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How I Embrace Being A Multi-Ethnic Woman Of Color

The truth is, women like me are effing magic.

Her Voice

I have been meaning to write this for an entire year or maybe all of my life. This has been a touchy subject since I was old enough to understand the concept of race. It's a sensitive subject for all of us because the concept of color and race is something we are still learning to be raw about. It's not a conversation you can have with just anyone either. You have to be open to receive others' experiences and respect their perspective too. I realize that not everyone will understand my point of view. And that's OK. So, I want to say I write this so you can understand me more.

I have been exposed to colorism and a level of xenophobia my entire life for simply being a mixed-race person. Xenophobia is a dislike or prejudice against people from other countries. If you ask me what it means to be a Black woman or a woman of color, my answer is more than likely going to be different than the majority.

I belong to a subset of women who are deemed not worthy, and not capable because there is melanin in our skin. I belong to a subset of women who are seen as less because we may speak different languages and have different cultures. I belong to a subset of women who are not white.

When the truth is, women like me are effing magic.

I am a Black woman. I am a woman of color. I am a minority woman. I am a Caribbean-American woman. I am the daughter of immigrants. I was raised as a Trinidadian-American woman. I am well-versed in some of Trinidadian history. I know the slang, the holidays, the food, and the culture. I can even laugh at the jokes. I was raised knowing because the color of my skin is not white and my ethnic features are not quite "black" and not quite "white", but in between, I will experience a level of prejudice from everyone.

My mother is Indian, Venezuelan, and French. Her mother's father is Indian, and her mother's mother is Venezuelan. My mother's father is French and Indian. If I remember correctly, my grandfather's father was half-white and from France. But I can't remember what my great grandfather's other half is. My grandfather's mother was a Madrassi Indian. This is a region of South India. Madrassi Indians are dark-skinned and damn near black. My father's parents are Indian and Pakistani. Both my parents were born and raised in Trinidad. For historical context, the indigenous people of Trinidad were the Arawaks and the Caribes. If you Google them, they resemble Native Americans.

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The Triangular Trade between England, Spain, France, and Portugal brought slaves and indentured servants from Africa, India, Syria, and China to Trinidad. Then there were the settlers from England, Spain, and France as Trinidad was ruled by all of these countries before gaining independence. The misconception that most Americans have is: if you are a Caribbean immigrant, it automatically means Black or African. Which isn't always true. And in Trinidad, the Caribbean, and other countries, there's no such thing as "Afro" or "Indo" [insert country's name] or a "white" or [Caucasian-insert country's name]. This is just a man-made concept and a politically correct way of saying things. In the US, there isn't a differentiation between Black and African-American either. The terms are interchangeable. I know, because I studied multiracial hybrids in college.

But did you know in other countries, we're just Americans? To hyphenate ethnicity and race is an American thing. As I said before colorism and racism are different in Trinidad compared to the US. It's not to say they didn't experience these things, they did. It was just different compared to the United States. Trinidad is the only country in the world that celebrates all ethnicities as one country. We don't care if your neighbor is white, yellow, red, brown, black, and in between. We are foreverone.

My skin color and my ethnic features never bothered me. I have always loved my dark-hued skin, curly hair, and bushy eyebrows. I never felt like I was less than nor do I think I am better than anyone else because of what I look like.

My parents came to this country having to learn what Black history is. They had to choose a racial category because there was no option for West Indians. And if you ask my 72-year-old father what race he chooses, despite the fact his racial and ethnic features are Indian, he will choose Black because he is notEast Indian and he has no choice. My parents experienced triple the racism for being immigrants, having an accent, and the color of their skin.

My parents never assimilated to America nor did they forget where they come from. They never lost their accents. I was raised with curry chicken, aloo (potato), roti, paratha (like a beat-up tortilla), dahl (blended yellow peas with spices) and rice, baigan choka (stew eggplant), calaloo (pureed spinach and okra), pelau (pigeon peas and rice), plantains, cassava, breadfruit, mango chow (like the Mexican chamoy on fruit), fry bake (fried bread), salt fish, and brown stew chicken. When I was a kid, my faddah would play his soca and calypso records during the holidays. My brother and I would wine down di the whole living room. My best childhood memories are in Trinidad; my parents took my brother and me home from the time we were three-years-old.

It was hard going through middle school, and high school living in a predominantly white suburb of Southern California. At home, I was raised with a broad meaning of racism. In school, I learned a different and narrow meaning of racism. In school, I was teased because I spoke the Queen's English. I was told I wanted to be white. I didn't know there was something wrong with the way I spoke English. I didn't know I wouldn't be accepted by others because of it. I didn't understand.

I was teased because I wore my hair in one plait (braid) and didn't wear braids. But that's how my mother and her mother grew up. Teased because I had no idea what soul foodwas or who certain famous Black Americans were. But let me just say, the teasing didn't come from the white kids. It came from the kids who had the same skin color as me. I was constantly asked, "What are you?" or "Are you even Black?" Like it's a bad thing if I am not. But it's a bad thing if I am too. It didn't matter which way I answered because it was clear I wasn't going to be accepted. I'd have to constantly explain where my parents were from. I had to explain they are not African nor American. It was annoying AF. I became embarrassed about where my family came from because no one understood me. I didn't want to invite friends to my house, let alone a boy I liked. But still, I didn't feel the need to choose a group to belong to. Why do I have to choose any damn way?Because I am told to? Nope. I often think about if the concept of race was nonexistent and not a social construct, who would we be?

Answer: Human.

There isn't a West Indian community in California because most Caribbean immigrants go to New York or Florida. But let another West Indian run into each other in California, it's like they found their best friend again. Come Hollywood Carnival in June we come together on Hollywood Boulevard to jump up and play mas. I keep a very diverse circle of friends. Throughout middle school most of my friends were white. In high school, I realized we could no longer connect on a cultural level. So, most of my friends in high school, college, and even now are Hispanic, Latina, Asian, Filipino, Black, Caribbean, or mixed like me. We connected because we had similar cultures, whether it was food or upbringing.

Now, that I am living in Florida there are West Indians everywhere. It's cool to hear the music I grew up with playing in the bars, clubs, or at a party. Soca, chutney, and calypso. I like that can I drive up the street and find curry goat or brown stew chicken when my aunt doesn't cook those foods. When I am in Trinidad, I never have to question or explain my ethnic background because it does not matter. It's not questioned. My family will tease me and call me "di Yankee" aka "the American".

Honestly, I never wanted to be confined to a box. When I have to fill out a form, I choose "other", or "two or more races". Simply because I don't have an option for who I am. And if you ask me, now that Madame Vice President Harris is in office the racial categories should be redefined, restructured, or abolished because it leaves out so many people. I am dougla gyal just like Kamala Harris, Shan Boodram, Tatyana Ali, and Melanie Fiona.

A dougla in the Caribbean is a person who is predominantly mixed with Indian and Black. I will never forget where my parents come from. I embrace all of me now more than ever. The Indian, Pakistani, Venezuelan, and French in me that is. I embrace my multi-ethnic identity by accepting it. By accepting who my family is. All of them. By teaching others who I am and about my culture.

By releasing the guilt and shame, I once felt about my family. I don't feel I have to check a man-made box to make someone else comfortable or feed someone's curiosity. No one can ask me to look the other way when it comes to my multi-ethnic background. By asking me to choose one race and only one, is asking me to dishonor myself. You're asking me to disown and insult my family. You're asking me to forget where they came from. And that's something I cannot do and will not do.

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At the end of the day, I feel race is just a color assignment and doesn't account for so many people's cultures. We are so many colors and we cannot all fit into one crayon box.

We are all Black women, and we are all women of color regardless of where we come from, or how we grew up. We are subject to the same the negative connotations and stereotypes that come with it. Regardless if you're biracial, mixed race, or all of the above. No woman should have to feel like they are only allowed to own half of who they are to be accepted or fit in. No woman should have to feel like they are less of one race because they are a quarter or a half of something else. And vice versa.

You are no less Black, White, Asian, Latino, Hispanic, or Indian because you're a mixed-race woman. Accept yourself. You are who you are. Honor all of who you are at all costs. Embrace that shit to no end. And I understand this is dependent on how one was raised and dependent on many other factors too. But please know you can unapologetically be all of who you are without question. It's not your responsibility to validate people's perceptions of you and ignorance. But it is your responsibility to educate those same people.

And if you can break free from the mindset of having to choose to be only one ethnicity and/or race, only then will you be free to embrace all the parts of you have suppressed or may not have known. It's never too late to keep learning about who you are, sis.

In 2021, we're unapologetically embracing being multi-ethnic women of color. Periodt.

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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