In this global #BlackLivesMatter moment, we are seeing a shift in conversations about race and it feels like a tipping point. White people in Barbados and the wider Caribbean don’t normally speak about whiteness in our context. Is it a generational shift in that younger people are less willing to live socially segregated or oppressed lives? I’m not sure, but it feels like the time to speak about whiteness and call out the more covert ways in which racism and white supremacy have affected our lives in this small island developing state. And as some others have written about their own monologues, this could be more articulate, but I’ll throw my hat in the ring.
I was raised as a white Bajan and benefited from the inherent benefits that whiteness endows. Like elsewhere, race is categorised by social indicators and in my case, those indicators included being raised on a sugar plantation in St. John, Barbados by people who identified as white. Although I have mixed-race ancestry, I grew up in a time of binaries when you were either white or black and I didn’t learn of my maternal family’s mixed race, indentured background till I was much older. (I’ll possibly write about those complexities in another post.)
I’m not sure exactly when I became conscious of my own whiteness but I was quite young. It’s hard not to be aware of colour in a place like Barbados but I didn’t have a language to speak about racial and economic differences. I was curious why I and those working on the plantation inhabited socially separate lives. I tried to imagine what life would have been like on the land where I lived during the time of slavery and while I didn’t learn about Guyanese poet Martin Carter till decades later, his notion of tongueless whispering was something I intuitively wondered about as a child – could I hear history’s voices by placing my ear to the land?
My private primary school was small and exclusively white. I sat the 11+ examination and went to Christ Church Foundation School where I first experienced being a minority in school as one of three white girls in a class of 30+ students. I made friends but struggled academically. My parents transferred me to The Ursuline Convent. I recall the headmistress challenging my mother, suggesting that if she wanted me to get a good education, I should remain at Foundation, and if she wanted me to be a lady, I should go to the Convent. Although it wasn’t stated, I think there were racial and class undertones to this discussion. The student body at the Convent was differently composed – approximately 60 per cent white, 40 per cent black, and a few expatriate students. Although our classrooms were racially integrated, when the school bell rang, we mostly retreated to the segregated lives we were accustomed to. Both white and black Bajans were complicit in leading segregated lives – it was easier than change, but that’s embarrassing.
While I belonged in Barbados in some ways – my family has been here continuously since 1648 – as a member of a white minority growing up in a newly independent nation, there was a simultaneous sense of ‘unbelonging’. I wanted to be part of the larger landscape but, as silly as it sounds, I didn’t know how to. I understood that sentiment decades later when I read Jean Rhys and recognised a similar longing in her Wide Sargasso Sea – I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
In 1980, I went to school in Ontario, Canada. I was curious if I might belong more easily in a white country? I certainly did not. That was an important lesson. Thinking I was white and being in a country with lots of white people did not mean that I belonged in any way, shape, or form. Many of my peers at school in Canada hailed from across the Anglophone Caribbean and it was there where I unexpectedly experienced my Caribbean self amongst White, Syrian, Chinese, French Creole, Black and Indo-Caribbean peers. I felt exhilarated to be part of a larger social space, radically different from the small, white enclave in which I had grown up and decidedly grown apart from. I understood then, that there was an impoverishment to my social world in Barbados – imagine, being part of a population of about 80,000 white people and this was supposed to satisfy you intellectually, romantically, socially, culturally? Impossible, or impossible for me. There are many who live out their lives in small, social white circles.
Eventually choosing to become an artist and return to work in the field of culture in Barbados, a young independent black nation, was a double-edged sword. While it created an alternate milieu from the confines of the environment I grew up in, it didn’t automatically confer belonging to the larger cultural and social milieu. How could it, given the transitional nature of the times, shifting from more than three centuries of British colonial rule to local black governance?
Out of this context, and as an artist, I became concerned with how shared historical suffering reveals itself communally today. How do individuals and nations manage trauma and the desire for self-fulfillment in small places where social life and kinship are predominantly lived in separate social spheres and for which our lives are so much poorer? How could I operate in this setting? What was my role as an artist and as a white person?
Later, marrying outside of the white Bajan milieu, having Anglo/Creole-Bajan, Indo-Trini-Hindu, Irish-Catholic children, and living in Trinidad for several years, exposed me to the Indo-Caribbean experience, further cracking open the early social insularity of my upbringing. I chose to raise my children differently and honour their plural selves. In Trinidad, my son went to a racially diverse school that observed Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious events.
When we returned to Barbados from Trinidad, the social apartheid was even starker to me. I chose their primary school carefully – different from my experience, it was the most racially integrated school on the island. My children were happy there and felt they belonged. The decision for them to attend government secondary school was important to me. They weren’t to be blanketed in private institutions for the next five years. While that transition was markedly different from their primary school, and they experienced race and class in challenging ways, I stand by my decision to foster their understanding of the larger, national space and who they are within that.
White supremacy, capitalism, and the plantation are the foundation of Barbadian society, and racism has been and continues to be toxic to both Black and White Bajans. We need to call it when we see it and we need to talk about it in our segregated circles. While my own multi-layered history includes indentured labourers and mixed-race ancestors, I have benefited most from my white settler colonial ancestry. And even though Barbados is the only country in the world where I am read as a white person (for example, I am brown in Jamaica, somewhat red in Trinidad, from some Spanish speaking country when I am in the USA and no one is sure where I am from in the UK), I am white here in Barbados and fully aware of the historic injustices and contemporary manifestations of our ugly past. (I have been working through the term White Creole – also problematic and that will require possibly another post…)
What I do know is that living racially segregated lives limits the fullness of ourselves. It limited my emotional development and social evolution as a young person. Opportunities like the one we have now, at this moment, to speak up and speak out don’t come along often. Participating in potentially awkward discussions about race, racism, white supremacy, and whiteness, in small postcolonial spaces like ours, within families like ours, working to shape more equitable societies and committing to anti-racist lifestyles, is vital to our collective well-being. I’ve tripped up so many times but I continue to learn, aim to be conscious of my own biases, to be sensitive to the trauma of plantation history which was so f*****g brutal in its relentless, centuries-long terrorisation and humiliation of tens of thousands of people.
Every day, I see the mill wall from my studio where people were dehumanised. I am not removed from the reality of our past. I know what lies below this soil and my work is about the plantation in all its ugliness and its potential for transformation. The Empire tried to ruin intimacy between people of different races and, in so doing, fostered madness. White people today can choose to live different lives, to behave differently, to think differently, to love differently, and to stand up for equity and justice. White Barbados needs to have a conversation with itself. The time has come.
Annalee Davis is a white Barbadian artist who grew up on a plantation in St. John.
2 Replies to “#BTColumn – On race and whiteness from the context of Barbados (Part 1)”
Great article Annalee. Also being considered a “white” Bajan that grew up in Canada, I can relate to your sentiments.
Annalee, Thank you for shining a light on an issue that the Black diaspora dare not speak its name. We need to have an honest conversation about racism hiding in plain sight, before we can move onto tackling the wider social injustices and inequities of the past 400 years.