Last week I wrote about why race matters in the twenty-first century Bahamas, and argued that unless we talk about our experiences as different human beings in this multiracial, hierarchical society, we will continue to relive old prejudices forever.
This week, I want to talk a little about why race matters to me — a Bahamian who, at different times and in different places in this Bahamas, has been categorized as black, white and coloured, and treated accordingly.
Let me tell you a story.
There was great rejoicing in my family when I was born. On one level, it was for all the usual reasons — that I was healthy, that I was a first on both sides of the family tree — the first grandchild in my mother’s family, and the first girl in my father’s. But there was another reason as well.
There was great rejoicing among some members of my grandparents’ generation because I was born so white.
My mother’s family and my father’s family both were people of mixed origins. Their ancestors were white people, black people, and other people who ranged from Amerindians to whoever else happened to be in the mix. Their appearance ranged from dark brown with African features and hair (two fundamentally important markers of your lot in life) to coffee-and-cream with European attributes.
In pre-1967 Bahamas, there were three social-racial classes of Bahamians: white, black, and mixed (or coloured). The social set-up was simple. There was a little ditty people used to chant to make sure that everybody stayed in their allotted station in life, and it went like this: “If you white, you all right; if you brown, stick around; if you black, stay back.”
Now, in case you think this was peculiar to The Bahamas, know that it existed throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, where people of European descent made up the minority of the population. They maintained their position at the top of the heap by creating what historians call the “race-class pyramid”: a society organized with a few white people at the top, a whole bunch of black people at the bottom, and a motley group of people who didn’t fit into either group in between. Now this in-between group consisted of all sorts: black people who had some education or some money and some social status to boot; people from the Mediterranean who didn’t quite count as “white” but couldn’t be called “black”; Asians of all sorts, from Chinese to Indian; and the mixed-up offspring of them all.
In the rest of the Caribbean, where there weren’t enough whites to go around, these people were often able to gain access to real power of a sort, becoming senior civil servants, doctors, lawyers, artists, merchants, university professors, and other professionals, and forming the bedrock of the kind of middle class that was found in Europe and elsewhere. It’s from this group of people that many of the leaders of the Caribbean independence movement came. In The Bahamas, though, these people had far fewer opportunities.
As I’ve pointed out before, the white population in The Bahamas was the largest of any colony (except Bermuda). What that meant was that (a) there were far fewer openings in middle-class activities for people of colour, although a few non-white Bahamians did make some economic gains; and (b) that there were no social opportunities at all. The most a fair-skinned person could hope for was to be able to qualify for a “nice” job, like serving in a shop on Bay Street, taking tickets in the Savoy Theatre, or working in a bank. Some very lucky women might, if they were pretty enough and smart enough, land themselves a white husband and move into white society. But for the most part, even the fairest Bahamian of colour had their family tree working against them, and couldn’t expect to move very far.
What that meant was that, if you wanted to get ahead, unless you were very confident or very smart or very stubborn, you didn’t concentrate on getting a good education or working hard. Neither of these was going to get you very far anyway; the opportunities for education were limited, and the opportunities for doing something meaningful after that — unless you were going to be a newspaperman or a teacher or a nurse or a member of the clergy — were more limited still.
What it meant was that if you wanted to get ahead, your best bet was finding a way to make your children lighter than you, so maybe one day, their children or grandchildren could be fair enough to matter. If that meant trying to seduce white men to sleep with you so you could have their children, or if it meant cutting yourself off from your black(er) family, then that was what you had to do.
The point of all this reminiscing is this. It may seem that those days are gone forever, and that those attitudes have gone away. But they have not. Forty years after majority rule, there is still rejoicing among some of us when our children are born fairer than we are. Forty years on, there is still apparently a preference among (black) bank managers for people with bright skin to stand behind counters. Forty years on, markers of beauty still include straight hair and pointy noses. And so women pay for weaves and creams that fade their skins, and men still like long hair and light eyes. So before we assume that for those people born in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, most of this is ancient history, let us make no mistake. These attitudes have affected us all, and they are not irrelevant, no matter what hopeful stances many of us take. We have made some progress, it’s true; but these ideas have shaped our society and they continue to inform who we are. It’s not about black or white or African or European — that would be too simple. It’s about us, Bahamians, and until we tell our stories, we will continue to simplify the most complex issues, and we’ll continue to live in a neo-colonial ex-colony, and not in a multicultural nation of which we all can be proud.