On being caramel and queer

Creolization, rootlessness, and colonial legacies

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Statistically, we’re headed toward an age where everybody’s going to be, like, caramel and queer.”

We’ve all heard versions of this sentiment in recent years – this one comes from Ilana, the Jewish and white protagonist of Broad City , the seminal text on the millennial psyche.

Being mixed-race is increasingly commonplace, and there’s an assumption that within a few years it will represent the ‘face of the human race.’ Mixed-race people are often fetishized and are inaccurately presented as harbingers of a ‘post-racial’ utopia.

While mixed-race people are thought to be a ‘modern innovation,’ the evidence of a post-racial society, people forget that there already exist countries and regions where the so-called ‘general population’ is entirely composed of ‘mixed-race’ people called Creoles. Creole is a complex and debated term encompassing race, culture, language, ethnicity, and diverse colonial legacies. You can find Creole people in Haiti, the Caribbean, in the United States and on islands in the Indian Ocean. All of us have diverse histories and cultures, and can’t be grouped in one category. However, our existence stems from the same source: the slave trade and colonialism. We are descendants of European colonial settlers and/or the slaves and indentured workers they uprooted and relocated to the colonies.

I identify as Mauritian Creole, a subset of the population of Mauritius Island that is often homogenized and dubbed the ‘general population’ – those who don’t fit the official categories of Chinese Mauritian, Indian Mauritian, and Muslim Mauritian. However, Mauritian Creoles are an incredibly diverse group of people, divided within themselves, despite claims to the contrary by the government and national history. Colourism plays an important role in creating those divisions. In part due to colonial legacy, Creoles with lighter skin, such as myself, have the privilege to access higher social and economic status than those with darker skin. Specific ‘mixes’ of races are also valued more than others; for instance, Creoles who are direct descendants of French colonizers still occupy a dominant position in Mauritian society. While these divisions are blatant and commonly known by most Mauritian Creoles, we continue to be homogenized, by non-Creoles and Creoles alike, as the ‘general population’ for convenience and a lack of understanding. This homogenization is a constant source of anxiety for Creoles who are unable to place their bodies in the greater context of the world. We are lumped together as a rootless people to either be ignored, because we don’t fit neatly into boxes of ethnicity or nationality, or romanticized as evidence of a successful colonial experiment; one that produced an ideal and seemingly ‘harmonious’ society composed of people belonging to no nation.

The lack of clear connection to a greater historical context and our ethnic ambiguity is what ties us together. Often considered ‘rootless hybrids,’ we serve as bodies on which to project myths and identities for nationalist purposes. Our bodies are submitted as evidence of the possibility of a harmonious, multiracial, ‘post-racial’ society. However, it is often forgotten that these bodies were born from colonial violence. My ancestors were forcibly uprooted and any ties to their original homeland, culture, and community were purposefully destroyed to disempower them. Without the violent history of slavery, and the exploitative nature of the colonial project, we would not exist. The idea of a utopic Creole society erases the very root of our existence.

My culture is a collection of reconstructed traditions from Northern India, Eastern Africa, Madagascar, Southeastern China, and France; the supposed – it was only transmitted through word of mouth – birthplaces of my ancestors. When placed in the communities of my ancestors, such as when attending weddings, New Year’s celebrations or dinners, I’ve learn to mirror them and perform these cultures. These communities are welcoming, and feel comfortable, but something is always off. I do not look like them, I do not speak the language, I do not share the same historical context, and I have no ties to a homeland. To the best of my abilities, I mirror the practices and norms of these communities, but I am, and always will be an outsider. I have no substantial claims to any of these cultures, because I stand at the periphery of all of them. My combined ancestry is not enough for me to be considered part of those communities. My physical features – my brown skin with yellow undertones, my black curly hair, and my dark brown eyes – often undermine any claims I have to be part of some of them. Instead, identities are projected onto my body.

I am used to hearing: “You don’t speak [insert language historically spoken by brown people]!” No, I don’t. I speak the languages of my colonizers, French and English. My parents never taught me my island’s local Creole dialect, not finding much value in doing so, because it is not spoken outside of the island or the diaspora. My ‘culture’ is one where my family celebrates Chinese New Year, Diwali, Easter, and Christmas.

After I’m told I don’t speak the language I’m ‘supposed to’, the next thing I usually hear is, “You look like [insert nationality here], but not quite!” Right, my features aren’t quite right to fit anywhere. “Something is off.” You’ll spend the next twenty minutes trying to figure what it is exactly. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. When you can’t figure it out, you’ll shrug. I’ll shrug. We’ll move on. My body comes close to fitting in, but never quite does.

I was talking to my mom, who was born and grew up in Mauritius, about this recent identity crisis. She reassured me that this was normal, that I came from a long line of Mauritian Creoles who have felt the angst of being rootless and living at the periphery of cultural communities. She said that even now, in her forties, she still feels that emptiness of broken ties to pre-colonial communities, families, and homeland passed on from one generation to the other. However, she also acknowledges that my siblings and I face a new set of challenges as immigrants to Canada. Here, our bodies are perceived differently than they would in Mauritius, and finding community here is even more difficult. She gave me three choices: I could choose to embrace one particular community of our ancestors and perform that culture; I could recognize the richness in me and choose to align with the national stance of the “rainbow people;” or I could continue to live in that ambiguous “something is off” space – the space created by forced assimilation and intermixing to advance the colonial project, and that now stands between me and a coherent collective identity.

After consideration, I have chosen to place my body and its histories in that “off” space. For me, it is the only space that doesn’t excuse or ignore the violent colonial history of the Creole people in Mauritius. If I were to embrace one community over another, it would erase the trauma of my ancestors, and if I conformed to the national slogan of the “rainbow people,” I would ignore the continued impact of colonial structures that are still in place, and validate the results of the colonial project. Idealizing or denying my multi-racial, multi-cultural, and so-called ‘post-race’ body would erase colonial violence felt by the generations before me and the legacy that still stands. Instead, I choose to acknowledge that it exist in all its multiplicities and sit in the discomfort that it brings.