February 08, 2006

Black On Black Racism In Paradise

Last year, two female tourists, best friends from England, decided to check out the Seafood Friday night festivities at Anse La Raye on their visit to St. Lucia. For those of you who do not know, Anse La Raye is a sleepy little fishing village on the west coast of my temporary island home. Every Friday night the village wakes up and transforms into a street fair with stalls on either side of the road displaying a cornucopia of delights from the sea. Pubs blast music out into the street encouraging visitors to come in and have a little beer and a turn on the dance floor. This is where we find our carefree female tourists, inside a popular bar along the main street.

Standing behind the two foreigners are two burly St. Lucian men dressed in ordinary liming attire and one of them is a little inebriated. He stumbles forward into one of the Englishwomen and she spins around and with a little shove tells him to, “Watch out!” Unbeknownst to her, the stumbling man is a plain clothes police officer. He flies into a rage and proceeds to shove her back. His fellow officer and drinking buddy wastes no time in also jumping into the fray and they proceed to try to restrain the tourist who is now vigorously fighting back and cussing to high heaven. After all, as far as she is concerned these are two men attacking her for no apparent reason. Finally the other Englishwoman snaps out of her state of shock and rushes to help her friend who is now being dragged outside while being kicked and punched. The second Englishwoman flies at the two plain clothes officers. She jumps on the back of one, screaming and throwing some punches of her own. For some reason, the officers refuse to fight this woman back and use non-violent resistance, suffering under her blows as they concentrate their full attention on the first woman on the ground while her companion screams, “Leave my friend alone! Why are you doing this?”

Wait did I forget to mention that the first Englishwoman being restrained, kicked and punched is black and the second one rushing to her defense is white? Sorry my bad.

The night ends with the black tourist being arrested and put in jail for assaulting the police officers leaving her white friend protesting outside the station refusing all medical aid being politely offered to her. Meanwhile her black compatriot lay in pain inside a nasty jail cell for a day and a half. Then the station officials got the shock of their lives when they finally checked their detainee’s identity and found a British passport and heard testimony from eyewitnesses. Oops! This was not another nameless black local woman but a British citizen, so badly beaten and swollen she could not talk. Making matters worse, her irate, horrified white friend was not going to keep quiet. She threatened to contact the British consulate and media. The police began trying to appease her, offering a free island tour, boat trips anything. She would not budge and in a few days the incident was all over the local and foreign news and the black Englishwoman displayed her bludgeoned face for all to see. All of St. Lucia was forced to look at itself and its ugliness, police brutality and inculcated racism against its own people.

Yes, racism. Why? For a minute I want you to imagine that those two black police officers in Anse La Ray where two white troopers in Alabama in the 1950’s and they were beating up on a black woman yet not laying a single finger on her white female friend who was also fighting with them. They arrest the black woman and charge her with the criminal offence of assaulting a police officer but not the white woman. They express concern and offer first aid to the white woman but not the black woman. I am sure you would not hesitate to call that racism if two white cops did it. Now if both women were assaulted and arrested this would be an article on police brutality and violence against women. But the officers in Anse La Raye did not dare lay a finger on the white Englishwoman even when she was jumping on them and hitting them. Do not forget that all it took to set this incident in motion was a little shove and rebuff from her black friend. They went to great lengths to appease and comfort the white Englishwoman while treating her black compatriot like a common dog because they assumed at first she was local and one of them and of lesser worth thus justifying their actions. If she indeed was a St. Lucian we probably would have never even heard of this incident. Shame! Bystanders just watched it happen, mentally powerless and anesthetized against feeling outrage. Shame! Journalists who blew the whistle and made it headline news were rebuked by the Ministry of Tourism who wanted the incident swept under the rug for fear of repercussions on the tourism industry. Shame!

That incident is repugnant on so many levels. Two burly men beating on a single woman- (and the underlying reasons behind this will be explored in a separate article) is the ultimate act of cowardice and brutality. However it is the race issue that I want to explore now. It is so clear to me that the Anse La Raye police scandal is the height of internalized self-hatred and a prime example of how people can also be racist against those of their own race. Black people are particularly guilty of this. It is the worst kind of racism there is because it keeps entire populations in a state of low self-esteem, lack of morale and solidarity. Even after so many years have passed since emancipation we still have the ingrained belief that a black person’s life is less valuable than that of any other race. It is as if we believe we are expendable and detached from all the aspects that help the human being transcend mere animal flesh and animal urges. You see it in the casual way black people take the lives of their brothers and sisters whether in the ghettoes of Lavantille, Kingston, City of God or South Central L.A. We kill and brutalise our own people at will and not even for any great philosophical cause (not that it justifies killing) but just for the most mundane of reasons. Suddenly it’s so clear why we don’t need a colonial power or Jim Crow to oppress our own people anymore. We can do it just fine on our own. Our self hatred ensures we stay mired in underdevelopment for a long, long, LONG time.

Our colonial parents’ knew exactly what they were doing. Theirs was a long term, multi-century plan when they enslaved and treated our ancestors as if we lacked any higher purpose in life, be it academic, spiritual, humane or personal. They inculcated us to fear intellectual development and individualism and be content with the basest of animal needs- food, fight for survival and sex. Sadly that became our self-perception. We grew up learning the only way to rise up and gain respect, is to brutalize and dominate, withhold valuable resources and laud any position we attain over others. The old colonial system favoured our lighter skinned brothers who rose to power under it and found opportunities to transcend and in turn inflicted the same crushing class/”high colour” grading system on their own people. And so our self hatred grew. I have lived and worked in the Caribbean all my life and it is my observation that the ill effects of our shared history has not been challenged in the Eastern Caribbean islands with the force needed to uproot much of the old thinking. Trinidad had its indigenous Afro-centric cultural revolution that birthed our carnival, calypso and innovation of our steel pan; our violent labour movements in the 1930’s and a deeply affecting black power and academic movement in the 1960s and 1970’s. All of this home grown uprising helped empower our Afro-Caribbean population. Trinidad’s early independence from Europe, oil industry, large merchant and civil class and the infusion of East Indian, Chinese and Syrian people and exceptional mixing of the races that followed all helped to disperse and divert a lot of the direct ill effects of colonialism. Wealth trickled down freely, opportunities, entrepreneurial and innovative endeavors flourished and there was upward class movement for many. Other Caribbean islands were not so fortunate. Their societies remained in Master/White/High Colouer vs. Slave/Black mode for a much longer time. In fact, St. Lucia is almost feudal compared to Trinidad. Farmers still toil on land they do not own. Everything is still pretty much owned by the very same old money white and “high coleur” French Creole and English families from way back in colonial days. The class system is very fixed with wealth barely shifting or trickling down save for the few cases where highly educated black professionals fight their way up mostly through the public sector. In fact, the country has never had a successful Prime Minister with dark skin even though dark skinned people comprise 90% of the population. That speaks volumes.

What makes healing self hatred for islands like St. Lucia even harder is that its economy is now overly-dependent on tourism. Save for a dying banana industry (which was supported on European charity but no longer) there are very little home spun industries where the people themselves invent and export a product they can take pride in. There are little natural resources and almost everything is imported from abroad. Even the majority of food is imported despite the island having one of the most fertile volcanic soils in the region and topography high enough to support even some temperate crops. Why? There is minimal land ownership by the local farmers and outmoded plantation style single crop-agricultural practices. So, selling the country is all that is left. Every day poor and working class black people must kiss mostly white visitors’ butts to eek out a living. They smile and act the happy natives, while enviously watching tourists enjoy a quality of life they can only dream about. They serve food to foreigners that they cannot afford to buy for themselves and families; I am not talking caviar and champagne but simple things like chicken and cheese. They keep hotel residences in pristine condition during the day and return to their smelly ghettos or under developed villages at night. It’s like a new kind of colonial plantation system all over again. You often sense the underlying feeling of hostility among certain people working in the tourism trade. Of course, this would not even be an issue if the government also took good care of its own people and stopped stealing and wasting revenue and foreign aid on nonsensical projects (yes we have overpriced stadiums in the middle of nowhere here in St. Lucia as well) handed out in corrupt no bid contracts to their friends. If the government ensured that everyone had access to affordable utilities, fair justice, reliable communications, healthcare, nutrition, education and a productive edifying existence, then natives’ welcome of visitors would stem from genuine love and hospitality instead of a passive-aggressive hustle to survive that diminishes their self pride. Finally our tourism board slogans like, “St. Lucia, Simply Beautiful!” would ring true. At present, St. Lucia is only “Simply Beautiful” for foreigners. Life has been so hard, dirty, cut throat, demeaning and disappointing for so long that the locals cannot even see and respect the beauty in themselves far less that of each other or that of their country.

I get lots of opportunities to observe more harmless forms of the Anse La Ray incident because my partner and a few of our friends are white. I note how St. Lucians lay on thick, the politeness, extra consideration; hassle free access to beaches by hotels we aren’t even staying in and just general respect. Lucian men even bite their tongue instead of risking sexually harassing my white friends, even when they wear the skimpiest of outfits. It’s almost pathological how predicable it is, even when my fairer coloured friends and I all speak with the same Trini accent; share the same culture and grew up right here in the Caribbean. I guess because we all work in the creative profession, we try to see the humour in it. My girlfriend and I make bets on whether the waitress will just for once assume that I am the one paying for lunch or dinner (which is often the case) and place the bill in front of me for a change. But underneath our humour, I can sense the discomfort. My friends feel uncomfortable being singled out for special treatment because in our little circle our skin colour fades into insignificance. This is what is commonly known as being “colour-blind”. Being colour-blind isn’t non-recognition of racial and cultural differences, (I love gloating to my partner about not having to constantly apply sunscreen at the beach) what it is about is not allowing racial differences to have any bearing on your valuation of the individual’s worth. When you concentrate solely on the spirit and personality of the individual, you actually do “forget” about their race. It's true, you honestly do not “see” it, until some relevant practical circumstance (like the sunscreen) brings it into focus in a purely superficial way. People who are incapable of doing this and keep racial features (and their own character assumptions and stereotypes) constantly top of mind in all their dealings with other people are racists. Racists never forget race, ever. It was far easier for my friends and I to “forget” in Trinidad (this was a few years back I know things have changed drastically since. I understand the races and classes have become more demarcated and insular). However, tourist economies like St. Lucia make it harder to be colour-blind. You are reminded of the racial and accompanying class differences all the damn time!

All my friends are sensitized to the situation and fully understand the history of slavery and culture of oppression motivating the actions of the local waitress, hotel security officer or beach bum in question and hate it as much as I do. However my white friends are not subjected to the shitty end of the stick because of it and can afford to be magnanimous in the face of ignorance. I on the other hand, cannot. It matters more to me for reasons they are aware of but can never fully understand. I get angry and disappointed with black people who still have internalized racism and misjudge or disrespect me because of it. How could they not see in my skin colour their own reflection and our shared struggle? Do they not realise they insult and do injustice to themselves more so than to me? Lately I have been trying to turn that anger into empathy and patience in order to be more positive about ending it by confronting those individuals calmly or just letting it roll off my back. But on some days, it is very hard to do. I wish black people would treat their OWN race with that same respect with which they feel they must treat others regardless of which class they assume you fall into. When will they realise we are all one human race and equally worthy? I hate to admit it, our islands may be independent of our colonial parents but we are far from being emancipated from mental slavery. I’m so sorry Bob Marley.

7 comments:

Taran said...

You know... in this case it may be more complicated than racism. I think it's more of a 'local ting'.

Because the woman was black, she may have been mistaken for a local. And the way locals are treated is *always* different than the way foreigners are treated. In some places, locals get treated better. In other places, locals get treated worse.

And then there's the sex issue - any 2 men that beat a woman are obviously not doing it out of self defense. That's the stuff rape is made of. It's a matter of power, of authority... having power over another person.

And THEN... there's the whole issue of plain clothes police *drinking on duty*.

And THEN... if you're a plain clothes police officer, it means that the 'cover' was blown just to beat up some poor woman...

I've been down there. I rode the bus to Anse La Raye by myself (despite warnings to not go by myself) and had a pretty good time.

Maybe everyone in St. Lucia should wear "I'm a Tourist" t-shirts. :-)

Jessica said...

Hey taran, your point is well taken and I do agree the issue of two men beating on a woman is all about power abuse and similar to rape.

I imagine you CAN look at the incident as just a matter of how "locals" are treated v.s. how "tourists" are treated. But I do not think it is enough to leave it there.

I always ask WHY. So the question is WHY are locals treated that way by their fellow locals? How did this devalued treatment come about? In this case, race is also closely tied into the situation because the local population is in fact predominantly black. So it does beg the question WHY do black people treat their fellow black people in such a manner?

Remember, it's the same people who sing along to songs of African pride and solidarity not to mention Bob Marley when Emancipation, Independence and Jounen Kweyol holidadys roll around and then turn around and ill treat each other with impunity.

I imagine a black person will have to indeed wear that "I AM A TOURIST" t shirt just to get some respect. In fact, it is ironic that right now in preparation for Cricket World Cup, we are helping the population improve their hospitality and one of the key messages is, BE NICE TO EVERYONE because you cannot tell who is a visitor and who isn't. Not all tourists are white.

Elspeth said...

Thanks for the tip, Alien. I'll start working on my "I'm a Tourist" t-shirt asap.

Alima Bell said...

Just found your blog today it's wonderful. I just reading this blog nice very nice. This is a great and
interesting post. I am a fan and enjoy your post. Black's racism towards white is often called reverse racism because of the oppresion that blacks suffered from whites over hundreds of years. However, I consider it just plain racism.

Anonymous said...

unfortunately Stlucian's love white people and the lighter the skin the prettier you are they are so racist and ignorant it is unbeleivable

Anonymous said...

Great article Jessica. This world is so screwed up and there is no fix. I often tell people that fascism, hatred, and racism proliferate in non-diverse cultures. In 1968 Martin Luther King preached about solving racism through non-violence and he preached he had a dream of races coming together. The dream is realized but the nightmare continues. I wish I could wake up to a different reality. Its 2012 and the systematic psychological brain washing generation after generation, remains a badge of slavery! I was in court one day talking to a sister at the lawyer's table (we are both black lawyers.) We were having a casual conversation. She is of West Indian descent and so am I. Both of us are raised in America. Then two white male colleagues came to our table and she commenced having an intellectual conversation with them to the exclusion of me. I don't think she was even conscientious of it. I found her conduct to be insulting but never shared this with her. On another occasion I met an African American female attorney conversing with a white male attorney in the lobby of a courthouse. When I struck up a hello to the both of them, a conversation commenced but then the black female attorney turned her back to me and leaned forward as if to have a serious conversation with our white male counterpart. There was nothing confidential in the nature of the conversation for her to try to steer me away, nor do I think she was conscientious of it. I am conscientious of it, because in high school I was beaten up by a group of black girls for thinking I was better than them because I had a best friend who was white. This incident took place on the grounds of a middle-class and upper-class school which was predominantly Irish and the blacks were minorities. When I was in elementary school I would get beaten with a yardstick by my white male teacher or a black teacher or a white nun, for disobedience like talking, to the exclusion of light skin children or white children who were equally disobedient. Unless you experience these types of discrimination, personally, you can easily rationalize that the nature of the problem has some other causal factor than racism. The root of these incidents is always historical racism and prejudice. It not sexism or any other factor though both may co-exist in any given situation.
My family is from Haiti. In Haiti the color of your skin dictates your economic status and respectability. When the Catholic Church set up shop in Haiti, the priests taught the Haitians that they were inferior to whites. Ask anyone from Haiti who went to a school run by the Christian Brothers and you will find this to be a fact. Many middle class Haitians had enough respect for themselves to know that this was bullshit. Nevertheless, some believed it to be true. As to the rest of the Caribbean, I can only speak about Jamaica. I use to be married to a Jamaican and visited that country often and hated going there because the colonial stigma still endures. Native blacks are not allowed in the resort hotel unless they are on duty. I found your post while researching St. Lucia to see if there is such a stigma there. Well, I won't be visiting St. Lucia anymore! Do you have any suggestions world traveler? I just want to go somewhere and relax, not having to be concerned about color. JJ

Jessica said...

You will find racism almost everywhere, even in places that boast exceptional tolerance.

If you make it the sole deciding factor in where you go to enjoy a visit, you will cloister yourself at home.

I suggest trying to apply a spiritual and intellectual filter of love, understanding and empowerment that makes it possible for you to shake it off your back when anyone tries to lay their hang-ups on you.