This is a reading list for West Indians examining race, racism, colourism and identity. Every time racism comes to the forefront in the United States, the black and African descent diaspora shows itself: in good ways and not so great ways. There are West Indians on the #AllLivesMatter bandwagon too, and I am giving you all a stink cut-eye.
One of the things some West Indians cling to is the narratives we tell ourselves about the absence of “real” racism, compared to the U.S., and West Indians in foreign perpetuate this thinking as much as some in the region. When they migrate, they join the ranks of those who are simply exhausted with African Americans whining about race, as they see it. They don’t get, they claim, because of where they’re from.
The absence of Jim Crow and public lynchings does not mean that we do not and have not had to deal with racism — systemic and otherwise. Furthermore, being from black & brown majority places doesn’t magically mean folks are immune to internalized antiblack racism or that it cannot and doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean the police are immune there, either. Some of the worst agents of white supremacy are other black & brown people. True talk.
How is it that the exact same caricatures of and aversions to blackness have managed to traverse the globe and thrive on our shores too? Strange how that works, eh? In no particular order, here is a sampling of West Indians considering privilege, colour, identity and much more. They are not afraid to share their lived experiences. To say when we need to do better. And when we need to sit and acknowledge the aspects of our societies that we’d rather pretend didn’t exist while pointing a finger at others for doing and thinking the same.
“Just as it was in colonial times, Trinidad and Tobago’s political elite disseminates an uncomplicated image of crime that links criminality with poor, urban, opportunistic Afro-Trinidadian males who kill each other. Rarely are any other groups in society implicated. This is an irony not lost on many locals, since Trinidad and Tobago is well-known for a never-ending list of white-collar crimes that are rarely punished in the courts.”
“Without a distinct and large white upper class we see anti-black dynamics play out in a way that misleads people to believe we have transcended race. We’ve merely transplanted a racial hierarchy in a way that suits our population. The closest to white occupy the top, whereas the furthest away from whiteness occupy the bottom of the hierarchy. Every aspect of this hierarchy was constructed during colonialism and has not disappeared, even today.”
“Their lives existed far away from ours in a world beyond Kingston 8—worlds beyond Constant Spring and Hope Road. Their worlds existed on hills that seemed to touch the clouds. At night, the lights on those hills blinked like stars, mocking us for living in the pressure-cooked alleys of Kingston, the ugly trenches. They seemed to have it easy, never once having to think about disguising their blackness or growing their hair. They woke up that way. Went to bed that way. Sometimes we spotted them in public. They stood out among the dark black faces like beautiful red hibiscus flowers among weeds.
The solution first appeared in hushed whispers throughout the school compound. Dark-skinned girls flocked to the restroom on the fifth-form block. “Yuh see how Lola face look clear an’ pretty? Is bleaching cream do it!” The other girls listened reverentially, as though what they heard would somehow answer a lifelong prayer.”
“Although I currently live in the U.S., I grew up in Trinidad in the 80s and 90s as a black girl. To be black in a country that idealizes a mixed ethnicity aesthetic, was rough to say the least. Although I shared the same parental genes as my sister, she was considered mixed, whereas I have dark skin. I also had kinky hair, whereas my sister and all my cousins had curly hair, or “good hair” according to Trinis. It didn’t matter that my heritage also included French, Scottish, East Indian and African; I was black to everyone who saw me. This wouldn’t have bothered me, if I hadn’t been treated as less than my sister for most of our childhood because if it.”
“Kadooment, a street parade of rum-fuelled revelry that draws masqueraders from a cross-section of Barbadian society, bares an open secret that is rarely publicly questioned: it has a masquerade band whose members are almost entirely White.
The band, known as Blue Box Cart, is traditionally always the first band to lead the Kadooment parade, and stands in stark contrast to all others that – by and large – reflect the Black ethnic make-up of the 166 sq. mile island. Says Ester, ‘to witness a sea of white faces gathered together is at first glance, surprising…[but] it’s just another way in which the race relations of plantation society curiously manifest themselves in 2014.'”
“While the majority of my immigrant students could weigh in on why they considered African Americans less successful, Caribbean immigrants in particular were at pains to define themselves as separate from native born African Americans. Most discouraging was their de facto confidence that American blacks made poor decisions, and their lack of criticism of undeserved racist stereotyping.
I taught writing but felt my students needed an historical context to understand how black struggle and resistance had made so many of their immigrant aspirations, including a post-secondary education, possible. Indeed, how they came to have a black, immigrant woman as their professor.”
“Anahita explains again what we are doing and what the walking seminar is about. While she speaks to him I look over to Miatta and tell her that he stopped me because I am black. She asked me if he really said that and replied to her “ Yes, he just told that to Ramon”.
He keeps asking for our documents, which Anahita explains again to him that everyone’s documents are in the car along with the rest of our things. I looked over to my right and see Michelle and Andreya walking over to where we were, followed by another Police car. The Police car was right behind them. It seemed like they were rounding up prisoners or suspects. A few police officers got out of the car. I cannot recall how many Police officers were there with us. Some of them start directing traffic while others talk to other people in the group.”
“Whiteness is a funny thing in the Caribbean. Some pretend that it’s nonexistent, but really it is invisible, similar to whiteness in the United States but not quite the same. While our lives are different from those of Black Americans, we suffer oppression along the same lines.”
“This body standard is, of course, heavily European and Western influenced. In the recent years, Carnival bands, which organize masqueraders — or the Carnival’s participants — into different groups have become increasingly whitewashed with the use of models who are not only skinny and tall but also white or lighter-skinned. A screenshot image of Tribe Carnival– one of the biggest bands in T&T– reveals an aesthetic that betrays country’s majority black and Indian population.”
“You went to Base on a Saturday night because that’s when people in your social circle were there. There were a lot of stories about this club. They say that people with darker skin were sometimes sent to another line and made to pay more money. I never really witnessed this first hand myself, but like I said I never really partied that much. Plus, most of the times that I went there everyone in my crew was white or could pass as white, so we never had that problem.”
“Do not speak to the Indians,” said the British to the Africans. “They are vile and carry diseases.”
Accordingly, the first Indo-Guyanese dwelled in isolated communities where they were identically indoctrinated to despise their new countrymen.
“Do not speak to the Africans,” said the British to the Indians. “They are vile and carry diseases.”
It was a strategy to prevent the union of the groups. Together they would be strong enough to rebel against their oppressors.This racial tension between the Indo-Guyanese and the Afro-Guyanese has endured throughout the development of Guyanese history—well after independence from Britain and right up to the most recent Guyanese presidential elections in 2015.
“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.””
“We remain complicit in the contempt the society has for African spirituality and any other belief system that doesn’t subscribe to a Judaeo-Christian idea of who or what God is.
‘Obeah’ was used as a general term that lumped together all African spiritual practice and anything else that could be vaguely construed as a threat against colonial authorities.
The fact that many of the spiritual practices of Orisa and Hindu and Indigenous devotees have clear and evident similarities will never be highlighted in any political advertisement.”
Further reading (and watching):
The Black Jacobins, CLR James
Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, Gaiutra Bahadur
A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid
The Humming-Bird Tree, Ian McDonald
If I could Write This in Fire, Michelle Cliff
The White Minority in the Caribbean, Howard Johnson, Karl S. Watson, eds.
The Parasitic Oligarchy? The Elites of Trinidad and Tobago, Alison Mc Letchie
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys