Two occurrences in the last six months have brought to the fore the issue of race, minority communities, and the relationships among different groups present in Barbados.
For me, the debate, by some, surrounding these two occurrences has been an eye-opener, and instructional as
to how Barbadians see themselves approaching the 50th year of our island’s Independence.
The first occurrence –– last year –– was the reaction to the proposed development of a residential/mosque project in the Clermont area. At that time, it was the community to which I belong that came under intense scrutiny as a result of some sections of the media highlighting the project. For some, it was the Muslim community under the spotlight, while for others, who perhaps couldn’t differentiate, it was the East Indian community that was the target.
Either way it was a minority group among the groups in Barbados which was subjected to examination and discussion. Being intimately involved, I came to see first-hand the dynamics of how such discussions go in our modern times and the role of social media today as contrasted with mainstream media.
Although there are strong possibilities Islam was found among some slaves brought to the island, Muslims indeed have been in Barbados for over 100 years, as the book Bengal To Barbados reminds us that the first known Muslim arrived here around 1910 from Bengal in eastern India, part of the British Empire at that time. While the majority of Muslims in Barbados are of East Indian background (and they form the majority of the East Indian minority), there is a distinction between Muslims and persons of other faiths of East Indian extraction.
So the discussion that came about when the Clermont project was reported on brought a minority group into question, and at times several vocal persons seemed to have difficulty in differentiating between a faith community and a racial one. As a faith community, race does not become a problem, and so for the Clermont project this should not have been an issue for those opposed to it, or those having concerns.
The discussion nevertheless brought out many interesting points, and, in a way, for some people clarified many existing misconceptions and inaccuracies.
The second occurrence –– two weekends ago –– featured the unfortunate case of a lady gone missing. The fact that the missing person was a Caucasian, from another minority group in Barbados, the white community, and the resulting large-scale search seemed to have ignited once more a discussion and debate on race and minority groups and their place in Barbados.
Once again it was very instructional to see how social media worked in the ventilation of vocal persons wading in
on the issue of race in Barbados. Mainstream media wasn’t left out either, as several connected articles made their way to the Press causing even more stir and discussion in the public arena.
These two incidents are perhaps a cause for a great deal of reflection on where we are as a society: where we have come from and where we are going. It is healthy that we seek to discuss the issues; it is healthy that we seek clarification; it is healthy that we enquire. For through all these exercises we can, hopefully, be better off as a nation.
What is not healthy is despising each other on the basis of the colour of our skin; or because of our race, our faith or ethnic make-up, or even our economic position (if achieved justly, for those who have, and, if unable to but tried, for those who don’t have).
What lessons can be learnt from these two occurrences? What lessons can be learnt from the reactions to the news of these two occurrences? I agree with Reverend Dr Gerry Seale when he calls for a national discussion on race in Barbados. It is important that we start (if we haven’t already) talking to each other rather than at each other.
There are many issues in our society which must be addressed, and race relations is but one of them. But if we do have a dialogue going, I am sure as communities we together can learn from each other and seek a better Barbados for all.
Ironically, as the debate was unfolding surrounding the search for the missing woman, Acting Assistant Commissioner of Police Eucklyn Thompson, while launching the Neighborhood Watch at Coverly was lamenting the fact that communities across Barbados had lost that spirit of togetherness and looking out for each other, so prevalent in past years.
I suspect that race and minority issues will not go away so easily, and will take time and the building of bridges between the groups. Small steps have been taken in this regard and continue to be taken.
We know that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Let us hope that we can all continue the journey.
Strangely, while we talk a lot on these matters, the reality on the ground seems already to be positive, as witnessed by the gathering of Barbadians of all backgrounds at sports, cultural and other national events, which we enjoy being a part of.
I end with an African proverb I used in my very first column: “In crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build dams.”
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace and secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association.