Tuesday June 8th
Living between two worlds
It occurred to me
- It occurred to me suddenly, when I posted that I had started my internship, that I was living between two societies, or rather a part of both, even though I had not experienced one for quite some time. It came to me in the form of backlash by a particular individual who tried to diminish the congratulatory responses of the general group. Furthermore, it was from a woman. The backlash, though, felt familiar because it was a part of something I grew up with a lot.
- A lot of it felt familiar, because it reminded me of an internalized self-loathing that pops up culturally from time to time.
- My country was reeling a while ago, from the murder of a young woman who was simply trying to get home from work. It sparked a movement where there was internalization of some of our cultural issues that make it difficult for us to exist, to feel safe.
- I’ve thought about how sometimes, in some environments, just existing is a threat to someone’s self-worth, and how to cope with that, because I’ve dealt with that over and over, for the entirety of my life.
- I’m not American, nor did I grow up in the United States, so I can’t speak specifically about any movements or affiliations here, but only my own cultural experience growing up in my own home country. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long while.
- A funny thing to experience as an immigrant is noticing how someone like yourself treats you, versus how they behave when they realize they are in the company of someone who does not seem to fit in that immigrant group. It’s often the case that they may “put on a show” or be on their best behavior one minute, and then treat you as they would in the country from which you both immigrated or have immigrant roots within (in terms of the expectations of the cultural structural hierarchy, etc) once the “foreigner” is no longer in sight. I guess some people in the United States would call that “code switching” of sorts.
- A while ago, I visited Brooklyn, which is pretty populated by immigrants from my country, and I was waiting for my favourite roti shop to open, and I was first in line. Two guys entered, were chatting with each other, and one looked me up and down (perhaps recognizing that I, too, had roots from the Caribbean) and stepped in front of me, casually. Fortunately, the lady at the counter, upon opening, stated flatly “she was here first, so I’ll be helping her first.” But it’s very much a part of the kind of thing I experienced a lot growing up. Not in my immediate family, thankfully, but it’s a big part of the culture I grew up with, and have wrestled with for years. It’s often also why I find it very difficult to be lumped together solely by region or country; it doesn’t account for these differences and cultural expectations based on gender, etc.
- Maybe this may resonate with some, but I’ve had friends who grew up in cultures where it’s more favourable to birth a boy instead of a girl. In fact, I’ve had quite a few international friends who, if you got to know them, would say “my parents wanted a boy”. I had a strange experience years ago when someone I knew invited me to meet a friend (an immigrant living and working) in Silicon Valley, and I was introduced to their family. Openly, the parent of that child turned to us and said about his daughter, after praising his son, “look at her; she’s so stupid”. It was said in a tone of resentment, and I recognize it all too well. The fact that he was able to say it so casually to persons outside of his culture was a bit alarming; often these are the kinds of statements shared in one’s mother tongue, not accessible to people who aren’t part of that culture. I’m not sure about if this is something that is also a part of growing up in the United States, as I said, but I’ve lived through parts of that culture where it is hinted, as a woman, that you should not appear too smart, not shine too bright. And I’ve wrestled with that for years, and what it means for the valuation of one’s contributions, understanding all the things I’ve done and all the things I want to be.
- I’ve also thought about it in the context of meeting other persons from such countries, looking deliberately to see whether they perpetuate those mindsets. These people are smart, educated, and have worked very hard in this country, but they are not without biases. These people are, after all, the very people who have the ability to hire us, promote our work, and advocate for us. And we tend to think that a person who has this ability to hire someone will just look at past jobs, schools, and will take us at face value, but that often isn’t the case, particularly when intertwined with the complexity of post-colonialist societies.
- I was fortunate in that my direct family is very aware of these things, and raised me in a way that did not diminish who I was, and encouraged me to go out and seek and achieve the things that were important to me. But all of this is still enwrapped in the reality of the culture within which I exist.
- And decades later, let’s face it; my country (as do many; I’m looking at you, United States!) has a postcolonialist illogical obsession with European (often British) aristocracy and hierarchy. They perpetuate these structures, look up to them. When do you plan to go backpacking in Europe?
- A while ago, I stumbled upon a video where a contestant had to guess the language by hearing it, and once they had made a guess, they were allowed to see and speak with the person who had said some words. In one case, the person speaking it was a black girl from Sint Maarten who spoke Dutch. That surprised a lot of people, because it’s not something you’d ordinarily expect (unless you grew up in the Caribbean and also knew that in Curacao they also speak Dutch, and that not all of us are Jamaican.
- Coincidentally, this confusion was also something I experienced in my own lab, where I suspect that because of a lack of context, I was assumed to be African- American well into the Spring of my first year, before by chance a labmate heard me “speak a bunch of what sounded like British”. And so, the projection of who I was and what societally I should expect was set upon me from the beginning. My “immigrant-ness” was not openly visible, so disrespect was par for the course, and it was a strange thing to experience. I’ve thought about this for a while, and what it must mean to grow up with those projections thrust upon you as someone who legitimately was born and grew up in the United States.
From school to working
- One of the things I wrestled with a lot was how, in my own all-female high school, we were encouraged to be leaders, to forge our own paths. It was a special, very pedigreed school where we were told we could find a place in any sector of society, while wearing our prefect ties and uniforms. However, once I stepped out of that all-female environment, there was a different reality. At one of my first jobs, I remember kindly asking a gentleman I was working with if they could carry out the task that a superior asked me to relay to his staff, and the gentleman’s response of turning away from me and telling his coworkers “I’m not taking orders from a woman”.
- At the time, I didn’t feel any sort of rage or empowerment in the way the women in this country I currently live in speak openly. I did feel a resignation that this was how they were raised, and our society itself empowered that sense of entitlement. Even if I did speak up about it, its efforts would be temporary. And after all, I was only 18.
But what does this have to do with today?
- I think about advocacy and value today in work, in support. I’ve changed quite a bit from a shyer version of myself (although I was always a smart-ass; that hasn’t changed), because I’ve lived with years of sometimes being fed-up, of pretending to be not as smart, not as well-spoken, not as clever, so that I can give way to my male counterparts. That was the world I grew up in. I’ve also seen a backlash to that, which has had its own levels of toxicity, too, when taken to extremes. And sometimes I wonder from time to time if I am stepping out of line, as I’ve been told at times by both men and women who enable and give power to those points of view. But if I don’t advocate for myself, who will? And what was the point of that all-female school of selecting “the best and brightest” if we were told not to shine once we left its walls, not to continue to strive to be all the things we were told we could be? As I’ve often seen, often no one. Nothing; my voice, my work, or my value, will be heard. Being rude or out of line is better than being a ghost of who I am. So it’s worth a shot.
And that’s it
Written on June 8, 2021