, and may be proud of our Black grandmothers, Indian grandfathers or Latino heritage, but because the term “white” is frequently used, subconsciously even, by many Trinidadians in a uniquely derogatory sense.

Our linguistic use of the terms “white woman”, “white boy” and “white man” are classic give-aways of the negative stereotypes that persist with being a light-skinned West Indian.

“Ah see this white woman pelting real waist in the band, I was like waaaay.”

“This white man feel he could come and tell me what to do, hmmm, massa day done!”

“[They]…put us [Kes the Band] in the box as the white boys of Soca.” (Actual quote from Kes no less. And I know what you may be thinking…“But he not even white!”)

“This honky come and win all the prize yes.” (Actual words a bandleader once said to me after I won numerous prizes for a calypso I performed in a competition a few years ago.)

It is not surprising that many light-skinned people would rather be called “red” or nothing at all, if – by the mere mention of the term white – they are subliminally being branded, as a cultural outsider, an oppressor, or undeserving of their perceived success.

To not ignore any elephants in the proverbial room, it is worth (perhaps) stating the obvious that, for hundreds of years in the history of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean, being white was in fact associated with each of the negative traits noted above.

Additionally, our slavery and indentured resistance, Labour, Independence and Black Power movements hinged, to some extent, for better or for worse, on the demonization of white people both in the region and abroad. (And there’s no doubt that slavery and resulting class separations, even afterwards, merited the hurt and anger felt by other groups.)

But now, 178 years since the abolition of slavery, and 50 years since we declared independence from Great Britain, the question arises – to what extent is our on-going prejudice warranted and is it at all useful?

Is it worth the double standards that exist in a place, where it would be unheard of to speak of “an impressively well-spoken Indo-Trinidadian”, or a “disciplined and successful Afro-Trinidadian entrepreneur”?

Stereotypes against white people, and indeed those of any other race are lazy, divisive and ignorant. But those against white people in Trinidad particularly so, especially when juxtaposed against the contributions made by light-skinned Trinidadians to the very cultural aspects for which we prejudice them against. Think of how proud we are of Peter Minshall, Brian MacFarlane or Denyse Plummer, all legends of Carnival. See how quickly we rallied behind George Bovell and Andrew Lewis in the Olympics? And you can go on to find countless examples of white Trinidadians who have excelled in every pursuit that has defines us all as Trinidadians and have contributed to the country’s development.

Not only should Afro and Indo-Trinidadians be able to recognise the ‘Trinidadianess’ of white Trinidadians, but so too should white Trinis themselves. Indeed, it’s alright to be white. And so, even if the police officer did pull over my friend, and she happened to be white, it shouldn’t matter because a white girl theoretically drives no different from any other. And for my friend who is a model and is considered white by some…good, so be it. She is white, she is beautiful, and she can work a Carnival costume.

In this small rock of an island, with a globally insignificant population, we don’t have space to exclude any of our citizens, at least not on measures as superficial as their race or ethnicity. We enjoy lauding over the fact that we live in a diverse country, where “every creed and race find an equal place”, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can continue to assign destructive stereotypes to any one race, and use them so casually in our everyday speech. Our flag is red, black and white – we’d do well to remember that.

 

Image via chelseanow.com

James Walker

James Walker is an analyst, both in job title and modus operandi. His life goals include becoming at least four of the following: calypsonian, sambista, columnist, educator, or salsero. James is also mildly obsessed with curry, games, and limes, and lives in London.

28 Comments

  1. Matthew Pierre

    September 24, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    but the races are so mixed up hardly anyone is specifically anything anymore… ppl just want to still make use of racism when these days there are little grounds for it. Racism just doesnt make sense AT ALL!!! If we have class ppl, it should be in terms of behaviour not race.

    • alison

      April 11, 2017 at 1:46 pm

      Unfortunately, in my 56 years of experience , travelling and living broadly since childhood. The eldest daughter of a mother of mixed race Carribean descent and a British – Scottish father…there is racism. There is labelling. There is isolation. There is bullying from an intellectual – emotional – physical level. The racism is real and it stems from deeply entrenched socio-political-beleif “systems”. There is no eradicating the “colour” barrier…In fact it would be more likely that poverty will be gone before this. So be it. Keep writing. Repeat the serenity prayer over and over. Educate yourselves and children well because this is the only freedom..of thought. I can truly relate to what this young woman writes. I have “white” relations in Trinidad , Barbados and Grenada. The ones from St Vincent fled to New zealand after independance in the 70s. I also have “black” and “brown” relations in the same countries ..and in the U.K and N. America. I can assure you that in my own family, racism exists. It is alive and well. We have to learn how to live with it and cope with it but eradicating it , is simply , “forced” ideology.

    • klm

      July 24, 2017 at 2:38 pm

      I am someone considered white and from a Trinidadian background. Just to clarify both parents and 3 out of 4 grandparents born in Trinidad and all considered part of the 5% “white” Trinidadian population.

      I can appreciate the historical issues associated with the white vs non-white advantage… but is it 2017 time to get over it already and move forward. People can sit around with chips on their shoulders all they want, but it won’t help anyone move forward.

      If 50 to 100 years ago plus some of my ancestors did something wrong to your ancestors ( and realistically we are likely sharing some of the same ancestors despite the skin colour differences) so sorry. Those people are long dead. The people living need to move forward to try and progress. No one is going be able to progress if they are sitting in a corner complaining about the obvious wrongs of the past.

      It is not okay to make racists comments then this concept should apply to everyone. Being racist in retaliation for racist actions of dead people really does not make a lot of sense.

  2. Jeremy Francis

    September 24, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Sorry James, but the benefits of being a local white greatly outweighs the disadvantages…

    • Jay

      June 29, 2015 at 7:06 am

      Yeah…., like ” look he is white, me must have money ” !!

  3. OUTLISH Magazine

    September 24, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Jeremy Francis take a read of the whole thing when you get a chance. He’s not fully white.

  4. Jeremy Francis

    September 24, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    Yep read it. Like I referred in an article in Outlish some time ago, there are whole communities where only so called ‘white trinis’ live. I daresay this was not done out of discrimination. Whether we like it or not, no matter how people of other colors may grouse and bad talk them, they are much more willing to facilaite a trini white than their own kind. Cultural hangover? Yes. Stupid? Definetly.

  5. Aaron Woodyear

    September 24, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    As a minority in Trinidad I can definitely relate to this.

  6. Quilin J Achat

    September 24, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    definitely caught my eye. Tempted to be the rebellious in this discussion ..

  7. Deb

    September 24, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    Well written!

  8. OUTLISH Magazine

    September 24, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    Matthew Pierre Jeremy Francis Aaron Woodyear Quilin J Achat feel free to go on the site to paste your comments there to stimulate discussion. We’re sure people have loads of different takes on this, based on their experiences.

  9. Deb

    September 24, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    A friend of mine, a white Bajan, once told me that she didn’t like the racial segregation in Trinidad. I was appalled and insisted that there wasn’t any until she indicated that she had been to Trinidad several times to visit her ‘white’ Trini friends and realized that none of them seemed to have ANY friends who weren’t also white. She therefore concluded that in Trinidad the whites kept to themselves and didn’t mix with other races while everybody else mixed socially. It gave me pause and I had to agree since I had observed this since high school (I went to a prestigious, all girls high school in POS). I have however seen the same thing occur among Indian Trinis who seem to have no non-Indian friends. Is this a product of racism? ‘Birds of a feather’ syndrome? Some deeper societal malaise?
    Notwithstanding, it is interesting to get the red/off-white perspective. Welcome to our world. You’ll get no sympathy here. But like I said in my first post: well written.

  10. Ahsyd Rain

    September 25, 2012 at 12:07 am

    I’m a reasonbly fair-skinned dougla and my personal aestheics involves body modifications and I continually have to explain to people that I’m not half white.

  11. Debra Paul-Burgess

    September 25, 2012 at 12:23 am

    A friend of mine, a white Bajan, pointed out that she didn’t like the segregation in Trinidad. I was appalled and insisted that there wasn’t until she indicated that she had been to Trinidad several times to visit her ‘white’ Trini friends and realized that none of them seemed to have ANY friends who weren’t also white. She concluded that in Trinidad the whites kept to themselves while everybody else mixed socially. It gave me pause and I had to agree.

  12. Maurice

    September 25, 2012 at 12:27 am

    “Additionally, our slavery and indentured resistance, Labour,
    Independence and Black Power movements hinged, to some extent, for
    better or for worse, on the demonization of white people both in the
    region and abroad.”

    James, I attended a prestige school where I had friends of varying races, and to this day I have many white friends of pure heritage in the main, hailing from places such as Iceland, Uzbekistan etc. I want you to understand that I also have seen the reverse descrimination levelled against whites. I’ve also done work with organisations involved in handling these conflicts that still exist in our diverse world.

    That said, the paragraph in caption above offends me, partially, because we need to remember that these things didn’t “demonize” whites. In many ways, SO MUCH MORE THAN ONE, the whites were the offenders. I’m sorry, but your sentence thereafter does nothing to rectify it for me.

    That said, I am certain that you don’t understand the gravity of these tragic times in our past. I would dare say that you should be careful when mentioning that whites were/are demonized, especially where it is evident that the vast majority of whites (and perceived whites) hold significant economic power (and just downright riches) while many of the rest of our modern Trinbagonian society does not.

    This does not justify the phenomenon you are referring to though, but it gives an idea. The poor man, the depressed member of society, the woman looking for a way to feed her child will always look to the wealthy, the rich and the successful in a negative light, in a society where wealth is disproportionately shared, and she, the generations that preceded her and her children never had as good a chance for a good life as many of your ethnic peers. You were born into what most would have to fight for.

    And that, my friend, is a historic cycle that needs to be broken. But that is not an easy task.

    So your question therefore is worthy:

    “to what extent is our on-going prejudice warranted and is it at all useful?”

    I’d ask your editor, peer journalists, friends, colleagues and perhaps even my own social circle to take that question up. For to answer it would be an interesting treatise and analysis of our modern Trinbagonian society.

  13. Mary Jane Arneaud

    September 25, 2012 at 1:02 am

    According to the last demographic statistics I’ve seen of Trinidad (2000 from the Ministry of Planning and Development), the ethnic/ racial composition is as follows: 40% Indian, 37.5% African, 20.5% Mixed and 2% Chinese, Syrian/ Lebanese, Caucasian and Other (combined). So, it’s 98% of Trinis that aren’t fair-skinned. This figure obviously doesn’t account for the ‘Red’ Afro- or Indo-Trinis, are these the 20% outside of the 80% Mr. Walker is referring to?

    I am surprised that because of the social capital enjoyed in Trinidad (at least by the French Creole group), White Trinidadians are actually genuinely surprised that Whites in other countries are able to distinguish that they are in fact mixed …

    One hundred and seventy four years (I won’t say 178, as 1834 was more de jure than de facto) since the abolition of enslavement, 50 since being given independence and 36 since becoming a republic, negative stereotypes persist because THE SOCIAL REALITIES OF OUR HISTORY PERSIST. Says former Olympic runner, ‘Lord’ Coe: “How would I feel if I was living on the inherited wealth of the sugar industry? Well, I know I’m not and that’s a bit of a cop-out. But I don’t think I’d be that comfortable if that was the source of [my] wealth accretion. Mercifully, it’s not, and I don’t have to enter that moral maze.” I’m guessing that like some British citizens today, many White Trinis are living on the inherited wealth of the sugar industry. This inherited wealth would have provided resources to enable this group’s continued upward social mobility through education and entrepreneurship opportunities. These would also have been assessable to Whites without a history of slaving in colour-stratified Trinidad – this place is largely not, and has not been, a meritocracy. I submit that what Mr. Walker believes is an issue of racial stereotyping is actually one of class, as the two categories seem to be related in Trinidad, and that it emerges from the historically unequal access to resources that continues to be the social reality today. How many Whites, if any, know the experience of working for minimum wage?

    In regards to the comment about success at the calypso competition: White authority tried to quell African culture during the colonial period. Nonetheless, Black culture became nationalised in Trinidad. Indeed, in his Creole Society discussion, Brathwaite says that European-Caribbeans had come to prefer the food, enjoy the drumming and dancing of their new societies, as well as sexual relationships with the non-White population. However, cultural expression is one of the non-material resources accessible to the working class, and from which some kind of hegemony can be experienced. It is therefore not surprising that felt appropriation of success in this arena is responded to with prejudice. From this perspective, prejudice is perhaps warranted, and some might argue useful if it serves to mitigate the threat to the self-esteem of the non-Whites.

    So, although there are well-loved Whites who have indeed excelled and made invaluable contributions to our cultural identity, I believe that they have more material resources than non-Whites to do so. I also believe that stereotyping against Whites isn’t more negative than those against any other race. Indeed, the use of all of the ethnic terms that obtain in this country, in derogatory ways unique to every group, based on context, is ubiquitous– it is not specific to Whites. I agree that non-Whites ought to recognise the national identity of White Trinidadians. And that White Trinidadians ought to do the same, if they don’t already, which I believe they do … unless self-identifying as TriniDAYdian is different from self-identifying as Trinidadian … in fact those who we love are those who have publicly accepted and clearly identified themselves as belonging to this place.

    How to solve problems of prejudice? Perhaps by cooperating to make our national motto – Together we aspire, together we achieve – a national goal. The reality is that some of us are more ‘together’ than others. Uncle Black Stalin puts it best in Sufferers (Happy birthday to the Black man!):

    Suffers doh care bout colour, sufferers doh care bout race,
    Sufferers doh care who migrate from where, or who livin in who place,
    Sufferers doh care who from country, sufferers doh care who from town,
    Sufferers only want to hear, where de next food coming from.

    If the haves were less concerned with non- and material wealth maintenance, and more concerned with aspiring toward, and achieving equitable social development together, perhaps then Whites would not be seen as cultural outsiders, oppressors, or undeserving of their perceived success; perhaps there would be less incidents of prejudice toward Whites … and less stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination by Whites toward non-Whites – I highly doubt that it is unheard of to speak of “an impressively well-spoken Indo-Trinidadian”, or a “disciplined and successful Afro-Trinidadian entrepreneur” both by Whites about these groups, as well as these groups about each other. For example, it’s likely that Peter Minshell and Brian MacFarlane have personally profited from Carnival. However in creating non-commodified mas reflective of our unique culture they have worked together with us in creating our national identity. This is opposed to Whites who have contributed to commercialising carnival with thousands-of-dollars costumes that are indistinguishable from those dancing the Sambadrome.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective with us, Mr. Walker. Most of us (98+%?) have no idea about the experience of White Trinidadians.

  14. Anne Williamson

    September 25, 2012 at 3:48 am

    Beautifully written, enjoyable read from start to finish. Racism is pulling T’dad down.A Trini friend of mine, white, poor, went to the govt for help with her disabled kids. She was told why is a white woman asking for help and all white people are rich! My ancestors were slaves, I have a picture of my ancestors who were freed slaves, it does not make me racist, my heritage makes me proud. Change the attitudes peeps and free your minds.

  15. Clare-Ann

    September 25, 2012 at 8:25 am

    History and human nature are complex and I suppose in some ways everyone has a right to feel how they feel. Everyone has a story to tell, and this was an interesting one to read because I don’t think it’s one that you hear very often. But yes, my memories of growing up in Trinidad as a ‘white’ Trinidadian include being asked questions like, ‘So what do you think of Trinidadian people? Do you like the country?” (I was asked this one day in the licensing office in POS). Young, quite shy, and being a 9th generation Trinidad with very little exposure to life anywhere else, it goes without saying that I didn’t really know how to broach the question. I guess I was used to feeling like a foreigner from a very young age. At my primary school in San Fernando I remember being called in front of the class by my teacher who asked me to just turn around in front of her and then return to my seat whilst she stared at me. Kind of creepy… I know… never got to the bottom of that one. A fews years above me, my eldest sisters, in the same school, were called out in front of their year group as a demonstration of what ‘arab’ people looked like. I don’t know who was more confused… my sisters or the teacher. (My sisters probably didn’t know what ‘arab’ people looked like either, so it was fine). And yet Trinidad was my identity. I couldn’t be/feel more local… although at times I felt I had to express this in an almost apologetic manner. Like those times in music class when I could sing/identify (unlike most of my other classmates) the lyrics to almost any long-time calypso under the sun. I grew up hearing my father play these endlessly on his quatro. He would play calypsos until his fingures bled! But the shock on my classmates faces that I (the white girl) knew these calyposos made me feel strangely apologetic about my ‘mis-fitting’ identity. But you grow up, and you mature, and you realise that people (including yourself) are sometime just misunderstood. It wasn’t until my 20s, after doing a bit of reading on the life of my great-grandfather, that I gained a massive sense of comfort upon realising all that he (like many others) had done for the country that he loved and the many contributions he made to society. It made me feel a bit more ‘entitled’ to feel as ‘local’ as I always had. I also remember how moved I felt just a couple of years ago at the funeral of my grandmother (who grew up all her life being called a ‘French creole’ despite not having a drop of french blood in her) in POS when I discovered that the most beautiful bouquet of flowers lying on her casket was actually from an alcoholic beggar from downtown POS that she befriended/counseled for many years. Still, to this day, when that beggar sees me, he treats me (and I treat him) with much more respect (based on us both knowing who we are and where we come from) than many of our fellow Trinidadians often do. Everyone has a story to tell.

  16. Aaron Woodyear

    September 25, 2012 at 9:59 am

    I can definitely identify with this article.

    My wife and I are partially of Chinese descent and hearing racial slurs are fairly common. “Chinee boy”, “Ni Hao Ma!”, “You learn to speak english yet” just to name a few. I’ve also had family tell me they’ve been told “to go back to their (china) country”. Regardless of how you feel about historical oppression, is it really appropriate to call out people in this way?

    While this may seem like harmless teasing it is pretty offensive and does make us feel like outcasts at times in our own country. I say this because the reverse isn’t true, if we were to start replying with racist remarks of our own, surely it would be a serious problem.

    The irony here is that we are mixed.

  17. Cate

    October 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    This is well written and insightful, but I don’t think I entirely agree. You make some excellent point, and I’m not completely disregarding you, but I’m not yet able to articulate why I think this argument is flawed. You are right in saying that it isn’t fair that you are written off as white when you are ethnically mixed and proud of it. However, it stands to note that more often than not, race distinctions are tied to class distinctions in this country. A fact that only adds fuel to the fire.

    I think that generally, you are right. I think that the examples you cited do in fact identify a problem we have in this country, and that it’s actually important to note that so-called “white people” are actually in the minority. But I’m not sure your reasoning is accurate. I haven’t quite figured out what is though…

  18. Stephanie Leitch

    April 8, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    This article is so problematic, I don’t even know where to start. First of all, why is it surprising to you that you are considered non white in countries outside of your own if “light skinned” (itself a value laden, hierarchical term) people are so willing to accept their mixed heritage. I know many white Trinidadians (my own family largely french creole) and never have i met one that has been proud of their black grandmother. In fact I remember one girl crying in primary school because I told her that her grandfather was black, she insisted that he was brown. Both she and I understood the politics – and undesirability as it turns out of blackness at the age of eight. In secondary school I had cousins deny that they were related to me because they were ashamed. Last year at Christmas my “white” cousin told me that she wouldn’t recognize our other cousin’s husband outside of our family gatherings .. but not of course because he’s black. Just unrecognizable. My cousins pass me straight all the time, in the street and in clubs, not because they don’t love me but simply because they do not identify with black faces. How could they, they have no black friends. “White” being used in a derogatory way is not unique as you same to be claiming which is itself outrageous but you also refer to “negative traits” yet you have failed to mention any. Your claim that whites are seen as “undeserving of perceived success” tells me that you have not considered in any real way the realities of a post slavery society and the economic privilege of the planter class – read local whites – a system by which YOU are still the beneficiary. I suppose you are also anti-socialist (my attempt at humour). If you are discursively including yourself in “OUR slavery and indentured resistance” I would like to know how, especially when you seem incapable of admitting your own privilege. As far as I am concerned the most persistent “stereotypes” about “white” people are – If a white person is trying to get a job you want, they will probably get it, even without an interview. Their daddy knows someone. (I on the other hand never tell people who my mother is or mention that I went to Convent – my own attempt to keep checks and balances). Privilege allows that kind of injustice. These things do not speak to any illusive traits of “white” people but the structural inheritance of post colonialism. We are all responsible for creating a better world. Do your part.

  19. Ritchie

    March 4, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    I had many similiar experiences to those whites growing up in trinidad. My experience growing up in canada as a canadian of indo-trinidadian heritage was full of questions like where are you from, oh your from india, India right, oh you speak good english, being called a paki, darkie, brownie etc. Later on when i use to spend time in trinidad it felt good even though i was canadian but now i never let whites in trinidad or canada try to put me down or say something ignorant towards me.

    • ART

      September 30, 2016 at 6:06 pm

      As a member of a visible minority born and raised in Canada, I can somewhat relate. I am 29 years old and my parents are from Trinidad and are of East Indian descent, so I look Indian, but could also pass for Middle Eastern or Persian. I get annoyed when random people ask “where are you from?” or “are you from India”? I usually reply back with: “I am from Canada, how about you, are you from Poland or Russia?” They usually don’t see that coming! The point is, people need to realize the world is different now and you cant just assume because someone is not white that they automatically came from another country.

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  21. HAYDEN

    April 27, 2015 at 9:44 pm

    HOW DARE ANYONE CALL MY COUNTRY AND ITS POPULATION AS “INSIGNIFICANT” THE FACT OF THE MATTER IS THAT WHITES MUST ALWAYS BE LABELLED AS OPPRESSORS AND ALWAYS SHOULD THEY BE.

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