Written by Nina Camara
In Liminal Space is a series of interviews focusing on the liminality of the mixed race experience and the ways people deal with its challenges. The series highlights stories of people who have left environments which did not reflect their story in the hope of creating a new beginning ‘between the known and the unknown’.
Having lived in two different countries and environments which were predominantly white, Caroline longed for a multicultural space where she could explore the non-white side of her heritage. She discusses how the chance to finally experience life as both European and Caribbean enabled her to grow and find references and confidence to address challenging situations.
Life back home
Describe the place where you grew up. What was it like in terms of cultural and ethnic makeup?
I actually grew up in different places. I was born in the US, in Florida and since my dad was in the Air Force back then we moved around the southern states. We moved to Mississippi when I was around two and Oklahoma when I was three. I remember Oklahoma vividly, we lived in the suburbs of Oklahoma City and it was very white. I think my dad was probably the only black person in the neighbourhood, or one of the only ones.
I would play in the streets a lot, it was a very kid-friendly neighbourhood, you can just send your kid out to ride a bicycle and play with the others. I remember always having fun outside because it was always warm and sunny but, thinking back, I am also aware that it was very, very white.
And then, when I was seven, we moved to Luxembourg, where my mum is from. She was basically feeling homesick and my dad did not really like the US anymore either so he quit the Air Force and we packed our stuff and moved over. And again, it was very white. In the beginning we were living with my grandma, with the all-white family and later we got our own family home in a small village in the Luxembourg countryside, near the German border. Again, it was only white people, though we actually have a family friend in that village who is Nigerian, so it was him, my dad, my brother and I – we were the only people of colour.
In terms of school, I didn’t go to school in the village and I attended high school in the city of Luxembourg, but again, I didn’t have any other friends besides white people. I remember feeling uncomfortable in situations when some things were said but I was not able to put my finger on it – why I felt like that what was said was uncomfortable. I just didn’t have any words or concepts for that. Only when I moved away for uni and started meeting other people of colour and black people, I finally realised why I wasn’t comfortable in certain situations.
How did you feel growing up in this community?
I remember Luxembourg most vividly, so I’m going to talk about that experience. Looking back, I felt lonely sometimes, there were these experiences that I wasn’t able to talk about. High school was difficult in a sense that, though I had a group of white girlfriends, I felt isolated from the white boys. I did not think that they wanted to talk to me or have anything to do with me. I wasn’t the type of girl anyone wanted to chase. So, it felt a bit isolating in that sense. There are a couple of girls that I used to hang out with in high school whom I’m not in touch with anymore because I just feel like, where I am now in terms of consciousness of my identity and who I am, I could not really be my full self anymore around them.
Could you describe some of the experiences that particularly influenced you?
Yes, of course. There were some situations when my friends or family members spoke in a derogatory way about other black people as if… I didn’t really know. Are they implying that I am bad too or do they see us as separate and just talk about these other people? It just didn’t feel right.
For example, there was a situation when I went dancing with a girl that I was good friends with back then and while we were dancing a black guy grabbed her chest. When I walked up to her to ask what was going on she said ‘this n….r touched my chest’ to my face. And, that was not an isolated situation. I remember quite a few situations when someone just said that word talking about someone else and I just froze, not knowing how to react or even how to feel about it. I knew it was wrong but I also didn’t stand up for myself in a sense of questioning what they were saying and asking them ‘so, how do you see me, what am I then?’.
I even remember my grandmother once saying that she was taking a senior bus service to see a doctor and when she walked up to the bus, she noticed the driver was black. She was telling my brother and I that he was ‘so, so black’ that she was scared. I assume he must have been dark skinned. Again, I froze and didn’t know how to react, especially when it came from my family.
Have you ever confronted anyone when they said something inappropriate?
The answer is unfortunately, no, at least while I lived in Luxembourg. Nowadays, I try at least with my very close friends but with people at work or with someone I barely know there’s still this tendency to just freeze up and not stand up for myself. I think that’s something that’s something I have to get rid of.
How would people react when they first got to know you and realised that you are from Luxembourg, too?
The reactions I get are often gestures of disbelief. When people would approach me, they started speaking in French to me, which is typical with someone whom you consider foreign. And then, even if I answered in Luxembourgish, the local language, sometimes they would continue speaking French to me as if they could not acknowledge the fact that I am speaking the local language. That is something very frustrating to deal with sometimes – people trying to deny the facts in front of them.
Luxembourg can be multicultural, there is a big expat community and even a big Cape Verdean community. However, they are more concentrated in the capital or in another city in the south of the country, not so much in small villages. So, I wasn’t in contact with anyone from the black community in Luxembourg, except for my father and my brother.
What were your reasons for leaving Luxembourg?
The very obvious reason was to get out and leave behind some uncomfortable high school experiences. I was ready to start a new chapter and move to a big city. First, I moved to Brussels for my undergrad and well, looking back, my group of friends were still very white, but it still felt like a bit of a fresh start in a way, discovering new things about myself and life in general.
And then, in the third year of my undergrad I got a chance to go to Toronto. That was super exciting because, on campus, I was literally surrounded by black people for the first time. They were mostly from Africa and I was friends with a lot of them… That was when it hit me that I didn’t have any black friends before. It is a surprising revelation when you aren’t conscious of it.
So, for the first time in life I felt comfortable as I had a group where I could be me and not be dreading the next racist thing someone might say. It just felt like a very amazing way to be and I felt really sad when I had to leave at the end of the year and go back. That’s when I decided that, first of all, I wanted to stay in an English-speaking environment and a big city.
London seemed like a good opportunity because it’s English-speaking and not too far from my home in Luxembourg, so I applied to a university and got in. When I moved here, I immediately felt like I could be European and Caribbean at the same time and explore both sides of my identity. It seemed like a good place to be mixed.
How have the expectations you had of London met the reality?
To be fair, I didn’t have any specific expectations of London other than that it is a big city with people from different backgrounds. I actually had never been here before, which sounds weird coming from Europe. What definitely lived up to my expectations was seeing people from different backgrounds and a lot of Caribbean influence. Some expressions I heard from British people or had seen in ads were similar to the expressions that my dad would use. Or, certain words that sounded odd to me whilst growing up in the US where I learnt English. It was very interesting to see so many familiar things and Caribbean influence from someone else apart from my dad. I was able to explore that side of myself which had seemed inaccessible or only in a limited way because my dad was the only connection to it.
Has living in London changed you as a person?
Definitely. I remember saying to a British-Ghanaian friend at some point, that I feel like it’s almost saved me, because I was able to get to know myself as a whole person, not just as a Luxembourgish or European person in a white environment. I was able to learn about black British, American and Caribbean history. Also, I learnt about concepts of racism and discrimination, which explained why I felt uncomfortable in certain situations growing up.
I feel like I have become a person who is a lot more aware and more able to put her finger on it when something is wrong, and not adapt my behaviour to structures or perceptions of other people. So, in that way it has saved me, allowing me to explore myself fully whilst meeting new people and experiencing new things.