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You’re not black here. The locals won’t call you black“.

These were some of the first words uttered to me by a (white, European, male) island inhabitant when I arrived on Big Corn Island.

You’s a white gyal,” another friend who was born and raised on the island his whole life, told me on the bleach-white sands, one blisteringly hot day.

I remember looking at all the other people, similar in shade to me and I felt… un poco confuso (a little confused).

Why could I not be black here?!

I’d come to Islas del Maiz (the Corn Islands) in Caribbean, because the blend of Spanish, Creole and European cultures fascinated me. As someone who doesn’t know their own ethnicity, I was attracted to Big Corn Island  because it housed a type of blackness I’d never come across in Europe:

  • Proud Caribbeans… who spoke Spanish and aligned themselves with Britain (as the English had brought their ancestors over from Jamaica during the Slave Trade).
  • Spanish-looking people (who told me they identified as black).
  • And Creole/Spanish speaking Indian people from an ethnic group called Mestizo (who’s first language was called Mesztizo, too).
Boys that probably speak Mestizo first, Spanish second
Boys who probably speak Mestizo first

I wanted to spend time in the Corn Islandisland to see if it would feel…familiar. I was eager to discover if, after finding out I had a black parent, the Caribbean would be somewhat comfortable to me. If being around non-white Creole-speaking people would light a fire of familiarity deep within me. For all I knew, I could have (had) family on this island. Enough people had said I looked Caribbean in my lifetime, after all.

And because Big Corn island was widely considered the least touristy part of the Caribbean,  I wanted to really live there.

And live I did – for six weeks. I loved it so much I might return after Christmas. And I learned a lot about black identity in this part of the world too.

Because sometimes I looked as if I fitted in; but my appearance definitely seemed to confuse a few people.

In the Corn Islands, race and identity is pretty fluid, which I love –  but sometimes that rule only applied to the locals.

Chilling
Chilling

I admired the way so many European-looking islanders embraced Creole and told me they considered themselves black when they could easily pass for something else.

I loved the way black people on the island said they were both Nicaraguan and Creole – and why couldn’t they just be both?

I admired the way people wrote their own story and race didn’t seem to matter too much to anyone (probably because everyone was related anyway as the island has just 10,000 inhabitants).

It was refreshing after coming from the US, where racial identity is so incredibly rigid and where black identity can be a prison from which so many people cannot ever escape. Where the pigmentation of skin almost always led to instant assumptions on class, family background and college education and social divisions. In the Corn Islands though, I liked the ‘whatever-goes’ attitude for the islanders.

But as a European-born, part-black female tourist, it didn’t really apply to me; I was put firmly in the “white” box by quite a few people out there.

And after years of being raised almost exclusively in a white community where I wasn’t considered black either, it got me thinking: how can you ever really define blackness?

On a break from debating race relations in Big Corn
On a break from debating race relations in Big Corn

It seems a lot of people on the Corn Islands still view blackness through a pre-defined set of criteria — much like I did for 24 years.

For me, although I could see I wasn’t white, blackness came with all this cultural baggage I didn’t know anything about. Being black was an identity, it wasn’t about visuals. And my identity was rooted in the family unit I grew up in.

There will be plenty of people reading this thinking; well it’s pretty simple, if your skin contains enough melanin to make you look brown or black, then you just aren’t white.

And yeah; that’s totally true. But really it’s so much more complex than that. I’m living proof. And so are the people I’ve met here on Big Corn Island.

“You’re not black because you don’t speak Creole and you’s from London and you dress different” my friend told me when I asked him what “makes” a black girl in the Caribbean.

“And your hair.”

Oh yeah — my hair.

“You’ve got a fine head of hair.”

“Your hair is really bushy”

“Wow your hair!”

Corn Island
Making friends

I’d lost track of the amount of comments I’d received from black people on Big Corn island regarding my hair. Whilst I choose to style it natural and free (as is the general trend in the West right now), on the islands, the relaxer is  still popular among black locals and women mostly have their hair pinned up.

So strangely, my frizz ball head of hair, like that of so many women on the island, was somehow a give-away that I wasn’t “really” black.

Another night upon hearing my English accent, a local entertainer told me:

We consider ourselves like you…we align ourselves with black, English culture more than the culture of Nicaragua“.

Of course little did he know that I’d been struggling my entire life to identify as a black-British female and knew very little of any sort of black culture back home, having been raised by white people. But I just smiled and nodded.

Although being on Big Corn Island for six weeks dismantled my pre-conceived notions about black identity in Nicaragua (mainly because everyone is so very blended), the tropical paradise off Nicaragua’s eastern coast is also something of a racial mind-fuck. At times I felt willed into whiteness by some of the local guys who had dated European girls, similar to me — but a lot whiter. It was easier for them to categorize me as a “white gyal” because sometimes for them, white just meant European.

I take great pride in redefining the most popular definition of a European female traveller as I move around the world. I’m used to the “oh, but how are you British?” reaction everywhere I go and I genuinely don’t mind; many people in the places I visit won’t be aware that people who look like me do travel. But after spending my entire life denying my own blackness and only finally confronting the truth recently, it’s funny that I have to make it all the way to the Caribbean only to be told that I’m a “white gyal” again. It seems for many of us, racial identity is comprised of more than just appearance.

Want to see what the Corn Island looks like? Check my photo essay and be sure to hit me up with comments and questions

11 Comments

  1. Hi…..Interesting story. Have you visited Belize during your journey. You would be fascinated by the ethnic mix within one community and many families and how the locals love to discuss skin shades and hair textures….With total acceptance of the persons they are discussing. I was interested to read about the wonderful love your parents showed you…i wish you all the best on your journey.

  2. I completely agree with racial identity being more than just your skin colour! I am mixed race (Jamaican and Scottish) , raised by a white family and I find it so frustrating when I’m simply referred to as ‘black.’ I haven’t got two black parents or been raised by a black family so it seems strange to me to be called that. I love both parts of my heritage and hate to be boxed into just one of them

    • Trevor Weir Reply

      Wow, Kayla, one half of my family’s entire heritage came to Jamaica in the form of 3 Scottish boys about 170 years ago. But, when I am in Northern England, I don’t feel the pull to cross over into Scotland ( perhaps the politics or the opinion that the old rugged scots of old would turn in their graves to understand how they have been sold out for mere shillings, ha ha )

      Its nice that you embrace both sides. Both sides have been persecuted and both sides run deep.

  3. Dear Georgina: You’re mixed race..it’s that simple…neither black nor white but in your case brown. That’s enough. Your culture is Irish. That too is enough. You need to escape the either/or baggage of rigid racism either from South Africa where at least “colored” was your label or the nonsense of the one-drop theory of the US. In the Caribbean, racial intermixtures have gone for over a century plus with no one any the worse for it. Our birth certificate identifies us as “Mixed” where it applies. Mixed race could result in white, brown, or very dark brown pigmentation all in one family. But it allows for mixing between groups beyond Afro-European ancestry. It could include a mixture between all the other major continental groups that peopled the Caribbean. NO ONE CARES!!! There is a class system but education allows for more fluidity between groups. Liberate yourself from the bloody labels, accept that you’re the product of your ancestry on both sides and you are mixed race. Amen. I grew up with the world of “racial groups” within my family tree far and wide and it’s not a problem. It’s only a problem where rigid racial systems defined your value on a ladder of superiority. Define yourself and speak for your ancestry.

    J

    • Georgina Lawton Reply

      Hi Joy,
      I find it ironic that you tell me to define myself only after telling me that I am “simply mixed race”. Please don’t ever tell me, or any other person what they are or what they aren’t – this is kind of what i mean; we aren’t ever allowed to choose FOR OURSELVES.
      if race was “that simple” I wouldn’t have had scores of messages and emails from people who know all too well that society doesn’t structure race on logical or simple principles. i
      Logically, if I have a white and a black parent, I should be able to classify myself as white or black. However as many people know, whiteness is an impenetrable concept to which only white-LOOKING people can subscribe to and anyone who doesn’t look the part is put in the black box and called black. This is illogical.
      Being mixed may make the most sense to you, but it’s a relatively new and accepted term and if I want to relate to that in my own time I will.
      As is stands, right now i’ve been raised by two white parents in an exclusively white family, calling myself mixed or black when that only refers to my race and not my ethnicity doesn’t sit right with me either and I feel it denies my upbringing. So I don’t know what the answer is.
      But it certainly is not having someone put me in a box, and tell me what is “enough” when it comes to knowing about my race, ethnicity or any other aspect of my identity. I’ll let you know when I’m done with pursuing the answers to own life, shall I?

  4. The British of a documented history of creating biracial people and using them as a wedge between themselves and black/aborigine people and to undermine black anti-colonial unity (the Americas, Caribbean, South Africa, Australia). This bred (and still breeds) mistrust of biracial people by people who identify as black/african/aborigine. When black people in the Caribbean say you are white they are speaking as a colonized people with this experience. Learn your history – do not be confused. It is difficult for all of us to overcome the psychological crime that was committed against us – we are all still struggling even those of us that live in “free” independent countries. We are all still learning and understanding why we are where we are and as we march slowly to understanding ourselves, we are continuously exploited and isolated from each other.

  5. I wish you well on your Journey and I hope you will continue to embrace the person you are.

  6. It must get tiring with everyone online trying to get you to draw a definitive conclusion on what you should classify yourself as. As a black man who looooves his blackness, I will resist the urge to do this and leave you to your self-discovery. I will state it’s frustrating for me to read the comments from White people here and on your Guardian piece trying to get you to disregard ethnicity altogether, saying that “it doesn’t matter” and you are just “you”. Saying it doesn’t matter is dismissive and indirectly implies it’s a bad thing to want to explore life as a person of colour and what that means in various spaces in a world mostly dominated by white establishment constructs. To most people of colour, it absolutely DOES matter and it’s a GOOD THING. There’s nothing wrong with not being white. There’s nothing wrong with being a person of colour, and you have every right to explore what that ultimately means for you. It looks like it’s been an awesome adventure so far, and I suspect even more great relationships, revelations, and experiences lie on the road ahead. Disregard anyone who would dissuade you from pursuing all this.

    • Georgina Lawton Reply

      thank you so much, this comment is just exactly how I feel 🙂

  7. There are two issues here: “race” and “ethnicity.” Your “ethnicty” is the culture that your parents raised you in (“British”) your race is nothing but the amalgam of your physical attributes. Americans are spreading “racial identity” around the world and it is causing nothing but angst and confusion. My ethnicity is “Black American”–that is my culture. I am of obvious mixed race which I have no need to deny but I don’t identify with “race.”

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