By ALICIA WALLACE
Race is a difficult subject to broach in almost any space or circumstance, and particularly challenging when participants are in denial about the ways it impacts our lives.
I have not observed many conversations about race in The Bahamas that did not involve at least one person pointing out the country is majority black.
It is inevitable that someone will claim “reverse racism” exists, and that white people suffer from it. This is easy to believe if you do not understand what racism is and how it works for or against specific groups of people. Racism is not dislike, nor is it simply prejudice.
Most people understand that prejudice describes an idea that is outside of reason or experience while racism is an act. What is often missed is the element of power in racism. Racism is not just an act or series of actions, but a system of domination by one group of people over another. It requires power. Power comes in various forms, but usually involves access to and control over resources. While black people may be the numeric majority in The Bahamas, we do not hold that kind of power over white people or have the ability to oppress them.
Interestingly, when white people in The Bahamas complain about “reverse racism” (which, to be clear, does not exist), the example most often used is that they are mistaken for tourists. They say their Bahamian identity is questioned. This is likely true and is due, in part, to the racial composition of our population and that of the tourists we imagine. It is quite interesting, however, that this is understood by those complaining as a form of oppression when, in most cases, it works in their favour in everyday life.
There is a commonly held view that white people, whether tourists or resident in The Bahamas, have money. By having money, they are seen as more deserving of service. This is not racism. It is an assumption that, more often than not, works in favour of the white person.
Who can be a Bahamian?
Another part of the conversation is about who gets to be a Bahamian. We are very possessive about Bahamian citizenship. As we saw in the 2016 referendum, people have strong feelings about who should and should not have access to it. Even when people have citizenship and hold a Bahamian passport, there is an understanding that there are levels to it.
Can you be a Bahamian if you do not like fish? Can you be a Bahamian if you do not speak Bahamian English? Can you be a Bahamian if you have never been to Junkanoo? Can you be a Bahamian if you live in Lyford Cay and only ever leave the area when you absolutely must? Can you be a Bahamian if you are white?
Some of these questions are easy to answer in jest, but others are more difficult.
What is the difference between being legally Bahamian and being culturally Bahamian? We can raise similar questions about the Caribbean identity of Bahamians.
Are we more Caribbean or American, and what factors determine our position? Geography and culture definitely need to be considered, but some believe one is more important than the other.
Questions of identity are rarely answered with ease. None of us is just one identity; we hold layers that shape our individual experiences.
Issues of race, gender, class and sexual orientation are often studied and discussed in academic and advocacy circles, recognised in relation to specific circumstances within society. It becomes difficult when we forget other people have layers and their experiences are not the same as ours, even if we share a layer.
A black Bahamian’s experience will not always be the same as a white Bahamian’s. The reason for that is race, essentialist ideas about particular races, and the systemic nature of racism.
There are several long overdue national conversations we need to have in The Bahamas. We have been pretending race is not a factor for a long time, but it was no surprise when race was raised as an issue with Brent Symonette.
We also need to talk about citizenship. Bahamians share citizenship, but have vastly different ideas about its usefulness, requirements, and other characteristics. It would be interesting to see these issues explored through research, art and public dialogue with multiple institutions facilitating components of a long-term project.
Silence does not work, but neither does an onslaught news-specific response which tends to fizzle quickly. This work — this conversation — has to be a process.
Festivals as new worlds
Last weekend, I attended AFROPUNK for the first time. It is a music festival for black people held in several cities including New York, Johannesburg and Paris. While it is open to any patron, it is decidedly black in its design, line-up and politics.
There were constant reminders of what the festival is for (including black, gay and trans people) and what it will not tolerate (including racism, homophobia and discrimination against people with disabilities).
Multiple stages featured scores of artists at various phases in their careers and appealing to a broad range of musical tastes. There were several food and drink options, black-owned business booths, and non-governmental organisations sharing their work, recruiting people and raising money.
Moving around all of this were thousands of people in their best depictions of what AFROPUNK means and how they want to exist in a world of their own making. The festival is, essentially, a canvas for patrons to paint the world we want to create for ourselves. From what everyone chose to wear to the way we took up space in the park, a new reality was constructed.
There is something about events and spaces carved out specifically for a group of people that is typically excluded, harshly judged and burdened with the responsibility to prove their humanity and value. There is something about shedding the second skin we often wear for survival and in search of the comfort that is often tied to being less visible by conforming.
Some of us are fortunate to be able come close to the most authentic version of ourselves on a regular basis. Most of us have internalised the strict code of “decency” enforced by respectability politics and may not even notice the bargains we make without thinking about them. From straightening our hair or keeping it cut short to wearing blazers in 85 degree weather or not wanting to be seen in our swimsuits, we practice learned behaviours without conscious thought. Our decision-making is nearly automatic because we have prescriptions that have become unquestionable norms.
At AFROPUNK, there was a joy you can only feel. I found myself trying to capture it in photos and videos, but when I looked at them, I realised they did not translate.
A big part of the festival is the energy everyone brings to it. There is just as much excitement about seeing the other patrons as there is about headlines like Jill Scott, FKA Twigs, Santigold and Leon Bridges. People regularly complimented one another, asked for photos and engaged in light conversation. It was completely political and intentional while also being a carefree and recreational experience.
Looking back at it, I am happy I had the opportunity to go, and aggrieved the experience is within the confines of the festival. We deserve to live that life every day.