THE RAINBOW IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
Events in America have made me think deeply about race in the Caribbean and in Trinidad and Tobago.
My daughters, although of mixed race, carry my Middle Eastern surname, which is a yoke for them in many unenlightened circles, here and around the world. They look “white”, but many Caucasian and Afro- and Indian-Trinis regard them as “Syrian”. There’s no ethnicity or race called “Syrian” of course. It’s a nationality, proven by citizenship, which no one in my family ever had. Despite the inaccuracy of the term it is something I must learn to accept as a unique form of racial branding on the Islands.
The subterranean dynamics of black/white, Indian/black, white/black/Indian, Syrian/black/white/Indian, and Chinese/white/black/Indian interactions, to name a few, are complex. Added to the mix is the dark-skin/light-skin dynamic that is present within many black and Indian circles.
Stereotypes and outright racism are rampant, especially on our small islands. You’d think that it would be the reverse: that being closely hemmed in by an encroaching sea, on the rocks we call our homes (as Kei Miller put it), there’d be more interaction and thus more appreciation for our shared common humanity. There isn’t that appreciation, at least among the masses of all the major racial groupings. Many of those who profess to be enlightened and free of racism are not. An island is just as small a crucible as a city in Minnesota.
“You can tell a person by the friends they keep” is a true statement. A casual glance at the Facebook list of island people’s friends says something about them, but not enough. A Facebok friend-list can often be curated to create an impression. Instead, scroll through their “uploaded” photo album for a truer insight into their social lives. Uploads are spontaneously created. It’s through our social lives that bonds are made. Society is all about interaction. Racism is often the result of non-interaction. I, too, might be rightly criticized in the same “FB upload photo-album analysis”. I haven’t checked.
There are deeper issues of course. The legacy of enslavement and indentureship is still with all of us, a Gordian knot buried within our unconscious minds, causing a toxic mix of embarrassment, grievance, privilege, or low or high self-esteem. Wealth disparity also plays a big part, a feature of systemic racism. Many banks deem some loan applications as “better bets” than others, and, too often, the analysis is based on racial grounds or on something as simple as a home address. Without access to loans—as my father, a one-time street vendor, enjoyed— opportunities to own land and start a business or educate your children are severely diminished. Land is a commodity that can be mortgaged to access even better credit terms.
It is likely that rich Trini-Indians look down on poor Trini-Indians. The same thing with Middle Eastern, black and Chinese people. In truth, the so-called “1%” has become a racial slur against all Middle Eastern people on the island, but each race has a 1% within it, and the rest in that ethnicity occupy lower economic echelons, subject to the same unspoken condescension of those at the top of their own ethnicities. Within my so-called “1% ethnicity” there is a 1% of “the 1%”, but island people still lump us all together, rich and poor, public servant or struggling shop owner. I am not a social scientist and haven’t seen any data, but I believe that intermarriage within the “1%”
of each ethnicity is more or less the same. Marriages are either arranged by diktat or by persistent subliminal parental persuasion. The rich, privileged or socially accepted at the top of every ethnicity tend to intermarry among that echelon in similar percentiles. Class or the perception of a class structure is powerful among the rich, as it is everywhere. Our Lady Chatterley has taken few lovers on the Islands, but there are a few exceptions of course.
People in this society get the feeling that they’re somehow unwelcome interacting with “the other”. It is a self-taught or unconscious sense of uncomfortableness. The quickest way to dispel this, I think, is to fall in love with a person of another race. It worked for me. I feel that the unity of lips and bodies always percolates downward into the heart, where love and understanding truly reside. One day, if I have the time or the professional freedom, I will tell the story of the black girl from Detroit who I met one night at a strip club in Ontario when I was 20 years old. She changed my life. Since then, I’ve had several inter-racial relationships. Eventually, I married a so-called “red” Trini. Using Lloyd Best’s distinction, my wife’s mother was an Afro-Saxon, and not a Garveyite black. That’s a wholly different discussion, better told from a black perspective.
Racial prejudice is always noticeable on the Islands, and not only in banking circles. Black people either stay away or are excluded from entering certain night clubs on the island. It was so when I was growing up and it’s so today. In my day, the black bouncer at one popular night club would tell black people standing in the line that the club was too full. Of course, these black people would see white and high-brown people freely traipsing in.
Nowadays club entrance privilege is governed by something called “a list”. To get into the club your name must be on “the list”. The list is curated by someone employed by the night club. People text the curator in advance to get their name and the names of their friends on the list for a Friday or Saturday night. One of my daughters last night told me about an incident she experienced last year at one of Port of Spain’s leading nightclubs.
She called the hostess and texted the names of eight friends. One of the names, in the middle of her list, was an Indian name. Enslavement being what it was, her black and white friends carried white names. When they arrived the Indian girl was refused admission. Her skin tone was, incidentally, the very darkest shade of black. “Her name isn’t on the list”, the man at the entrance said. “Impossible” said my daughter, “look at my text message, her name is in the middle, and those above and below are on your list, but not hers?” The whole group left in disgust. Our feelings of uncomfortableness as victims of discrimination are never to be carelessly dismissed. Uncomfortableness is the precursor of fear. If the discrimination is systemic, fear becomes anger.
People tend to live in enclaves on this island. At a puerile level they think that our multi-racial “rainbow country” (first so described by Desmond Tutu on a visit here in the 90s) is proven at Carnival time when all races are said to interact as “one people”. A rainbow has many colours, but they are separate, merging only at the outer fringes of each band. Otherwise the colours don’t mix. The Carnival enclave mentality is still present, despite the sensual attractions of perfect bodies of every colour. We have carnival bands and fetes that exemplify racial or colour-coded branding (an important word). Of course, there are exceptions but the branding is still generally present.
Glossy carnival magazines tend to mostly show the fairer-skinned masqueraders, excluding almost all the dark-skinned players, who comprise the majority. It is as if the black masqueraders are photo-shopped out of the photos, and out of the very festival that they created. I’ve played in many different carnival bands and used to go to the Army and Soca City fetes in my younger days, but I am, these days, also subject to branding at Carnival. People tend to congregate in enclaves, and these are often socially driven. We are all somehow unconsciously corralled like cattle by our social, economic, or intellectual circles mentality.
In my job I’ve received valuable and intensive training on unconscious bias. It’s the most invidious type of bias, as the person isn’t even aware of it. I’ve learnt to identify my unconscious leanings and to root them out. It hasn’t been easy, but for the most part it’s been successful. Of course, my experiences of inter-racial relationships also helped me. Left to me, every school in every country should have compulsory core courses on unconscious bias.
Everyone should also be obligated to study Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, as if it were a holy book. The invisibility of all of our races and ethnicities to each other is very real and ominous.
Image info: Ananda Poon. Blurred landscapes–Through my Granny’s glasses.
JCA is a Trinidad and Tobago lawyer and has published two books of poems. He is working on a third. Some of his poems have been anthologized. His book “Lagahoo Poems” won the inaugural prize for English Caribbean poetry jointly offered by Derek Walcott’s Rat Island Foundation and Boston University in 2004. In 2005 he accepted an appointment as a Judge of High Court of Trinidad and Tobago and has since divided his time (although not equally) between writing judgments and poetry.