Guess who’s still not coming to dinner, Or How Barbadians talk when they talk about race

How Barbadians talk about race, Robert Edison Sandiford, blog, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Houghton (backing) in the 1967 movie that first asked us to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  Photo Copyright © 2013 by the Everett Collection.    

 

“Since when Barbados is a black country?  My family was sent here as indentured servants and we’ve been here for 350 years, man….  Just because we white doesn’t mean that we don’t exist.  White Bajans have done a lot for Barbados, whether you like it or not.”  Ralph “Bizzy” Williams, “Not just blacks,” Weekend Nation, January 8, 2016

“The population of Barbados is predominantly black (92.4%) or mixed (3.1%).  2.7% of the population is white and 1.3% South Asian. The remaining 0.4% of the population includes East Asians (0.1%) and Middle Easterners (0.1%).”  Barbados Statistical Service, 2010 population and housing census (accessed January 14, 2016)

 

TABLE TALK.  Polite dinner conversation.  We’re all familiar with the kind.  It’s what we hear when we’re invited to a party and there’s a mixed crowd, however you define mixed.  What we don’t hear, depending on the topic, is what usually prompts us to say, when leaving the room or house, that we wish we were a fly or some other bug on that wall.  We wish we could hear what other people are saying when they think no one else is listening, except those who are like-minded. 

With all the long talk about reparations to the Caribbean descendants of African slaves by Sir Hilary Beckles and what contributions Bajan whites have made to build Barbados as a nation by the Williams’ Brothers (Sir Charles & Ralph), my mind reaches back to a year ago, when the current table talk Barbadians have been having about race may have actually gotten started.

On February 27, 2015, 49-year-old Karen Valdez Harris apparently went missing soon after leaving her upscale home in St George for a “routine jog.”  Within hours, it seemed there was a massive search raised for this woman, including social media bulletins and printed flyers.  Some joked all that was missing were the milk cartons.   

Harris was found 24 hours later “at a house in Market Hill in the same parish,” unharmed.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time someone had gone missing in Barbados.  But it seemed the first time in recent memory that the authorities—The Royal Barbados Police Force, including members of the Special Services Unit, and the Barbados Defence Force—were so quickly and effectively mobilized, especially for a local.  (Tourists occupy a different sphere of concern for a nation dependent on their constant arrival.)  It seemed, to many, the reason for this almost overreaction was that the woman was white, and those carrying out the search were largely from that community.

The argument in certain circles was that the disappearance of a black person would not—had not, in recent memory—brought the authorities running the way Harris’ brief absence did.  Some pointed to the usually less alarmed handling of the disappearance of black youths, whether boys or girls.  The Royal Barbados Police Force insisted “there is no issue with colour” in the Harris Affair.  “[We] are impartial and we continue to be impartial.”    

During the Harris Affair, I wondered what kind of conversations about race and racism and indeed race relations Barbadians were having among their own groups—around their own dinner tables—that they weren’t having nor would want to have with those outside their constricting circles.  Since the resolution of the Harris Affair, I’ve been wondering what kind of constructive, contemporary conversation we should be having but, apparently, still aren’t.

There are a few common and well-trodden paths to prejudice: indoctrination, fear, ignorance.  The perception of the handling of Harris' disappearance was that a section of the population and those in authority were doing more than they would for blacks or other members of Barbadian society.  Although the facts may have been different, the perception was palpable.  Barbadians—all Bajans—missed out on an opportunity to understand each other better because of a tacit agreement, both obvious and ongoing, particularly among its white merchant minority and its governing black middle-class majority, not to have an open, national debate on race and race relations in the island.

Let us be honest, here: there probably never will be “closure” for those of African and European descent over the topic.  Old grievances refuse to die no matter how many times you behead them, and we’ve yet to come up with a method to eradicate fully centuries of baseless, inbred notions of superiority one group may have when encountering another.  The human desire for entitlement, the quest by men and women for status, can be obscene and bloody.  And there will always be people who think others can’t tell nothing shiny but their ass is showing the higher they climb. 

 

“I don’t think reparations are the answer.”  British Prime Minister David Cameron, addressing calls for reparations for Caribbean slavery during his visit to Jamaica, September 29, 2015

 

STORIES, so many stories are told around a dinner table.  “There are eight million stories in the naked city” went the closing line from that old TV show.  There must be sixteen million in a country like Barbados, thirty-two million. 

Here are some I’ve heard. 

A writer pens a column about harmful views about race in Barbados that remain with us today as surely as when she grew up in the 1940s and ’50s.  Another writer contacts her, warns her about stirring up trouble with “all this race talk.”  The columnist is baffled; apart from that not being her intention—it was reconciliation she was preaching—this other writer is well known for his pan-Africanist views.

A youngster working at a tour company parts from his girl with a kiss.  One of the owners shouts to him: “I see the kind of girls you like to date.”  It takes the youngster a moment to decide the owner doesn’t mean big-boned.  He shouts back: “Yes.  Human.”  The owner, who believes since he and the youngster look alike they must think alike, cautions the youngster: “You best consider your future.”

One last one.

A retired man reminisces about his years in the UK.  He admits that in his youth, for a time, he dated only white women.  This was before he became radicalized by the black power movements of the day.   When his son started to date and did the same, date only white women, they became estranged.  Their relationship was eventually repaired when the son and his white partner had a child.

 

“How you mean?  People call me red-legs and all of that but I blind them when I ready.  I love life and I love Barbados, I never travel yet.  I born here and raise here in Church View for the past 52 years and I will leave the earth from St John, whatever they call me.”  Anita Howell, Weekend Nation, January 15, 2016

 

I SUSPECT—maybe deep down I know—I have white friends who would be stunned if their children came home with a black girlfriend or fiancé, let alone black babies.  Hypotheticals don't really disturb their universes.  The retired man and his family were among the lucky ones.  A child of two worlds or more doesn’t always bridge divides or lead warring factions back to their saner selves.  That’s if a couple gets that far anyway.  While on the subject of race in Barbados with a Trinidadian colleague, an event planner, this woman told she had white (or nominally white?  more like creole?) Barbadian friends who had hidden their relationships with a black person because of repercussions from both their families.  There were threats of being cut off or shunned.   

Naturally, there have been local unions, some of them very public and high profile.  Bizzy & Shelly come to mind, Soca Queen Alison & her consort, Edward.  The concern at the moment is what’s not in the light; what’s not spoken around the table for all to hear, because of genuine ignorance, or fear of alienating people who really are our friends, and have been for years.  No one wants to think the same person they were eating cou-cou with this morning, or embracing at a flower show in the afternoon then slamming dominoes with in the evening, may be someone they’ll have to cuss by day’s end.

Forget about the percentages for a moment: we’re a country where blacks and whites still, and quite casually, talk about a person being “too dark,” where claiming straight(er) hair still means having “good” hair.  In fact, Barbados is a country where locks and plaits and other expressions of our natural hair, no matter how elegantly coiffed, would still cause consternation among significant segments of the population if found breeching our Parliament doors or certain “better” schools.

What else is known and somewhat understood?  That one drop of black blood in Barbados doesn’t necessarily make you black, as it might in, say, the States.  That an abominable cocktail of class and complexion has long contributed to our fragmented identity as a people, to a shattered mirror image. 

And still I wonder: Does the lone white student in my class at college feel the same way I did in primary and secondary school as the only black in the pack?  So misconstrued on a daily basis that you quickly grew tired of correcting people, some of whom really should've know better.  She could, possibly.  Barbadian society is, possibly, more racially stratified than the community I emerged from in multicultural Canada.  But how would I know?  There have been discussions in the streets and town halls, in villages and communities, in the press and on national television, among artists and certain sections of the media—but nothing yet approaching the feel of a national debate, with as its goal the elimination of negative racial profiling and its accompanying prejudice by all members of society—or even the kind of parley Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier tried to entertain almost 50 years ago, for a start.

 

“Root causes are often hard to reach.  They may be buried under years of history, an ocean of denial, mountains of red tape and the debris of false logic and reasoning.  To get at root causes takes time, energy, expertise, and maturity.  Above all else there must be the will to get well.”  Adrian Green, “Get to the root,” Sunday Sun, December 6, 2015

 

WOULD IT make a difference if we knew what each other was talking about around our dinner tables?  Some thoughts and feelings are meant to be expressed behind doors closed to the uninvited.  We are entitled to that much, true.  We won’t always agree or get along or like the smell of each other as human beings.  The problem, usually, is when what is private and reprehensible is acted out in public, and tolerated almost as a matter of policy.  Hope—of fairness, of justice, of opportunity—is the essence of a sustainable existence, the reward for the faith we place in the systems we espouse. 

Here we come back to the Harris Affair.  There was a belief by certain Barbadians that the case of this woman who went missing was given a kind of priority because of her apparent colour and presumed class (her husband was described as “a businessman” in the press); there was equally strong umbrage from other Barbadians who felt Harris’ brief disappearance was the case, not colour or class, and certainly not in 21st-century Barbados.

You can’t blame a people for being organized, a fellow said to my wife when they were discussing the matter at her office; intimating, somewhat nastily, I thought, and falsely, that blacks would not mount such a search for their own.  “I don’t even want to talk about it.  I don’t know what to think,” said a colleague of mine at the time at the mention of the Harris Affair. 

But we have to think about it, don’t we?  We have to talk about it.  The general sense people were left with by the end of the weekend of Harris’s discovery was one of impotent anger and seething confusion.  Quick as we are to adapt, we are slow to change, and nothing has changed.  With all else that isn’t being discussed or dealt with openly in our country right now, such as water woes, garbage woes and cultural woes, our state of anger and confusion is one that sits ever comfortably with us and us alone around the dinner table.