Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Race Card...

This post is a little anecdotal and a little more personal, since I was the target of some verbal abuse earlier on today and would like to write about it, more to calm my own anger and turmoil than anything else, but feel free to discuss or comment.

For those of you that may not know much about Trinidad & Tobago, I will be brutally honest, which by no means is a reflection of my love or patriotism towards my country, nor is it a reflection on how absolutely beautiful I believe my country to be, but I am simply telling it as is. Trinidad has a social hierarchy, speaking in very broad terms, although we are a nation of many races, cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds, there is still a sense of: "You belong here... and you belong here". Skin colour is a major factor in this, it is generally found that people are put in categories of this social and racial hierarchy, with White being, to some, the top of the top (aim to marry a white person, be a white person, live like a white person). It seems sometimes that the darker one's skin gets, the lower on the social or racial hierarchy you 'belong'. I am sure this is the case in many countries but I personally HATE this. There are many ways I can elaborate on this in terms of people behaving as if their skin colour entitles them to a certain attitude, swagger or comportment (see the previous post) but that is an entirely different controversial discussion that could go on for centuries...

One reason why this has been brought to my attention more and more over the years (it can be very subtle or very outright depending on what region of the country you come from - yes, there is racial segregation to a certain degree, very much like London or New York where there are certain ethnic communities), is because of my own skin, which has prompted certain types of responses or treatment, both harsh and "too nice", over the years, and makes me wonder if I am being seen for who I truly am. I remember a few years ago organising a night out with some of my cousins and their friends and hearing one person say: "Yes, let's go into that club with Darcel... we'll get in because she's white!"

This particular statement stunned me, because it never occurred to me that this may be why some people want to know me or be around me. Is my skin colour really access to some sort of privilege or advantage that I would not otherwise be allowed to experience? Would a nightclub in Trinidad & Tobago, the most multi-cultural land in the world, really deny me entry if I had my naturally dark skin colour? Would it not be about stature, grace and the way in which I carried and conducted myself as opposed to my skin colour?

This in itself has many a time thrown me into doubts about who my real friends are and who are trying to benefit socially off of my medical predicament. I have never used my skin colour as a reason for being able to do something socially. Anything that I do, anywhere that I go, anything that I say is because it is Darcel doing it, and not a white girl nor a black girl. Yes, I am the sum of my experience, but I am also the sum of a Dutch, Portuguese, Creole, Indian, British and Bajan heritage; the sum of a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean upbringing; the sum of a European education as well as the sum of years of the skin condition Vitiligo... am I really one to be categorized or simplified?

Today, in a fabric store in the capital of Trinidad, Port-of-Spain, with my mother, I was purchasing the fabrics for my new collection from the very pleasant sales man who always assists me, when a group of about 10 youths, mostly female, from the CCC youth development program walked into the fabric store. They were all wearing the same blue T-shirt so they were rather noticeable but I was oblivious to them as I went about my business like a normal human being. Suddenly, as my sixth sense has been perfected over the years, I felt that I was being watched and looked up to see about 7 of the group standing in the middle of the fabric store staring at me. This for me is normal. So I went back to my business and said nothing. Then my mother chuckled and I knew that she had also seen them blatantly staring and whispering.

Two minutes later, the same group that had been watching me decided to walk past the table where I was handling my merchandise with the sales man, and as the store is divided into a grid system of rows of fabric to walk between, they were in single file and one by one as they walked past, very obviously turned their heads left to stare at me some more, with one boy saying (again something I am used to): "Wow! She is really really white!!"

Again, I ignored it and my mother chuckled. This is so normal for me and my parents that we really don't bother to confront every case of ignorance we encounter or our lives would be wasted. However, about twenty seconds after passing one way, the single file line turned around and walked back in the direction they had come from, past my table again, and again blatantly, and rudely, staring, this time making a couple of comments as girls are known to do in a very catty, bitchy or confrontational manner. By this point I was beginning to feel harrassed and looked at my mother and said: "Do you realise that every single person in a blue T-shirt has a staring problem?" to lighten the situation and we both laughed to each other. My mother being the humourous woman that she is then pointed directly at the group and said loudly: "Who them? Yes, I see them staring, it's clear they have no manners!" and we both laughed again and continued our business.

Usually that is enough to make any google-eyes ashamed once they realise how rude they have been and turn and walk away or come and apologize. But not this time. The group of five females then walked behind the fabrics to where they could take turns peeking around the fabric to look at me and my skin, stare, point, whisper and then fall about laughing. It was at this point that I started to get angry. My mother, ever the protector, made a loud comment about one of the girls in the group who was wearing a headscarf and was clearly Muslim, indicating that as a Muslim she should be just and righteous as Islam preaches and had no right to be talking about me, pointing or laughing. In my opinion, my mother was absolutely right because I always say, why should you be allowed to comment on a visible condition of mine and then be offended if someone comments on a visible condition of your own? If I were to turn to someone with dark skin who calls me "Whitey!!" from across the street and respond: "Yes, Blackie!"... what kind of person would that make me? I would immediately be labelled a racist without question... How fair is that?!

The girls then walked past two more times, with the Muslim girl now saying loudly to the others, without looking at me: "Yeah, let her see us walking past another time!" at which point I will admit, I snapped. I have a lot of patience because of this condition and because of recent events which require me to conduct myself in a certain way and not respond to ignorance with ignorance.. . But we are in a FABRIC STORE and I am not bothering you or harrassing you or doing anything to you, so why are you harrassing me? Yes... I snapped.

I whipped my head up, looked the girls straight in the eye and said from across the table: "If you have a problem, then have the guts to say it to my face instead of loudly parading yourselves in front of me!" which caused them to stop and look at me as if they wanted to start fighting. So I repeated: "Yeah, if you're so loud and so bold, come and tell me what it is you have to say to my face huh?"

To cut a long story short, it was my turn to cash and apparently the girls had begun hurling abuse and using fighting words in my direction, talking about hitting me and whatnot, at which point my mother found the security guard who promptly threw them out. But I was shaking. I was LIVID. I still am.

I do not deserve this. I do not deserve abuse for a skin condition I have no control over. Not to mention how SAD it makes me that a small, multi-cultural island like Trinidad & Tobago can still harbour such ignorance in the youth, because this is my country! How dare you threaten me when I have done nothing to you!

This brings up many racism issues as well as the Vitiligo issue, which like I said we could argue forever, however, this is just to show you a little bit of what my every day life has been like for eighteen years. It never ends. Whether I am black, patchy or white, it never ends and someone always has an issue. I try to be as patient and calm as possible and walk away from the situation, but sometimes, it becomes overwhelming, and I am only human. Like I said, I don't have the answers. But thanks to India Arie for the song that played on the radio on the way home, from which I will borrow a few lines:

I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations, no...
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Discretion is a Virtue...

Sometimes in this world, it's not WHAT you say to someone as much as it is HOW you choose to say it.

When I was younger, children were the most brutally honest in their reactions towards me. This, of course, is always a reflection of the way they are being taught by their parents or how they see their parents react to certain things. In Syria, I had people coming up to me to actually rub my skin to see if it would come off... I've also had children asking their parents loudly whilst pointing directly in my face: "Mum! What's wrong with THAT girl? She looks like she has a cow's skin!"... There is not much you can really do to defend yourself at the age of 8 or 9 when that happens, because it's up to the parents of that child to teach them discretion, whilst still remembering that it is a child you are dealing with. The world is a cruel place.

Then there is the polite yet curious child, my favourite kind. In a supermarket in Cyprus, when I was almost 8 yrs old, a little boy of about 5 or 6 was with his dad and said, not too loudly and without pointing, but they were near enough to myself and my mother to be heard: "Daddy, why does that girl's skin look like that?" His dad proceeded to scold him, but it was unnecessary because you could tell that this little boy genuinely was concerned and wanted to know the reason. My mum encouraged me to go up to him and explain. She said to me that sometimes people will say horrible things, but there are some people who will really want to know about my skin and about me, and I should always be ready to answer any of those questions instead of feeling uncomfortable. She said: "It's better that they ask you outright, than stand across the room and point and comment."

After explaining to the little boy that my skin was patchy because I had a condition called Vitiligo etc., I made a friend for the rest of that hour in the supermarket. He apologised if I had been offended (he was incredibly mature for his age, obviously!) and asked if he could walk with my mum and me as we shopped. It turned out to be a positive experience overall, and at the end of the day I much prefer if someone simply asks, instead of assuming they know.

This anecdote brings me to the real purpose of today's post, which is to reply to an email I received early this morning. I wanted to share this with you to show the more tactful individuals who have contacted me that not everyone thinks in the same way, and also to answer the questions I was asked by this particular individual, no matter how it was written.

The original email, unedited except for name omission:

Hi Marcel !
My name is ****** and i recently stumbled upon your biography while researching art online. Needless to say i could not believe it until i saw your photo!
I want to know if you feel like a .......Person? A Black Person? A White Person? Or, perhaps is it more dramatic, like the change of sex when a woman trasforms into a man and vise versa?
Do you lie to yourselfwhen it comes to being black or white?
Can you compare it to changing your looks when an actor applies his(her) makeup he has to play a role?
If all people on Earth would have one skin color and look exactly the same, would there still be any racism left? Do you think that you "act differently" because, technically, you are a white person ?
Ethnically, you look like an Italian or Southern Spanish. Some Finns look like you too, or Swedes

My reply:

Hey ******, thanks for your email.

You asked some very interesting questions although some of them are a little confusing. For example, I do indeed feel like a person, after all, I am a human being so I'm not sure how to feel any otherwise.

As for whether I feel like a black person or a white person, I am mixed race to begin with and so I feel all of these things at once, my skin is merely the visual contact with which other people identify me. I enjoy the fact that people cannot pinpoint where I come from, or what race I truly am, as it entails more than a skin colour, there are facial features, hair characteristics etc. I do not like being categorized or compartmentalized in any case, and believe that my current condition is a positive in the sense that I cross racial and ethnic boundaries with the way I look. I have been asked which box I tick on forms that require Ethnicity details; I refuse to tick "Other" and wish there was a "Mixed" box, however due to my pride of being West Indian, I usually settle for "Black and White Caribbean".

You are the second person to say I look Italian. I get Spanish quite a lot; if my hair is straightened out I may get Eastern European; I currently have bangs which some people say makes me look somewhat Oriental; I have been told I look Turkish as well as Venezuelan; after a few failed attempts, most people do start naming Scandinavian countries in an effort to figure out where I come from. No one has ever said Trinidad.

I think having a skin condition like Vitiligo is a little more serious than an actor having to apply makeup for a role - I will speak for myself when I say that a person with Vitiligo only wishes to be who they are and not play any role to satisfy anyone else. However, we are faced with society's definitions of what we are every day, it requires a lot of strength and fortitude to take a stand and make the world accept you for what you are and not what they want you to be. Unfortunately, not everyone who suffers with a skin condition or disease has that kind of confidence, which is exactly the awareness I am trying to bring to the forefront.

I don't think the Earth was meant to have everyone the same colour, that concept is slightly utopian and unrealistic when you take into consideration climate or even other factors like race (race does not equal skin colour, let's get that straight), nationality, religion or cultural factors which would still set us apart from one another. We've been on the earth for quite some time now and still cannot agree who is right or who is wrong. I doubt erasing all skin colour would solve that problem.

When a child asks me why my skin is so white, I need to be a little tactful with how I put it to them, but I think I have come up with a reasonable explanation that satisfies all parties. I ask if they like to see lots of differently coloured crayons when they open up their crayon box, or would they prefer to have only one colour to use for their colouring books? The answer is always the same - everyone likes to have choice. So I tell them that in the same way a crayon box has a lot of different colours in order to make the prettiest picture, the world was created with people of many different colours so that we would make it a more beautiful and exciting place.

I have to object to your question about "acting differently" because "technically", I am a human being. "Technically", I have DNA like every other Black, White, Indian, Chinese, Spanish or European person in this world. "Technically", I am not a White woman. My heritage and bloodlines say otherwise, as does my original skin colour. I am a mixed race woman, and I don't see that I should "act" a certain way because my race dictates it? Is our behaviour not dictated by our upbringing, our nurturing, our environment and the world we are otherwise exposed to? If someone is physically abused in their youth, might they not act differently to someone of the same skin colour who was not abused? I think you may be touching on the stereotypes of Black or White people that are fed to us through the media - Ebonics or other such factors. Behaviour is not exclusive to race so I'm sorry that I don't know how to answer your question. I doubt I could in any case since I grew up in the Middle East and Mediterranean and was witness to other religions and ways of life, which all contributed to how I behave as a human being and not as a Black or White woman.

I hope my answers helped you, and I hope you don't mind that I allowed other people to see this discussion, as you did touch on some issues that I had planned on bringing up at some point on this blog. Thank you once again for your email. Be safe and blessed always.

Darcel (not Marcel)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Your Skin and the Sun...

Before getting into the more personal aspects of what living with Vitiligo has been like, I would like to use this post to answer a few of the more practical questions that have been sent to me regarding my skin, first and foremost being of course - SKIN CARE.

Do you really wear SPF 100 every day?

No. It depends on the length of time I plan to be in the sun, how active I intend on being whilst exposing my skin to the sun and also the daily weather forecast. I generally wear makeup that contains SPF (ranging from 15 to 30) in it, which protects my face and neck. I also sometimes have a fringe (or bangs as it is called in the West) which can help protect my face from the sun, or make a style statement by wearing hats, scarves or sunglasses... There's no reason why we cannot have fun whilst protecting our skin...

I wear protection on my arms, chest and shoulders if I am going to be exposed to the sun frequently during the day e.g. when out shopping, hanging out in the park or when I was in the playground back in my school days and we were not allowed to stay in the classrooms at break time. This only needs to be about SPF 30 if I am switching between being inside and outside often, but common sense dictates that even when outside, I try to walk or sit in the shade.

SPF 100 is what I use MOST DEFINITELY when I will be spending a hot afternoon outdoors at a BBQ or in the park or a day at the beach, which in any case is a rare thing for me (despite being an island girl!). The sun's rays are most harmful during the hours in which people tend to visit the beach (mid- to early afternoon), so I try myself to go either very early in the morning or later on in the afternoon (after 3pm) when the sun will not be as strong. Of course, this is sometimes inconvenient for everyone else in the group wanting to sunbathe etc. so I will wear a T-shirt sometimes as well as my SPF100, swim for shorter periods of time, as the water reflects the sunlight, and reapply sunblock often. Once again, it never hurts to wear a hat and/or sunglasses whenever you can.

Like I said, there is no reason to not look good whilst protecting your skin. I have acquired a number of cardigans, scarves and light jackets to carry with me when out and about, perhaps when I may not have any more sunblock or sometimes don't wish to have the hassle of constantly having to reapply. There are a lot of stylish coverup options available that are in light, breathable fabrics that won't be bothersome on a hot day.

How does your skin react in the sun without protection?

When I was nine years old, having never really protected my skin whilst it was dark, we had a serious wakeup call after a long day at the beach in Trinidad. By this point, my skin was now completely patchy with both dark and white patches all over my body due to the Vitiligo. I got sunburn and sunstroke and woke up the next day with water-filled blisters from head to toe. My skin was so sensitive to movement because of the blistering (the breeze blowing on it, an insect flying past etc.) that every morning for almost two weeks I would sit in a bathtub filled with cool water for hours on end every morning when I woke up. I looked like I had been burnt in a fire and the burn was verbally compared to first or second degree fire burns by my doctor, who actually could not find a suitable place to inject me for a booster shot I was due to have.

After about a week the blisters started bursting and deflating, after which my skin was sore and red all over from the sunburn, and then of course after some time, my skin started peeling. This experience was enough to ensure that any time spent in the sun, especially at the beach, meant that I HAD to be fully protected.

A mild day of sun, where I may be shopping or running errands, will leave me sunkissed and slightly pink without any protection. As mentioned before, I try to spend as much time in the shade as possible if I have to be outside without sunblock, or I carry a light jacket to wear when I can't avoid the sun.

Having Vitiligo means your skin does not have the protection it would normally have, whether you have a single patch or many patches, it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to ensure that you have a way of protecting your skin. There is a greater risk for skin cancer and this is no joke. Sunblock can be smelly, it can also be inconvenient or irritating to have to constantly reapply, I totally empathise with this and will admit that I am not always willing to be as responsible as I should with sunblock... However, I have stressed that there are other ways to protect yourself. If your patches are on your face and neck, try using makeup or a moisturiser with SPF content to provide some protection. I currently use MAC makeup which has proven to be very effective, however, anything that provides a barrier between your skin and the sun should work (especially if it is waterproof which will protect against swimming and/or perspiring during the day!)

Remember that your lips may also have lost pigment. Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise! And make sure your lip balm or lipstick of choice also provides sun protection. Most of them do nowadays.

Please note that skin protection is VITAL for ALL SKIN TYPES and ALL RACES, even if darker skin tones are naturally more protected, this does not matter in the long run. EVERYONE is prone to sun damage and even skin cancer, so regardless of whether you have Vitiligo or not, be aware of your skin's relationship to the sun.