Friday, March 11, 2011

The Caribbean Context: Race

It's weird that I have a day completely dedicated to exhibiting culture from all over the world, and I come from a Caribbean, and yet I don't think I've ever done a post on Caribbean culture...

Bout time we fixed that.

For a few weeks the YA community has been buzzing about race. Got me to thinking...

What does race mean to me as a Black, Caribbean female?

Let's start with a little demographics.

Ethnic groups

black 93%, white 3.2%, mixed 2.6%, East Indian 1%, other 0.2% (2000 census)

That's how I spent my YA life- in a 93% black community.

I had never had a white teacher. In my life time, the country didn't have a white leader. All my political representatives were black. The bishop of the Anglican Church- the biggest denomination in Barbados- is black. The richest person from my country (Rihanna, I think) is black.

So, the US-UK white majority norm is not my norm.

In fact, I never knew what it meant to be black until I moved to the US for college at 18. White people in white majorities, don't think about what it means to be white. They think about what it means to be blond, or thin, or tall, etc.

Similarly, in Barbados (nicknamed Bim), the Black Condition was not a condition at all.


It's not a derogatory term for a Native American. Redskin is the term we use for black people who are a lot closer to white. In the middle of the realm, there's brownskin. And on the darker end, darkskin. The stats I gave above claim that there are only 2.6% of the people who are of mixed heritage. They've probably limited that to the last 2 or 3 generations, but after hundreds of years of slavery we're pretty much all mixed.

Take me for example, I'm pretty sure I'm down as black. But my great-great-grandmother was white. That doesn't make any difference on a census, but it makes a difference in skin tone. In my grandmother's generation: The oldest sister was dark as night, my grandmother was 'medium-dark', the 3rd sister was light and the 4th could almost pass for white. It was like their mother ran out of melanin as she went along. lol. My great-grandfather, a dark man, used to joke that the first two were his and the last two were hers.

Truthfully, there is sometimes a prejudice towards the lighter side of things. I don't think it's extremely prevalent, but then I fall firmly within the brownskin/redskin range. I wonder how different your answer would be if you asked a darkie. These words may sound horrible to you guys. But they are perfectly normal to my ears. In fact, guys on the road might try to get a girl's attention by shouting, "Reds", "Browning", or "Darkie".

Good Hair

You may have heard of the Chris Rock com-umentary by the same name. Naturally, Africans have a wide a range of hair types-straighter up North, and kinkier down South. Add to this the fact that Barbadian blacks have been mixing with Whites (and a few Indians) for a couple hundred years.

As far as I know, black people are the only race that can have more than one type of hair on their head. I've got 3. The front is soft and straight, grows fast, doesn't stay plait without grease, gel or rubberbands. The middle is soft and curly, grows at zero and really thin. And the back is relatively hard, grows relatively fast, and is the thickest. It's makes hairstyling interesting.

As you may have noticed, I wear my hair natural. It takes work and it's harder, but I think straightened hair is boring. Plus, white people are forever trying to add volume to theirs. And black people are trying to get theirs to lie flat. Is there nobody happy with what they got?

Where the Whites Are

What is the white 3.2% of the population's situation? The whites are pretty much either filthy rich or dirt-poor. Here's my theory- I haven't done any research to substantiate it. Barbados was a sugar plantation island. So each plantation would have one white family that was in charge. Even after slavery was abolished, these families still owned all the land, putting them at an immediate advantage. There were a few other white people on the island back in those days. People in admin roles: merchants, government clerks, etc. So the way I figure it, the former plantation owners are the current car company owners, and the 'poor whites' are those whose ancestors were somebody's assistant.

There are few upper-middle class whites as well. Many of them still live better than the average, but they're not in mega-mansions in the heights and terraces.

H, my best friend for a while in Secondary School was white. She never really hung out with the rich white kids. In the end she grew up and married a black guy that went to school with us. Sometimes if a black person tries to hang with the whites or vice versa, there's bad blood, but I think that's not much the case in Barbados.

If Black and White doesn't divide us...

The biggest divider in Barbados is class. But it's a tiny island, you can't really stay segregrated along any lines. One of my cousin's best friend's is white and rich, and he used to hang out at my house pretty much all the time. I never really think abou tthe fact that he's rich, other than when he turns up in a new Land Rover or Imprezza (which happens quite a bit, since he likes cars).

The rich people on the island are generally pretty frugal. The middle class is always over-extended. And the poor people are always in some pinch, having paid their Direct TV bill ahead of the light bill (we never say electricity).

The Indians:

The other race that makes a mark on the census is Indians. East Indians. How did we get East Indians and no Native Americans? Well, the Caribs- a nomadic, warlike race- killed off the Arawaks who were the first inhabitants of Barbados. The East Indians came over after the abolition of slavery. They came to Trinidad and Guyana as a cheap replacement for the black labour. This is why you'll find that Trinidad and Tobago's population is an even split of black and Indian. A few of those Indians eventually came to Barbados.

The stereotypical thing for an Indian to do is open a shop. They start out selling clothes from the bask of a van. They're famous for taking payments in instalments. So you could get a pair of shoes, a shirt and a pants, and only pay $5 right there and then. If you try to pay somebody in small change or small instalments in Barbados, they might ask you, "You feel I's de coolie man?" Coolie may be a derogotary word most places, but not in Bim, as the salesman will often send children inside with the message, "Tell your mother the coolie man out here." In Bim, the Coolie man specifically means that person driving around wiht clothes in a vehicle.

So there you have it: race in Barbados. People talk a lot about being bothered about the lack of black characters in movies and books. It doesn't really bother me. Because it's all American/UK/Aussie etc characters. So even if they were black, they'd hardly be like me anyhow. Because being black when everybody else is white is way different from being black in the overwhelming majority.

PS, I kind of enjoyed writing this and hope I'll get the opportunity to tell you more of the Caribbean Condition in later posts.


Aleeza said...

oh my, what a great and enlightening post! im not entirely sure about this, but i think you write your novels set in barbados, no? if so, i cant wait till you get published so i can read about this fascinating lil' island of yours! (or, if you need any crit partners, im totally up for it. ha! :D) although at the moment, im not very fond of the west indians. they just kicked ireland's butt in the world cup.
no hard feelings here, just my cricket craze :D

Abby Stevens said...

As you may have noticed, I wear my hair natural. It takes work and it's harder, but I think straightened hair is boring. Plus, white people are forever trying to add volume to theirs. And black people are trying to get theirs to lie flat. Is there nobody happy with what they got?

This is so true, even among white people, lol. One girl has curly hair and straightens it, the other has straight hair and curls it. I think people by nature want what they don't have.

And this post was incredibly interesting and enlightening. I can't want to read more posts like this!

PS - is everything okay in your area of Japan?

E.J. Wesley said...

Claire, this is a great post, but I'm really writing to say that I hope you're OK in Japan. Not sure where you're at relative to all of the chaos, but my thoughts are with you.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi, Claire. I woke up to the news about the earthquake and tsunami and thought immediately of you. I believe you're in the north and inland, and I hope you and yours are okay. Just want to let you know you're in my thoughts.
I did read this post, and, as always, it is most excellent. I enjoy so much your take on race and culture.

Jon Paul said...

Claire--Sending good thoughts your way and hoping all is well considering the news this morning. I hope you and yours are safe and sound.

Please let us know what, if anything, we can do.


jbchicoine said...

Hope all is well with you, Claire...
...and I really did enjoy this post...hope it won't be too long before you get to post again...

Postman said...

Absolutely splendid post. This cleared up a lot of stuff for me. Especially since my knowledge of Barbados and its culture and demographics was, let's see here,

Hope you're all right, and that the earthquake hasn't caused you some disaster.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Claire, I hope you are okay with the earthquake. I'm thinking of you. Do a post when you can to let us know you're okay. My thoughts are with you.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Claire .. I hope you, the family and your friends are safe .. my thoughts too from England .. and all the very best to everyone - Hilary

Natasha M. Heck said...

Hope all is well! Sending well wishes from America.