Beyond the cover: Finding my identity in Jamaica
"Yow brownin! Yuh lookin nice and sweet today honey!" Okay, thanks.
"Psssssssst, whitey! Yuh can carry mi up a farrin wid yuh?" I'm not white.
I was never really aware of how fluid my identity is until I moved to Jamaica. Within the span of five minutes, I've been called brownin, whitey, chinee and indian. It's really common in Jamaican culture for people to call to each other based on what they see -–slender people are called slimmaz or maaga, a bigger-bodied person might be called bigs – and as a foreigner and a Peace Corps Volunteer I'm no exception to the rule.
When I'm among Peace Corps Volunteers, I'm the half-Ethiopian, mixed race, half-black woman that I am back in the U.S. When I'm at school or at home or most other places, sometimes I am "brownin" or "teach," but most of the time I am defined as white.
Jamaica has a complex history of racism and shadeism that has many unfortunate parallels with that of the U.S.; historically, the lighter your skin, the higher your rung on the socioeconomic ladder. While that is changing, the prejudice still exists. People sometimes assume that because my skin is lighter, I have lots of money (if only they knew what kind of scrappy dinner I ate last night...). They make unqualified assumptions about who I am and what I'm about based on how I look.
For much of the early part of my service, my identity was assigned to me by those immediately next to me. It was rarely assumed that I am anything but white. But as my community got to know me more, I became less foreign and more understood, less white and more brown, less passive and more active in the definition of my own identity. I've shared my Ethiopian American heritage with adults and children alike in my community. I've shared countless stories of how diverse my California home is, showed my students photos of my friends and family from home to help reshape their ideas of what Americans look like. At times, I've totally lost my patience and shouted, "I'm not white! My name is not whitey!" at strangers and, after a few deep breaths, regained my composure and grew my patience and tolerance levels.
Though my job description mandates that I teach, I've undoubtedly done more learning than teaching in my Peace Corps service. In my first year of service, I met a young girl who I'll call Nikki. She was in Grade 5 then, 10 years old, more dramatic than any theater kid I'd ever met and fiercely confident. Nikki has a very dark complexion. She confided in me that at her old school, some of the other students called her names like "blackie" and "coal." I knew that it was common for people to get nicknames based on their appearance, but I asked Nikki why she ever responded to those names. She told me that while she didn't like being called those names, she wasn't going to let di adda pickni dem (the other children) know that they were bothering her.
Behind her boasty personality, Nikki masked real pain. She told me on more than one occasion that she knew she was "black and ugly" but that she wouldn't let it stop her from doing her own thing. It was at that point that I realized how much the socially mandated practice of naming based on appearance and narrow definition of beauty were hurting this young girl's self-esteem. She genuinely thought that her blackness made her ugly.
It was at that point, too, that I realized how much we were both being judged by our covers, how we were being judged based on a European standard of beauty, how we were identified and defined not by what we did, but by how we looked.
I've said that I learned more than I taught, but I did teach. I showed Nikki photos from my Instagram feed of black models and actresses, ones that showcased the immense variety of beautiful women in the world. We had conversations about beauty and what makes a person beautiful, what makes a good friend and what makes a person valuable.
Nikki is in high school now. I'm not sure how much of an impact our talks had on her self-image, but I hope that she knows what an impact they left on me.
I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, always wishing that my skin was less brown and more white like my mother's. As I got older and began to value what makes me unique, I came to boast of my African heritage, so being called "white" once I got to Jamaica felt really strange. My assumed privilege led people to treat me differently. It was weird.
My Peace Corps service broke down my previous definition of myself, led me down a road of "Who am I, anyway?"s and other self doubts, and eventually brought me to where I am now: more confident in my own definition of self, more tolerant of others and more patient in the way I seek to widen their definitions of me as a mixed race female, as an American.