The Feministing Five: Nicole Roberts

Nicole Roberts is a professor at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine, Trinidad where her work centers on Hispanic feminisms. Originally from Trinidad, Roberts’s studies took her all over the world. She spent her high school and undergraduate years in Canada, got her M.A. at Florida State, and did her doctorate at the University of Birmingham in England.

Roberts became interested in Hispanic feminisms and specifically Afro-Caribbean women writers, after being in Birmingham in the 1990s. Being in that time and place, where intellects such as Stuart Hall were operating out of the Center for West African Studies, she was inspired to study race and black writers. An example of the kind of research and writing she does can be found in this essay, where she looks at the term “Hispanic” and its use in the Caribbean.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Nicole Roberts.

Anna Sterling: What are the differences between the U.S. and the Caribbean in terms of how people claim their racial identities?

Nicole Roberts: It’s a difficult negotiation in the Caribbean. When we speak of post-colonial societies, the negotiation of color is more important. There’s no ethnic identity and that’s the main difference from the U.S. The 1970s saw the rise of nationalistic sentiment [here in the Caribbean]. From the 1990s, we start to see a lot of people trying to think through notions of identity in the Caribbean. It’s a difficult in that the whole notion of ethnicity doesn’t exist, but instead you have a spectrum of color. It’s more just a color coding. Someone would be una persona clara, light skinned. There’s also not a self-identification with being black. You wouldn’t necessarily call yourself black, you’d call yourself mixed. In the Dominican Republic, you’d hear people call themselves indio or indio oscuro which is darker Indian, but not Indian in the context of east, but in the context of indigenous. Once you saw a writer back then [in the 1990s] who specifically claimed a black identity and said “I’m Afro-Puerto Rican” or “Afro-Dominican,” that was interesting, although you’d come to find out that most of those people spent time in the U.S.

You might find a country, say, Puerto Rico with 97% Hispanic population. There wasn’t even the recognition of someone being black, although you could walk down the street and see the various colors that people are. Because there isn’t that identification with blackness, obviously the kind of hierarchy that exists in some places and the whole machinery that keeps in place one group over another doesn’t exist. Today, there are a lot more people identifying specifically as black like the author Mayra Santos, but there is a lot of ambivalence.

AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

NR: This is going to sound terrible, but I really like some of the Disney programs and not just for the escapism. It’s a toss up between Pocahontas who is quite spirited and Mulan who is from Chinese heritage. Looking at me you wouldn’t know I have Chinese heritage, but I do.

In terms of real life heroine, I’m a really strong woman and I learned that from my grandmother and mother. They were always very strong, working women, but my relationship with my mother was too turbulent for me to say that I take her as one of the people that I model myself on. I would say it’s a number of people. In Trinidad, we have our first female prime minister and it’s wonderful to see that. At Berkeley, I got the opportunity to meet Angela Davis. In the 70s, my father had a lot of her writing so I was blown away when I met her.

AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?

NR: The rioting in England that spread quickly to London, Birmingham and other areas in August. It all happened as a result of a young man being killed. No need to say he was a person of color. The reaction from young people was pegged in the news as this issue of color, but every time you saw a news clip you did not see people of color looting, rioting and lighting cars on fire. What you saw was white angry individuals. I saw so clearly the media’s use of technology to create a picture they wanted to create. There was also this interview with Darcus Howe who is Trinidadian and now living in England. One of the questions asked of him, and actually it wasn’t even framed as a question, she said, “You are no stranger to rioting, are you?” As a person of color, there was this automatic connection of him with rogue behavior.

AS: What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge facing feminism today?

NR: People ask, “Oh, there’s still feminism? Do we need it? You guys have so much equality.” There’s still this equation of feminism with equality. I’m not saying that that’s not an aspect but its not the only aspect. Especially with my interest in black women writers, we need more space for feminists to operate in.

AS: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

NR: My drink has gotta be scotch. We have a drink here where we mix scotch with coconut water and it’s a wonderful drink. The island will probably have coconuts so scotch is all I need. I like hakka a lot. It’s a mix of Chinese and Indian food. I would take any one of the meats they make, probably chicken. A continuous supply. I don’t need vegetables just the meat. I would take bell hooks not because she’s black, but because she’s so radical and I’m not at all, as feminist as my beliefs are. I read radical feminists like bell hooks and I think, wow, more power to them. How are they able to stand up and speak on the things they do?

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