The Oxford Dictionary defines “Institutional Racism” as, “racial discrimination that has become established as normal behaviour within a society or organisation”. Applicable to Barbados? Yes.
Unless you are an under rock dweller, you would have at least heard about the racist, ignorant post made by Camilla Andrews-Gibson, a Barbadian who identifies as White, in response to the defacing of the statue of Admiral Nelson which stands in Bridgetown, our capital. After reading the post my immediate thought was that she could not be attempting to address me (a Black Barbadian) with the garbage she wrote, although she was clear on who she intended to be her target audience (“you Blacks”, scoff). Thankfully, she was dragged for filth by responses from persons of all shades and seems to have retreated into whatever cave it is that she dwells in and where she and persons who think like her (who also made their feelings known on social media) can quite frankly, stay. Have.Several.Seats.
We all know that drugs, teenage pregnancy, violence, cursing and all the “ills” she referenced as problems for us “Blacks” (thanks for the capital “B”, love) also plague White Barbados but, I digress. That conversation is too basic for this forum so we’ll leave it right here.
As I said in a post over a year ago, there are deep seated issues that many of us are “too afraid” or “can’t be bothered” to tackle when it comes to race relations in Barbados. Specifically, those issues that exist between descendants of former slaves and descendants of former slave masters.
Conversations about race in a region which was built by slaves and those who enslaved them are rightfully difficult. Our history cannot be erased as simply instances from the past that we should “get over”, as we are still affected by them to this day. As an attempted counter argument to the ire of persons who were against Camilla’s post, we saw the comments flying left and right about harsh treatment of Irish indentured servants in Barbados and prejudiced behaviour from Barbadians of African descent towards Barbadians of Caucasian descent. I acknowledge that these are important topics of conversation but state that they miss the point that critics of Camilla’s post were trying to make.
We 2017 “Blacks” are products of a system which literally beat into the bodies of our ancestors the idea that they were worthless, savage and good enough only to work from sunrise to sunset without compensation. That women were no more than baby factories and empty vessels to experiment on for sex. This system largely erased histories and cultures and/or suppressed formal education. So much that unless you are a student of history or read from scholarly sources, much is unknown about our origins. It is also important to note that the constant abuse of those who came before us by their masters was perpetuated in more modern forms over the years, such as in the Barbados leading up to the 1937 riots and the fight for the right to vote for ordinary Black Barbadians.
We 2017 “Blacks” are products of a system which divided us by the shades of our skin and textures of our hair, an atrocity which exists to this day with darker skinned men and women having to prove daily to society that they are just as beautiful or intelligent and that their hair is not “ugly” or “nappy” or “hard” or “unkempt and unmanageable”. This system also allows for instances where those of us who are lighter complexioned were verbally and physically harmed growing up because those of us who are darker felt resentful towards them. Why is bleaching of skin so popular in some quarters? Because of this mess.
Barbadians who are in their sixties and seventies will tell you about 40 to 50 years ago when we had our own version of “White only” establishments and neighbourhoods and a time when the majority of persons who were given “front office” jobs in the then major commercial hub, Bridgetown, were white or light-skinned. This meant that for years, darker skinned Barbadians were relegated to lower paying jobs which didn’t offer many opportunities and which resulted in a harder fight into board rooms or obstacle after obstacle faced in their own businesses. It meant that we started at a grave disadvantage economically and have been playing catch-up ever since.
We are products of a system where although Black Barbadians aren’t the only ones who are negatively affected by the failing economy, they are the ones who for the most part did not benefit in some way from generational wealth to assist with their navigation of society, whether it be a job, a car, a gift or loan of fees to attend private school, startup capital for a business idea or simply, shares in one of the major companies in Barbados.
Our society is one in which we still speak in terms of “white schools” and “black schools” and “white Kadooment bands” and in which our generational comfort has perpetuated a culture of the social separation of these two races beyond secondary school and in some cases, within. I have friends from other Caribbean islands and outside of the region who, when visiting Barbados were stunned at the segregated nature of our social lives and the fact that we simply accept it as the norm. Why does this happen?
Are hundreds of years of systems which were created to put one race in the dominant position over the other to be dismissed as a “chip on the shoulder”? Are they to be suddenly erased because talking about the modern-day effects makes both Black and White people uncomfortable? The answer is no. The fact that someone so young could find it ok to post such hate online means that this is dinner table/kitchen counter/car drive conversation. It cannot be shoved off the table and hidden under the cellar, it has to be addressed now.
What can we do as a society? We need to SPEAK OUT on these issues and be willing to engage in difficult conversations and truly LISTEN to the other side. We need to bring FACTS and RELIABLE HISTORY to the table when discussing race and how it affects the ways in which we interact with each other. We need to LEARN ABOUT EACH OTHER. We need to not confuse racism with prejudice, classism and xenophobia which are all stains on the Barbadian landscape but need to be addressed for what they truly are. We need to be FEARLESS but not IGNORANT in our fearlessness. Stop burying our heads in the sand and saying things like “We’re all one race, the human race” and that “I don’t see colour” and acknowledge that colour is everywhere and some people, because of the colour of their skin, whether they are aware of it or not, exist with a level of privilege that has never been the norm for others.
What do we “Blacks” need to do? In addition to the above, what many of my peers are doing, and that’s educating ourselves beyond what we learned in our government-funded/subsidised education about our history and culture. We need to build our own wealth that we can pass down to our children. We need to continue to support each other’s business endeavours. My parents didn’t know many of the things I now know about wealth creation but they insisted that my sisters and I educated ourselves and not be afraid to interact with all kinds of people. They also taught us to stand up for ourselves and be vocal on issues that affect us.
Yes, I am a product of both private and public school educations and that has shaped who I am today. Yes, I was bullied for having “hard hair” and as a child and teen wished that I was lighter skinned because that was “prettier” or was what the boys liked. Yes, I am proud to be an educated “Black” with a “good job”. Yes, I try to help those who were more harshly affected by the “system” than I was by giving back to my community. I’m just trying to make a happy life for myself and working on being an agent for change in any way I can.
I’ve shown my willingness to bring these issues into the open. What about you?