The Journey of a Multi-Cultural Family (Part 2)
A human being is what we all are. Even the phrase, ‘being human’ — it is a phrase we should recognize as that the diversity of the human race is beautiful and something to be explored. Not to be tolerated but something to be embraced in so many ways.
As people, our sense-of-self is foundational, yet is always evolving. Feelings about our upbringing and our cultural values change as we encounter others with different ideas and perspectives. Sometimes these shifts can give way to doubt, shame, or prejudice.
Maurice Charles, on the contrary, is one who sees an unstable world through a pair of steady eyes. “I think it’s interesting because there are a lot of things in the world that get treated like human beings…” Maurice explains, his cadence even and voice calm. “Then for a true human being, who needs help, others do not look for them with the same attitude as they do with things. So the question, what it means to be human, is a question everyone needs to consider.”
Raised in a family from Trinidad and Tobago, an island in the West Indies, Maurice explains how centuries of colonization and slavery profoundly influenced the country’s population. Today demographics make up many ethnic groups from Indian to African, Chinese, and Dutch.
However, what makes Trinidadian culture unique from that of the “American melting pot” is their perception of diversity.
“In Trinidad, they don’t call people Chinese-Trinidadian or Indian-Trinidadian — they’re all just Trinidadian,” Maurice explains. Regardless of race, living in Trinidad constitutes that you have belonging there. “So you know my view of people, they’re not Italian-American or Asian-American, you know they’re just people — we come from different places but were all in the same place looking for the same opportunities and hoping for the same thing which is success and progress.”
But this perspective was tested by growing up in the States and seeing his father experience being overlooked for his skin tone and accent.
“From the prejudices being perpetrated on my family, it was easier for me to want to be prejudiced in return… It made me very wary of inviting any of that ridicule or commentary into my life. So in many ways, I was somewhat ashamed of my culture in my teen years,” Maurice remembers. “I think there was the double edge of where we come from, culture and diversity are beautiful, but where we are, it’s not.”
Ultimately, despite Maurice’s internal struggle, it could not prevail over the example his parents set.
“I think in general, there have been many benefits to my upbringing. My parents, they never spoke of any people as if they were less...This idea that people are people, that there’s a reason outside of someone's language or skin tone, or nation of origin… there’s a reason outside of those to make judgments. My parents helped me to understand that very young,” he explains.
These values reopened his eyes to the sameness — the humanity — all people share. Maurice carried these values into his dating relationship, and then marriage to Elizabeth Charles. With Elizabeth’s background as both white and Native American, growing up in a small and predominantly white town, her experience with diversity was so much different than Maurice’s.
“For us, it’s been cool. When I’m cooking - I cook a lot of Trinidadian food - she has even learned to do some of it herself. I’ve had the opportunity to go to the reservation a few times, and to be up there and experience the culture has been so enriching for our marriage…. Our place now is to make sure our son knows all about where he comes from,” Maurice expresses.
“I think as we interact with people, they learn a lot about the importance of how we all have more depth to us than what’s able to be seen on the outside,” Maurice continues.
Just as Trinidad and Tobago is a collection of diverse people, Maurice’s collective experience has enabled himself to see others for who they are and to listen intently to the stories they tell.
“For me, a human being is powerful. A human being belongs, has hope…. A human being is what we all are. Even the phrase, ‘being human’ — it is a phrase we should recognize as that the diversity of the human race is beautiful and something to be explored. Not to be tolerated but something to be embraced in so many ways. From music to food, to clothing, to power structures… to be human is to be open to learning,” he explains in one breath, “there is so much more to life than my specific experience.”
Instead of allowing change to rock his understanding of self, he allows it to enrich his life. Ultimately, from Maurice’s grappling with his own identity, he has taken away one simple principle — to lead by example.
“Don’t let insecurity about your culture lead you to belittle someone else’s. Embrace who you are, so they can embrace who you are.”
Maurice Charles | Human Being
Written by Abi Floresca