Zu Magazine is a publication of Zu Media. Below is an article from Issue 1: Skins.
Zu News Editor-in-Chief | Jamie Roebuck-Joseph
In the United States, social and racial barriers are a constant reminder of our country’s divisive history. But how does the rest of the world recognize diversity? Some nations still have prejudicial customs and oppressive systems that affect their everyday lives, like North Korea or Syria –– other countries, however, view diversity in the way I hope America will one day.
According to “Encyclopedia Britannica,” the Caribbean is made up of 28 nations and over 7,000 individual islands. The regions that make up the West Indies are split into three major geographical divisions: the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles and the lone island groups in the North and South American continental shelf: The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, Trinidad & Tobago, Aruba, Curacao and Bermuda. All of these islands have a history of colonization; thus, most of the Caribbean is a ‘melting pot’ of diverse ethnic groups.
“But you’re not black.” I have heard this phrase a dozen and a half times–– it’s the usual response when people in the U.S. find out my ethnicity. Both of my parents were born on the twin island nation of Trinidad & Tobago and immigrated to the states when I was two years old. My father was determined to chase the idealized American dream and to give my brother and I the best life imaginable––and that he did.
Coming from a nation rampant with social injustices and economic corruption, my father came to the states with little in his pocket and no clue what Hollywood would be like. Early on in our family life, he worked at a gas station and as a limo chauffeur to make ends meet. In his off time, he took acting classes. Picture an immigrant with dark skin and Indian features trying to break into the film industry in the early 90s. It came with challenges. Today, he has successfully created his own independent film company and sits as President and Producer.
My mother used to tell me stories of the obstacles my dad faced as an immigrant. Some stories were harsher than others, like the time he was pulled over driving through Beverly Hills in his BMW because the police thought the vehicle was stolen. She never could understand why her husband would be racially profiled. All of her experiences interacting with people of various backgrounds in her homeland were harmonious. She asked, “Why would anyone judge someone based off the color of their skin?”
Trinidad & Tobago is diverse in nature, so “diversity” isn’t a conversation in the islands, but an ingrained way of how things are. Trinidad was claimed by Spain in 1498, and was fought over by France and Great Britain for the next three centuries. In the 1790s, African slaves were imported by the French settlers, and now make up much of the Afro-Caribbean population. In 1833 Britain abolished slavery on the island. This brief history does not include many other influences the island population has undergone––such as South Asian indentureship, Syrian-Lebanese merchants, Chinese and Portuguese labor and Amerindian encomiendas, or labor systems put in place to weaken the Amerindian tribes.
Trinidadians are proud of their heritage, and most importantly, they are knowledgeable of others’ backgrounds. There is a saying in the islands that “you’re not 100 percent anything.”
So, the refrain “But you’re not black,” would be true not just for me, but for many West Indians whose ancestors came from many parts of the world. Many Caribbeans might have dark skin but also be Chinese and Spanish. Others might be Spanish and British, or Indian and French. The mixes vary. Regardless of skin color and original heritage, Trinidadians identify as just ‘Trinis.’ They’re united as one.
I don’t deny that what you look like is a determining factor in many situations; but, I reject the idea that I’m considered “diverse” solely for how I look. I demand that my intellectual capacity be taken into consideration. My accomplishments and the core of my values add to my diversity; not that I’m olive-toned because my mother is fair-skinned and my father is brown. These characteristics do not make up all of who I am. But because I have diversity of thought, “but you’re not black,” should never be a response. We have to be better about the ignorances we carry.
Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” I think as an American nation, we need to be reminded of this. Diversity is deeper than our appearance.
Director of the Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (PsyD) Program at Azusa Pacific University, Dr. Samuel Girguis, shared his insight about race relations in the U.S.
“Race is so complicated. While the most recent research helps us realize that race is a ‘social construct,’ for those who identify as ‘people of color,’” he said, “race is something they are aware of every day.” Dr. Girguis went on to explain that race is a created category interested in establishing social hierarchies.
For the majority, “race is something they are not aware of but is operating in their immediate reactions to circumstances or people.” He described this as implicit bias. Everyone has implicit biases that are oftentimes connected to race. This explains why nations interact with diversity in different ways. Trinidadians may not acknowledge the construct of race because it’s not a social issue like it is in the U.S.
Diversity has become part of popular culture and it’s something we can’t ignore anymore, according to Dr. Girguis. “While many definitions of diversity are posited, they typically revolve around identifying individual and cultural differences,” he said.
Dr. Girguis reiterated that what is often missing from the discussion of diversity is the role of power, privilege and systemic discrimination against groups that are not the majority.
Many people may not have any knowledge of Trinidad at all. Or, their first time learning about the island was over summer on American chef and T.V. personality Anthony Bourdain’s series “Parts Unknown.” In that case, there is one important quote to take away from the episode that featured Trinidad. In one scene, Bourdain asks a group of men if they run into issues when it comes to racial oppression on the island, to which one of the men responded: “If you can’t learn to live as one and get along, you will have to go live in the sea.”
I think this is the way we need to live amongst one another; we must acknowledge the differences we each have within our cultures, but we shouldn’t idolize these social constructs solely as what makes us diverse. Diversity isn’t only about what you see. It’s about what people have to offer.