012: Rita (she/her)
Rita shares how she grew up with limited historical knowledge about indentureship and the importance of educational spaces for finding community and learning about Caribbean history. She also talks about the effects of patriarchy, how trauma gets reproduced across generations, and the importance of recognizing that healing is not linear.
Participants: Rita [R] & Interviewer [I]
Location: Washington Square Park, NY
Date: April 12, 2019
(0:00) I: Can you tell me a bit about yourself? Gender pronouns, how do you identify in terms of racial, ethnic background, age and where did you grow up?
(0:09) R: Yes, so my gender pronouns are she/hers. I identify as Indo-Caribbean. My mom is Guyanese and my dad's Trinidadian. I am 28 and I grew up in the Bronx. I was born in Montreal and I lived in Montreal for seven years, and that's where my parents met. Then we moved to the Bronx mostly because most of my mom's family lived here and settled here in...I guess the eighties, nineties? So she really wanted to be closer to her side of the family, and the economy in Montreal was really bad at the time. So my mom's family sponsored all of us and we moved to the Bronx and I’ve been back and forth from the Bronx ever since.
(0:58) I: So if you were to think of your life as a movie, if I were making a movie about your life, what are some of the major scenes that would be in that movie and who are the important characters?
(1:10) R: So many. I feel like I'm always reflecting on different times in my life. So there are a lot of scenes, a lot of moments that maybe at the time, I didn't realize were really important, but now I realize were really important. I'm really close to my nuclear family. I have a big extended family, but for a long time it's been me, my sister, my dad and mom and my grandmother. So my grandmother's definitely...she was really important to me as a main character. Yeah, ‘cause my parents worked a lot when we were young, so she raised us. A lot of my early memories growing up in Montreal are of me and my sister and my grandma spending time together, like being in the front yard and playing in the grass, and sitting and watching soap operas with her. She was a really important influence in my life. My sister, of course. She's only two and a half years older than me, and so we were constantly in competition with one another (laughs). We were both really into school, and I think part of that was being immigrants and my parents being really unfamiliar with living in New York City and really mistrustful of letting us out of the house, basically. So we spent a lot of time just like really being good at school, studying. In eighth grade, I was Valedictorian of my eighth grade class. I won all the spelling bees, I was just really into school because it's just was the one place I could direct my energy. I mean, most of my favorite memories from middle school are sitting in my living room and preparing for a spelling bee and how accomplished I used to feel after just those school related successes. So I definitely based a lot of my value when I was younger on being really good at school. Then I went to a private high school in the Bronx because my sister’s seventh grade teacher told her that she should apply to private high schools for ninth grade because the schools in the Bronx weren't that good. So she ended up going to private high school and then I ended up going to a private high school and it was just a total shift in my social life and my academic identity. I felt like I went from feeling like the smartest kid in school to feeling like I was not on the level of the students who I was taking classes with. I went to this, just a very privileged high school with all white people. It was like my first time really knowing a white person or any white people, like spending time, being in spaces with white people. I mean I feel like I'm still kind of processing some of that trauma of losing my sense of feeling empowered in education and in knowledge. That was definitely a hard time in my life.
Then I went away to college and had similar experiences but really started connecting with other students of color who had similar experiences as me and were just constantly complaining (laughs) and trying to strategize how to survive in these predominantly white institutions. That was really where I learned the importance of community and the power of coming together. And even if all of the complaining we did to our deans, even if all of the quote-unquote work we did to try to change things didn't amount to anything, we still built these really powerful relationships and kind of understood what it was like to have for a short period of time, this community that was really supportive and supportive of each other's joy, right? Recognizing how toxic the environment was that we were in and really trying to prioritize being happy. So I took that with me and then I worked for a little bit in non-profits doing racial justice work and two years after finishing Undergrad, I started a PhD program. In that time, it was really through building with these other students of color during undergrad and then building community outside of academia, that I sort of found the academic identity that I'd lost when I started attending that private school. I found that again and I'm still swimming in that...still swimming in moments of feeling like I really belong and really validated in my knowledge and other times really having to fight people to listen to me. I think a lot of my identity is rooted in my educational experiences and how I've navigated them and used it as a platform to do the kind of work that I wanted to do. I kind of came to social justice work through education, which is one route but not the route, right? I think people come to social justice work in different ways, but for me it was, I had my lived experience of racism, of sexism, of white supremacy and gained tools to make sense of that. Not even from my classes, but from just the community I had built in these in schools. If I were making a movie about my life, a lot of it would be around just my commitment to continuing school and prioritizing that over a lot of other things, even sometimes when it was not in my favor or at the expense of other people, you know.
(7:42) I: Are there any stereotypes or misrepresentations of women in your community that you think are important to challenge given your own experiences or the experiences of women in your life?
(7:53) R: When I talked to other women of color who have spent a lot of time in white dominant spaces, I spent a lot of time really rejecting my identity because I just didn't know enough. I was operating under the representations that other people were ascribing to my identity. So I remember when I told someone I was Trinidadian and Guyanese, it was like my white classmates, their frame of reference was like, "Oh yeah, I know somebody who has a housekeeper who's Guyanese." Then I remember hearing one of my classmates talk about going to India for study abroad and someone asked him like what it was like, and all he could say was it just smelled really bad. So those were the representations I had about my history and cultural identity as a young person and I think not having the tools to be able to deconstruct those messages at a young age was really hard on me. It took a lot for me to, I think because we don't learn about our history in school and because there all these really harmful and violent messages that young women of color, especially, hear about who we are and where we come from. It took a lot of work for me to learn other narratives, to access other narratives. One, because you know, my parents also didn't have a lot of access to that history to be able to pass down. I was kind of isolated from community because I was really sheltered as a kid. My parents were really strict about us going out on our own unless it was for school. So it took a long time for me to actually like learn about my history and feel grounded in that identity and feel, just feel like I could see myself in my history, and be able to reject these stereotypes and know that they were based on white supremacist ideas and not based on the reality of the people that I knew and what they were like. I think a big misrepresentation that I feel really invested in speaking back to is the idea that Indo-Caribbean women are passive. You just hear these stereotypes that reduce Indo-Caribbean woman to these stereotypes of not being invested in changing the conditions of their lives, not being involved in anti-colonial movements, not speaking out about injustice, and I think that representation is really harmful for a lot of reasons. One, because it sends a message to young Indo-Caribbean women that they can't find liberation within their communities, with other women in their communities, that they have to go outside of their communities to do justice work or to find healing. Also because like there's so many fierce Indo-Caribbean women that I know who, maybe just because they don't fit the norm of what we typically think of as resistance, are seen as passive or non-confrontational or not invested in liberating our communities. I think that that's a huge misrepresentation that hurts us more than anything, because there's so much potential for us to be doing community building work with each other and to be breaking silences around injustice in the community, and if we don't believe that we have the power to do that or that there isn't a history of women doing that, then there's no real way to imagine what that can look like moving forward.
(12:02) I: What do you think stands in the way of women across generations building relationships with one another and what has helped you to build relationships across generations?
(12:12) A: I just think there's so much...there's just so much pain and defensiveness and I'm certainly not above it. I think part of doing healing work is also figuring out how to heal our relationships with each other and that can be even harder sometimes than the individual work of trying to like make sense of trauma that has happened. We can all develop coping mechanisms to help us survive but the process of healing those relationships are really difficult, I think. So I think that that's really hard. I think anytime that I get resistance from an older Indo-Caribbean woman, I feel hurt, but I also try to hold space for where they're coming from and to do both of those things is really hard, I think. Because the way trauma works is that, if we don't process that trauma and heal from it, we reproduce it. I’ve seen in my family a lot...I've seen sexism on very obvious levels, in terms of comments that people make about what someone's wearing or who they're dating, some of those really visible ways of controlling and oppressing women. But I think that there's also a lot of just deeper and more normalized ways that we reproduce oppression against women. And women reproduce oppression against women all the time, you know? So I think unless we do that work of knowing what it's like to really listen to another person and hold space for them, and also hold them accountable and to experience what that looks like ourselves, it's really hard to build those relationships. Because there's so much mistrust too, right? There's this idea that we're young, so we have the fresh, new ideas and that our elders, they're just backwards. They're just not on our level of consciousness, which I think is unfair. Then on the other side there's the idea that. right, we're young so we don't have all of the answers, so we don't know as much as our elders know. I think on both ends, those narratives hurt us because they don't validate the knowledge that all of us hold about our experiences and about what we've learned from our experiences. I think it just does a disservice to everyone. So I think that that's one of the main barriers to women across generations building with one another. I also think it's really hard to be vulnerable, right? Because we are all still in our healing processes and we all have our mechanisms that keep us safe, whether that's, I guess something really simple as telling a young girl that she should dress a certain way because you're trying to protect her, right? That's coming from a place of protection of trying to keep someone safe, but then at the same time it doesn't give agency to that person to decide what feels good for them and for them to be able to make that judgment on their own about what risks they're willing to take. I think that there's just a lot of pain and mistrust between generations and what it takes is just people really being vulnerable and honoring the knowledge we all have about our experiences and being able to figure out a way to hold all of that in the same space.
(15:53) I: What hopes do you have for your generation and for future generations?
(16:00) R: I think what's coming up for me is, I think the pressure to feel like—especially, I think, the more that we use terms like healing in social justice spaces and among activist spaces, to know that healing never ends and that your journeys are complicated. Healing is not an overnight process. I think recognizing that is difficult, but it's also really important because we put so much pressure on ourselves I think to feel like we've gotten past the trauma we've experienced. I guess I'm talking about Indo-Caribbean women and some of the trauma that stems even from the plantation during indentureship, like alcoholism in the community, like having healthy relationships, whether that's romantic relationships, friendships. I think that there's this idea that we experience trauma and there's a way for us to be past it. So I just think that there's, there's some power in acknowledging that you are always growing and changing and if you have a setback, it doesn't mean that you're any less valuable or that your journey is any less valuable. Because I think our healing processes are not linear and none of us are perfect, and there's power in saying that, in waking up one day and feeling really great and strong and powerful and the next day waking up and feeling weak and honoring that both of those things can happen within hours of each other and it's still okay and you're still doing the work you need to do. You're still growing and you're still doing the best you can and any setbacks that you have are normal because healing is not a linear process and we're all constantly like being re-traumatized and set back in our healing journeys and then moving forward. I think just holding on to and trying to know yourself and the things that bring you joy and make you happy, and trying as much as you can to hold onto those things and still knowing that, you're still valuable even when you're not able to take care of yourself in the way that you want to. I think that's what's coming up for me as an important thing to say. Again, because I think we're so afraid to talk about our hard days with each other and the struggles we have. And to normalize that, I think is radical, you know? To recognize that we are all works in progress and you don't have to compare yourself to someone that you see as more enlightened. We all can just learn from each other. You know this is not a competition of who comes out on top, you know? It's about really learning from each other and trying to share resources where our collective liberation. Thank you.
(19:10) I: That’s a powerful note to end on. Thank you.