By: Reya D
In recent years I have begun unravelling my brown identity. In a sense, I have been trying to figure out who I am my entire life, however I have become more interested in discovering my ancestry and heritage. I blame this on the ancestry.com ads. Its not as though I could go onto that website and find the documentation of my family’s history (even though I’ve tried). Don’t get me wrong—I look like a “brown girl”. Growing up I have been asked numerously what part of India I am from, and have been told I possess very distinct South Asian features. However, when I reply to these questions (usually directed by a fellow “brown person”), I believe the questioning party becomes alarmed. I have always wondered if they are alarmed because I have answered them in English, or because I say we are from Guyana and that I don’t know exactly from where in India we migrated. It’s at socio-political junctures like these that I begin to feel misplaced, miscategorized and not really a “brown girl”.
So the questions arise as: who identifies as Indo-Caribbean? What does identifying as Indo-Caribbean mean? Are we South Asian? I have attempted to answer these questions in my own Masters research, while exploring the reasons behind Indian womens’ historical migrational trends.
As a brief history lesson, Indo-Caribbeans are the diasporic descendants of Indian indentured immigrants who migrated during indenture to the Caribbean between 1838 and 1917 (Vertovec, 1993: Table 7.1, p.167). Mainly from Northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, they were part of about 20% of the English Commonwealth Caribbean, concentrated in Surinam, Trinidad and Guyana, where they represented as much as 50% of the population (Premdas, 2004: p.548). Upon migration Indo-Caribbeans were miscategorized and misunderstood within their new societies upon their immigration. In Steven Vertovec’s (1993) analysis of Indo-Caribbeans in the UK, and Ralph R. Premdas’s (2004) analysis of the Indo-Caribbean diaspora in Toronto, Indo-Caribbeans were rendered invisible and their ethnic identities subsumed in the wider Caribbean identity as racially Black. Furthermore, Indo-Caribbeans were unable to individually identify in the Afro-Caribbean community because of their social, cultural, political, racial, etc. histories that set them apart from Afro-Caribbeans through the colonial legacies of the Caribbean (Premdas, 2004: p.555). These colonial legacies also set Indo-Caribbeans apart from South Asian-Indians, whom they physically looked like; but South-Asians disdained Indo-Caribbeans because of their different socio-cultural and religious forms, which Indians created in the Caribbean(Vertovec, 1993: p.175).
Thus being labelled as “South Asian” is troublesome for Indo-Caribbeans. Mostly because as Indo-Caribbeans we share the religions, sports (i.e. cricket), have similar cultural foods/ ways of cooking, listen and watch Bollywood films/love songs, etc. However, we are set a part from the larger South Asian diaspora because of our lack of language (i.e. Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, etc.), the way we dress, and at times the variances in practicing religion(s). At this point, I say that the Indo-Caribbean identity is very complex given its socio-political and historical nature. However, it is an identity I am beginning to take ownership of it as I learn the intertwining narrative of finding myself.
Premdas, R. (2004) Diaspora and its discontents: A Caribbean fragment in Toronto in quest of cultural recognition and political empowerment. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 27 (4).
Vertovec, S. (1993). Indo-Caribbean Experience in Britain: Overlooked, Miscategorized, Misunderstood. In Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain. London: Verso.
 Misunderstandings by South Asians of Indo-Caribbeans included: not recognizing the Trinidad and Guyanese Bhojpuri (Dialect of Hindi) spoken by Indo-Caribbean, they found Indo-Caribbean practices of Hinduism strange, believed that Indo-Caribbean were from lower castes or untouchables and believed that indentured Indians miscegenated with Africans over the generations, etc. (Vertovec, 1993: p.175).