In the aftermath of the elections 2015 outcome, there has been plenty talk about race and racism in Trinidad and Tobago. This piece is an attempt to add to those much needed on-going conversations considering what we can do collectively to improve race relations in Trinidad and Tobago.
The difference between prejudice and racism is the latter means having the institutional power to enact the former upon others. For Trinidadian purposes of discussion, I am really not making strict distinctions between the two. Because if you freely indulge in the categorization of black people as sub human on social media, and given some of the degrees of separation on the island or the connections you might be able to influence, then the power to employ that thinking in some tangible way, is highly plausible.
The state — the island’s governance — even when filled with black and brown faces can act in collusion with global systems of black and brown oppression and violence. Colonized people can pass on some screwed up thinking about people who look exactly like themselves or are a few shades off of their own. Internalized race and skin shade messiness doesn’t go anywhere but into wider society or another generation if it was never dealt with seriously at all. And that’s not even touching on the white and white-by-proxy (not incumbent on a particular ethnicity) social elites who exist outside of and away from machinations of the state in some ways, but are there, at the same time.
Diversity doesn’t always equal tolerance or true love and acceptance of people who look or live differently than you. While it’s common to hear some Trinis say it’s the older generation promoting racism, lots of those people posting racist opinions and epithets weren’t looking a day over 30, most of them. Children can be immersed in a racially and ethnically diverse cultural environment on paper, from small, and still grow up to be racists.
My primary school included all kinds of girls and some of us remained good friends or stayed in touch. Moving onward, in my school, like in most secondary schools, crews are formed: by form, neighbourhood, socioeconomics, vibes, ethnic groups. There were Indian crews split along gendered lines in nearly each year (sometimes “the crew” was really just two Indian people in the same year, assuming three people makes a full fledged crew of any sort). I attended a secondary school in Port of Spain which did not have too many East Indians and my year only had three Indian girls that I can recall. One, I talked to regularly inside school grounds, but we have not kept in touch. In primary school, I had one good Indian friend in my class who migrated, so consequently, I don’t have a single close East Indian girlfriend as an adult who I knew in childhood. I have no close friends from growing up who are both Indian and Hindu. If you peruse (or let’s be honest, freely maco) any open albums that happen to come across your social media feed (weddings are especially telling), those of peers and people connected to people you know, it’s easy to see that people’s social, class and colour circles forge in certain predictable ways inside Trinidad all the time.
One of my best girlfriends today from secondary school is half Indian, so although technically mixed, if I want to count her as my one good Indian friend, I guess I can, as she identifies as Indian too. Which is in keeping with what some studies have shown in the States — as children get older, they can self segregate more. Or, in our case, living and growing up in a multi-layered society doesn’t mean that we will always be able to maintain it, or that the opposite isn’t also happening on other levels. And it happens with ethnicity, class and colour lines. It’s always happened. Many people I know and their Mums can give a story about a crew of red girls in school. Why would a bunch of red girls need to be friends with each other first and foremost? I don’t know. I’ve also heard that “upper class,” monied black and Indian girls don’t always end up in the same school circles with “white” girls. I’ve heard that time and time again from different generations who have attended some of the so-called prestige schools.
Dr. Beverly Tatum’s “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” was very instrumental reading about blackness, whiteness, racial identity and education in the United States. Similarly, in a Trinidad sense, one could ask, “Why are all the Indian kids liming together?” Not that they can’t, but what is going on in the wider society that necessitates this taking place? What bridges can be built to help understandings of each other on a deeper level?
Younger people are critical. If you are in regular contact with youth, or have kids yourself, please talk to them about race, racial stereotypes, colourism, eurocentrism and racism. There is ample evidence that shows that not talking to kids about race ends up ensuring that they will in fact ingest racist thinking. If you don’t, society, media and pop culture will do it for you anyway. And yes, while that evidence specifically took place within the United States’ black/white racial binary, we can take some creative license and common sense and make some apt connections because anti-blackness is in fact a global issue.
In Trinidad and Tobago, we are inundated with the same U.S. pop culture that is loaded with racist tropes and foundationally resting on anti-blackness, so what do you think we’re all learning? West Indian pop culture too, is not guaranteed much safer: dancehall has its pockets of anti-blackness and stars with internalized dislike for dark-skinned blackness; chutney soca, soca and carnival culture aesthetics idealize certain skin tones and hair textures and sometimes hinge on problematic, one dimensional ethnic cultural stereotypes.
Look at U.S. millennials — just waiting on or expecting that young people will fix the unexamined racism breaking the surface in Trinidad without trying to give them the tools to do so isn’t going to happen. All of those people blasted on social media forwards of their racist posts are people (presumably), born and probably raised right in Trinidad and Tobago. So the fact that Trinidad is a multicultural, multiethnic society doesn’t of itself preclude racism of the most virulent kinds. And it will take more than just quoting the National Motto to change some of that. Actually, the less it’s attended to at its roots, the more it will grow. You can be sure of that.
And even with that multiethnic mix, social and racial segregation happens all the time if you know where to look. It’s very possible anywhere in the world, if you have the means to, to live in a social bubble where there’s little to no interaction with many kinds of people if you don’t want to. I know someone who visited Trinidad and Tobago and stayed with a wealthy “local white” family and came back and told me that she did not meet a single black Trinidadian associated with the family except the black domestic helper. Don’t assume that everyone is necessarily experiencing the same island that you are, some of us are experiencing vastly different lifestyles and though the example above is one of upper class and colour privilege, not everyone’s experience is tempered in the exact same way, but tempered nevertheless. So, to say that classism is the main issue in Trinidadian society, without recognizing the attendant aspects of race and colourism, visibility and privilege, is missing the larger issues.
First of all, it’s ultimately accepting that you can celebrate Christmas, Divali, Phagwa, go watch Hosay, take a bush bath if you need to, call yourself 100 percent Trini, and still be racist. Cultural sharing and participation are often believed to be a means through which Trinis have counteracted racism in our society and that’s why there are always people trumpeting that it does not exist here. It exists somewhere else but not here, “where every creed and race find an equal place.” Labels aren’t an issue either. Calling myself an African or Afro-Trinidadian or black isn’t the issue either. Being a self identified Chinese Trinidadian or Indian Trini is not a problem either.
Ethnic labels that serve to empower people and (re)connect them to a heritage that is part of the mix of Trinidadian society are not even the problem. In fact, there is proof that black kids thrive educationally when given an Afrocentric education, so why wouldn’t other kids benefit too from a connection of knowledge about their people or heritage? The point is that none of this then becomes a means to impart an ethnic superiority complex over others (which I saw lots of: nigger references, monkey references and how the country will fall apart now). It’s entirely possible to take pride in who you are as a people and your culture without being dependent on denigrating others. One thing does not have to lead to the other. The fact that Indian and African cultures and religions survived chattel slavery and indentureship in our part of world is worth paying homage to. This should not be cause to dismiss, dispossess or demonize anyone.
Furthermore, people can love black culture and hate black people. People can love Indian culture and fashion and hate Indian people. People can love doubles and have a favourite doubles man and still hate Indian people. The love of an ethnicity’s culture doesn’t automatically mean that love, inclusion, and the accordance of full humanity extends to the people. It doesn’t mean that when it hits home, you’re okay with it. It doesn’t mean that you want your son or daughter bringing home ‘a nigger man’ or an Indian girl. It’s not a given that acceptance happens — even in, especially in, Trinidad. I say especially because we seem particularly deluded by our cultural sharing and participation as evidence of a racial democracy when it’s anything but.
Back to anti-blackness. I’m going to keep coming back to here because “anti-black racism is the fulcrum.” Even in Trinidad. Imagine a racial hierarchy for our society. Who is at the top? Who do you think is at the bottom? What’s their socioeconomic class and colour? Even if there are rich Indian and black people sprinkled at the top, class wise, it doesn’t change the fact that some people in our society will never end up at the bottom. Ever. Now, link that to a wider system of white supremacy and privilege.
Of course, there are cash poor and low income Indian people too, but when Indianness is leveraged to trump cultural blackness, no one is really winning because it’s hard for poor people to lift themselves out of generational poverty. Same khaki pants, but in the meantime, feelings of racial superiority can make you feel good. Anti-blackness was very present in this election campaign and it’s existed in our society for a long time. I know of people who have said that while they can’t bring home a black love to present to their household, somebody lighter, even if not full white, then yes, lighter is always more acceptable, whatever that person’s mix may be. Campaigns like Dark is Beautiful in India and the U.S. based movement #FlexinMyComplexion work to challenge these mindsets present in Indian and American societies. What can we do on a local and personal level to work on this?
Saying that you are mixed or that you are neither Indian or black doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of doing any work. Show your work. People can self identify as mixed and multiracial or dougla and still participate in gross anti-blackness, racism, colourism and the devaluation of others. Your very existence alone is not proof that all of these issues have been neatly resolved. You can still help to make space for others to be wholly themselves, while claiming space for yourself as Trinis who are not a singular ethnicity. There is more than enough room for all of us to be the best versions of who we can be, for ourselves, our respective communities and our country.
Image credit: Preddie Partap, used under a Flickr Creative Commons license.