By ALICIA WALLACE
Immigration is a tough topic. We all talk about it here and there, but few people think critically about the function and consequence of moving from one place to another, aside from the obvious. For some, it is a matter of preference or comfort. For others, it is a matter of necessity. For many Bahamians, it does not matter why anyone comes here. We, who have citizenship, get to say whether or not they are useful enough to remain. It is our right, as Bahamians.
With shanty town evictions and a stateless child unable to get medical care in the news this week, I have been thinking about this “right” over the past few days. A 15-year-old child with a brain cyst had her treatment delayed because her Bahamian parents are not Bahamian enough for her to be a Bahamian. This, of course, brought to mind the 2016 referendum on gender equality and the right to pass on citizenship to spouses and children. It also made me think about how we decide who deserves to be here and why, and how that is linked to the way we perceive ourselves as a nation.
A few years ago, I encountered a white American woman who spent quite a bit of time in The Bahamas. It was clear she came, stayed for extended periods of time, left and came back again. She did this a number of times and was supported in this practice by a number of friends she made along the way. She was neither tourist nor resident. She somehow straddled the line between the two, convinced she could mix and blend in with white Bahamians. People went out of their way to accommodate her, from making introductions to notable people to providing places of lodging. Nothing was out of her reach. In fact, hers was longer than that of the average Bahamian.
I observed this with a curiosity, confusion and annoyance until the day I heard her speak in a terribly flawed imitation of Bahamian English. It was something she had obviously practised and may have been told was okay to do, but it was awful. Coupled with the subject matter she attempted to address, this inappropriate show was not only unflattering, but insulting to many who witnessed it. People often travel to immerse themselves in new environments and experience different cultures, but the consumption and reproduction of what an outsider sees as Bahamian? The attempt to distill it and to present oneself as an expert? That is not acceptable and it is not tourism. It is a kind of piracy, most often seen in academia and often encouraged like this foreign woman was encouraged to come, stay, take, misrepresent, rinse and repeat.
I think back to this woman and her intentional attempts to wear “Bahamian” like a costume; without the real, uncontrived experience of being a Bahamian. I imagine it is one of the things people fear most about immigration. That someone from a completely different place — no connections to our land, history, or what we perceive to be our culture — could show up, fill up on what we have to offer, process it, produce an inferior version and present it to the world as our identity? That is terrifying. We reserve the right to define ourselves. We decide what is and is not Bahamian. We can’t just let any and everyone come here, take what’s ours, and misrepresent what it is and who we are to the rest of the world. Add to that the ongoing struggle to figure out our identity, cultural and otherwise. Immigration complicates both the process and the outcome.
Another fear about immigration is that people will not even bother to try to be like us. They will not concern themselves with the way we speak. Their interest will not be sufficiently piqued by Junkanoo. They will not buy tickets to sit in the stadium to cheer for the athletes in aquamarine, gold and black. They will eat the food they know and love and raise children the way they always have. They might hold themselves separate and apart, never even trying to be like us. That is an insult to us, is it not? That someone could come here, maintain their identities and sense of self, be surrounded by us and still not succumb to the pressure to conform or, as we like to say, “integrate”. To have the gall to come to The Bahamas, wear your own flag and make no attempt to mimic our ways as a means of survival is to be undeserving of whatever it is you seek when you come here.
We do not wage wars against the migrants we call “expats”. We are not as bothered by the (mostly) white people who are actively recruited and brought to The Bahamas to fill high-paying positions, live behind gates and have most of their expenses covered by a corporate entity. We save our fire for the “immigrants” from this region. We try to excuse our xenophobia with generalisations. We talk about the number of babies they have, religions and rituals they practice, the way the express their emotions and whatever else might disqualify them from a bit of humanity.
I have heard two main narratives about Haitian migrants in The Bahamas. One we know well enough. The other is that they are exceptional. We know how exceptionalism is used against African-descended people in majority white countries. Within this narrative, Haitian people in The Bahamas are incredibly hardworking, family-oriented and strategic. They have a plan and they are willing to do what it takes to improve their situations and those of their families. If they have to live in small quarters, so be it. If they must share a home with another family or two, they will do it. Those who have a little more even add on to their homes to help house other people from Haiti. What striving, enterprising people! It really is too bad they have to struggle, but that’s the way it is and God knows best.
This narrative may be the one that strikes the most fear in Bahamians who do not want to be beaten in the game of life. This is the one that has people fretting about their children having to compete with other children who speak two or three languages. It’s the one that had quite a few people vote no in the 2016 referendum, particularly on the third question.
We concern ourselves with the stupidity we assume of our fellow Bahamians. What could be worse for national identity than to assume those who share it are too stupid to make everyday decisions for themselves?
In discussing issues of national concern earlier this week, I found that a close friend and I kept going back to pride. This friend said, “Collectively, we have an inflated arrogance and, at the same time, a low self esteem and lack of self-awareness.”
It is a strange combination, but not one I can’t say is untrue. We like to think quite highly of ourselves as individuals, but believe we are somehow superior to the people around us. Still, we operate under the assumption The Bahamas is in a class of its own, far above and beyond the other countries in the region. The steady flow of migrant people has certainly helped to fuel this idea. Many people in my generation were educated almost exclusively by migrant people, largely from Jamaica and Guyana. We take this to mean life is better here, never guessing that coming here to work is a sacrifice, temporary for many. A pay check here can do more in their home countries than it can do here, and a few years of work can help them to meet a goal.
We only look at one side, from one point of view, always positioning ourselves above everyone else. Arrogance. When we see too many people who are not “homegrown” or their parents are not known to us, we worry about their intent. How will they change our culture, infiltrate our government and take up more space than we do? Low self-esteem and lack of self-awareness. Maybe if we had a better idea of who we are as a people, we’d be less threatened by people other nationalities and less inclined to make them suffer.
Bulldoze the shanty towns towns and migrants still have their identity. Pride aside, do we have ours?