Every so often, something stirs the deviously calm-looking waters of race relations in Barbados. When this happens, all the murky undercurrents we have not worked through in our 390 years of coexistence bubble over momentarily, and then all returns to “normal”.
The ripple this time was caused by the treatise delivered by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles at the Seventh Annual Leo Leacock Memorial Lecture, one of the activities in Small Business Week 2015. Sir Hilary was examining the historical context in which business developed in Barbados.
Several people were affected by what he pointed to as some of the challenges black businesses faced in their set-up, maintenance and access to opportunity.
The lecture has caused discussion in many ways –– not being restricted to the level of business. If there were laws and restrictions that militated against the establishment of enterprise by black people, it is obvious they also governed
the social life of Barbados.
I have a particular friend who is very keen to engage the discussion. Two things are notable about my friend. Firstly, it is the only time in my entire life I can say I have a white friend.
I went to school with two white boys, whom I would not say were my friends, as I will admit being completely consumed by how differently “the system” treated them and others like me. “The system” at that time, of course, was the school rules and how they were applied.
Take for example hair length, the two white children wore their hair to their shoulders, while black boys had to have a haircut every week or face disciplinary measures. There were also other small privileges afforded to the white children which others did not benefit from.
By the time I left school, I was convinced skin colour was related to what a person could and could not do.
The second admission about this white friend of mine, though, is where the undoing of much of what I had thought
I knew began. This friend is one of only a few white people living in Barbados who I know are ready to have the discussion about race relations that affect this island.
In interacting with her about Sir Hilary’s observations, I seem to be less sure about many of the perspectives I had formed, based on my interaction with the two white boys at school.
When I told the story about the white boys and their hair, my white friend told me she had been called to the public secondary school, which her son attended, at least five times to be advised his hair needed cutting. Her son’s hair is not blonde. He has twirls which roll together when they are long.
He got the same command to cut his hair as often as the black boys
at the school did.
Her revelation startled me. Where I was convinced that “the system” had been established to discriminate against black hair, her story made me realize “the system” had to be interpreted by respective teachers and power holders, as well as that “the system” was partial to blonde hair than any other type.
My friend also gave me instances of other life experiences that left me completely confused since they were far from the narrative I had constructed over the years about what white Barbadian people did and experienced.
There are general and significant takeaways from my reflections with my friend. We are never going to become more comfortable with each other and create a mutual space for forward movement in this island unless we mix. Mixing allows us to be able to recreate the perceptions and misconceptions we have about each other.
Had I gone to school with more white children, ones with twirly hair, ones from working class backgrounds, perhaps all the years I felt white meant privilege could have been averted. Had I the opportunity to court white men in my early adulthood, I might have realized Barbadian men are Barbadian men, and colour does not change their attitudes to women.
If we think about the educational stratification in Barbados, although we only occupy 166 square miles of space, some of us live our entire lives never truly interacting with each other. Until we ensure that our children can meet each other and talk, until we are able to meet in spaces and discover each other, our society will never coalesce; and no amount of pretending will fix it.
My friend and I both left with unanswered questions and kernels we agreed to disagree on. We however realized, as mothers and Barbadian women, we had been through more common experiences than I had conceived possible. In trying to explain why she has been able to maintain a successful small business, however, she made the statement that stuck with me the most.
She explained that she started her business because she needed to. She just relied on her right to be –– her belief
that if she wanted to, she could and should. In that simple statement she perhaps summarized Sir Hilary’s entire lecture.
Barbados has allowed white people to feel like they can and should start a business if they want to, where it has disallowed black Barbadians from owning businesses, resulting in their learning they should not want to start a business.
There is the crux of what we have to change in this society for all of us to have an even playing field. I am not yet sure who the “we” who must change it are. It really may just be as general as we.
There is colour privilege in Barbados. At one point, that privilege was upheld by the law and other restrictions. After my shared reflection, the privilege is now upheld seemingly simply by perceptions. The fact is that Blacks and Whites in Barbados do not talk enough to realize most of us are outside “the system” and that “the system” is so old and antiquated, while we are all upholding it, the majority of us are simply being molested by it –– black and white.
Black Barbadians are finding it difficult to be entrepreneurs not just based
on their “wutlessness”. Simultaneously, white Barbadians are not finding business development and expansion easy solely because of their colour.
There is a small psychological difference in the upbringing of Blacks and Whites that may be more fundamental than anything else. We need to join our societies together to see where the real differences and hindrances to cohesion are.
It is hard to conclude this thought I am still shaping, but do you see where I am going with this?
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummyand part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.)