Naima Thompson has been an international educator of the dramatic arts for almost 30 years and an Intern Drama Therapist with the North American Drama Therapists Association (NADTA) for two years.
Naima currently works in HCMC and heads the Performing Arts department at the American International School (AmIS). In the 1990’s she obtained her BA degree in Communication Arts and her M.Ed in International Education. She lived 11 years in New York City educating adolescents before returning home to Trinidad and Tobago. In 2002 Naima founded the NGO Necessary Arts School, and subsequently offered performing arts workshops to at-risk youth. In 2007 Naima transitioned into the world of international education and accepted job offers in Qatar, China, the United Arab Emirates and HCMC Vietnam, where she currently resides. This is her story in facing the issues.
As an international educator born in Trinidad and Tobago, I have experienced overt and subtle racist behaviours from people all around the world for the past 30 years or so. I can create an exhaustive list of racial incidents and experiences of discrimination however, this will not serve my greater purpose, which involves attaining and sustaining emotional control of myself so as to make a significant difference in the young minds that sit before me everyday.
According to expert drama therapist Robert J Landy, “...distancing is a means of separating oneself from the other, and generally maintaining a balance between the two states of separation and closeness.” In other words, emotional expression is measured according to emotional “distance”. One can be void of emotion, hyper emotional or be able to hold a fair balance between the two. With this understanding, I strive everyday to hold an aesthetic balance of emotions when confronted with racial challenges, and encourage others to strive for the same, if possible.
One example—in a Southeast Asian classroom where high school students brainstormed topics for a social experiment, I shared with them a racial encounter I experienced at a local restaurant earlier that week. A student then informed me quite passively, “Ms Naima, as a culture, my people don’t like black people. We look down on them and don’t want them in our spaces really.” I diverted the conversation until further notice, as I recognised in that moment that I must create an aesthetic emotional distance to remain objective, empathetic, understanding and conscientiously authentic all at the same time.
To my pleasant surprise when the topic came up in class a week later, my student shared with us her attempt to educate her “racist” family and the limited yet awesome shift she feels in her mother because of the courageous conversation she was willing to engage. As I celebrate this win, I am reminded that educators are the gatekeepers of our children’s future and must give this responsibility the full attention it deserves.
In my younger years, I never realised that the colour of my skin mattered until I experienced racism in New York City (NYC) in the 1990’s. Fresh out of the most beautiful island in the world, I had no idea that I would spend the rest of my life giving conscious attention to the fact that I’m ‘Black’. When people try to put a label to my shade of ‘blackness’, I say, “Black is a nation, not a colour.” Please stop telling me “I” am “brown” or “red”. When I refer to myself as “Black” in the company of (white) associates, they sometimes respond with, “You’re not black Naima, you’re brown…” I think to myself, what does that even mean? The ridiculousness of the topic is mind boggling to say the least.
My early encounters with racism were loaded with fear, confusion, anxiety and most of all an unstoppable and empowered sense of determination to manifest my dreams and to fulfil my life’s purpose. During the 11 years that I lived in NYC my only set intention, once I realised my talents, was to apply them wholeheartedly to my life’s purpose of educating through the dramatic arts. Along my journey I found myself in spaces where being the token Trinidadian was the norm; being one of the token blacks was inevitable. Though I cannot speak for others, I can with certainty say that if I were not focused on the big picture of my life, I would have been thrown off my rock with fear, shame and confusion at my feet.
Our parents provide us with an abundance of lessons and values that serve as the default go-to-place when life’s challenges confront us. I for one am grateful for lessons of effective speech, physical appearance and compassion for all. My parents, more so my mom, instilled and encouraged me to speak in “standard” English. While she did not show disapproval of our Trinbagonian dialect, she taught me the importance of speaking to be understood. With this arsenal in my back pocket, my confidence was strong enough to develop the coping skills needed to present myself and to represent my people with dignity, even when confronted with hate and ignorance.
Now at age 50, I am very certain of my identity and how I wish to be perceived in the world. I am unmistakably black and very proud to come from a strong lineage of Caribbean and African ancestors. From countries in the West to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Far East Asia and even Africa, I experience how people of African descent are treated in the workplace and/or spaces in general. While we are unlikely to undo the damage of colonialism and its impact on “blacks” in the diaspora, as well as the perpetuated misrepresentation of the African race through mass media, I continue to urge everyone where and when possible to remain in balance and lay foundations of love, peace, and compassion toward all of humanity.