On She Goes

Not a Lonely Island

Being Mixed Race in Guadeloupe

Ima Oduok
Ima Oduok
June 5, 2017
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This story is part of a series about being ___ in ___ , exploring how our identities color our experiences while living in new places around the world. 

Living as a biracial (Black/white) woman in Guadeloupe has been a vastly different experience from being in Houston, Texas, where I was born and raised. Part of my reasoning for choosing to live in the Antilles was that I wanted to experience being surrounded by people who look ambiguously brown like me, for just once in my life, and not constantly be asked, “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” I could not have fully imagined what it would be like to live in the French Caribbean and what experiences would define my life here.

For once in my life, I was surrounded by people who looked like me.

Like other Caribbean islands, Guadeloupe was subject to different European powers during the colonial era: first the Spanish, then the French. The British tried to gain control but were unsuccessful. Like on other islands, interracial mixing was a common occurrence even as Guadeloupe strongly resisted colonial domination. When Napoleon brought back slavery to the French islands eight years after it was first abolished, a group of Guadeloupeans sacrificed themselves and their fort rather than surrender. Then in 1848, when slavery was finally abolished for good, former slaves drove out the former slave owners. This history hasn’t stopped interracial mixing from happening in modern times, and the wide diversity of multi-racial people in the Caribbean region is evident from island to island.

Guadeloupe, an archipelago in the Caribbean, is a former French colony between Antigua and Dominica. Five islands make up Guadeloupe; I currently live in the city of Pointe-à-Pitre, on the flat island of Grande-Terre. Pointe-à-Pitre is the largest city and economic center, but it felt more like a busy small town compared to Houston. A short bridge connects Grande-Terre to the mountainous Basse-Terre. Most of the population live on these two larger islands, which sit beside each other in a shape resembling the spread wings of a butterfly.

Port D’Enfer
photo by Ima Oduk

Mixed Belonging
Because of the history of the region and even though the majority of the population identifies as Black, a person isn’t considered less Guadeloupean because she is métisse, or mixed. But being considered a Guadeloupean only lasts as long as I don’t say anything. For the most part, I can walk around without worrying about people staring or running up to me to ask me where I’m from. This was a liberating feeling after a lifetime of such experiences in Texas, my home state. But as soon as I open my mouth and people hear my accent, they know I’m not a native French speaker. Sometimes they switch to Creole, assuming I’m from Dominica. When I don’t respond to that and they ask where I’m from, everyone is always surprised when I say the United States and not another Caribbean island.

Honorary Guadeloupean
After living here for over a year, some of the teachers I work with and a few shop owners have told me that I’m now Guadeloupean. My local friends have given me this honor, they say, because of my long stay here and the fact that I don’t stick to just the tourist spots. It might feel silly, but it’s nice to feel casually accepted for making an effort. The easy acceptance by locals feels like it stems from more than just effort. After all, there are several white Metropolitan French who have lived here for years and are still considered outsiders. Locals call them métros and use the term interchangeably with “white.” As much as France would like to sweep its history of slavery under the rug, the enduring inequity is obvious in Guadeloupe. There is a pro-Black, pro-Guadeloupean sentiment that loosely extends to cover anyone with African roots. Because I’m mixed with Black, I’m accepted as Black and afforded a fast track to kinship.

Hair Acceptance
Back home, my hair is a cause of great stress for me, especially since I went natural. My hands aren’t gifted, and I never had someone around to let me know what to do with my strands. I grew up in a community without a lot of Black people, and my white mother was out of her depth when it came to my thick, curly hair. When I hit my teens, the easiest solution was to relax my hair. For years, I didn’t have to learn what to do with my hair in its natural state. I returned to my original texture just before I moved to Guadeloupe. Trying to free myself from judging my own hair by Eurocentric standards of beauty has been a challenge, but living in Guadeloupe has helped. People stress about their hair, sure, but because Black hair isn’t an oddity in the mainstream culture, there’s less social stigma and pressure to make sure one’s hair is perfectly coifed. When women do style their hair, a vast range of creativity shows through it. It’s given me the courage to experiment with my own hair. My favorite style, though I’m still not good at it, is two-strand twists. I’ve tried cornrows and flat-twists with minimal success. Most of the time when I try a new style, someone will compliment it. The support and inspiration I found in Guadeloupe will stay with me as I continue to learn about my hair when I return to the United States.

Even though I will have to leave Guadeloupe soon, I know I won’t be gone forever. Guadeloupe will always be a place where I can belong.