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Vulnerability Stigmatized: Cultivating "Strong" Caribbean Women

Written by: Christina Motilall

I was a very emotional and sensitive young woman. If someone looked at me crossly or spoke to me harshly I cried. Looking back, I was always crying about something. I don’t know what triggered these episodes. The only response my tears elicited were questions about physical pain. “Are you in pain?” “Ok you aren’t, then stop crying!” This question became a mantra with a firm voice behind it. I kept hearing this until I stopped crying.

My tears eventually did cease. At the age of 8/9 I was bullied due to my Indian heritage. I was raised in a neighbourhood that didn’t have many people who looked like me— definitely not any Indo-Caribbean people. There may have been 2 kids in my entire elementary school who identified as such.

As I was the target of bullying, I had to grow a “tough skin” that was expected of me from my culture. I actually felt normal.

I could now fit in with my stoic, inexpressive family. But why was this even considered normal?

I was raised by two very strong women; my mom and maternal grandmother. My mother was the classic immigrant working during the day and going to school at night, so I spent the majority of evenings with my grandmother. They showed their love for me by taking care of me. I was fed, clothed and they made sure I studied. However, there was a lack of anything emotive from them. No one spoke about emotions.

My mother would occasionally shed a tear or two during a movie but expressing our feelings was not an occurrence in my household.

I lived my life assuming that emotions didn’t matter. I never felt it was normal to be emotional or sad about things. I would be happy or become somewhat aggressive and defensive but never sad. I found myself casting judgment on others who were sensitive or what I deemed as overly emotional. I felt that sadness, sensitivity or any emotive action was an unbefitting display.

The idea of depression was not part of my actual reality until I learned about it in medical school. I thought sadness was something that you felt, but would pass and your focus would change to something else. I think of my family; my mother and grandmother and realize they were all raised this way. Any signs of sadness was deemed weak for them. They were repeatedly told if you aren’t in any physical pain there should be no reason to cry or feel upset. I’ve listened to my grandmother speak of her father’s passing in Guyana when she was a child. There was no time to grieve since she had to work. Grief was a luxury that a poor Guyanese girl could not afford. There were mouths to be fed and work to be done to feed the five siblings and mother that were left behind.

If you had to worry about food the next day your sadness was not going to feed an empty belly.

America acknowledges sadness, depression and grief. America acknowledges emotion. A teen may cry because a boy doesn’t like her and it is acknowledged by friends or parents. She is petted and expected to express herself. Still, a Caribbean girl is taught not to believe in sadness. Will it away, pray it away, basically get rid of it. Numb those emotions and do your work.

Caribbean women were not given a choice when being raised as to whether we can show vulnerability. We were raised to have an unyielding work ethic, to be physically and mentally strong. The perception of weakness was never allowed, never to be spoken of. No one should ever view these women as weak. This has led to us being viewed as the angry women of color. That we are curt, dismissive and indifferent to emotions. However, we are not angry. We are just trying to survive with the tools that were given to us.

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