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Life Exploring Indo-Caribbean identities

Sep. 25, 2019
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This piece is being published under Adolescent's collaboration with Sorjo Magazine, a publication centered on representing marginalized identities.

Amara Davina Ramdhanny  is an Afro-St. Lucian and Indo-Grenadian (Black/Indian of Caribbean descent) Brooklyn-based illustrator whose art focuses on bright colors and strong women of color. She recently came out with a collaboration with Nike called Isle of Spice! The sneakers are vibrant and playful, named after the nickname of her Indo-Caribbean mother’s home island: Grenada. “With a bold, tropical color palette and as stylish as our favorite ‘60s and ‘70s Bollywood actresses. The Isle of Spice is fresh, fun, and unapologetically fierce, just like the beautiful women it’s inspired by,” says Nike. 

Indo-Caribbeans have such rich history, but are often left out of the conversation. Amara collaborated with Sorjo to dig into her creative mind, explore the inspiration behind her Nike design, and learn more about her ancestral history. We also teamed up with an incredible photographer, Malik.

Dougla is a word used by people in Trinidad, Tobago, Suriname, and Guyana to describe people of mixed African and Indian descent. The word originated from doogala (दुगला), a Caribbean-Hindustani word that means "many," "much," or "mix." Examples of douglas include any Black and Indian mixed celebrities you can think of: Tatyana Ali, Vashtie Kola, Kamala Harris, Nicki Minaj, and so on. Despite being of mixed descent, these women are largely celebrated as Black and Caribbean; their Indian heritage is hardly ever acknowledged. As a mixed woman of Afro and Indo-Caribbean descent, I found this all too familiar. 

I grew up in a strong Caribbean community, and from a young age, I could never really differentiate my parents’ identities from one another. In junior high, I distinctly remember my mother telling me not to let anyone call me a “coolie”—a racial slur meaning “laborer” that’s used against Asian people. Just a year later, I got into a fight with a girl who said I had “coolie-people hair.” That was the first time I really understood my mother’s identity. In high school, as I got even closer with my mother, I felt like I had to prove my identity in relation to hers. While I’d worn my hair in braids all through my childhood, I started to wear it out in high school, unbraided, to show off my supposed “coolie-people hair.” A Guyanese-Indian boy in my class doubted it was even “mine”; he said I was “too black” to have that kind of hair. 

My mother has always struggled to explain her identity to strangers. Her old employers were Jewish and assumed she was as well; she’d encounter Arabs who attempted to converse with her in Arabic and were surprised when she couldn’t respond. While my mother straddled the line of ethnic ambiguity, I, however, was always black. I never felt accepted by anyone more than the Black community. While my mother drifted in and out of various identities, I was placed firmly in one identity, and the two would never meet.

To gain a broader perspective on the dougla experience, I turned to three individuals of slightly different African-Indian heritage: Amber Linton, Bree Simran Darby, and Bethany Renee.

Amara Davina Ramdhanny: Can you provide a brief description of your ethnic background?

Amber Linton: My father came from Bangladesh to America sometime in the early ‘80s, and my mother is Jamaican and Barbadian.

Bree Simran Darby: My mother is Telugu from Hyderabad, and my father is African-American from South Carolina.

Bethany Renee: My parents are Jamaican born and raised. But our motto is “out of many one people,” because Jamaica is racially diverse. My mom is of West African, European Jewish, and East Indian descent, and my dad is Jamaican of East Indian descent with some Jamaican-Maroon lineage. 

Amara: What was your experience growing up as a mixed person with a South Asian background? Do you have any stories about how your background has affected you? 

Amber: [My parents never really taught me about my heritage.] They separated when I was 4, and as a result, he wasn’t really a major part of my life. And while I’ve made attempts of my own to better understand that part of my heritage, I’ve never been able to attain that level of closeness and understanding that I otherwise would have had if he was more involved in my life. 

Bree: Growing up a mixed Desi was quite difficult for me, especially since there’s so much anti-blackness in the Desi community. It caused me to have low self-esteem, and it made me want to change my appearance. But thankfully, I was able to get out of that mindset; I’m proud of my heritage and refuse for my appearance to be whitewashed.

Bethany: For awhile, I never really thought about it because my parents were Jamaican and that’s all that mattered. In Jamaica, you’re Jamaican regardless of race. But to see a dark-skinned child with long hair was a rare sight to many, so people always assumed I was Indian. I remember telling a Canadian white man a few years ago what I was, and him responding, “But Indian people are brown-colored—you’re black.” So at times I just avoid telling people, unless I feel like I can trust [them] to not look at me weird. It’s easier to have Caribbean friends because they can always tell and don’t question you.

Amara: Do you feel like you’re accurately represented in the South Asian/Desi community? 

Amber: I’m not sure. I’m not really in touch with any community so I don’t know if I am or not.

Bree: Not at all. I don’t feel like people who look like me [are represented], especially in Bollywood. Whenever they want to portray a black character in a movie, they have an Indian actor do blackface and have them act wild and crazy. It’s very disappointing and disheartening to watch.

Bethany: When it comes to Bollywood, Indian media fails to show dark-skinned Indians. So why would they ever represent Black Indians? On the other hand, though, I’m happy to see women like Nicki Minaj, Justine Skye, Melanie Fiona, and Chilli representing Black/Indian Caribbean people.

Check out the wonderful and talented people that worked on this project:

Photographer: Malik Frank (@malik.jpg)

Models & Interviewees: Amber Linton, Bree Simran Darby (@blindiangirl), Bethany Renee (@betaniarenee), Amara Ramdhanny (@amara__davi)

Creative Director: Amara Ramdhanny