It’s almost as if words can mean different things in different places. Oxford dictionary definition ‘Coolie’ is a derogatory term used to describe unskilled labourers. However, in some parts of the Caribbean ‘Coolie’ describes a person who has mixed ancestry usually of African and Indian descent.
I am mixed; a coolie is what I’ve been called. During my childhood, other girls used to call me ‘Woolworth mega mix’ and tell me that I was not really Black.
The funniest thing is I remember these days with fond memories. I was a popular child throughout my school life. Even these words that were meant as slurs; I remember that they didn’t faze me. The tone of the ‘black’ girls, in particular, was one that was meant to hurt me and reduce my boldness. But on the other hand, I was invited to lots of parties, I had many people asking to spend time with me and had compliments on my confidence, care free attitude and aesthetics.
The irony is that my pride of self, and the empowerment I received for just being me from my family, which is almost in opposition to the reasons for my mixedness. My mixedness comes from colonised islands. My mixedness is a sign of my histories where black people were brutalised and subjugated as objects by both Europe and South Asian nations. This mixedness is from my ancestors having no choice, including of their own bodies. One of my grandmothers, in her last months of life, shared that her grandmother was the great grandchild of a slave. THAT IS NOT THAT FAR AWAY- My Grandmother was the fourth generation ‘free of slavery’ this makes me the sixth generation…It wasn’t until then that it really hit me, where my Jamaican grandmother’s red hair, green eyes, fair skin and the surname Campbell may have come from.
‘Originally officially excluded from the English slave trade, Scots such as Colonel John Campbell left the failed Scottish colonial experiment in Darien, Panama and arrived in Jamaica between 1697 and 1700. He had a large family in Jamaica and died there in 1740, initiating the spread of the name Campbell all over the island. Today there are much more Campbells in Jamaica per acre than in Scotland.’¹
On reflection my mixedness, some have said, is visible in my physical features: skin tone, hair, and nose. I have never seen it as a negative and definitely never thought this doesn’t make me black. Even though I acknowledge my mixedness, I define myself as a black woman. Some, through my life on this earth, have challenged me on my position and I have been called ‘half breed, half-cast, afro-paki’ by mainly black people, but more so ‘golliwog, black bitch and the n word’ by white people (including recently). Most importantly when I look in the mirror I see a black woman and I always have.
I do recognise that almost definitely, my experience of life may be different if I had different features. My family are of all shades on both sides and the vast majority identify as black, my grandparents defined themselves as black, my parents too, so why would I see myself as anything else? I think this is the complexity of mixedness: who you are/how you see yourself and how others may see you.
My parents took an approach that reduced the effect of anti mixedness and supported me in the journey to self-love as a black woman through understanding, valuing and exposing me to the difference of all levels. Some of my parents’ actions included:
- I was sent to a black supplementary school. At weekends I would attend a school where I met black teachers, learned about black history and spent time with children and adults beyond my family – In my weekday school there were no teachers of colour, very few black children and we learnt a particular perspective on history
- My parents made sure that I knew and that I was clear that blackness comes in all shades, textures, perspectives, and positions. They encouraged discussion and debate about everything including race, prejudice and social justice.
- I was taken to places that seem whitewashed. This included the ballet, galleries, and the theatre. I would always be told that we deserve to be there, that it was important to go to these places even if I feel awkward and uncomfortable this was our choice. We have a choice, even when others try and make us feel like we don’t.
- My mother, in particular, has always had LGBTQ friends and associates from all over the world that would visit with us and spend time with our family.
- We talked about the physical elements that people made a big deal about such as my hair. My parents always told me that I had the choice to share my inner beauty with whom I wanted to. In fact, at the age of 8, my mum cut off all my hair that so many loved to touch to a level 3. This taught me a lot, my hair was no longer the focus of me to others. Her words ‘it’s only hair, it will grow back’ stay in my mind.
- For the world cup, I was encouraged to support all the countries that I related to or wanted to.
- My mother in particular encouraged faith exploration, in fact, she took me to many different places of worship with her friends, and she did seem to have friends from all over the world, with many different faiths and perspectives.
I know that one of my most profound privileges is that I have brave, thoughtful and strong minded parents; that instilled in me equality as an expectation, judgment of others as a superficial position, difference as the norm, as well as respect and trust is something to be earned. This has really helped me to navigate life, respond to self-doubt, manage racism, any challenge of my blackness or and anti mixedness, to be open to gaining knowledge and hold my own in spaces that feel uncomfortable in the first instance. Don’t get me wrong both racism and anti mixedness hurts and can feel like an open wound but I have been armed and have practiced coping mechanisms that help me to move on and make choices that work for me.