By Amara Ramdhanny
Amara Davina Ramdhanny is an Afro-St. Lucian and Indo-Grenadian (Black/Indian of Caribbean descent) Brooklyn-based artist and illustrator, whose art focuses on/is inspired by bright colors and strong women, specifically women of color. She has recently come out with a collaboration with Nike called Isle of Spice! The sneakers are vibrant and playful. They are named after the nickname of her Indo-Caribbean mother’s home island: Grenada. “With a bold, tropical color palette and as stylish as our favorite 60s and 70s Bollywood Actresses. The Isle of Spice is fresh, fun, and unapologetically fierce, just like the beautiful women that it is inspired by”, Nike says.
Isle of Spice is available here for $160 for a limited time! Get your pair now!
image source: Nike
Indo-Caribbeans hold such rich histories but are often left out of the conversation. Amara collaborated with Sorjo so we can dig into her creative mind to see the inspiration behind her Nike design and learn more about her ancestral history. We also teamed up with an incredible photographer, Malik, to capture the dreamy essence of Amara and her friends, Bethany, Bree and Amber:
According to Wikipedia, a dougla (also Dugla or Dogla) is a word used by people especially in Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Guyana to describe people who are of mixed African and Indian descent. The word originated from doogala (दुगला), which is a Caribbean Hindustani word that may mean “many”, “much” or “a mix”. Originally, in the West Indies, the word was only used for Afro-Indo mixed race, despite its origin as a word used to describe inter-caste mixing. An example of a dougla is any Black and Indian mixed celebrities that you can think of: Tatyana Ali, Vashtie Kola, Nicki Minaj, etc. Despite being of mixed descent, more often or not these women are embraced and celebrated as Black and Caribbean individuals. However, their Indian heritage is hardly ever acknowledged. As a mixed woman of Afro and Indo-Caribbean descent, I found this all too familiar.
My father is Afro-St. Lucian and my mother is Indo-Grenadian. I identify as Black and Indian of Caribbean descent. I grew up in a strong Caribbean community and from a young age, I never really differentiated my parents’ identities from one another. In Junior High school, I distinctly remember my mother telling me not to let anyone call me a “Coolie” (a word meaning “Labourer”, originating in the 17th century, now regarded as derogatory and a racial slur in the Caribbean, Africa, Oceania, North America, South America, Southeast Asia, and Europe – in reference to people from Asia). Around a year after that, I remember getting into an altercation at school with a girl who had referred to me as having “Coolie people hair”. That was my first real instance of understanding of my mother’s identity.
“That was my first real instance of understanding of my mother’s identity.”
In High school, as I got even closer with my mother, I felt like I had to prove my identity in relation to hers, even more, only to be met with doubt. I used to wear my hair in braids up until high school. But once I entered high school, I started to wear it out, unbraided, to show off the “Coolie people hair” that I allegedly had. A Guyanese Indian boy in my class doubted it was even “mine”, that it must’ve been a weave or a wig, I was supposedly “too Black” to have that texture hair.
My mother’s identity was always hard to explain to people she would meet daily, her old employers were Jewish and assumed that she was as well; She would encounter Arabs who attempted to converse with her in Arabic and be surprised when she sadly could not engage in the conversation; when strangers would finally ask if she was Indian, she would smile and nod but when they would continue question where she was from, the closest they would get is: “Caribbean? Guyana?” before she would correct them with “Grenada” and be met with puzzled looks. While my mother straddled the line of ethnic ambiguity, I, however, was always “Black”. I’ll admit it did not always please me, my parents had an “interesting” relationship and I always resonated with my mother more, I wasn’t happy to be placed in a box that she was not in and I probably lashed out when I shouldn’t have because of it. However looking back, it was a great thing that I should have been proud of sooner. I loved my father and his family, I loved my friends, being seen as Black was a great thing to share with them and they always welcomed me regardless. I never met the same acceptance from others outside of the Black community. While my mother drifted in and out of the labels of various identities, like a leaf blowing in the breeze, I was placed firmly in one identity, and the two would never meet.
“While my mother drifted in and out of the labels of various identities, like a leaf blowing in the breeze, I was placed firmly in one identity, and the two would never meet.”
A couple months ago, while browsing Instagram, I came across an advertisement for the @wearecultivator sneaker design program that allows artists to convey their particular story via a Nike sneaker. Seeing as my relationship with my mother is such a close part of my identity (plus her birthday is coming up in September and what’s a better gift than dedicating a whole project to her, right?), I used her story as an Indo-Caribbean Grenadian woman and my experience as her daughter of mixed descent as my main inspiration. Being close with so many inspiring women of color, I took this opportunity to highlight those women by merging their similar stories of growing up with streetwear culture, which has also been such a big part of my life, growing up in Brooklyn, NY.
To gain a broader perspective of the dougla experience, I turned to three individuals of similar yet slightly different African/Indian heritages for their unique point of view: Amber Linton, Bree Simran Darby, and Bethany Renee, who all share similar yet different dougla experiences.
Can you provide a brief description of your ethnic background? (especially in relation to your South Asian heritage)
AMBER: My father came from Bangladesh to America sometime in the early 1980’s, and my mother is Jamaican and Barbadian, but was born and raised in America.
BREE: My mother is Telugu from Hyderabad and my father is African American from South Carolina.
BETHANY: My parents are Jamaican born and raised. But as our motto goes, ‘Out of Many One People’ because Jamaica is racially diverse. My mom is Jamaican of West African, European Jewish and some East Indian descent and my Dad is Jamaican of East Indian descent with some Jamaican Maroon lineage. My family history dates back to the 1800s of when East Indians were brought to Jamaica when African slavery was over and they came to Jamaica to work as indentured servants. They were given low pay, yet still treated unfairly just like the Blacks.
What was your experience growing up as a mixed person with a South Asian background? Do you have any stories/examples of how being a mixed person with a South Asian background has affected you?
AMBER: Though I was born mixed, I wasn’t really on any traditions or taught about my heritage by either of my parents. In addition to that, my mother and father separated shortly after my younger sister was born. I was around 4 at the time, and as a result, other than seeing him a few times a year, he wasn’t really a major part of my life. This, in turn, affected how close I feel to my South Asian heritage, which isn’t really close at all because he made no attempt to share that part of himself with me. And while I have made attempts of my own to better understand that part of my heritage, I’ve never been able to attain that level of closeness and understanding that I otherwise would have had if he was more involved in my life. In his decision to stay away, he really took away the opportunity for me to grow up and be more involved in that part of my heritage, and it’s sad that I’ll never be able to have that chance back.
“In his decision to stay away, he really took away the opportunity for me to grow up and be more involved in that part of my heritage, and it’s sad that I’ll never be able to have that chance back.”
BREE: Growing up a mixed Desi was quite difficult for me to handle. Especially since there is so much anti-blackness in the Desi community, whether it has to do with our hair, our skin or our afro-centric features. This has caused me to have low self-esteem and it made me want to change my appearance in any way I can. However, thankfully I was able to get out of that mindset. I am proud of my heritage and refuse for my appearance to be whitewashed.
“I am proud of my heritage and refuse for my appearance to be whitewashed.”
BETHANY: For a while, I never really thought about it because my parents were Jamaican and that’s all that mattered. In Jamaica, you’re Jamaican regardless of race. I remember as a child how obsessed Black Americans and West Indians were to see me. To see a dark skin child with long hair was a rare sight to many, so they always assumed I was Indian but I never understood the obsession with hair at 4 years old. As I got older, I realized my features were different compared to other black people because it was pointed out to me. So I’ve had mixed reactions when I told peers my background.
I remember telling a Canadian white man a few years ago what I was and in his ignorance responded, “But Indian people are brown colored, you’re Black”. It cut deep to hear because Indians come in various complexions just like black people do, from the lightest to the darkest of night. In my freshman year of high school, there were a group of Black girls who could never figure out what I was and I chose to never tell them in disgust of the insults. The harassment lasted for a year and I ended up going to a boarding school for the remaining 3 years of high-school.
I’ve experienced telling direct Indian people what I was and them looking at me in shock but I didn’t take offense to it. Black/Indian mixing is more common in the Caribbean, than in the actual country of India itself. So, at times I just avoid telling people, unless I feel like I can trust their energy enough to not look at me weird. It’s easier to have friends with a family from the Caribbean because they can always tell and don’t question you.
Do you feel a close relation to your South Asian Heritage? Why or why not?
BREE: I do! My mom taught me Hindi and I am also trained in bharatnatyam, which is a classical Indian dance. I am very much in-touch with my Indian culture and I am proud to be apart of it.
BETHANY: Yes and no. South Asian culture versus Indian-Caribbean culture is completely different. Our curries are even different than actual Indian-curry. Despite the fact that indentured servitude stripped their identity to a degree, it’s always dope seeing South Asian influences in Caribbean cultures. There would be no ganja (No Bob Marley didn’t start the trend, Indian-Jamaicans did), no curry chicken, no curry goat or roti in the Caribbean if it wasn’t for our ancestors. The English may have changed a lot of our last names, but they couldn’t take our dignity. I could say the same thing if asked about whether I feel connected to being West African – yes and no. I feel connected with the Jamaican language that was partially influenced by the Ghanian language, by Jamaican music and instruments. I’ll never know what African tribe(s) I come from, but if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here. Europeans tried to rip us, but my Black people came out stronger.
“Europeans tried to rip us, but my Black people came out stronger.”
And do you feel that you are accurately represented in South Asian/Desi community? Why or why not?
AMBER: I’m not sure? I’m not really in touch with any community so I don’t know if I am, or if I’m not.
BREE: Not at all. I don’t feel like people who look like me or share the same ethnicity as me have good representation in Indian society, specifically in Bollywood. Whenever they wanted to portray a black character in a movie, they would have an Indian actor do blackface and have them act wild and crazy. It’s very disappointing and disheartening to watch.
BETHANY: I personally don’t believe we’re accurately represented in the South Asian/Desi community. When it comes to Bollywood, the Indian media fails to show very dark-skinned Indians. The self-hate is continuously rooted in how Europeans instilled the hate and disgust for darker skin tones throughout history. So, if they won’t show dark-skinned Indians, what makes me think they’ll ever represent Black Indians? On the other hand, I’m happy to see women like Nicki Minaj, Justine Skye, Melanie Fiona and Chilli etc, in music representing Black/Indian Caribbean people.
Is there anything else that you would like to mention about your feelings as a mixed person of South Asian descent?
BREE: Everyone should embrace who they are no matter what!
BETHANY: I’m looking to spread more awareness when it comes to people like me. Caribbean people of East Indian descent need representation and a voice too, especially Black Indians. Even in some parts of the Caribbean, there is racism and the Indians don’t want to mix with Blacks, but nobody wants to talk about that. Very often too, we are forgotten because to Indian folks, we aren’t really Indian. So just imagine the discredit it is for Indian-Caribbeans who are black as well, the hate is even worse. But at the end of the day, I believe people should be the platform for their own people and that’s where it should start. They want us to hate our Blackness and believe that our beauty comes from the other side. Black is beautiful, they hate us because they ain’t us. Just look at how many people go out of their way to tan and enhance their features to be fuller. Everyone wants to be black, but nobody wants to black!
This all served as inspiration for me to create the “Isle of Spice”, a Nike React Element 55 colorway that I had the pleasure of being selected by We are Cultivator to make. Named after the nickname of my mother’s home island of Grenada and inspired by all the beautiful Black and Brown girls in my life that were often neglected and ignored in the Desi community.
“Isle of Spice” is available here for $160 for a limited time! Get your pair now!
Check out the wonderful and talented people that worked on this project:
Photographer: Malik Frank (@malik.jpg)
Models & Interviewees: Amber Linton, Bree Simran Darby (@blindiangirl), Bethany Renee (@betaniarenee), Amara Ramdhanny (@amara__davi)
Creative Director: Amara Ramdhanny