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Facing a Racial Reality Check

A Trinidadian Woman Shares Her Reality being an educator abroad.

As an international educator I have experienced racism all over the world over the past 30 odd years. Recently as I sat in a restaurant with a white colleague, I was completely ignored all night.

This happened to the point where my colleague felt it necessary to write to the establishment requesting a meeting to discuss the offensive experience. Yet another experience was in an African country where again, a white colleague and I entered a hotel and the African employee at the front desk refused to acknowledge my presence and kept her engagement directed only at my colleague.

I can list an extremely exhaustive list of racial incidents across the world, however I would rather not because time simply won’t allow it. The question is how do I respond to this awkward and hurtful dilemma as I travel from one country to the next to carry out my vocation?

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The idea that I must spend time in my day considering the implications of being something I cannot change is so ridiculous that I know I only have one choice to make.

As an international educator, an intern drama therapist, and a humanitarian, I must seize every teaching  opportunity to bring a greater understanding of this topic of racism to my young and impressionable minds.

In my younger years, I never knew that the color of my skin mattered until I experienced racism first hand in NYC in the 1990’s. Fresh out of the most beautiful island in the world— my home, Trinidad— I had no idea that I would spend the rest of my life giving conscious attention to the fact that I’m BLACK.

Black as a nation not a color in this context is something I always have to explain. STOP TELLING ME AM BROWN…”You’re not black Naima, you’re brown…” What does that even mean?

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The ridiculousness of the topic is exhausting and I want to do everything I can in my international school classrooms to lay foundations of love peace and compassion towards HUMANITY.

My first conscious encounter with racism was loaded with fear, confusion, anxiety and most of all an empowered sense of determination to manifest my dreams and to fulfill my life’s purpose.

Over the eleven years that I lived in NYC, my only set intention once I realized my talents, was to apply them to my life’s purpose of educating through the dramatic arts. Along my journey I found myself in spaces such as The Actors Studio and the Blue Note Jazz Club, where being the token Trinidadian was the norm and being one of the token blacks was inevitable.

The Israeli owner of the renowned jazz club at the time ensured two things from my perspective: firstly, that he met his quota of black hires for the labor laws of affirmative action at the time and secondly, that he exhibit his authentic attitude toward said quota.

I cannot speak for others, but I can with certainty say that if I were not focused on the big picture of my life I would have been thrown off my rock with fear, shame and confusion thrown at my feet.

After my NYC stint I lived for seven years in Trinidad and was provided with some reprieve. I was able to engage freely and without anxiety in spaces where the majority of people looked and sounded like me. This is not to suggest that Trinbago is not filled with racist attitudes, however being surrounded by what’s familiar helps to shield some of the awkwardness of it all. 

Unfortunately, to achieve my life’s dreams and purpose I cannot operate on the budget of a teacher’s salary in Trinidad and I cannot put the important humanitarian work of Necessary Arts on the standby queue for funds in order to meet it’s mission.

In short, I travel and teach internationally to be paid a salary that can meet the minimal funding needed for the humanitarian work of my life’s dream and focus, my NGO, Necessary Arts.

Our parents provide us with an abundance of lessons and values that serve as the default go-to-place when life’s challenges confront us and we reach for ways to cope. I for one am grateful for lessons of effective speech, physical appearance, and compassion for all.

My parents, more so my mom, instilled and encouraged us to speak in “standard” English. While she did not show disapproval of our dialect, she taught me the importance of speaking to be understood. With this arsenal in my back pocket my confidence was strong enough to help me develop the coping skills to represent myself and my people with pride even when confronted with hate and ignorance. To dare to be so good that I cannot be ignored became the mantra of my inside voice for my life.

I still, to this day, stand tall at 5’1 when I speak amongst a non-black, non-Trinidadian audience. Because of my ability to speak eloquently when I engage in spaces where my “voice” is not common, the audience is compelled to stop and pay attention.

Now at age 50, I am very certain of my identity and how I wish to be perceived in the world. I am unmistakably black and very proud to come from a strong lineage of Caribbean and African ancestors.

I see and experience how black people are treated in the workplace or spaces in general and I feel a strong instinct to protect myself by dressing impeccably— a default lesson from my mom. Don’t get me wrong, I have my own style, bow tie and all.

However, added to that is the awareness that as a black woman in the world I am judged very differently than my colleagues and peers. Luckily for me, my chosen professional attire is a true expression of who I am, not only a status symbol; it is the one who shows up as herself with no apologies. 

While we are unlikely to undo the damage of colonialism and the perpetuated misrepresentation of the black race through mass media, I continue to urge everyone wherever and whenever possible to inject a strong sense of love and compassion into our young ones in an effort to at least produce a future generation that can stand in a global culture of kindness.

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