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identity construction labels

According to Stuart Hall, identity and representation are intertwined; an exercise in selective memory; the silencing of one voice to enable another to speak. Identity is not a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, but a set of stories that shift with historical circumstances, continuously evolving us from from outside in. A societal mirror that shapes us. ¨Without the others there is no self, there is no self-recognition¨ (Hall 2001, p. 26, 30).

This raises questions around definitions of Caribbean vs. Indo-Caribbean vs. Indo-Trinidadian identity, in a region typically referred to as the West Indies. Taken further, how is the notion of identity construction resolved for people who have emigrated to North America or Britain from the Caribbean? In attempts to draw a line around a cohesive identity in the region, using an Indo-Caribbean lens, identity is revealed to be a slippery subject. This essay argues that Caribbean identity, infact does not exist. This is largely due to the legacy of racialized political and economic structures that continue to persist throughout the region today.

Across the Caribbean, a confluence of influences contributed to racialized, social hierarchy and fragmented identity construction amongst the various ethnic groups. Caribbean history is closely related to the history of racism itself (Reddock 3). ¨In this crucible, where the British ranked and scaled people according to their material rights and economic obligations, race became the favourite way to normalize, naturalize, and ideologize identity” (Forte 2013, p. 176). The manner in which political economy in the Caribbean dictated the racialization of identities, continues to shape identity construction across the various groups (Forte 2013, p. 173; Reddock 2007, p. 3, 4).

At the most basic level, power relations were exercised over the bodies of slaves; wielded by punishment, torture and control of the physical environment (Bush 1981, p. 245-246). “At the most subtle level, sexuality itself was a key aspect of power men exercised over all women, black and white, in the slavery system. Power over the body and sexual power blended to become and effective form of social control” (Bush 1981, p. 245-246). Racialized, cultural stereotypes and assumptions around sexuality continue to persist today. This history illuminates how gendered identities now fit (or struggle to fit) within these hierarchies, further limiting the movement of women who prefer to carve out their own identities for themselves. Women across the region cite feeling encumbered by the narratives/ stereotypes afforded to their cultural ethnicities — as Afro-Caribbean women (deemed loose, immoral, loud, independent and sexually available); or Indo-Caribbean women (deemed chaste, pure, controlled and sexually unavailable) (Reddock 207, p. 5).

“Power is diffuse and comes from below in manifold relationships of force in play in the machinery of economic production, families and institutions” (Bush 1981, p. 246). These power relations permeate systemic structures at all levels of society. In the broader regional Caribbean context, ´white privilege’ continues to be a pervasive influence due to Euro-American national, regional and transnational corporate interests and global communications (Reddock 2007, p. 5). Different rules for to different people, put in similar, yet different, hierarchical environments, all contribute to the differences in the coalescing of identity construction amongst the various ethnic groups, and across the region.

The renaming and rebuilding of the slave trade under indentureship marks the beginnings of catalyzing Indo-Caribbean identity. Tied to contractual agreements, colonial plantation owners retained power over the lives of labourers for the contractual duration. Following their indenture, Indian labourers could remain in Trinidad and receive ten acres of land or return to India. The vast majority remained (Seghal 2005; Forte 2013, p. 175-176). For the next century and a half, the Indo-Caribbean community absorbed influences of the surrounding cultures and environment. The environment within which these communities subsequently coalesced is perhaps integral to the construction of Indo-Trinidadian identity.

Swamplands were a notable feature of the environment that sustained these communities. In Trinidad, post-indenture land grants were mostly along swampy coastlines and seasonally flooded streams; within proximity to sugar estates, but usually of limited cane production potential. Early farming was viewed as a gamble by Indo-Trinidadian communities. Crop diversification and other forms of income diversification, were necessary to hedge bets against recurring floods (Richardson 1975, p. 242-247). A common thread existed amongst most turn of the (20th) century Indo-Trinidadian households. While some may have had more canelands than others, did more fishing or opened small village shops, most Indo-Trinidadians divided their time amongst several economic activities — one of which was temporary wages on sugar estates (Richardson 1975, p. 242-247). Indo-Trinidadian communities filled labour needs during harvest seasons when a massive labour effort was required. Canefields needed weeding. Fertilizer was spread by hand. Cane was to be cut, loaded and carted to grinding mills. Buildings needed building. Drainage channels needed digging (Richardson 1975, p. 242-247). “From an estate’s perspective, the Indian villages were labour reservoirs, limiting wage payments to 3 months of the year. At other times, Indian residents performed routine tasks” (Richardson 1975, p. 247). Navigating multiple environments (the basis of an entrepreneurship of sorts), in pursuit of economic survival, according to later indications, it has become part of an ever-evolving Indo-Trinidadian identity.

Newcomers to the Caribbean from Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East created demographic shifts, which resulted in long-lasting changes to the social composition of many of the Caribbean nations by the 1930s (Brereton 1989, 86-87). Several from these immigrant communities entered the burgeoning middle class, exacerbating racial tensions, bringing new layers of complexity to the class stratification across the region. Traditionally premised on the plantation system and the immediate outcomes of emancipation, the social hierarchy began to grow more rungs within its ladder (Brereton 1989, 86-87). Post-WWII economic development resulted from the rise of industry, mining, tourism and service sectors. These further changed the social and economic landscape of many of the colonies. As agriculture declined, subsistence farming became less viable, and the younger generation became drawn towards urban centres (Brereton 1989, 86-87). This economic shift likely resulted in systemic restructuring, which again, catalyzed identity construction for all ethnic groups across the broader Caribbean.

Race relations within the Trinidadian political landscape of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, led to a surge in Indo-Trinidadian emigrants to North America and Britain. Indo-Trinidadians at the time, felt their social mobility and access to public services was thwarted in Trinidad’s political environment (Teelucksingh 2010, p. 147-48). The on-going evolution of Indo-Caribbean identity construction can perhaps be best illustrated by these contemporary transnationals and their acculturation process in western contexts since then. An analysis of the factors contributing to this group’s upward mobility in North America and Britain during this time, as described in the essay, “Mastering the Midas Touch: The Indo-Trinidadian Diaspora in North America and England, 1997-2007,” is attributed to the social similarities of a British colony; the entrepreneurial nature of this group; and similar physical features to immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. The author suggests, Indo-Trinidadians ¨suffer from a ‘chameleon syndrome’” enabling them to conform to a myriad of other Asian and Caribbean groups (Teelucksingh 2010, p. 153-154).

The ability to navigate multiple environments and different cultural groups can, arguably, be linked back to the swampland conditions the post-indenture environment created; the habits and survival mechanisms that were created; and the economic benefits of diversified income streams this environment may have culturally catalyzed. While Indo-Trinidadians in western contexts lacked political power, experienced subordination and discrimination, they also felt they could achieve considerable social and occupational mobility, be relatively safe, and become part of a broader movement to promote multiculturalism (Teelucksingh 2010, p. 153-154). For this group, the benefits far outweighed the disadvantages.



When Stuart Hall said, “without the others there is no self, there is no self-recognition,” it makes me wonder about the impact of choice and relative invisibility when it comes to identity construction in a Caribbean context (Hall 2001, 30). How this might manifest differently.  As an exercise in selective memory; the silencing of one voice to enable another to speak, this seems to take on a different meaning in Indo-Trinidadian identity construction. When it comes to societal mirrors that shape us, Indo-Trinidadians have had the benefit of choice — to selectively choose the mirrors which inform their identity construction from hybrid contexts they have been navigating. Borne out of the post-indenture environment and unique to those whose livelihoods and communities were constructed on the systemic structures arising from the Caribbean post-slavery era.  This experience is arguably unique to identity construction across the various ethnic groups, and also strongly points to a the lack of a cohesive Caribbean cultural identity.



Brereton, B. (1989) ¨Society and Culture in the Caribbean: The British and French West Indies, 1870-1980.¨ The Modern Caribbean. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. 85-110.

Bush, B. (1981) ¨White ´Ladies´, Coloured Favourites and Black Wenches; Some Considerations on Sex, Race and Class Factors in Social Relations in White Creole Society in the British Caribbean.¨ Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies. London: F. Cass. 245-262.

Forte, MC. (2013). ¨Carib Identity, Racial Politics, and the Problem of Indigenous Recognitions in Trinidad and Tobago.¨ Who Is An Indian? Toronto ON: University of Toronto Press. 172-193.

Goddard, R. (2011).¨Tourism, Drugs, Offshore Finance, and the Perils of Neoliberal Development.¨ The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its Peoples. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 571-582.

Hall, S. (2001). ¨Negotiating Caribbean Identities.¨ New Caribbean Thought: A Reader. Mona, JA: University of the West Indies Press. 24-39.

Reddock, R. (2007). “Diversity, Difference and Caribbean Feminism: The Challenge of Anti-Racism.” Caribbean Review of Gender Studies. St. Augustine: UWI. 1-24.

Richardson, BC. (1975). Livelihood in Rural Trinidad 1900.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 6 (2), 240-251.

Seghal, D. (Dir). (2005). “Coolies: How the British Reinvented Slavery.” UK: BBC 4. [58:31]

Teelucksingh, J. (2010). “Mastering the Midas Touch: The Indo-Trinidadian Diaspora in North America and England, 1967-2007.” Journal of International and Global Studies. St. Charles, Missouri: Lindenwood University. 147-162.


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