Sonya Sanchez Arias

 

White Creole Conversations Menu

We still remain mysteries to ourselves.” - Caroline Myss

APPETISERS

1. State your name, age and profession.

My name is Sonya Sanchez Arias - Age 50.

I’m a Professional Photographer, Photographic Stylist, Photo Art Director and Recycled Materials Artist. As an artist I am a work in progress, always growing, always learning, always inspired by the possibilities.

Creativity is God's gift to you. What you do with it is your gift to God.”- Bob Moawad

 

2. How do you define yourself in terms of race, class and nationality?

I’m a 6th generation “French Creole” white Trinidadian that now resides in the USA. I never really thought too much about my whiteness until I went to boarding school in Canada. While I was there a student asked me “ How come you look white but sound black?” It never occurred to me that my appearance was such a conundrum. I mean, I’m white, I have a Spanish name and I speak with a very heavy Trinidadian accent. Little did they know - that in my “Caribbean World” (where everything is a fusion of something else) I would be considered quite normal!

Do you identify with the term ‘white Creole’?

I do not identify with the term “White Creole”. If I’m going to be called a Creole - I prefer “French Creole”! “White Creole” is such a generic term and says nothing specific about my ancestry. All it means is that my skin is light and I was born in the New World. “French Creole” is much more specific and hones in on exactly where my ancestors came from.

How far back can you trace your family on maternal/paternal lines?

I’m a 6th generation Trinidadian - My mother was a 5th generation French Creole Trinidadian with French and English ancestors my father is a Spaniard born in Madrid so that’s Latin and possible Moorish ancestry (the Moors ruled Spain for over 1000 years) so there’s a good possibility that there is some Moorish blood some where in my father’s ancestry. I can track my maternal French ancestors as far back as 1490 on my grandmothers side and 1818 on my Grandfather’s side 5 siblings migrating to Trinidad from Martinique - but the trail gets cold because the rest of the family records were lost in 1902 during the Mt Pele volcanic eruption.

 

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

NO - I generally don’t like to define my self as any one thing - I’m way to cosmopolitan for that, as a matter of fact, when asked to fill out my race on forms - I usually write “Human” or “It’s Complicated”, so I’m not classified as one thing or another - My ancestry and Caribbean heritage can not be described in one small box marked with an X. It’s way too complex and colorful to be labelled so simply.

 

4. Is there such a thing as local white/Creole culture?

Definitely in Trinidad too - and there are groups of white Trinidadians that keep to their own kind and hang out in exclusive neighborhoods and country clubs etc. and maybe that’ s just were they belong. I think in the next few generations “whiteness” won’t be a “thing” anymore - for the most part, the younger generation now marries whoever they want to marry, and in so doing the new generations are not nearly as white as their parents and grandparents. In the Caribbean, whites are a minority and they can’t thrive socially or in business if they a have a problem with colour. Let’s be honest if you’re white and you have a problem with colour the Caribbean probably shouldn’t be your first choice of places to live.

What does it mean to be white in your local context, in terms of family, wider social or professional circles?

Not a damn thing! It’s an insignificant label: Reds, brown eyed girl, tick ting, whole cream milk, whitey, honkey, fats, bubbles. I’ve been called all these names and they mean nothing it’s just a way for someone who doesn’t know me to describe me to another. Water off a duck’s back to me.

 

5. Can you talk about what it feels like to live as a white person in the Caribbean?

Well I’m a minority for sure! But I never felt excluded, or unwanted. My role models, teachers and all the people that I looked up to were a cross section of colours and mixed races. They loved me and helped me grow up nice ; )

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?

In Trinidad - Integrated for sure! Open minded and accepting of all colors and faiths for the most part! That may sound a bit naive but I think Trinidad is way ahead of America in racial issues.

 

6. Did you grow up in a family that discussed race or did you inherit ideas about race or whiteness in your family and social circle?

My mother was totally colour blind - she loved Trinidad, and all the races that make her Trini culture. She was really different, a free spirt, an artist with an opened mind and heart. I was lucky to have her - she taught me a lot about confidence and respect.

Were those inherited ideas implicitly conveyed or explicitly stated and have those ideas shifted generationally?

I think in my grandparents generation things were much more black and white (excuse the pun). I remember as a young child - I would go to my grandparents store after work to wait for my mother to take me home. My grandmother would always ask me “How was School?” and I would tell her about all the days events and all about my friends. I would talk a lot about a girl who I would play with at recess and after lunch. I remember her asking me about my friend and one day she asked me “What is your friend?” I was confused, “She’s a girl” I replied. “Yes but what is she?” I proceeded to describe her by her height her long hair the colour of her eyes etc. Now thinking back on it I know what she was asking. But she never used the word colour or race in her question. I had never thought of a person’s skin color before that so it was not a question that made sense to me, or one that I was able to answer.  But I suppose that’s how it starts - in conversations when people casually categorize people into colours, races and social classes.

If you have children, do you discuss race or whiteness – why and how?

No kids - 2 Yorkies (black and blonde fur) so I lucked out ; ) Raising children today is an overwhelming responsibility.

 

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

My primary school was private and run by nuns - there was a good mixture of races: White, Chinese, East Indian, Syrian, Lebanese and certainly kids that were a mixture of several of these. It was an excellent school and it gave me a big head start on a great education.

 

8. What did your secondary and/or tertiary level experience look and feel like in racial terms?

My High School was also Roman Catholic and run by nuns - a very prestigious all girl convent that generations of the women in my family attended. Even though it was a Roman Catholic School it was one of the top high school choices for girls all over the island and anyone who passed their Eleven Plus exams with high scores would be a contender to attend. Girls of ever colour and faith attended and we all wore the same uniform and the only thing that separated us were our grades. If you were accepted at that school it meant you studied hard to be there, and your family was serious about giving you a good education. It was totally integrated - but whether you were Hindu, Muslim, Jehovah witness or any other religious denomination - you had to respect the uniform, behave like a lady, attend chapel and the occasional mass. Those were conditions of your education that were non negotiable!

Do you remember anything about the way history was taught and how that teaching felt in relation to your whiteness?

All the basics in history were covered with relevant dates and names but there would never  be any in depth history about the brutality of any of the wars, crusades, slavery etc.  Not the way we can see it now in film and written documentations. I don’t remember any of my teacher giving me a particular point of view.

I left that school in after 2 years - my big brother died in a tragic accident and I wanted to move away from everything that reminded me of him, so I asked my parents to send me to boarding school in Canada. At Boarding School  - my whiteness was really pointed out to me. Not for racial reasons - more because of ignorance. Many North Americans are very confused when they meet a white person from the Caribbean. They always ask where I was born and seem to think that all Caribbean people (Trinidadian, Jamaican, Barbadian) are all African or East Indian and that anyone with white skin must have been born somewhere else and moved there.

The irony there is that I can trace my family tree to the Caribbean on my Maternal sideas far back as 1720.

 

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

 

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

There’s a definite divide in Trinidad between the East Indians and black Trinidadians. And it’s exasperated by the Political parties during elections for sure.

 

10. What makes you feel that you belong or are accepted as a white Caribbean person?

I always say “You can leave the islands but they never leave you!” I will always be a Trinidadian no matter where I live - it can’t separate myself from my upbringing. It will always be a part of who I am. My culture, my accent, my love for the island - I always try to represent my island nation in a positive manner. I always feel blessed for my Cosmopolitan Caribbean upbringing.  I am far more respectful of racial and cultural differences because of where I was born.

I think Peter Minshall expresses it best in his words below:

"They say you should not judge a book by its cover.
But in the same breath they say I am white. But . . .
I am not a European.
I am not an African.
I am not an Indian.
I am not Chinese, Syrian, Amerindian,
American—North or South.
I am none of these.
Yet I am all of these.
I am a Caribbean.
 
I am a rare hybrid.
I am a richly textured, multi-layered creature.
I am precious as a pearl.
The world is my oyster.
I see the world clearly from my island vantage.
I do not harbour the vanities of a big city dweller or someone from a vast continent.
I am at the tip of the spear that leads into the future.
They say the Caribbean is a sea.
Yes. I am an island in it.
Much blood has spilled in that sea.
All the waters of humanity wash my shores.
I am a Caribbean." - Peter Minshall

 

An excerpt from Nignorance and Enwhitenment by Peter Minshall

Have you experienced deep connection to your local society? Give example/s.

I think living abroad makes me cling more strongly to my Trinidadian culture. I remember my first Christmas home from Boarding School and my parents came to pick me up at the airport. I was talking to a lady who had shared a seat next to me and when my parents heard my accent - my mother looked at my father and said “ I think we’re wasting our money - Canada hasn’t smoothed the edges at all!”

 

11. Do you consciously maintain your identity as a white person?

No - I quite enjoy confusing people with my milk white skin my Spanish name and my heavy Trinidad accent - let them figure it out.

Do you hide the presence of another race in yourself? Do you ‘pass’ for white? If yes, why and how so?

No but I once had an African American art teacher at RIT who ask me which one of my parents was black and he was so embarrassed when I told him neither. He just assumed because I talked the way I did (back then I had a tan) that I was multi racial. Caribbean people really do confuse the rest of the world - they just don’t get the whole multi cultural - all kind of people vibe.

Are you read differently, racially, or in different contexts?

Probably but I don’t care.

Is whiteness variable?

Isn't everything?

 

12. Do you consciously try to distance yourself from being read as white or do you distance yourself from other white locals?

Only when they behave like fools! I’m an artist and I try to live totally out side of most boxes so I distance myself from anyone who is bigoted or close minded and wants to confine themselves to exclusive groups. I’m a big fan of colouring outside the lines ; ) I’m really not a fan of people who choose to be ignorant, and that’s not a rule that’s confined to the Trinidad or white locals - it pretty much applies to all people of all colour that I encounter wherever I go.

If you are Creole or mixed, what is your relationship to the colour of your skin?

Well that’s a loaded question! I would think in all societies people use what they have to get what they want. I will definitely use my family name to get noticed. But I don’t think (at least in my experience) that I gain an advantages because of my whiteness - its more about my family name, reputation, education and manners. It’s been my experience at least in Trinidad, the color of your skin is not nearly as important as your social class, manners and education.

I really don’t think I have a relationship to the color of my skin any more than I have one to the color of my eyes. My hair -  is a whole different story - it’s boring brown so I dye it red - it’s a better match to my inside - both personality and otherwise.

How difficult/easy is it to be Creole/mixed? Does it matter?

In Trinidad I’m very much a minority. As a kid I always told my mother that it was too bad she never married a black man - so I could have the best of both worlds. But she didn’t so I had to settle for going to the beach often, braiding my hair like Bo Derek and immersing myself in Dance Hall reggae and Calypso. Honestly - it really never mattered to me - it was not something I ever spent a lot of time thinking about. Everyone looked different but we all sounded alike. My mother was an artist and most of her friends were artists - so I grew up with very openminded attitudes on my mothers side - and a very strict upbringing on my fathers side. In the end the artist’s tribe won

 

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

 

I really can’t speak for anyone else but for me, the reason I love and am most proud of Trinidad is not just because of it’s music, carnival, food and culture. I am most proud because it’s a cosmopolitan island where people from all over the world have migrated to, and have come together to form a multicultural society and in doing so has created a new fusion culture that is unlike any other in the world. That being said, it is by no means perfect and there is still a lot of work to be done. Tolerance and respect are essential for truly multicultural societies must be INCLUSIVE of all citizens without privileging some and discriminating against others. So in essence to be truly “Cosmopolitan” we need to move beyond one’s own specific political, communal, territorial, cultural and racial attachments. I think in large part Trinidad has been trying to do that but there is always resistance!

 

14. Have you ever felt that you are a prisoner of colonial history as a white person?

No not at all! (I don’t mean to sound cocky, it’s really confidence speaking not ego) I think I’m a great representation of all the positive things that can come from growing up on an island that embraces cultural and racial freedom and diversity. I love that I can fluctuate between the Queen English that everyone understands, and hard core Trini slang that only islanders understand.

Do you feel connected to England or the UK as an ancestral home?

I give thanks everyday for my English education, I love cricket, I know what a flat, a lift, and a dust bin are, and you don’t want to vex me! But so many generations of my Family are from Trinidad I certainly don’t feel British.

 

15. 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?

No I do not feel shame, I feel relief that slavery was abolished and regret that it took so long to do so. And I’m horrified every time I see humans of any colour or religion treat others without compassion. I cant wrap my mind around cruelty!

Do you feel responsible in any way?

It makes no sense to feel guilt or shame over atrocities that I had nothing to do with. I am Roman Catholic and I don’t feel shame over the Crusades anymore than a house wife from Dusseldorf today should feel shame over the actions of the Nazis. I don’t think anyone should feel shame or guilt for crimes committed before they were born. But we must never forget! I think that what angers me the most - is that humanity is not learning to be compassionate quickly enough - we are not learning from our past. So many humans are constantly finding ignorant reasons to spread hate and kill one another.

 

16. Do you think you are colour blind?

I think I try to be - I never judge a person by the colour of their skin. Everyone has a story, everyone is a work in progress and has a reason for being who they are.

Is being colour blind useful or damaging?

It would certainly help in many situations.

 

“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

 

17. 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?

Yes Yes and Yes! It’s a prerequisite to creating a truly cosmopolitan, multiracial and inclusive society.

 

18. Have you felt pain, humiliation, racism or prejudice because of your race? Can you talk about that?

I remember when I was 6 years old living in Trinidad during the Black Power movement. I was playing down the road in my neighborhood and some black kids came up to me - I thought they were going to ask me to play with them - but instead they surrounded me pushed me down and spat in my face. I was so stunned and confused, I screamed and ran home crying. I supposed my parents could have used that incident to plant the seed of bigotry in me. But all I remember was my mother telling me not to take it personally, that those kids were confused and they were really mad at someone else.

A few months later we were all eating Sunday dinner at my Grandparents house and someone threw a molotov cocktail through the front glass window and the entire living room caught on fire. I was too young to remember most of it - we were removed to the back of the house immediately as my parents and grand parents rush to get the fire under control. One again I don’t remember them ever blaming anyone or sharing their anger with me. I was young and protected by my family so luckily I was not affected by either incident.

 

19. Do you experience privilege because of your whiteness or perceived whiteness? How so?

I think the privilege and advantages have more to do with my family name and my mother’s good reputation than my whiteness.

Can you speak about the relationship between whiteness and economic, professional or social privilege? Or, can you speak about having been rejected, denied opportunity or ostracised because of your whiteness or perceived whiteness?

Well you certainly wont be cast in any commercials for print advertising or television. Whiteness just does not represent the norm for the population. So if they’re casting for models or actors to advertise a local product - a white person would never get the part. And if you want to make it in the calypso or steelband world you’d better be 10 times more talented than your competition to even be considered or taken seriously.

 

20. Do you socialize along race or class lines or choose friends in terms of race or class?

No!!! I choose my friends based on personality and how openminded they are! That and a good sense of humor will always get my attention.

Is that conscious or sub-conscious? How do you see yourself in relation to the larger social/national/political landscape?

Not really interested in fitting in - never was never will be. I’m way to colourful to fit into any one group ; )

 

21. Are there any humorous experiences you might share that relate to your being white or can you share any funny stories about whiteness?

Gosh yes - there are so many. One of my favorites it actually one that happened to my mother, and really sums up the type of woman she was.

My mother was beautiful woman - long thick ash blond hair and emerald green eyes. So she definitely drew attention where ever she went especially in Trinidad. One Sunday morning she had to go down town to her store to check in inventory that had just come in. Fredrick Street (the main street that runs through) Port of Spain is pretty empty on a Sunday. My mother was walking up the street in the early 70’s wearing a long dashiki dress (they were all the rage in the 70’s) and as chance would have it there was a group of young black men hanging out a few blocks away from her store in an area that she had to walk by. Immediately they saw her coming towards them and started to harass her. Instead of crossing the street, trying to avoid them, and causing more problems, my mother continued on her path and tried to walk right past them. But they would not have it - they surrounded her and one of the troublemakers told my mother that if she wanted to pass she would have to remove all of her African clothes. Without missing a beat she looked them straight in the face and replied - “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll remove all my African clothes if you remove all your Honkey clothes (turns out they were all wearing jeans, tee shirts and sneakers). Of course that totally diffused the situation and the young man started laughing! “De sister making real sense, leh she pass, leh she pass!” My mother always had an uncanny ability to use humor and common sense to diffuse any uncomfortable situation.

 

22. 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?

Isn’t that the way of the world? Stereotyping and labeling all races and classes? In my experience stereotypes around whiteness are far worse in America.

 

23. What does an ideal Barbadian society, in racial terms, look like to you and what can you do, or are you doing, to make that ideal a reality?

A completely integrated and all inclusive society - that is focused on education, health care, art culture and a strong economy.

How do you envision the future, racially, as a white/Creole?

Hopefully in the future all races and classes will intermarry and there’ll be nothing to talk or fuss about. Mixed races are way more beautiful and interesting anyway. But that’s just my point of view.

 

 

Bio:

 

Sonya Sanchez Arias is a successful photographic stylist, commercial photographer, and photographic art director for more than 20 years, transforming that which others see as commonplace into the extraordinary. Born and raised on the cosmopolitan and bustling Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, she graduated from RIT with a BFA and currently lives and works in Boca Raton, Florida, surrounded by the diverse culture of Florida’s trendy and multicultural East Coast. She credits her earliest influence to her mother’s creativity as an artist and costume maker who worked for many years with the renowned artist Peter Minshall. Sonya creates one of a kind limited edition ‘Eco-Friendly’ jewelry. The artist has gained recognition for her Recycled Art both nationally and in the Caribbean. Her paper dresses, and her recycled jewelry showcase her interests in the natural organic beauty of nature and the transformative possibilities of discarded synthetic materials.

 

 

 

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