Racism | Colorism
BlackLivesMatter and the Barbadian Context
Why we need to have difficult conversations about our history
A couple of weeks ago I attended a Black Lives Matter march in Barbados. If you know anything about Barbados, and much of the Caribbean, you probably know that Black people are in the majority. So why would we even need such a march? There are lots of answers to this question, but in the end it comes down to three things:
- A shared history of enslavement — in fact, since it was one of the earliest such societies in the 17th century, the southern states in the US used the Barbados slave code as a model for their own reign of terror.
- Family ties — many Caribbean families have Black relatives and friends in the US. I myself have three relatives, two of them male, and so I’m very aware of the dangers they face.
- A recognition that we have not really dealt with the legacy of enslavement and colonialism in the Caribbean. As I discuss in my book, Exploring Shadeism, many of our ideas about ethnicity result from that poisoned seed.
Because of this the murder of George Floyd, and the deaths of many other Black people at the hands of the US police, have sparked many discussions. That’s because many of the biases against Black or dark-skinned people that exist in white-majority countries also permeate our culture.
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In Barbados, despite the optics (a Black prime minister, Black government ministers, some Black business owners and a huge array of Black professionals), the descendants of plantation owners still hold the most financial muscle. The compensation they got for the loss of the people they enslaved has translated into multi-generational wealth.
That means that they can easily afford the best for their family members, where less well-off people may have to struggle. And it means that some still have a superiority complex, while others resent them for it.
Black Barbadians and white Barbadians rarely mix beyond what’s necessary to get things done. While there are exceptions, there’s a kind of de facto segregation or apartheid that takes place, starting with school.
Black people and white people mix in the classroom, but when they socialize during break time and lunch time, it’s usually with people who look like them. It happened in my parents’ time, in my time, and now in my daughter’s time, though her own friend group is diverse.
Outside the classroom, Black and white Barbadians usually socialize separately. They may come together over a sporting event, but you won’t often see them in each others’ homes.
As recently as the 1980s, there were places that didn’t welcome dark skinned Barbadians, and as recently as the early 2000s, I myself witnessed the manager of a beach club berate Barbadians (who were availing themselves of the free, public beach) for mooching off the club’s facilities. The whites who actually were mooching heard nothing from him.
(The irony is that post-Covid-19, with tourism at an all-time low, the club is trying to attract local traffic, but locals have long memories, and the club has removed its Facebook page after scads of negative comments on the issue).
So, the George Floyd murder raised loads of issues, and one of those has to do with a statue. Specifically, a statue of Lord Nelson, a product of his time (and therefore a racist), which stands at the head of the island’s main shopping street, in what used to be called Trafalgar Square. (Apparently it predates the one in London by a few years.)
The area is now called Heroes Square, and as many have pointed out, he’s not a hero to us. Calls to “Take Down Nelson” have become increasingly more strident. Just as loud are the voices calling for the statue to remain because of its historical value (plus the fact that taking down a statue could be seen as a performative action and a replacement for actually addressing the remaining inequities in our country).
In the past, I admit that I haven’t felt strongly about this. But now I think that the proper place for that statue is in the Barbados Museum, in an exhibit that details the good AND the bad of Nelson.
More importantly, it is beyond sad that it took video evidence of white bias to focus white attention around the world on what Black people have known for centuries.
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So let’s not lose the impact of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and dozens of other cut-short lives in a series of performative actions.
Instead, let’s put the murderers on trial, and take action to actually improve Black people’s lives. In the US, that means training the police better. It means funding community services that can deal with non-criminal matters. And it means ending the practice of weaponizing whiteness by pretending to see a threat where none exists. (“Karens”, I’m looking at you.)
And here in Barbados, it means having those difficult conversations about privilege, responsibility and equity. It’s the only way we can all move forward.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020
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