06 August 2007

What do we call ourselves? - The Politics of Racial Mixing in The Bahamas - part three

Part three of a three-part series, published in The Nassau Guardian, 4th August 2007

By Angelique V. Nixon
Special to The Guardian

In thinking about the term “racial mixing,” it is important to note the long history of mixed-race identities in the colonial context, and to think about how race became a major tool to categorize people and legally code racial difference. Kamau Brathwaite defines the process of creolization during slavery as the clashing and mixing between dominant whites and blacks — culturally discrete groups, yet they consistently interacted with each other, blending people, cultures, customs, rituals, languages, and religions. Brathwaite (along with other Caribbean historians) trace how this constant interchange created new boundaries defined through skin color, which has contributed to the present-day race, color, and class dynamics seen across the Caribbean.

Mixed-race people challenged the divisions and were thus given certain privileges through their “whiteness.” Despite the efforts of European colonials to show a racially segregated and harmonious Caribbean to the colonial powers, the actual picture of the Caribbean during slavery was one filled with racial and cultural mixing that was viewed as degeneration, sexual corruption, moral decay, and decadence.

Black enslaved women were often blamed for this “sexual corruption,” while they suffered rape at the hands of white male slaveholders and planters, who used rape as a form of control and torture as a way to maintain their slave populations. But these spaces and people in them had to be controlled and categorized into hierarchies that suited European colonials, elites, and white Creoles — especially when mixed-race populations grew and demanded status through their white ancestry. Mixed-race groups were able to attain socio-economic mobility, yet they historically existed in this “in between” space of not quite white and not quite black.

Dr. Gail Saunders has traced in her work the race and class divisions that existed in the Bahamas from slavery through post-emancipation. In her study of social life in the Bahamas, she explains that there were four major social groups: At the top were the white elite; in the middle were “the browns, or coloreds,” ranging “from off-black to near white;” and at the bottom were the majority — the black laboring classes, and among them were marginal poor whites. Saunders discusses how mixed-race people in the Bahamas post-emancipation were able to attain social and economic status and built a middle class between the 1880s and 1920s, specifically. Regardless, they still faced racial prejudice from the white elites, and the status within the middle class was stratified by skin color and economic success. The Black laboring classes were considered socially inferior by both the white elites and mixed-race groups. These race and class divisions were created through slavery and maintained post-emancipation; and even through the political struggle for Black majority rule, these social divisions can still be seen.

By the time countries in the Caribbean started fighting for independence, Black people were already in notable positions within civil service, education, and law enforcement that used to be occupied solely by whites and mixed-race elites. However, it is clear that race, and by extension class, was the determining factor for the development of social groups across the Caribbean.

The history outlined here is a brief overview, and different islands have variations and exceptions regarding the racial categories. These racial categories were made more complicated post-slavery because of the Indian and Chinese indentured workers who were brought to the Caribbean, especially to Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, and Jamaica by European planters (who did not want to pay the newly freed Africans what they demanded in wages).

Moreover, migrations within, to, and from the Caribbean have also affected racial dynamics. In my experience of migrating from the Bahamas to Florida, I had to negotiate the social and legal codes for race. During my first few years of college, in addition to my national and cultural identification as Bahamian, I used the category of “mixed” and “other” as a way of identifying myself in social groups and for legal purposes. Whenever I was asked, “What are you?” or “What are you mixed with?” I explained, but I became offended by the questions — “Are you sure you’re not Hispanic?” “Are you Filipino?” or “You’re Bahamian? You don’t look Bahamian.”

I often reacted to these statements by stating firmly “Don't look so confused, what you think Bahamians look like? Anyway, I'm mixed.” Being “mixed” in the U.S. context means for the most part that you are black. This experience, along with knowing my history and culture, led me to identifying as black solely. This decision was not only personal and spiritual, but also political. I believe that black people and blackness continue to be devalued, and people of African descent must take part in creating a change in how the world sees us and how we see each other.

Some people think that racial mixing will create a harmonious future, but I have serious doubts that it will — not only because of a history and herstory that tells us otherwise, but also we are simply not there. A former supervisor (white, older American male) after inquiring about my racial identity said to me that he imagines the world will “look like me” once “the races continue mixing.” His comment was not only idealistic about race relations (we still live in world that is for the most part racially segregated), but it also shows how racial mixing can be seen as a kind multiculturalism — a vision for the future. However, one needs only to look at racial mixing during slavery to see that even as racial mixing troubled the boundaries, at the same time, it created new divisions. Even though I can see the power of refusing categories and identifying as “other” as a form of resistance, I also realize that “other” carries little political weight because it supports a kind of liberal idealism where multiculturalism is the answer to racism.

My experiences and studies have shown me otherwise — that racism is structural, a system of oppression imbedded into the social and legal fabrics of many societies, which has directly contributed to the social and economic disparity of people of color around the world. Whether we “see” issues of race, class, and gender, they exist and have structured the societies in which we live. In the Bahamas, we avoid talking about race and class, and we try to convince ourselves that slavery and colonization no longer affect us. We live in a male-dominated culture that is too silent about violence and abuse against women and young children. We spend too much time constructing and re-producing our culture for everyone else but ourselves. We need to spend more time uncovering the silences that control us.

As people who live in the Bahamas, we must understand who we are and where we come from in terms of place, history, and culture. We are rooted in the African Diaspora, and whether or not you are of African descent, this is we history and we culture.

What do we call ourselves? - The Politics of Racial Mixing in The Bahamas - part two

Part two of a three-part series, published in The Nassau Guardian, 28th July 2007

By Angelique V. Nixon
Special to the Guardian

I was raised primarily by my Black grandmother in Bain Town, Nassau, Bahamas (Over da Hill) and this experience was most fundamental in forging social and cultural perceptions of my identity (that being Afro-Caribbean and Bahamian).

My grandmother, Mabel Sistella Charles, was born and raised in Inagua, and came to New Providence when she was just 16. She did not speak much about her past, but from what I remember and have traced through family stories, she worked as a cook and domestic worker most of her life until she was hurt on one of her jobs. At that point, she had already raised four children on her own and had also helped raise two of her grandchildren, including me.

While my grandmother was a very proud Black woman, she was insistent that I never marry a Black man because with my light skin and "good" hair I could be the one to "make it" out of the ghetto, get an education, and take care of the family. As a product of a colonial (mis)education, my grandmother associated being Black with being poor and having no opportunities, whereas being white came with privilege, and the "in between" or mixed-race people could essentially "choose," depending on how "white" or "Black" they appeared or even acted.

I think my grandmother's expectations of me grew out of what she saw as my mother's failure to operate in this "in between" space of white and Black. My mother was the one child out of her four children that she conceived with a white man. My mother was the product of my grandmother's troubling affair with a British Methodist priest in the 1950s for whom she worked as a domestic; my mother never met him. Despite my grandmother's hopes, my mother never "made it out," so that responsibility became mine. Although my mother often talked about the tensions she felt growing up and never fully fitting in anywhere, she identified as Black, but attempted to gain status through conceiving me with a mixed-race Bahamian man — a combination of Chinese, white, Black, and Native American. As we like to say in the Bahamas, "all mix up." As a result, I was encouraged and expected to excel in school and succeed. I would argue that these expectations from both my mother and grandmother can be seen throughout the history of racial mixing in the Caribbean.

Growing up in the Bahamas, I very rarely had conversations about race or racial mixing. As I teenager, I felt ashamed of being poor, and I worked hard to distance myself from where I grew up. And since I associated being poor with being Black, I tried to "mask" my "blackness." In other words, I chose to be silent about my racial identity in certain situations in order to gain opportunities such as jobs, scholarships, and promotions, and I strived to meet my family's expectations. In fact, I did this so much that "masking" became easier and easier, a kind of performance, as I perfected my "proper" English, socialized primarily with white people and those who could "pass" as white, and avoided conversations about growing up poor and my racial identity. In retrospect, I do not believe that my grandmother or my mother would have ever wanted me to hide my identity, but rather they too understood strategically performing or not performing blackness. This "masking" through performance could never affect my embodied identity, no matter my silence or social circles. However, I did benefit from my performance because I was able to take advantage of opportunities that I don't think would have been available to me had I been darker-skinned or had not performed strategically.

In my mid-20s, I realized I did not have to hide who I was. But I was faced with the reality of being in a multiracial body where I felt like I had to "claim" my blackness. I began openly talking about my life growing up, sharing stories about my mother and grandmother, and asserting my identity through my experiences and personal history. And I did this through conceiving of my identity through historical, cultural, and political terms. Nevertheless, I am very aware of being a mixed-race black woman with light skin and "good" hair, and therefore conscious of the light-skinned privilege that comes with being mixed. But I am also aware that the "blackness" I embody carries with it not only my family history of 1950s colonial rule, but also a very particular kind of history. This history is one of African enslavement in which Black women were consistently raped by white men, and one where miscegenation (racial mixing) could mean denigration but also privilege.

What do we call ourselves? - The Politics of Racial Mixing in The Bahamas - part one

Part one of a three-part series - published in The Nassau Guardian, 21st July 2007

By Angelique V. Nixon, Special to the Guardian

As a multiracial woman of African descent born and raised in the Bahamas but currently living in the United States, I have experienced many reactions to what people think about my racial identity. I am frequently asked the question, "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" This confusion over my identity stems not only from my physical features — a racial mix of Black, Chinese, white, and Native American — but also from my cultural and national identification as Afro-Caribbean and Bahamian. And this is made more confusing because I have light skin and "good" hair. (As many of us know, "good" hair generally refers to hair that is close in texture to white or Asian hair.) In both African-American and Caribbean communities, a Black person having light skin and "good" hair as a result of racial mixing is generally seen in a positive light. Since I don't have the "typical" Black racial markers of dark skin and kinky hair, but rather other markers like full lips, a wide nose and voluptuous hips, my racial identity within the Caribbean context has usually been regarded as "mix up," "half breed," "high yellow," or even "practically white." Although I was often the lightest skinned person in my classes growing up and experienced feelings of isolation because I felt different, I learned at a very young age that there are benefits to being light-skinned. While growing up in the Bahamas, I self-identified as "other" or "mixed" because of my light skin, which marked me as "not quite Black," but I knew I was "not quite white" either.

Moving to the United States for college in my early-20s sparked many changes in my understanding of race because of the "one drop" rule there, along with the legal and social codes concerning racial categories in which technically I am Black. And in my mid-20s, I made the decision to self-identify as Black.

While I came to this decision through an acceptance of my own history and culture, I was challenged to do so through my education and experience of racism in the United States. Being in graduate school and studying the incredibly complex history of slavery, colonization, and race relations in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States, I found myself unable to comfortably identify as "mixed" or "other" any longer because I realized the shame I carried around about my past had everything to do with my African ancestry and growing up poor.

I believe that in the Bahamas we need to have more conversations about race and how race affects class and gender. I believe that there are many silences about who we are, where we come from, and the connections between us and the rest of the Caribbean. I believe that these silences include many "white" and mixed-race Bahamians not acknowledging their African ancestry. Even though we are an independent majority Black nation, I believe we are still deeply affected by the effects of slavery and colonization, which institutionalized racism and light-skinned privileges into our social fabric (in the Bahamas and across the Caribbean and the Americas).

Many of us are mixed race, and we can no longer be ashamed of ourselves and deny our ancestry. And even for the very small amount who are white in the Bahamas, you too must acknowledge our African roots as a country and as a people. The Bahamas (and the rest of the world) would not be what it is without the retention of African roots, found in our culture, language, music, art, festivals, customs, rituals, beliefs, and so on. And as a person living in the Bahamas, regardless of race or ethnicity, one should acknowledge what Caribbean scholar and poet Kamau Brathwaite calls "creolization," or the mixing and melding of African and European cultures, languages, and peoples during slavery. (And this mixing continued post-slavery when European planters brought Indian and Chinese people into the Caribbean through indentured servitude.)

There is a wealth of information on these important historical, social, and cultural issues, and in order to uncover the silences, we must be armed with information. We live in a moment where equality and color blindness are an illusion, and we continue to live in a world that is fueled by racism and social and economic inequity. We need to understand what racism is and how it works, rather than deny its existence. This is why I think we need to have these conversations and work harder to know who we are and where we come from.