Growing up, I was not very aware of my skin color. One would expect me to be since I grew up biracial in a small town in the Netherlands. My brother and I were the first brown kids in our lower school; a quaint little school surrounded by farmland. All of my friends were white. I don’t remember even thinking about the fact that I was often times the only brown colored girl.
Maybe it was because I was raised by my white mom, surrounded by white family. Growing up we never really talked about race. And also, I was never really discriminated against. I didn’t experience racism myself. Actually, to this day I’ve never really felt what it’s like to be treated differently because of the color of my skin.
Over the years, however, as I moved to bigger cities and traveled more, I became less ignorant and more aware.
After high school I spent a year in the beautiful city of Salamanca, Spain, studying Spanish. And when I say ‘studying’ I mean a whole lot of partying, drinking and having the best time ever, while also learning some Spanish. The sense of freedom and adventure was amazing and I’ll never forget the friends I made. However, most of them were white. It really wasn’t a conscious choice. But it was during that year that I became more aware of my skin color. A Belgian girl in Spanish class had asked me if I had also experienced racism in the Netherlands. She had a Black boyfriend and told me about some horrible experiences they had in the city they lived in. It was one of the bigger university cities in Belgium and I was shocked when she told me there were quite a few bars that refused people of color. I couldn’t believe it… I was pretty naïve and ignorant.
When I was a freshman in college, I lived in Amsterdam. It’s still one of my favorite Dutch cities; a beautiful, fascinating place, a melting pot of people from everywhere, where you can be whoever you want to be. At least that’s how I experienced Amsterdam in the early 90s. I was twenty and had a summer job, working at a store. One of my colleagues was a Black girl from Surinam, which is an ex-colony of the Netherlands. We got along well and I remember a conversation we had about our background. She was absolutely flabbergasted that I didn’t have any Black friends and that I didn’t speak the language of my island. It had an impact on me. Not earth shattering and immediate, but slowly growing and persistent.
It definitely played a role in my decision to spend some time in Curaçao after I finished my first year at university. I had left the island when I was six years old and had only been back for a short holiday when I was fifteen. When I came back as a young adult, the experience was very different from when I was fifteen. Back then, I enjoyed the beaches and had fun, but I didn’t feel a connection to the island nor its people. For some reason, that was totally different when I was twenty. As soon as I got off the plane, I felt at home. Strange how these things work. I spent a year on the island and fell in love with the culture, the people, the music, the sun and the wind. Curaçao is an island with a melting pot of colors and cultures. The majority of its people is Black, descendants of Black slaves from Africa. Over the years, immigrants from various places came and settled here, making it a multicultural society.
I truly felt at home. And I can’t really describe why. Apart from the lifestyle, the weather and being closer to my dad, it was more than that. I felt an immediate connection to this island. Even though I had to learn the native language and even though I probably still am considered a ‘makamba’ – the term we use to describe someone from the Netherlands, this place felt and still feels like home, where I belong.
It’s not that I didn’t feel at home in the Netherlands when I was growing up. It’s that I just feel a deeper connection with this island and its people. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a complicated little island. With its colonial history, the love-hate relationship with the Netherlands, the cultural differences between the different groups of people, there are many sensitivities, underlying feelings of entitlement and inferiority and subtle racial tensions.
Over the years I learned more about identity, culture and race and the implications that race can have. Not just because I lived in this multicultural and multiracial island but also because we moved abroad again. I think I learned more about who I am and where I belong from living abroad.
After almost ten years on Curaçao, I left the island to move to the Netherlands with my family. I was thirty-five at the time and even though the Netherlands was familiar, I already felt a bit like a foreigner. I had changed and I noticed that I identified more as someone from Curaçao than as someone from the Netherlands.
And the Netherlands had also changed. Like many other Western countries, intolerance towards immigrants or people of color had grown and it was noticeable. It felt uncomfortable to me and for the first time I sensed the ugliness of racism and ignorance.
Despite this, we had a good life in the Netherlands, even though my husband never really felt at home. After a few years we were both excited to start a new adventure as expats in Doha, Qatar.
What I loved most about living in an international community like Qatar, is the opportunity to build friendships with people from all over the world. We quickly found our tribe of people and I loved my sisterhood of female friends. I still value the lessons I learned from the women I met there. One of my closest friends in Qatar was a woman from Barbados. She taught me a lot about what it means to be a Black woman in an international community. And about racism and the impact it has. She really opened my eyes to what racism feels like and I’m so thankful she did.
We returned to Curaçao three years ago, because we missed our island and because we wanted to give our kids some roots. It feels good to be back home and I still feel a deep connection with this island. But again, these years outside my island have changed me. I’m not the same and I feel different about who I am and where I belong.
Now that I’m turning fifty, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not 100% anything and that I don’t belong anywhere. I’m not white, I’m not Black, I’m not 100% Caribbean, I’m not 100% European, I’m not Latina, I’m not African. I feel at home on Curacao, but sometimes I don’t. I have felt at home in the Netherlands, but not so much anymore. I never felt that Qatar was my home but I’ve felt at home with the women I grew close to. I’m mixed – both culturally and racially – and I belong everywhere I choose to live.
I’m happy with who I am and I hope my kids will feel the same about who they are – whatever they identify as. Because I happen to believe that we – like any Third Culture Kids – are the bridge builders, the connectors of this world.
We know and understand different cultural perspectives. We can mediate, explain and show others that diversity needs to be celebrated, not feared. That with respect, curiosity and persistence you can break down walls and connect.
The fact that I’m mixed and that I chose to live abroad has taught me many things. Like empathy, adaptability, resilience, mindfulness, sensitivity to other cultures, open minded-ness, curiosity and wanderlust. What else could I wish for?