The video of George Floyd being lynched by police in the US was viewed by the world, and gave new life and international support to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The world has since witnessed widespread peaceful protests demanding change – ultimately, the elimination of racism.
Since the era of the anti-slavery movement, descendants of Africans have been fighting for the God-given freedoms owed to any human being. Without a doubt, there have been many non-black allies who see colour, but appreciate it as another feature of nature – the same differences that make a garden all the more beautiful.
Unfortunately, many of these people, for different reasons, have been made to question their intentions and their place. Not very often do they get an opportunity to share their experiences with racism/colourism, especially in the Caribbean.
Newsday is holding a series of conversations with people on what it has been like for them, being in the middle.
The aim is to give insight into what it is like for people who have found themselves in conflicting situations with family, friends and the public over race relations and racism.
Full-time yoga instructor Leiana Wilhite was born in Mayaro, where she lived until age 11. She said while she has experienced the privileges of being light-skinned in TT, she has also experienced the other side of “othering”, being treated differently merely based on physical appearance.
Othering is defined as viewing or treating a person or group of people as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself. Othering is generally based on race, class, gender, age, religious beliefs and sexual orientation – to name a few criteria.
Wilhite said she began questioning racism at a very young age while growing up in Mayaro. “I was amongst the very few light-skinned people in my community. At one point, all my friends were of a darker skin tone than me.” This she said made her stick out like a sore thumb.
Wilhite is of mixed heritage, her mother being a brown-skinned woman of East Indian ancestry from Tunapuna. “My mother’s grandparents, both maternal and paternal, came from India. My father is Caucasian from California and is also mixed race. His heritage is made up of Irish, German, Scottish and his grandmother was Native American from the Cree tribe.”
Given the Caribbean context where the idea of white privilege is extended to people based on how closely an individual is to “whiteness” Wilhite was asked about instances where she noticed she may have been granted privileges based on her appearance.
She acknowledged the unreasonable psychology, where she admittedly said she has been treated better than others because of the colour of her skin.
“I can think of when I was in my early 20s, going out to socialise. There were instances where I could tell I was let into some venues easier because of how I look. This made me think about how many other times and ways I may have been privileged purely based on my appearance.”
Asked if she was ever treated badly or unfairly because of her skin colour, she talked about her childhood in Mayaro. “I was constantly bullied and called ‘whitey’ in a way that made me feel like she did not belong.”
“At about six or seven it made me question why people set others aside because of a simple thing as a difference in skin tone. Once I was even pushed down and called names. That experience was very saddening and made me realise from an early age that people treated others differently based on how they look.”
On travels overseas she has experienced discrimination and witnessed one of her relatives who is more evidently of East Indian descent being treated less kindly and professionally by customs officers. “My relative was even more heavily grilled – intensely questioned as if not welcome to enter. My relative was scrutinised even more than I, presumably just based on physical appearance.”
While some people with whom she interacts continue to dismiss or ignore her stance, she said she will remain strong in her position that everyone should be treated fairly regardless of skin colour or socio-economic class.
“I always stand up to speak my mind, expressing I don’t think it is right. I’m always happy to stand my ground on racism.”
She believes all human beings belong and are from the same divine creator, and by this – no set of people should be treated like second class citizens or like sub-human beings.
“Seeing the violence and separation in the world is painful for me. Everyone wants to feel like they belong. It is heartbreaking to see people suffering because a system tells them they are not beautiful and worthy. Many people embody hatred. I cried while scrolling through the overwhelming body of content on Facebook showing how black people have been treated.
I think we should all view what is happening in the world now as personal. We each have a role to play. How we think, act and speak affects the world. Therefore, we should seek to be embodiments of love and equality.”
Asked what she hopes the world and Trinidad and Tobago will be like at the end of this era of racism being an issue with which the human race must contend Wilhite said she hopes people will live in line with the meaning of yoga.
“Yoga means union and oneness. It is derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to join parts that seem separate in a way where they become more evidently one entity.
I practise yoga because I believe all beings should be treated with tender care and love. Whether human beings, animals or even trees – every living being is worthy of a joyful life. All of God’s creation is beautiful. It is time we see everyone as our brothers and sisters made from the same divine source. We should not use misunderstandings to create hate within our hearts, but rather seek to understand the beauty in diversity. My guru Swamiji says this world is like a beautiful garden, and there are many different plants and flowers in that garden. That is what makes it so beautiful to experience.”