Reflections on Growing Up a Black Girl in Trinidad

by Ayana Crichlow

Although I currently live in the U.S., I grew up in Trinidad in the 80s and 90s as a black girl. To be black in a country that idealizes a mixed ethnicity aesthetic, was rough to say the least. Although I shared the same parental genes as my sister, she was considered mixed, whereas I have dark skin. I also had kinky hair, whereas my sister and all my cousins had curly hair, or “good hair” according to Trinis. It didn't matter that my heritage also included French, Scottish, East Indian and African; I was black to everyone who saw me. This wouldn’t have bothered me, if I hadn’t been treated as less than my sister for most of our childhood because if it.

This was only made more difficult because I was the daughter of a dark-skinned man whose unabashed preference for my light-skinned sister. He didn't know that this would truly fuck me up in terms of my self-esteem. He didn't understand that not loving me as much as my lighter complexioned sister would damage my sense of self for years. Similarly, my mother, also lighter, couldn't fully understand my feelings because she had gotten preferential treatment her whole life. Instead, she saw my pain and tried to “fix” me. She made sure that I had braces to fix my protruding gums. My father jokingly explained that I needed them because I had small white people gums with big black people teeth. She also paid for me to have extra academic lessons, so I would have my schooling, if nothing else.

At first, I didn’t know the treatment I received from my family wasn’t right. It was all I knew. It was normal for my sister to be favored and complimented while I was looked at with sadness or disdain. When looking at my sister and me, people wondered aloud, “Allyuh have the same mother and father?” Usually this was accompanied by looks of confusion or disbelief. I learned to take these jabs and stabs in stride.

This feeling of inadequacy affected many of my early relationships. Specifically I began a relationship with a man whose actions let me know that I did not embody his physical ideal of a woman. I knew deep down that he didn’t love me, but I made excuses for his behavior and adjusted my behavior and my appearance to try and please him. All of this was connected to the relationship I had with my father, because I was always trying to prove my worth. The rejection by these men just fueled my resolve to win them over. As a result, I stayed in an unhappy situation with this man for many years because to me, this is what love from a man looked like. It was the only love I knew from my father.

The self-awakening began for me when my father was dying. But when he was dying, I got to spend two weeks with him. These two weeks, I believe, began my journey of self-love and worth. One day, he held my hand for the first time and said to me: “Look, we have the same hands, the same fingers, and the same color.” He had a look of pride and love on his face. I felt as though a big rock was taken off my back.

Although he had always demonstrated a preference for my mother and sister’s lighter complexion, if someone outside the family said anything to hurt me, he would be the first person to my defense. It was quite confusing. By him acknowledging that we were similar, he finally let me know I belonged. When he told me he loved me, those three words let me know that I was worthy, and that I didn't have to prove myself in order to be loved. He loved me! Even though by this time, I had gained weight, hadn’t accomplished many of the things I wanted to, and didn’t have a lot of money, he loved me simply for being myself.

When I returned home to Miami from Trinidad after his death, I ended the unhappy relationship I was in. Knowing my father loved me gave me the strength to believe that somebody else would love me for just being me. I didn’t have to settle.

A couple of years later, I was spending time in Tobago with family. We were at the beach and I wouldn’t get in the water because I didn't want to take off my wrap. I was still uncomfortable with my body. My aunt Gail and her daughter, my cousin, came to me and told me that I was beautiful just the way I was. I had always been scared of these women—considered the epitome of physical beauty by all Trinidadian standards—because I thought they would judge me. But instead, they embraced me for who I was. The beach wrap came off and I had a blast. The experience was liberating and helped me finally cross a major barrier that I had enforced on myself.

It has taken me a long time to learn to accept my dark skin, kinky hair, and blackness. I haven’t lived in Trinidad in approximately 20 years, but it still amazes me when I visit that this way of thinking is still an underlying attitude of most people. (Not all, but most.) Living in the United States these last twenty years has had a big influence on my love of self. Of course, there are people here who will judge you. But the acceptance of other cultures and people from diverse ethnic backgrounds is greater, from my personal experience. There are more people who have not been indoctrinated by Trinidad’s Eurocentric standards of beauty. By seeing so many women love and accept themselves as they are, I have been inspired to do the same.

Photo credit: Deposit Photos

Ayana Crichlow is a 36-year-old mother and licensed practical nurse. She has always had a secret passion for writing, and hopes her thoughts will give validity to the way other women feel.

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