I don’t know Mrs Karen Harris or her family, nor was I involved in the search.
But I became acutely aware from early Saturday morning that Mrs Harris was missing, through the effective media blitz her family orchestrated: a special Facebook page, mass media, flyers posted all over the place –– to get out their simple message: “Help us find Karen.”
This mobilized a lot of people, especially white Bajans, in the well organized search for Mrs Harris. The family also succeeded in getting the authorities (police, army, and so on) to respond quickly to the appeal. All this took place in a blaze of media publicity.
After she was found, the publicity did not subside. First, there was a rumour in one of the media that she had spent the night at relatives (untrue), which sparked a wave of indignant and sometimes repulsive online comment. It also led to accusations of blatant double standards: the scope and intensity of the search was only because she was a “Caucasian” (why do the media still use such a discredited and unscientific term for “white”?).
This was not the finest hour for our newspapers. They sensationalized and provoked controversy with irresponsible reporting.
Colour and race bubbled up inevitably, lurking as they always do beneath the surface in Barbados –– understandable in a country with a long history of virulent white racism.
Let’s try to look at some of the issues dispassionately.
It’s true that a lot of Whites turned out for the search. Was this because Mrs Harris was white, or because they knew her or her family? And was this not mainly a response to the highly effective social media campaign the Harris family undertook?
Some questions have been raised.
One: was the police response so strong because the missing person was white? That is, is this not
a case of the police kowtowing to the privileged white people in Barbados who call the shots?
Two: would the authorities, and indeed other people, have responded so enthusiastically if the missing person had been a poor black woman?
Three: Just as Whites responded so keenly, why don’t black people turn out in such numbers when a black person goes missing?
Question one. I have no reason to doubt the spokesperson for the police, when he said that the police respond to crises like this without reference to class, creed or colour. Having worked with the police closely in my public service career, I’m confident that the police response was not triggered by the fact that the missing person was white. But, of course, any organization responds more actively the more pressure is put on it, and the greater publicity there is.
If the wife of a prominent black person in our society had gone missing, the police response and no doubt that of the public, in the event of a similar social media campaign, would have been exactly the same.
Question two. The answer is no. The poor in any society are powerless. That is why they are poor. They’re discriminated against; less educated; no social recognition; few connections; and, most important, don’t have the power of communication to mount a media campaign.
Poverty is our most serious challenge in Barbados now; far more serious than race, which is more of a middle class preoccupation. We have to break the vicious circle of intergenerational poverty in which so many people are trapped.
Question three. The question is absurd. It’s like asking why Indians don’t turn out en masse when an Indian is missing. Besides, quite a few black Bajans took part in the search for Mrs Harris.
Let’s hope that henceforth social media will be used as effectively in the search for all missing persons, and that people would respond similarly. I agree with columnist Marsha Hinds-Layne: we now have a template. Let’s apply it and see how it works.
Of course, even when we put this incident behind us and move on, we still have to deal with colour and class in Barbados. Can this be a teachable moment?
We need more national conversations on colour and class.
Bajan Whites are products of their history. Apart from the descendants of indentured servants, Whites spent most of that history controlling the politics and economics of this country in a climate of racist oppression, and now find themselves in an Independent Barbados stranded in a cocoon of privilege (often infused unconsciously with arrogance), largely isolated from the wider society. And, like the small Indian community, they tend to be clannish: mainly socializing and intermarrying with each other.
Of course, things changed with Independence. It’s true that Whites as a whole still enjoy a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth and the influence that goes with it; but that too is changing. There are more black-owned businesses. New successful white entrepreneurs have emerged from humble backgrounds not related to the planter-merchant oligarchy. The collapse of the old mercantile empire of BS&T is a sign of the times.
In a competitive global economy white-owned businesses can no longer afford to indulge in nepotism: they have to hire the best. As we move more towards a knowledge economy, Blacks have an advantage because they are proportionately better educated than Whites. Once the playing field is level, Blacks will sooner or later control the economy.
And it has to be said that, despite their clannishness, white Bajans are increasingly developing more varied ties (in addition to business) to the wider community. Many are committed to giving back generously to the wider society; and even a few are beginning to recognize that they, like black Bajans, are profoundly influenced culturally by our African heritage.
In view of our history, it’s understandable that most black Barbadians view the actions of Whites with a guarded scepticism. On the other hand, some Blacks always see racism as the sole explanation of any action of Whites. Give a young boy a hammer and all the world’s a nail.
While the black poor are in a grim prison not of their own making, Whites are in a mental jail of their own making. Class has a structural existence independent of the members that constitute it and tends to dictate patterns of behaviour. Whites can either break out of its confines, as T.T. Lewis famously did, or they can shatter the mental shackles that bind them and integrate fully into the wider society.
Remember the line from Hotel California by the Eagles?
We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.
We need some serious jail breakouts in Barbados.
(Peter Laurie, a former Barbados diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)