When I first launched Trini Trent TV in 2012, I was nervous that people would laugh at the pitch of my voice. Naturally, they did exactly that, but what fascinated most viewers was my Caribbean accent.
I was raised in Trinidad and Tobago, and was never aware of my “funny” accent until it was repeatedly pointed out by people on YouTube. Initially, I felt awkward but now I embrace my Trinidadian twang as a unique part of my brand.
However, the very thing that helps me stand out also makes me the butt of jokes. For instance, I have been called Ms. Cleo on numerous occasions. Also, once aware of my West Indian heritage, people insult me by making derogatory references to coconut trees.
More issues arose when I moved to New York City in 2013. Americans were drawn to my accent, which they compared to the sound of singing birds. Similar to my experiences with YouTube, I was at first delighted. Unfortunately, it was a double-edged sword as people also used my Caribbean accent against me.
Aside from one white girl in my graduate programme saying I sounded “so BBC,” the backlash mostly came from African-Americans. For example, one man followed me around a party and called me “Cool Runnings” for an entire night. I wrote about that story and how I recovered from the harassment in my guide for West Indians dealing with racial harassment.
The population of Caribbean people in the United States has doubled in the last 25 years. Additionally, West Indian culture has become integrated into American pop music. This is typified by Drake’s soca-styled “One Dance” and multiple reggae fusion songs that have become staples on summer playlists.
Yet, despite the extent of our reach, Caribbean people remain underrepresented in areas of influence. As such, issues that affect us in America as well as in the global conversation, are overlooked and brushed aside.
Other countries import our music, festivals and talents but never truly accept us. Also, those of us who are successful on the global stage mainly do so by giving up some aspect of ourselves. Indeed, as someone once tweeted me, for my work to go “mainstream,” I must dilute my accent.
Simply, to make it abroad, we must assimilate. If we defy that rule, we are met with derision from people who consider us nothing more than steel pan-beating jokes.
At least, that was the mindset I adopted as I withdrew from the American dream; forced back in part by African-Americans who mocked my Caribbean heritage. Now, I have a different perspective to offer and a perfect example with which to frame the conversation.
A podcast problem
I recently discovered a podcast called Can You Not. At first listen, it’s a standard pop culture-oriented show with the typical guy/girl dynamic. However, I was surprised to hear my name featured on the list of topics discussed.
As hosts Vaun and Bri chatted about Beyonce’s “Formation,” they reminisced about a past Trini Trent TV episode on the song. The point that stood out to them was how I read the track’s lyrics. Yet, they weren’t laughing at what I did. Rather, they found humour in how I did it.
For four minutes, Vaun and Bri mocked my Caribbean accent, shrieking with laughter at how funny I sounded. They took turns doing their best impersonations of me, despite neither sounding remotely Trinidadian in the process.
Listen to their antics from the 1:46:00 mark.
My initial reaction to the podcast was one of hurt. After dealing with racial bullying in New York and on social media, I thought I left it behind by returning home and unplugging. Still, I forgot that being connected anywhere on the web is to be connected everywhere.
So, my fight or flight instincts kicked in as I felt the urge to call Vaun and Bri out or add SoundCloud to my list of sites to avoid. Conversely, neither of those actions will solve the problem. Instead, I choose to follow my own advice.
Asking better questions
Before I responded to Vaun and Bri here, I detached myself and challenged my own perspective. Then, I followed a list of steps that took me from the problem to a solution.
First, focused on people involved. Who are Vaun and Bri? Do they have a history of mocking Caribbean people? These questions helped me narrow in on their intent.
Vaun and Bri are Rihanna fans. In fact, they declare that openly in their SoundCloud podcast description. However, I wonder if they truly welcome Rihanna or roll with her because they want to be aligned with her success.
More on that in Trini Trent TV’s “When Pop Music Fans Go to War.”
The second step in formulating my response was to find Vaun and Bri on social media. I limited my scope to Twitter where I discovered the latter has a history of negative comments about me. Thus, her intent to insult my accent was probably personal.
Thirdly, I played devil’s advocate: Vaun and Bri may be of West Indian descent. However, I dismissed that as me making excuses for them because if they did have roots in the region, they would be more mindful of their actions.
Yet, if they were born in the West Indies, being raised in America means they were indoctrinated into a system of prejudice. It would be difficult to understand how mockery of my accent could be offensive. Unless, they knowingly did so in an attempt to fit in.
Finally, I asked my African-American friends to share their views on what they heard. Interestingly, they agreed that the remarks were offensive and my discomfort was understandable.
I took this path to my solution because I wanted to distance myself from hurt. Moreover, to get better answers, I asked better questions.
I’m part of the problem
When I spoke about Beyonce’s “Formation” on Trini Trent TV, I was angry and condescending. After being attacked by African-Americans for even having an opinion on the song, I used the episode as a means to prove a point. Thus, by following the Great Law of Karma, I’m not surprised that energy has been returned in kind.
“As you sow, so shall shall you reap.”
I used Trini Trent TV to fire off a message of condescension and derision. Now, it has been returned to me in the form of people making a mockery of me. Ironically, it’s linked to the same topic, therefore making this a true full circle moment.
A lesson for African-Americans
I was hesitant to talk about this issue. In fact, I didn’t want attract more attention to the podcast because that would only help the derision to go viral. On the other hand, that’s a selfish stance.
This issue is bigger than me, Vaun or Bri. Rather, it affects generations of people who struggle with the intersectional realities of race, ethnicity and nationality. Moreover, it’s personal for those of us who have been teased for being different.
African-American people can learn from this by seeing how their actions affect other black communities. Yes, we are united by colour and colonialism but that doesn’t negate bigotry within the diaspora.
Additionally, African-Americans have the opportunity to see how they reproduce prejudice similar to what they experience themselves. Hence, they can either address it or continue to be willfully ignorant.
The takeaway for West Indians
Speaking up against discrimination takes courage. Yet, choose those battles and how you engage them wisely, especially when you have a job or family to protect. Still, understand that when you speak up, you are doing so for you and everyone who has suffered.
Take this quote with you as you make your way forward.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Nothing in life is easy but that’s no reason to give up. You will be surprised what you can accomplish if you set your mind to it. After all, you only have one life, so you should try to make the most of it.” – Louis Sachar