What Caribbean Culture Untaught Me About Myself and Racism

I discovered Caribbean culture in my mid-20’s – calypso, soca and chutney (the food and the Indo-Caribbean music), roti, doubles and pholourie, CARIBANA (Toronto Caribbean Carnival), fetes (a common name used for big Carribean parties) and, if you’ve ever had it you can never forget it, Trinidadian rum…yum!!!

I remember so clearly the feeling of going to my first fete. There were hundreds of people, mostly black, some brown, and few enough white people you could count them on one hand, all stuffed into a club like sardines. There were live performers on stage. It was hot, it was sweaty and it was LOUD. I had never really seen anything like it. My clubbing days up to that point consisted of immaculate hair, dresses tight enough they were hard to breathe in and impossibly high heels. But here at my first fete, the wardrobe of choice was comfortable, breathable and flexible clothes because very few people were there to showcase themselves – they were there to dance.

I was standing on the side watching the show. It was impossible to be away from people because there were so many of us but if there were an invisible outline of the dance floor I might have been standing on it. The crowd was following the instructions of the performer on stage. I couldn’t really understand what he was saying. It was English but it was hard to understand. He was pointing repeatedly to the left, in my direction and I later learned he was saying, ‘Point your finger so, point your finger so, point your finger so’, and next thing I knew a rush of five hundred people were coming straight at me! I freaked out, backed up, probably bumped a person or two, probably apologized but they wouldn’t have heard me. They all stopped around me and bounced to the beat of the music. Then the performer on stage started pointing to the right and repeating the same words again and on the third repeat, those same five hundred people rushed away from me, and just then, someone grabbed my arm and flung me into the crowd as they, and then we, bounced across the club and in that very moment, a warmth washed over me and I felt like I was home.


A couple of years ago, my husband and I took the kids away to a cottage resort in the Kawarthas. A beautiful area of Ontario riddled with lakes, camping and cottaging. It was an awesome experience I didn’t know exists in Ontario. I was still hot in the middle of treatment for Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia so international travel would have been tricky; definitely scarier than it would have been worth so stayed local(ish). The resort offered free tubing and water skiing on the lake every day. The kids were waiting their turn on the dock and I was standing in the grass watching. A little girl, who was maybe 8 years old, walked up beside me and said, ‘Why are you so white?’

Up until the time I was diagnosed with leukemia, I viewed the color of my skin as a problem to fix (pictured below). I had been told my entire life that I was too white, I looked ill, I needed some color, I should really get a tan. And so, I spent 37 years trying to look darker. Now that I have endured 26 months of chemotherapy including arsenic trioxide and other therapies, I am at high risk of melanoma. And all of those measures I took to try to look more appealing to others will threaten my very survival for the rest of my life.


I can remember in elementary school, as a child, police officers coming to our school to talk about what they do. Many of the children in my school looked up to them in awe. They were the good guys. There to serve and protect. When we would talk with our parents about how to protect ourselves when we were out in the world on our own, our parents always stood firm with, ‘run and find help – a police officer if you can’.

As an adult, I have been pulled over four times by the police for driving infractions – a burnt tail light, driving over the speed limit, an expired sticker (and insurance with an improperly fastened child seat – although I didn’t realize that part) and the ultimate; texting and driving. I have never gotten a ticket and I have never been charged. THIS is white privilege.


I grew up in a low income area in Ontario, Canada. My neighborhood had no shortage of kids. We came from many cultural and religious backgrounds. I can remember when I started junior high school, having a conversation with someone who was Portuguese. I didn’t understand what that meant; to be Portuguese. When I looked at her, I saw the opportunity for a new friend. No more, no less.

My family is as multicultural as the kids I grew up with. My mindset growing up was, race wasn’t a thing for me because I had friends and family from many backgrounds and it didn’t matter to me. My paternal grandfather is half Mohawk Indian. At his age, he still travels 300km or so every summer to attend a Pow Wow. His cousin was even a tribe leader (pictured below). I remember clear as day thinking that my uncle was Jamaican. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant but I heard my family talk about Jamaica – Jamaican people. When I was a baby our neighbors were Jamaican. They had a son who was close to the same age as me and our parents used to coo over how cute we were and called him my little boyfriend and me his little girlfriend. My uncle loved Jamaican culture. He even spent some time in Jamaica many moons ago. He had an afro and wore clothes in Rastafarian signature colors; red, yellow and green. None of which was relevant or meaningful to me then. He was just my Jamaican Uncle Chris (pictured below with my Mom, Grandmother and Aunt). SPOILER ALERT! While I’ve learned since then that my Uncle Chris is NOT Jamaican, he has often been mistaken for a black man because of our African heritage. Our family is lucky enough to have had our ancestors traced back to the 1400s. My maternal great grandmother was an African descendant of slaves brought to England. While my skin barely changes color in the sun, my mom and my brother turn 3 shades darker if they just step into the sun for a few minutes!

As I began to move through life, I started realizing I was different from other people who looked like me, outside of those I grew up with. I listened to different music, I wore different clothes, my mannerisms were different. Often times, I didn’t really feel comfortable in large groups of people. I couldn’t really explain it at the time. I just felt uneasy and I eventually felt sure something was wrong with me. As an outspoken, strong willed child who was scorned for being so, this feeling of uneasiness in adulthood perpetuated by never really feeling like I fit in, created significant self-consciousness and lack of confidence.

In my late teens, I began dating a boy who was half east coast Canadian and half Italian. His friends were not as diverse as mine but their friend group did have a brown friend. In racial terminology, I believe he would now be considered a token brown guy. We, as a group, spent lots of time together. I remember as if it was yesterday how freely derogatory terms would roll off their tongues about him…TO him. They thought it was funny. I never did. I don’t think he did either.

I stayed in that relationship for nearly 6 years. The way he and his family spoke about people of color, for all intents and purposes, was the same. But they had black and brown friends. It was confusing. I never spoke up. I remember mentioning to him once that I thought biracial kids were just the cutest kids ever. Instantly, he was furious. He felt I had betrayed my own people. Shame. As that relationship was coming to a close, I said in a heated discussion, ‘I will never have children with you. Never. I refuse to raise racist children’. It didn’t last long after that. But damage had already been done, floating through life up to that point, feeling like I didn’t belong taught me to assimilate. I wanted to be accepted, I wanted to be part of something. And so I started learning how to be who people expected me to be.

I remember going to a club with some friends once. The music of choice there was dance music. Dance music wasn’t really my jam but I spent a lot of time feeling lonely and I wanted to be with people. This was an opportunity. The club ended up playing a little bit of urban music that night. When it started, the others danced but it was the kind of dancing you do when you’re waiting for the good stuff…but for me, this WAS the good stuff. I let the music move through me and it translated to the best booty shaking I had likely done to date. They immediately stopped dancing and looked at me with disapproval. Shame. I realized then that I was here in this packed club with ‘friends’ and I still felt lonely.

I landed a job in the financial industry in my early 20’s. My career progressed quickly when I went to work for a division of a US owned firm. Over about 8 years I climbed the ladder from a Customer Service Rep to an Assistant Vice President with the same institution. Over the years, I participated in many conversations about gender and racial inequality with colleagues. I mean, the message from the top was inclusion; it was good for business. Maybe some were even genuine in their message but my personal experience was it didn’t always trickle down the chain of command.

I worked for this institution at the time I was discovering Caribbean culture and started attending and participating in Caribana. I can remember distinctly being the subject of my colleagues jokes, in my presence, in the presence of others, for my involvement in West Indian culture and for dating non-white men. Shame. I was reminded just last week about a conversation someone overheard between me and my peers at work once. One of them asked me outright why I was participating in Caribana since I am white; like it was something for me to be ashamed of.

I didn’t realize just how negative the effect of working in that environment was until I was laid off 8 months after returning from maternity leave. My male peers often commented on what I ate, or how much, what my body looked like after having a baby which wasn’t uncommon but the intent behind such commentary had changed. In fact, I hadn’t even realized I was pregnant yet in 2011 until a male colleague walked into my space one morning and said, ‘You must be PMSing. Your boobs are huge today’. Think about that, that moment will forever exist as a memory of sexual harassment.

I was young and I was insecure and frankly, I never believed I was smart enough to be there. I didn’t have a university education as so many of the people around me did and so I always had this feeling of being a fraud – a fraud in my career and a fraud in my skin. So, I worked myself almost to death to be worthy, kept my mouth shut and tried my absolute best to assimilate. All the while, witnessing and enduring racial ridicule, gender inequity, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and shaming. I was even called a whore…twice. Most unfortunately, I never had the courage to speak up for myself…and neither did anyone else.


When new racial terminology became mainstream, widely known and discussed, I would get so mad at the ‘white privilege’ concept. I mean, how dare someone fire on me because I was born white. Besides, I wasn’t racist, and I grew up with very little so how the hell could that be considered privilege?! But that was just it, outside of lifelong ignorant comments about the shade of my white, NO ONE fired on me because I was white. They only fired on me for how cute I thought biracial babies are, or who I dated, or what type of music I like to dance to. Shame. Black people are literally murdered for less.


As I became immersed in Caribbean culture, I learned about their history, difference between the island cultures and traditions, the different dialects. I was blown away to see so many Asian and white Caribbeans when I attended Carnival in Trinidad in 2008. I quickly came to learn that I enjoyed being in the presence of Caribbean people. Some things took time to get used to; like the food. I had always been a picky eater so some of the food I was introduced to was way out of my comfort zone. Also, the level of comfort Caribbean people have in doing things like protecting personal space, how they communicate and their preferred attire (specifically at fetes). I mean, there is no mistaking where you stand with many Caribbean people. I could never have imagined being so overt in my communication. Clearly so, I allowed myself to be verbally abused most of my life.

It made me uncomfortable at first. Upon further self-reflection, I realized that my discomfort was in the things I had been criticized and ostracized for my entire life. This group of humans were boisterous (at times), outspoken, strong-willed, and possessed some pretty spectacular boundaries and so many of them live life for the enjoyment of it. They were me; who I was deep down inside before I allowed the criticism and insecurities to change me. It occurred to me that having an opinion about what someone else wore or how they chose to express themselves was no different than others disapproving of who I chose to date. It was judgmental. It was wrong. It was not who I wanted to be. With these people, I always felt accepted. I had inserted myself into their culture and they welcomed me. And so, I made a commitment to speak up against anyone who would bring hate into what I realized was the only space I had ever truly felt myself in as an adult and that shit was sacred to me.

It didn’t really occur to me until a number of years later that, while I had adopted this culture, participated and enjoyed much of it, that I was taking more than I was giving. I felt that my acceptance of the culture was enough. I felt that this culture was being expressed in Canada and therefore, I had a right to participate and enjoy. Yet, I never really considered how my participation might make others feel. In 2015, my husband and I and a few friends decided to go to a Halloween fete. Halloween has always been one of my favorite annual events and, as the parent of a small child, I didn’t get to go out often so when we purchased tickets for this event, I was STOKED.

It was mine and my husbands first Halloween together. We thought it would be fun to go out as a cop and a convict. The cop costume was sexy and the convict costume was minimal effort, easy wear for him. We thought it was a fun, sexy play on costumes. When we purchased our costumes and started talking to our friends about the upcoming event, there was a little bit of shock and even a little bit of outrage. I didn’t get it. Actually, WE didn’t get it. My husband is St. Lucian and I am a non-racist and neither one of us had a problem with it, so neither should anyone else. The problem with this thinking is, racism isn’t about me. It’s not about what I’m ok with. In fact, it’s not even about what my husband is ok with. It’s about how every single one of those marginalized people at that event may have felt about it. And neither one of us spent a single second caring about that…and that was the epitome of what is wrong with society.

First of all, if you are offended by our actions because you understand the racial implications of what we did, I genuinely apologize. In hindsight, I recognize that this was highly insensitive and may have triggered many people. If you are offended because you think me apologizing for this is ridiculous, I invite you to read on with an open mind to better understand why it’s important for me to apologize.

Being diagnosed with cancer has been the single most traumatic experience of my life. I found myself not only fighting for my life but also having to hold some of healthcare professionals accountable to ethical treatment. For examples, feel free to check out my article How Complacency Almost Cost Me My Life. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I became a marginalized person for the first time in my life; I was disabled. As it turns out, upon doing some research, I found that in 2015, nearly 50% of complaints submitted to the Canadian Human Rights Commission were reported by persons with disabilities. Click here for more information.

Throughout treatment, people were overtly AND covertly ignorant, neglectful, dismissive, offensive, rude and abusive to me. At times my life was quite literally put in jeopardy. While I intensely disliked these experiences with other humans, going through it opened my eyes to the reality of living as a marginalized person. I learned incredibly valuable lessons I may never have otherwise learned. In fact, speaking with other survivors, it is not an uncommon experience. Among the plethora of lessons and insights I’ve learned, maybe the most important one, the one I think would have the biggest impact on the world if we were all able to learn and embrace the change is humility.

The definition of humility in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is ‘freedom from pride or arrogance: the state of being humble’. It also quotes the Bible; Proverb 11:2 which says ‘When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom’. My relationship with religion is complicated. No doubt about it but it’s hard to deny the lessons that can be learned from it.

What happened when we decided to wear those costumes for Halloween was arrogance. The belief that my desire to do something is more important than the impact it would have on others, even after the conflict had been brought to my attention. Just like the disgruntled nurse who refused to use sterile equipment to tend my open wound while I was neutropenic was more concerned about whatever was going on in her world, than about my very life. And this my friends is EXACTLY why I started this blog, why I broke out of my fear of public speaking, why I write to you completely vulnerable in my admission to my mistakes and privilege…because I learned more than two years ago just how badly marginalized people need your empathy and compassion. I know I don’t understand the experience of BIPOC but I do know what it feels like for my life to mean nothing to others and I don’t want that for our world.

I realize that this is not an easy thing to do. Especially if we grew up hearing, ‘this is our country’, over and over and over again, it stands to reason that we will grow up believing that we are superior and entitled. That everyone else should be grateful for our ‘acceptance’ but that is not the Canadian way. I mean, it took me nearly dying, learning a bunch of hard lessons and having really hard conversations to truly understand my contribution to the problem and how I can help fix it. It’s a huge personal undertaking. Without deep introspection, without humility and without vulnerability we will simply never get to a place where we can ALL live our lives doing what we want to do with pure intent. ONLY then will the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ be true and unoffensive.

Here’s the thing, there are always going to be critics; like the douche who verbally abused me at work for years, or the people who insist on discrediting others who pronounce ‘ask’ differently. No matter how hard we strive for inclusion and kindness, there will always be disgruntled people who are fighting their own battles hard enough not to recognize their collateral damage. But those people should not be used as our excuse not to do the work either. When we do that, it is our own ego that is rising up to protecting us. The emotional pain we will inevitably experience when we acknowledge, not only the atrocities of history, but those of our own doing it going to hurt. Unfortunately, it is the only way we will achieve the level of self-awareness required to find our compassion, empathy and humility. For me, it was the humiliation of admitting how long I tried to be someone else simply because I looked like them. I mean, in an ideal world, people would simply be accepted for who they are, regardless of skin color, religion, beliefs, gender, sexual orientation but we don’t have control over anyone but ourselves. And while I cried many a times because of that admission, felt disgusting and shameful, it allowed me to come to terms with my reality, forgive myself for being untrue to myself. It allowed me the freedom to be unapologetically me. And that is one of the main things that the BIPOC community is asking for; to be accepted for who they are.


7 thoughts on “What Caribbean Culture Untaught Me About Myself and Racism

  1. Thank you, Michelle, for sharing such an honest, sincere and personal post. Together we can unlearn, relearn and help make the world a better place for everyone.💕

    Like

    1. Michelle Burleigh June 25, 2020 — 9:38 pm

      I think we can do that too. I’m hopefully. It’s truly my (occasionally uncomfortable but that’s ok) pleasure. Haha! Thank you for taking the time to read it. 🙏🏻☺️

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Have I told you I love you today? This was an AWESOME post! Thanks Lady xoxoxo

    Got my surgery date! Going in July 9th! Will be off work for 6-7 weeks. Much needed rest and rehab. Take care and best wishes to you and your family xo

    Jackie

    Like

    1. Michelle Burleigh June 26, 2020 — 2:07 pm

      Haha! Thanks Lady! I’m glad you enjoyed it! ☺️

      So happy to hear you got your date. I’m sure you will be fine but good luck anyway and enjoy your well deserved rest! 😘

      Like

  3. Did I tell you that I love you this morning 🙂. Great article. We love you.

    Like

    1. Michelle Burleigh June 27, 2020 — 2:22 pm

      I love yous a whole bunch too ☺️

      Like

  4. Hello A’idah,

    It has always been great to see your emails, especially during the time when I really needed someone to help me out as I went through a mental and emotional breakdown. But now, I am happily married (just celebrated our first year anniversary) :). So I think you have fulfilled your purpose of setting things straight for me through your emails, but from now I would like others to benefit from your emails ( mag1an@protonmail. ch ). Thanks for all the great works and inspiration throughout the years.

    Take care and God Bless.

    Sakina

    Liked by 1 person

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