I am of mixed decent and born to Trinidadian parents, and spent a lot of time on that island, particularly during my teenage years and early twenties and I still return every year for Carnival whenever I can. I was exposed to a virtual racial tapestry of relatives, neighbors and friends. Not to mention the wider society of the twin island Caribbean nation which is just as diverse in its heritage as my immediate and extended family.
Trinidad has descendents of Amerindian (indigenous to the island), Spanish (first conquistadors and colonials) African (former slaves, maroons and freed persons of color), French (succeeding plantation owners, aristocrat and military), English (eventual sovereign owners) Indian and Chinese (former indentured workers), Syrian, Lebanese, Portugese (traders, asylum and venture-seekers), Irish and Scottish (laborers, clergy, escaped prisoners) and everything in between that resulted from all the relations consensual and nonconsensual, approved or not.
While Northern and Southern American as well as European metropolitans also claim a similar cosmopolitan what makes Trinidad and Tobago so different is that the land mass is too small for people to segregate into ethnic neighborhoods. There are no Chinatowns, Pakistowns, Little Italys and Spanish Harlems. From the moment they arrived, everyone was forced to rub shoulders and I guess we ended up rubbing other body parts together as well, resulting in an exquisite mix of people who are naturally beautiful without plastic surgery and sun kissed without fake tans. It is not a surprise that Trinidad and Tobago has one of the highest Miss Universe and Miss World finalists and winners per capita.
The country’s bank holiday calendar is marked by European, Roman Catholic, Hindu, African, Muslim, Chinese celebrations. Its national soundtrack is a mixture of Indian and African music. The national flag was designed by aTrinidadian artist of Chinese descent. The most celebrated creator of Carnival costumes is a white man and everything from calypso to classical music to reggae to rock to chowtals play on the airwaves. The current Prime Minister is a Hindu woman, voted into office by people of all races and religions. My former class-mates and closest friends to this day resemble a United Colors of Benetton billboard. My pantry is stocked with ingredients for every kind of cuisine.
During Carnival the rainbow come to life in a sensuous, kaleidoscope of colors and creeds, all reveling, fornicating and getting drunk and high together as one. A peek of what is known as The Greatest Show On Earth can be seen here with the popular costume band I party with called TRIBE crossing the main stage in capital city of Port of Spain and in this Carnival documentary and in a music video which captures the Trini cultural mix very well for a song called Wotless by one of my favorite Trini soca musicans. (Wotless is a slang for feeling drunk/high and behaving slack/rude and not giving a damn what people think).
I recall my childhood visits to my grandmothers’ place in Trinidad and race was always spoken about with complete candor. There was a lot of racial humor and it was largely innocuous. I can see how diversity is not something to be feared. It does not mean a loss of individual, cultural and ethnic identity if people unite and forge a combined culture they can all buy into. Every group in Trinidad still retains their heritage without having to get militant about it yet share in common veins of humanity.
Utopia? Not quite.
Racial tensions do bubble to the surface from time to time particularly around election time. As usual it is the politicians who love to divide and conquer. Just as politicians got minorities and poor whites in America to believe they are so different and vote for two separate parties instead of uniting under common class and social issues, Trinidadian politicians did the same to urban blacks and rural Indians in Trinidad so they would overlook their shared struggle and shared disatisfaction with equally corrupt parties. Keeping the lower classes divided is the oldest political strategy in the book in order to prevent them from uniting and taking on the “Marie Antoinettes” and "Tsars" of our time, namely the corporate moguls and their corrupt political sycophants.
Trinidad had a history of decimation of Native Indians by Europeans, slavery of Africans, exploitative labor of Asians and all the social injustice and unrest that led up to the post-colonial, industrialized republic it is today. The black liberation movement that swept places like Haiti, Jamaica, United States and Africa also had a big influence but for some reason, it never got truly militant. Some historians claim Afro-Trinidadians descended from relatively docile tribes more concerned with spiritual and creative pursuits than the more warrior-like people shipped to places like Haiti and Jamaica or that our slavery and colonialism was not as harsh. I think it’s the sun, sand, sea and rum. For whatever reason, Trinis (slang for Trinidadians) cannot take anything too seriously for too long. Not necessarily a good thing in all matters but when it comes to racial differences, a blessing! Eventually, Trinis just want to laugh, eat, drink, party and well…fuck each other. As one calypsonian (a musical artist who sings calypso) put it, “How we vote is not now we party.” Among the younger generation of Trinis, for whom partying is as essential as breathing, color-blindness (i.e. not blindness to race but the habit of placing race last or not at all, on the important criteria by which you make your initial value-judgment of a person) has actually become a real thing and I am from this generation.
So, can you imagine my shock when later in life I was exposed to the seriousness, segregation and sensitivity that typify race-relations in the USA.
When I met my black American relatives, born and raised in Brooklyn, I found them to be overly anxious, cynical, militant and angry. They put all kinds of unecessary limitations on themselves. As Bob Marley said, mental slavery.
“Oh we don’t go there, that’s a white people restaurant,” they would warn.
“Says who? Don’t be ridiculous!” I would respond and march my idealistic Trini- indoctrinated ass into said restaurant and act like I belonged there just as much as anyone else.
I found that an open nature, eloquence and beaming smile were very disarming weapons in the human arsenal against hate. If there was any covert racism, I was oblivious, but my American relatives and their friends were always pointing it out, they always expected the worse and usually got it. They could not feel comfortable in any setting unless there were black people there and could not understand how I could be like a duck in water with almost any group of people. I joined an old man in a folk dance outside a pub in Edinburgh much to my cousin’s embarrassment, but when it’s dancing, in the street no less, a Trini-raised person goes, “Count me in!’ no matter the color of the people doing it.
My American cousins never learned how to swim, something I mastered by nine, even though there were community pools and the Y in the city. They only gave themselves permission to listen to what BET played while my musical soundtrack included everything from Mozart to Fleetwood Mac to Michael Jackson to Marley to Mighty Sparrow (a Trini calypsonian) to Nirvana. There was a kind of clannishness and over protectiveness they had which I could not understand. In Trinidad, I grew up with people of color in power and comprising the majority of the police force and it was the norm to poke fun and point out their flaws but in America, any black acheivers were to be revered loyally. Situations deemed racist, that would make me respond with humor or pity would make them resort to rants.
I began to realize that my born and bred black American relatives had become cynical, resentful and paranoid. Their initial response was just like how a recent victim of sexual assault responds to any friendly male overture and I am certain they hurt the feelings of many a white person, who bore them no ill will. Then again, I never had to deal with the kind of blatant and continuous racism and lack of representation and role models they encountered and worse of all the suppression of public dialogue about it because it made white people uncomfortable. When I entered the corporate world I finally understood the frustration. My white American friends and colleagues were overly defensive, overly guilty and overly P.C. yet completely closed off to understanding the factors influenced and are still influencing race relations. Why? Because it is too “unpleasant” and “unflattering” and they are overly fearful of causing offence and equate forgiveness with forgetfulness.
“Do we have to bring this up? Aren’t your people over it yet?”
Imagine if we said that to any Jew experiencing anti-Semitism today or who brought up the Holocaust. This was indeed a culture shock to me because I grew up celebrating Emancipation Day every August in Trinidad and speaking openly about race whether over lunch or on a school field trip to a formerly slave-run cocoa estate in the mountains. My great-great grandfather was one of the American-born slaves who earned his freedom fighting in the American Civil War and was allowed to settle in the southern part of Trinidad with streets still named for the different Union Army companies. Yet, any reference I made to the past, my white American friends balked instead of seeing it as a way of understanding each other.
Suddenly it became necessary for me, a rather sheltered and color-blind person to devise a system of identifying real racism in people. In Trinidad, you have to be truly over the top in order to be labeled a racist, in America, racists can linger undetected in the political correctness, politeness and WASPishness in the white community as well as in the resentment, paranoia and over-protectiveness within minority communities. So here is how I know when someone is really racist:
Their level of interracial couple acceptance
Nothing tests the limits of open-mindedness like seeing an interracial couple or the product of an interracial coupling. Now there is nothing racist about wanting to preserve ones ethnic heritage, especially if it has been decimated. There is also nothing racist about feeling more easily attracted to people within your own ethnic background as sexual attraction can be strongly related to a sense of familiarity. If perpetuating your race matters so much to you then by all means date and marry within your own race. But you really have no say in what other people do and what they do should not bother you unless you have allowed your ideology to surpass the basic acceptance that in the end we are all human above all else and love trumps all causes, ethnic or otherwise. All relationships should be judged on a case by case basis.
The CONTEXT of what they say
The N word in Huckleberry Finn is not racist, because the context of its use by the author is not racist. I grew up with peppery, confrontational and colorful language, so I always look at the context, the setting, the intended audience, the background of the person speaking and I think more Americans should do the same instead of just judging the words used. My poor white American friends walk on eggshells that my white Trini friends don’t have to. Going to school in Trinidad, racial dialogue and humor abounded and even crossed over. When my white Trini friend gets a bout of road rage, she will threaten, “Watch out! I’m about to let loose some real ole n****er behavior up in here!” and everyone laughs. We can laugh because I know exactly where she is coming from and know there is no hate in her heart. I cannot enjoy the same candor with my white American colleagues. I honestly sometimes do not know their context because of their concern with politically correct appearances.
Whether they use stereotypes to CONCLUDE the discussion instead of BEGIN it.
People who are racists like use stereotypes like full-stops. For example…
There is a higher percentage of black people in prison…full stop.
The intent is to say that being black naturally makes someone more criminally inclined by nature. Therefore there is something naturally inferior about being black.
This is of course false. There is a STORY behind every stereotype and people who are color-blind and fair-minded seek that story out and then seek the root of the story. I’ve learned that racists are not interested in the forward and preceding chapters just the favorable conclusion they can draw. They will try to shut down, dismiss or discredit any attempt to substantiate why something is the way it is because for them, the only valid reason for anything is: my race is superior and yours is inferior, full stop. What are the stories behind these stereotypes?:
Native American Indians are alcoholics
Black women are promiscuous
Asians cannot drive
White people have no rhythm
Let’s take that last stereotype, and examine it.
Of course it is untrue. White people can and do have rhythm!
This generalization happened because of a particular kind of rhythm that had not been inculcated among certain European cultures for a very, very long time. That rhythm is connected to the drum. It requires a very sensuous timing of the hips and pelvis driven by an unashamed, uninhibited, empassioned spirit. It is a pagan thing and so, there was a time when Norse, Celtic, Germanic, Saxon, Gothic were able to gyrate to the pagan drum, around bonfires in fertility rites and worship just like their formerly pagan African brothers and sisters but after the Roman Church decimated Europe, conquered those peoples and outlawed such things, worship evolved into sitting down in a staid manner. Music was only for church use, no heathen, impassioned rhythms were allowed, just devotional melodies. When dance resurfaced it was with a rigid stick of sexual shame firmly shoved up the ass. Posture was unbending and only the legs and feet were meant to move. Dance was done in ordered steps one had to learn (instead of it coming from raw emotion and instinct) and the wild pagan drum had become a metronome, militant thing just to keep timing. In fact the raw, blatant, libidinous body movements of African and Indian people outraged and scandalized the first Europeans to encounter it.
It would be centuries later that descendents of slaves re-introduced people of European descent to that pagan drum and the Mother Earth rotation of the pelvis through blues, rock n roll, soul, salsa, calypso, soca and the like. The moral prudes would call it ‘devil music’ and censor and suppress it. Remember Elvis’ censured appearance on Ed Sullivan? Having white skin does not mean having a rigid spine or being rhythm deaf as these Norwegian tourists at Trinidad Carnival demonstrated.
If understanding your fellowman is your goal you will always seek the story behind the stereotype. It is far more interesting.
Feeling overly competitive, threatened or insecure when another culture celebrates, reclaims or reaffirms its heritage.
There are associations, private clubs and strong community solidarity and internal aid among the communities of Irish, Italian, Scottish, German people wherever they settle. During Oktoberfest, I see wonderful celebration of Germanic cultural pride. During St. Patrick’s Day, I see the Irish toast to their heritage with gusto. I love when people take the time to restore Viking artifacts, re-tell haunting tales of faeries from Iceland, sing Bavarian drinking songs or celebrate Scottish rebellion against the English, all of which are healthy, edifying, wonderful expressions of culture. During Divali in Trinidad, my Indian friends and family celebrate their Hindu culture and light deeyas. There is nothing wrong with celebrating and preserving one’s cultural heritage and promoting pride in one’s history and ethnic heritage.
Unfortunately whereas my white friend can say, “My ancestors come from Ireland,” I cannot say which country, tribe in Africa my father's ancestors come from because everything was torn apart then forcibly re-assembled. Therefore “black culture” is truly a mish-mash of everything African and Diaspora. Most importantly, reclaiming, celebrating and protecting this is not an assertion of superiority over any other race. There is no need to feel threatened by it anymore than there is a need to feel threatened by Mexican, Chinese or Native American celebration and protection of their heritage.
Honesty about one’s prejudices
When someone is an alcoholic the first step to recovery is admission of the problem. Unfortunately when it comes to racism, nobody wants to fess up. It has become more important not to be labeled racist than to not be racist. This has resulted in people saying or doing things that are racist with complete denial, over-defensiveness and blindness. Let’s be honest, even the best of us has a little pre-judgment in our hearts even if it does not result in full blown discrimination, violence or disenfranchisement of another. There needs to be a safe haven for those who want to be honest about that and want to do better. That will never happen when we continue to make people more concerned with the label than their inner motivations.
Wanting to forget without doing the hard work involved in forgiveness
In my opinion, when it comes to race, America wants to forget before it truly goes through the difficult stage of forgiveness on all sides. You cannot forgive if you don’t thrash things out. Everyone likes to claim, whenever convenient that they have “minority friends” or “white friends” yet they probably never discuss these matters with them. From day one, made it clear to my white American friends they better get over the “avoidance of unpleasant things” and spill the beans. It was educational to hear them say,
“I feel helpless and frustrated because I feel like I am always judged to be “the enemy” by people who don’t even know me and don’t even take the time to know me. I feel like I have to work twice as hard to prove my good intentions,”
“When I see movies and depictions of slavery and racism it hurts me and makes me feel outraged on one hand and then fearful on the other because I feel there has to be some serious lingering anger and retribution might be unfairly directed at me. I also feel ashamed I came from ancestors who had those attitudes or behaviors yet at the same time, I love other parts of my heritage and there is internal conflict about that,”
“I feel like no matter how bad things get for me, I never get any sympathy because other races always have the biggest victim card to play but I HAVE PROBLEMS TOO!”
And I am sure it opened their eyes to hear me say things like,
“You take so many things for granted because so many ridiculous things that have become the norm for me, never happen to you. Imagine if your boss told you your natural hair was not “corporate enough” and wanted you to use some painful process so its texture resembles that of another race. We don’t even do that to dogs with curly coats, we accept that all breeds are beautiful in their own right, yet part of the same canine race. Yet I have to aspire to another "human breed’s" standard of beauty just to get my foot in the door,”
“When a white police officer pulls me over, I experience a kind of anxiety you cannot possibly begin to understand,”
“I get “survivors guilt” about my good fortune in life when I see poverty and powerlessness in the black community and I get frustrated, impatient and ashamed of black people in a way you cannot possibly understand when I see just how deeply entrenched the generational dysfunction has become,”
If you’ve never had “the talk” with your friend, colleague from another racial background or culture, then you cannot claim, whenever convenient to your politically correct image, “Oh, well I have a friend outside my race, culture,” when you know damn well it is just a passing acquaintance with passing surface pleasantries.
Forgiveness also means understanding that racists are in a state of suffering. We often mistake anger, aggression, power displays as strength because America has nurtured and celebrated an obnoxious, bullying, “Because we can,” culture. Better to be the loud-mouth asshole who punches the wimp than the wimp. Dominance by any means necessary is equated with righteousness and true strength even if it flies in the face of the Golden Rule. But this position is not rooted in truth. Whatever is not true does not bring long-term benefits or enhance the soul or a society, even if it temporarily appears powerful and advantageous. I try to tell my overly militant black friends and family this all the time. It’s not worth ruining your entire day over someone who has so little going for them they need this kind of false pride to prop themselves up on something so shallow and completely unrelated to real intellect, creativity and character.
Sometimes we all need to be the bigger person and in true Trini style…learn when to just drop it, chill out with a beer and turn up the volume on the music instead. Peace!