“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).
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.
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?
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!”
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