Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Monday, March 09, 2009

Race To Where?

Discussing race and racism is extremely difficult. If you are of one race (or colour) and make negative comments about another race (or colour), you are likely to be labelled 'racist', at the very least by the race criticized. Whatever substance there might be gets lost in the racial differences. If you try to have such discussions in one of those countries that have developed through a history of slavery or racial intolerance, the arguments get very emotional very quickly. So, we see a very difficult terrain for discussion of racial issues in the USA, where slavery had been a key part of its development, and where legal separation of races was in place at a time that most people can still remember living through. It is a bitter and violent history. In the Caribbean, too, we have a difficult terrain for racial discussions. The main differences in the Caribbean are perceived to be between whites and blacks, but many know that racial divisions are also intense between those of African and Indian/Pakistani descent, as in Guyana and Trinidad.

In any country, even one that has little evident racial difference within its borders, segregation is rife and is very much the norm. Many studies have shown that people gravitate toward those whom they feel are alike. That can largely be racial or colour based, but it can also be social and economic. So, for example, people will band together for religious reasons--it makes sense if one wants to build a congregation. Such banding together can take on a momentum of its own and that can be good for those who are 'included' but be a basis of friction with those who are 'excluded'. So, in places like England, Europe, the USA, there will be areas that are known to have high concentrations of Jewish people or some clear ethnic group, who perhaps arrived as immigrants and made their home in a neighbourhood, which attracted other similar migrants and on it went. Hence, you get areas such as 'Little Italy', 'Chinatown', 'Little India', etc. There is now even an interactive map that allows you to identify such social concentrations in the UK. Depending on your preferences, that can help you find or help you avoid certain types of people.

Within the world of race and racial issues, Barbados can often seem peculiar--not unique. The country is predominantly black (of African origin), and for centuries was run by whites (Britons of various origins). Over time, economic and political power resided in the hands of whites. From its independence in 1966, political power was transferred from whites to black as the British withdrew as colonial masters and handed this over to elected representatives who were mainly from the black majority. Economic power in Barbados, however, tended to remain concentrated in the hands of a few white families. In recent years, that has changed to some degree as one of Barbados' neighbours, Trinidad, gained economic power and looked to expand and diversify its economy: Trinidadian-owned companies have been buying into the Barbadian economy. While that has changed the colour of some economic power in Barbados, it has also introduced a different racial element, which is illuminating because it shows that racism is not first and foremost about colour.

In Barbados, one sees very little public animosity between the races. But you see very little public mixing in large groups. Just a random look into or attendance at social events and you will see what is the norm. If an event is hosted by whites, whether they be white Bajans or white expatriates, the event is predominantly white. If there is an event hosted by blacks, then the opposite applies. As far as social events are concerned, this is not extraordinary in racially diverse societies. I have seen the same many times in the US and UK. Many people do not have friends that cross races. If they think it would be a good thing to do so, then it happens somewhat selectively and they are very glad to parade their 'ethnic' friends when they can; but these ethnic friends will often find themselves either isolated or very much in the minority at such events, and naturally may feel uncomfortable.

I was fascinated by the publication recently in the Nation of a letter by a prominent white business in Barbados, Ralph 'Bizzy' Williams, on the topic of racism in Barbados. In brief, he recently divorced his white wife and married a black woman.He highlighted that his old social life was mainly with whites, but now they seem to shun him and he passes most social time with blacks. He tries to give advice to both sides of the racial divide--and I suspect in his attempt to bridge a racial gap will find himself savaged for stereotyping and being simplistic. His letter came at close to the comments of the US Attorney General, Eric Holder (himself of Bajan heritage, ironically) that America had been a "nation of cowards" on the matter of dealing with racial issues. I personally would not have chosen Mr. Holder's terms, but I understand a bit of his anger and frustration at how the matter just keeps getting bogged down. Interestingly, President Obama has stirred the pot by implicitly chiding Mr. Holder for the manner that he has introduced discussion of racial issues (see International Herald Tribute report): "I think it's fair to say that if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language." Mr. Holder's remarks were quickly criticised by those who see the election of a black president, who then chose a black attorney general, as evidence that the nation is in fact brave on racial issues. But, as the president tried to point out, much serious discussion only occurs when there is major racial flare up. The president's 'conversation' with his AG will be very interesting on many levels, not least because there are a good number of people who see themselves as black and see neither the president or the AG that way. Many white people, and many black people cannot understand that line of thinking, but it exists. But, one hopes that the president can chide his AG and have no one jump on him for making a racial slight.

As I said, Barbados is peculiar, but not unique. Discussions of racial divisions are not really ongoing. One hears grumblings on both sides but see little effort to bridge; that is pretty standard in terms of what I have seen in many countries. You cannot force people to be friends and neighbours. Discussions on race here often centre on the fact that whites--supposedly about 10 percent of the population--control most of the economic enterprises. So, many issues that touch on the economy, especially when things are not going well, have a racial undertone. Ironically, during this period where financial enterprises are going through some 'difficulties', if I could use a delicate term, one of the arguments that came from a senior politician alluded to the problems that some people have with a black man rising from humble beginnings. It reminded me of the famous 'storming from the studio' moment of the former Minister of Tourism--who felt it improper that another black man from humble beginnings should be asked to justify from where his wealth had come. Therein, lie some serious self-image issues.

Because of many accidents in life I have often found myself as a rare black person in a sea of white people; but it has never been a source of intimidation. I have always had my position because of merit or ability or lack of it. I revere no man or woman for how they look, least of all for a melanin balance that differs from mine. I know that congregations of white people will tend to exist; but I know the same is true of blacks. If I choose to join either I don't excpet to be excluded just because my skin colour is different or my accent or language is different. But I am not so naive to believe that it may not happen. When I meet people I feel comfortable with those I like and I know that I am prejudiced--I prefer people who make me laugh and make me think.

It is really quite amusing to watch how people go about showing their racial preferences. A black woman, lost in a place, waits for a 'friendly' black person to query for directions. A white man entering a subway car filled with black people, turns back and decides to stay on the platform or go to look in another carriage. A white customer in a supermarket proffers the money by placing it on the counter and not making contact with the black cashier. People compliment you on how you look if you fit their image of what the good racial type is--that's a great one for some black men, who often like women with a big behind, so if the shape works then so will other things. Black women get into their complexes when it comes to shades--and one of them will have to explain how 'red' is the new black--or about hair ('good' is straighter and less kinky). So, I love the way that many Bajan women have neutralised that last aspect by having shaved heads or very short hair.

Barbados does not strike me as somewhere that can have a real conversation about race because its history has too much baggage--slavery and oppression, exclusion and privileges, etc. But, it is but a special case of those places that have lived through slavery.

Race rarely raises its head as a major issue in good economic times, so it will be interesting over the next few years to see Barbados go through tough economic times and where its discussion of race goes.

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