Sharon Millar

 

White Creole Conversations Menu

We still remain mysteries to ourselves.” - Caroline Myss

APPETISERS

1. State your name, age and profession.

Sharon Millar, 50, writer.

 

2. How do you define yourself in terms of race, class and nationality? Do you identify with the term ‘white Creole’? How far back can you trace your family on maternal/paternal lines?

I am a white Trinidadian. I can trace my roots in the Caribbean to the 17th century. I come from English, Portuguese, French, and Scottish ancestry. I consider myself a white West Indian or a white creole. I do not consider myself a French Creole even though that is the termed coined by larger Trinidad to identify all whites.

 

3. Do you find yourself thinking about whiteness or race in general? Why/why not?

Every day. As a member of the white minority, it’s impossible to be anonymous. As a white woman it’s impossible to move under the radar, to fade into the background. It’s often raised with me. My race. My privilege. There is a lot of hate. And there is really no comeback is there? It will take decades to recover from slavery and the whites are going to be villianized for a long time to come. There is need for atonement but it’s hard to know where to start.

This makes me worry for my daughter and her future here. Racially Trinidad is split largely between Indo and Afro Trinidadians. But there are minority groups of Chinese, Whites, Syrians, and more recently, Venezuelans. But, culturally, I think it’s fair to say that we are still largely Afrocentric. To enter the artistic cultural sphere, there is considerable pressure to demonize anything “white”. I experienced this at school and certainly in day-to-day life. Interestingly foreign whites are generally embraced but local whites tend to be perceived as stupid or culturally bankrupt. Were I to speak with an English accent, I think it would be a lot easier to be accepted in the larger community. I think it’s because foreign whites are not seen as having a history here and therefore not culpable.

 

4. Can you talk about what it feels like to live as a white person in the Caribbean? Would you say that your local space operates as a racially ordered society, constituted by segments of society that have little or no organic inter-relation or is it an integrated space? Or, is it simultaneously both but in different areas of your life?

Superficially Trinidad has always been held up as a “rainbow” country and there is considerable tolerance but there are also hidden prejudices that run deep. Sadly social media has made the race issue far more volatile. It has exposed a very ugly side of Trinidad. It can be a very duplicitous society. You know the expression – not every skin teeth is a smile? Saying that as the middle class develops and expands we are moving more into integration around class rather than colour. This is even more apparent in the generation just coming up.

 

5. What did your primary school experience look and feel like racially?

 

Very racially mixed. I went to a Roman Catholic primary school up until Primary 3 and then I was moved to a more upscale non-denominational school because there was a lot of corporal punishment at the RC school. I don’t remember race being too big a deal. People liked to play with my hair. That’s what being white stood for – having dolly hair.

 

6. What did your secondary and/or tertiary level experience look and feel like in racial terms? Do you remember anything about the way history was taught and how that teaching felt in relation to your whiteness?

We were taught Caribbean history. Slavery and Emancipation. It was hard to sit in the classroom as one of two or three whites and study the atrocities of slavery. There was a lot of reverse racism but it’s still not politically correct to admit that even today.

 

Nothing, I think, is more interesting, more poignant, and more difficult to seize than the intersection of the self and history. Where does biography end and history begin? How does one’s own memories and experiences relate to what is written in the history books?” Linda Nochlin - The Power of Feminist Art

 

MAIN COURSES

 

7. Have you experienced internal conflict in your local society, as a result of race? Give example/s

I came from a very open tolerant home but definitely there was prejudice. Both colour and class. I would be lying to say no. Prejudice and fear. One of my earliest memories is vacating our home during the 1970 Black Power riots. We moved in with my grandparents for a few days until things cooled down. Granted we were never in any real danger, but I can still remember the terror as a child. Many whites left after that.

In my teens, I became very friendly with the daughter of a well-known defense lawyer and social activist. It was in her house that I learned about men such as C L R James, and began discussing things like the history of the 1970 uprising. At that stage I began putting things into context. Realising what a terrible thing it was that I’d been born into. I didn’t write until I was in my forties because I just couldn’t see what I could say. That’s created significant internal conflict.

 

8. What makes you feel that you don’t belong to local society? Can contradictory feelings of both belonging and not belonging be experienced at different times and in different places in your local environment?

Socially and culturally “authentic” Caribbean is seen as predominantly Afrocentric. It’s how the world sees us and in large part it’s how the population sees itself. To be white in the Caribbean is to come from a contaminated ugly history. That’s a hard thing to accept when so many threads of ancestry run though all our veins. So many stories of why people of all colours came here have been obliterated by the horror of the slavery narrative. But I don’t belong anywhere else. This is my home. This makes me very bitter because there does seem to be anyway to move forward. It’s hard when you go to a large country and people say – oh, you can’t be Trinidadian, you’re white. And then you get the knowing looks – the ones that imply that you are automatically privileged and complicit in the history of slavery. It’s a hard thing to live with and not something that can be easily escaped. Saying that I have tremendous love of my country and pride that my family helped build this place. My grandfather worked with Eric Williams. He was at Marlborough House for the Trinidad and Tobago Independence Conference in 1962. He worked with Williams to help us transition into Independence and I’m very proud of his contribution.

 

9. Do you consciously try to distance yourself from being read as white or do you distance yourself from other white locals? If you are Creole or mixed, what is your relationship to the colour of your skin? How difficult/easy is it to be Creole/mixed? Does it matter?

No, I don’t. I come from a white family and that is my background. It has informed who I am. But I do see a lot of other people do it and there is a lot of pressure to take this anti-white stance in order to be taken seriously as a writer. I have refused to do this because I believe I am a product of my background. To deny that is dishonest. But there has been a lot of pressure. I think it would be easier if I were mixed. Ideally it would be best to be mixed. They are the ones who appear to be most comfortable in their skins intellectually. The most confident about their place in society.

 

10. Can we escape race in Barbados or in our local space? Are we a post-racial society? Is this something we should work towards? Is it achievable?

 

Not in the near future. I don’t think so.

 

11. Have you ever felt that you are a prisoner of colonial history as a white person? Do you feel connected to England or the UK as an ancestral home?

I am a prisoner of colonial history. I would love to walk down the road in my own country and not have people stare at me or treat me like an “other”. I feel that my generation has been held accountable in a way that no other white creole generation has before. I understand that this is because we are the first post-independent generation but it’s still hard. There are quite rigid expectations from within the white community and I’ve always felt that white women have neither the power nor the wherewithal to take agency of their own lives. White creole men are seldom as challenged or hated as the white women. A white creole man is still a prize to a woman of any colour.

No I feel no connection to the UK as an ancestral home. I’m actually quite suspicious of the UK. I can’t believe they just got to walk away and leave this mess behind. It’s hard for me not to be bitter on the whole because there is still a sense of them looking at us as exotics. Stereotyping us in ways that I can’t recognize myself. So no. I definitely don’t see UK as an ancestral home.

 

12. What is the most difficult conversation you have ever had around race? Do you feel shame as a white person because of Caribbean colonial history and the plight of the indentured or the traumatic legacy of enslaved peoples who came to work on plantations in the Caribbean? Do you feel responsible in any way?

I’ve had horrible conversations about race. Up to yesterday there was a flare on Facebook. Social media has revealed the hidden prejudices and the anger just below the surface. I’m torn between guilt and the recognition that it’s impossible to be an apologist when you live here.

 

“Kentridge argued that learning to embrace ambiguity and shades of gray provides a tool for coping with such a traumatic past because it forces people to keep confronting the moral challenges the events pose, rather than filing them neatly away as over and done with.” - Spencer Lenfield on William Kentridge for the Harvard Magazine

 

DESSERT

 

13. Have you ever crossed boundaries in race or class; have you or are you open to loving someone of another race or are you open to friends or family doing so?

Absolutely. I would be more concerned about class than colour.

 

14. Do you socialize along race or class lines or choose friends in terms of race or class? Is that conscious or sub-conscious? How do you see yourself in relation to the larger social/national/political landscape?

I’m not sure I choose my friends in that way. I think you fall in with people who are like you. Settle into areas where you won’t be judged. The white community faces a lot of criticism because they appear to stick together hence the perception that the group is monolithic but in reality, they behave like any other minority group. They tend to socialize together. Live in the same neighborhoods. Go to the same churches. Yes, there is considerable wealth in the community but less so than the wealth now held by the Indians and the Syrians. I’m not sure there is anywhere else in the region that can say that. But still the stigma is there. The perception of all the wealth.

 

13. Are there stereotypes around whiteness? Have you been called names that are racially motivated? Have you experienced positive discrimination because of your whiteness / perceived whiteness?

Trinidadian whites are often stereotyped as being from the affluent Western peninsula. In social media forums they are openly referred to as elitist, stupid, culturally bankrupt. And it is assumed that the whites live in a monolithic society with all attendant privileges. I think the two most prevalent stereotypes are wealth and stupidity. But realistically local whites are bound by the same experiences. How they choose to address the legacy of slavery is definitely an issue in the white community. White prejudice is an awful and real thing and that is part of the problem that we will have going forward as a nation.

 

 

Bio:

 

Sharon Millar was born and lives in Trinidad. The winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the 2012 Small Axe Short Fiction Award, her work has appeared in publications such as Granta, The Manchester Review, Small Axe, and Susumba Book Bag. She is the author of The Whale House and other stories and is a part time lecturer at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, where she teaches Prose Fiction.

 

 

 

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