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|A New Way of Viewing Race (Nassau Guardian)|
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|Posted by:||May 9th 2007, 11:28:34 am|
|Fig Tree News Team||More on race in the Bahamas:
Blessed be. More conversation about race. A conversation that wants to be more than either/or. Must be something in the air (I can feel it all the way over here), something about the day after the pendulum has swung again, putting the FNM back in power, this time with a white DPM. Must be we need to keep talking about who we are and will become. Must be something in the air, because while I was rustling around in my head about how I wanted to write to you about race, Christian Campbell was writing his own words down, and maybe you who are reading this piece now, maybe you too were rustling around in your own head, your heart maybe too, for reasons to talk about race. Who we are and will become.
Yes, Christian, we need healing, still. You're right we need safe spaces to tell our stories, just tell them. Though sometimes, there is no safety and we have to tell them anyway. It hurts more not telling them. And the thing is, in a small place, we can't hide. Not really. In a small place, we know when somebody isn't speaking to us, or when our own silence has become a matter of public importance. Whether we are the prime minister, the deputy prime minister or somebody's neighbor down the road. "What happen, you can't talk to people hey?" We know when a back has been turned, and we take it personally. To board a jitney without saying "Good Morning!" or "Afternoon!" is rude. A greeting is expected. In a small place, we are variables in each others' lives. This is something my ex-partner remarked on when she met my family, listened to my friends speak, about life here at home, about politics in a small place. "You act like you are variables in each others' lives." I had never quite heard it put that way. I just know you can't go two steps without people asking about your business, or knowing it already. And she meant it in a positive way. As if to say, it matters what each of you does, your lives influence each other, your decisions, your choices. It's true. In a small place, we are lucky. Of course, not everyone rides the jitney. Money buys cars and land. The more money I have, the more distance I can buy, from my neighbors, or from people who do not have as much money as me. The man on the jitney expecting me to regard him is not a variable. I don't have to concern myself with what he thinks of himself or me. Yet, on an island 21 by 7, the million dollar home is only a stone's throw away from a low cost housing subdivision, and when the high tide water mark rises because global warming is real and we don't want to pay attention, those seaside homes will feel the water rising same as the houses in Yellow Elder that flood every time it rains.
What I'm saying is that in a small place we have the opportunity to use the languages we already have and create the new languages we need in order to talk about race, its connections to class; to act like what we think and experience and feel matters, and to sit down with each other and say so. In big places, there is a lot of space between people. So much space, it is easy for people to pretend they are not family. And the more wealth a person or group of people has, the more space between themselves and others they can buy.
In this small place, we have the gift of not being able to hide. In spite of expensive walls and gates. We run into each other on the streets. We sit behind each other in traffic jams. We write about each other in the daily papers. We call on each other to be honest. To respond, for God's sake. "You can't talk to people hey?" is the way Bahamians tell each other it isn't okay to turn your back on your neighbor. "You forget where you come from hey?" That it isn't okay to pretend we are not family, that we didn't come that route.
This is how I learned to question racism. Growing up and hearing the meaning inside the words. Growing up and boarding the jitney and realizing, shy or not, I was supposed to say 'Good day...' Getting grown, boarding the same bus, sitting next to an older man who looks at me with righteous disdain, says 'Good morning...', because he has not heard me say it first, looks at me expecting to be regarded in this most basic of human ways. And he is right to expect this from me. In a small place, we are lucky. Lucky to be variables in each others' lives. I was lucky. Being called into relationship by my neighbors, who didn't believe racism could define them. Refused to see me define myself according to racist concepts either.
I was a 'prefect' at St. Andrew's school. I was not more than fifteen years old. With the badge came power. A younger student than myself had dropped a piece of trash on the ground. Eager to do my prefect duty, I scolded him and told him to pick it up, or else. I'm sure that was the tone of my remarks, if not word for word. This student, who was black, refused to pick up the trash. I insisted that he needed to. Still he refused. We were in a stalemate. Our cultural legacies standing right there between us. Fortunately, at that moment a friend and fellow prefect, who was also black, (and the grandson of one of the great social architects of this country) took me aside. He said, "You've embarrassed Kendal (not his real name). You can't talk to people that way and expect them to do what you ask. He feels put down." I never forgot that teaching. This was a profound lesson on power. My friend was asking me to notice how I was using power to hurt and demean rather than to create trust and relationship. In order to use my power to create trust and relationship, I had to respect Kendal as a person first; I had to see and value who he was. I had to believe I was not more valuable than him.
Racism, specifically western racism, is supported and perpetuated when a group of people believe that they have the right to power over others whose lives they deem inherently less valuable than their own. And it is this collective belief that supports systems of racism in the West. I say systems because clearly, racism plays out differently in different countries and regions. In the US, where European Americans are the majority, racism is institutionalized differently than it is in The Bahamas and other Caribbean countries. But to imagine that a system of racism (a hierarchy of valuing human beings along a continuum of whiteness, where resistance to racism means getting off the continuum and experiencing/creating another reality altogether...) does not exist because we are a majority black country, with a majority black government is to disregard the complexity of our relationships to our collective histories, to ourselves and one another, to tourism as our major economy, and our relationship to the US.
But as I have said, in a small place, we are lucky. We don't have to go far to find each other and talk. We can walk outside to the nearest bus stop, pay the dollar and ride. Listen to what our neighbors are saying, include our own selves in the conversation, about race; about race and class in this country; about race and class and gender and sexuality; about how difficult and precious it is to be a human being in these times, as 'mix up' and strange and heartbreakingly beautiful as we are.
One reader asked me not so long ago, 'Well, how do we move forward together in this talk of race?' One story at a time. Every story a window. Every story necessary. How we came to be here. Who we want to become. Let's keep talking.
|Posted by:||May 9th 2007, 11:27:28 am|
|Fig Tree News Team||Apropos post-Election 2007:
Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony
Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh lord why don't we?
Paul McCartney and
Stevie Wonder, "Ebony and Ivory"
"Still Wrong Now" / "So Sad, So Dumb"
So why don't we? Oh Lord! Fast forward to early 2007- Fred Mitchell took the mud-slinging offensive, claiming that racism still exists and that putting the Ingraham-Symonette ticket into power would haul our tails right back into the dark ages (or the white ages?) of the UBP oligarchy. Symonette, who is allegedly "white" and is one half of the FNM's chiaroscuro duo, responded that the PLP was playing this race card out of desperation and that we should not speak of race in The Bahamas as there is no longer any racism. Now that the FNM has "baked the crab" and won the 2007 elections, now that Hubert Ingraham and Brent Symonette are the Salt 'n Pepper PM and DPM, what does this mean for our sense of race in The Bahamas?
Let me get right to the point – I believe that Bahamian conversations about race and other issues are plagued by the binary thinking of either/or. We are either saved or heathen, PLP or FNM, Bahamian or Haitian, Saxon or Valley, black or white. We need to get beyond either/or to a philosophy of both/and that accounts for the complexities of identities, ideas and experiences.
Let us not fool ourselves, race matters in The Bahamas, in often subtle and insidious ways. We need more painfully honest, carefully considered arguments and less superficial, misconstrued invocations of Martin Luther King, the name-and-blame games and naively dangerous strategies of colour-blindness. Racism certainly persists (though dressed in new clothes) in The Bahamas and the PLP certainly manipulates race as a desperate political tactic, as does the FNM in different ways. At the same time, it is also ridiculous and irresponsible to claim that we could ever return to the UBP era and, even more disturbing, that racism is dead and we should just shut up about it.
It is interesting that a number of radio talk-show callers, even those that claimed to be PLPs, expressed great disappointment with the PLP "UBP scare tactics" and, it seems, voted accordingly. I am very concerned that the PLP's claims about the UBP return flies in the face of the legacy of the first PLP government, which facilitated the emergence of the black middle-class. We can only wait and see if the UBP nightmare becomes a reality.
But it isn't only the PLP that plays the race card. While the PLP ceremonies in honour of the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade were poorly planned and thinly-veiled campaign events, the FNM has made no public statement whatsoever on the Bicentenary. Let's hope they rehabilitate this oversight as a government. My point is that both the FNM's silence and their statements about "salt n pepper" racial harmony are also race card strategies.
Racism as a concept and practice is profoundly misunderstood in The Bahamas and I realise that this is a great part of its effectiveness. It is not simply racial epithets or interpersonal antipathy, which tends to be grounds for the cry of "reverse racism." Racism has to do with systems of power, complex relationships, scripted by the idea of race in concert with class. In fact class is so central to how race works, that the two words should be attached: race-and-class.
Racism naturalises and normalises certain ideas and values that serve as 'backative' (support) for those with power. Racism, in fact, allows many white people to say, "It doesn't affect me" or "I don't even think about race." This is what happens when you both lack a social conscience and have the privilege to live in a Sandyport world away from the daily darts of race and class oppression. We can also talk about when black people internalise racism and use their power to systematically oppress other black people. Racism is quite savvy at camouflaging itself, blending in with the ho-hum day-to-day. What we need to do is identify and call out the disguise.
"No Turning Black"
(Where's your grandmother?)
"Whiteness" in the Caribbean is interesting. When I interviewed Brent Symonette in May 2005, he claimed not to know of his black heritage. In this Bahamaland there are also people as dark as I am who function, for all intents and purposes, as "socially white." They mainly have white friends, they frequent the spots over P.I. (Paradise Island) or way out West that expats like and they won't admit that they're black. It's very strange.
But Caribbean "near-whites" are interesting. They often "pass" for white for the social (and economic) profits. Not-quite not-white (lick a da tar brush). In Puerto Rico (and I believe Cuba), with its complicated and sometimes disturbing perceptions of race, there is a saying that goes, "¿Y tu abuela a dónde está?" or "Where is your grandmother?" In other words, no matter how "white" you may look, it is entirely possible that your grandmother is black. "White" Bahamians who disavow their black blood suffer from self-hatred, need healing and, worst of all, shame our shared grandmothers.
Like Conch Salad
One thing about The Bahamas is we don't seem to have a space in this discourse on race-and-class for mixed identities, and for non-black, non-"white" Bahamian identities. What about the Chinese and Greek Bahamians? What about Bahamians of Indian, Indian-Trinidadian or Indian-Guyanese, Filipino and other heritages? And all in between. We have whole islands and settlements of mixed people - look at Long Island (though many "think they white"). We so potcake in The Bahamas, it ain' even funny.
Charles Carter often says that if your family was in The Bahamas circa 1900, then you are likely related to everyone in this country. The bottom line of what he is saying is that family, and therefore race-and-class relations in The Bahamas are amazingly complex. Whether we want to admit it or not we are each other's business. No one has been spared.
Growing up in The Bahamas, I was considered funny-looking. My father is Bahamian, my mother is Trinidadian and my racial heritage is African, Carib, East Indian, Spanish and French (a typical Trini mix). My "other" ancestries, clearly evidenced in my hair texture, eye shape and cheekbones, are sometimes a bit odd for Bahamians. In other parts of the Caribbean, I may be called "dougla," "callaloo," maybe "moro," maybe "Garifuna." But there's not quite a term for me in The Bahamas. I am a black man of multiracial heritage - blackness, for me, is a conch salad.
In the conch salad of colors, classes and ideas that is The Bahamas, the FNM has tended to take a position that claims to offer racial harmony, while naively and dangerously ignoring the persistence of actual racial and class inequalities. I hope that as the new government, they will take a more proactive and productive role in racial healing.
This healing demands new talks for race-and-class. We need a language that can accommodate all of our complexities, a language that can acknowledge and integrate our mix-up mix-up without playing into the belief that "mixed" is better than "black," or into the grossly oversimplified strategy of "color-blindness." Everyone sees color - our infinity of shades is what makes us beautiful.
What we need to create are as many opportunities as possible to educate ourselves about the race-and-class diversity of our population and history. We need both academic and non-academic forums, "safe spaces" in which we can discuss these issues with the shared goal of healing. We need far more forums for cultural sharing to impact youth on a national level about, for instance, the importance of Greek-Bahamian and Chinese-Bahamian traditions in our national culture. We need far more non-black Bahamians to take responsibility and higher stakes, and to be honest, in the conversation about race-and-class. For example, I'm thinking of people like Helen Klonaris and Godfrey Kelly who have made wonderful contributions.
As Aurora Ferguson reminds us in her magnificent prose-poem "Sea": "Our complexion is mocha, cocoa, coffee, cassava bread, potato bread, cinnamon, honey, mango skinned, conchie joe, reddish brown." Like our rainbow skin, our experiences, ideological positions, our desires, span a both/and spectrum of shades, complexities and contradictions.
Let's break off and run that gamut.
n Christian Campbell is a poet, cultural critic and journalist. For more information, see www.myspace.com/christiancampbellguerrer
us online at