One concept to ponder on is some of the choices our parents made for us when we didn’t have the rationale to make choices for ourselves. My parents immigrated to America from their respected islands to live here. They got married and had children in a nation that they perceived to be full of freedom and prosperity. As I grew older, I held on to the small threads of Caribbean culture my father and mother introduced to me. I was intrigued by how much I was sheltered from the culture growing up just because I grew up in America. Eventually, my family went through a divorce and my father took care of my brothers and I. We fended for ourselves throughout the journey with the help of family members and friends. It was through other family members that I reconnected with my Trinidadian roots and lost touch with my mother’s family from Guyana.
Over the years of struggling to understand who I am, I embarked on a journey to India. I studied Global and Public Health in a space where I was forced to come to terms with my overlapping identities as an American with Indo-Caribbean roots from Trinidad and Guyana. It was my journey to India that sparked my interest in understanding the history of these nations in relation to understanding my family’s struggles.
For starters, living in America has been both a beauty and a terror in its own ways. My viewpoints have been shaped by my experiences coming from the Bronx. Walking in my neighborhood, I see tall, tan apartment buildings with hundreds of windows that are connected to different stories. I see dirty gum pieces stuck to the sidewalk and trash cans overflowing with garbage that are close to my open-toed sandals. I smell the exhaust from cars constantly passing by, but I don’t see any planted trees or fields of grass emitting oxygen in the atmosphere. As an accurate visual of what I encountered on a daily basis, there are still a multitude of problems in the area. Problems such as poverty, gentrification, drugs, and gun violence are just a few that I encounter back home.
Growing up around such issues in my neighborhood made me resilient as well as aware to question why I was encountering this in a low-income neighborhood. I eventually got to understand that there is a reason why black and brown individuals live in these spaces. After attending DePauw university, I got to understand the differences in predominantly white spaces in comparison to where I’m from. It was at DePauw that I really understood the history of America and the implications of systematic oppression for people of color.
After the process of understanding my role in the system, I got the opportunity to study abroad in India with IFSA. For one semester, I immersed myself in a culture I thought I was familiar with. I knew very little about the main religions represented in India, the power the caste system has over people and more. I used Bollywood movies as a reference to India. My perception of Bollywood movies has changed now that I feel like I understand India more. One of the most intricate systems in place in India is colorism. Urban Dictionary defines colorism as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” From beauty advertisements to Bollywood movies in India, light skin is considered beautiful. This has been internalized in media as well as marriage proposals and class rank. Even though colorism is in place in India, it originates from western and European beauty standards. It was through colonization of countries like India that concepts such as fair skin and long, straight hair became European beauty standards for all people. I recall baffling moments of realization that this doesn’t just exist in India but in many British-colonized countries like America and Trinidad and Tobago. Thus, I dug deep into the roots of how colonization has affected the perception of myself in spaces.
It was through my experiences in India that I looked to understand my Indo-Caribbean roots. When I came to India, I was mistaken a lot for being Indian because of my straight black hair and brown skin. Being in India made me actively research my roots as a Caribbean woman. I needed to know more of my heritage and where my ancestors originated. I recently claimed the term Indo-Caribbean through researching the history of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. I finally got to understand how slavery in the Caribbean resulted in a concoction of different cultures in one space. I learned about the movement of indentured servants from India into islands like Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana to work as slaves for the British. I got to explore and connect the generational trauma that was installed in my people for hundreds of years after internalizing how people mistook me for being Indian. A part of me realized there is a reason why people automatically jump to that conclusion and it was through research that I found the connection. It was through this entire process that I fully understood the full circle of how colonization has affected people like me. It has made me vulnerable, resilient, outspoken and determined in finding more about myself. After returning from my experience abroad, I have embarked on a new journey in understanding the history and culture of the islands my parents came from.
Meagan Khan is a student at DePauw University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Global and Public Health Program in Manipal, India in 2017.