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.

1 comment:

Lynn said...

Thank you for writing Angelique. You're joining in a conversation with other women writers like Nicolette Bethel and Helen Klonaris whose stories and essays are also challenging us to have these conversations about racism in this place. As a Feminist Poet I am always glad to hear one more island woman writing the truth about her life.
Keep writing.