It doesn’t. Really.
And if you believe that, I have a couple of bridges to sell you.
I’ve written about race before, from two different perspectives. The first time I wanted to write about why race didn’t matter — about how all people are fundamentally human alike, and how the concept of “race” is an idea that is used to achieve various goals. The second time, I wanted to talk about racism, which occurs when humans act on what they imagine to be racial differences.
Today, I want to bring it home. I want to discuss why race matters, here and now, in the twenty-first-century Bahamas.
Now some of you may feel the urge to put the paper down, thinking “not this again”. Before you do, consider this. We Bahamians love to avoid discussion of the very things that are most crucial to us. We have unacceptably high incidences of pregnancy, HIV and other STD transmissions, and sexual abuse among our young people, and yet we steadfastly refuse to talk about issues of sex and sexuality in any constructive and positive way. We have unprecedented numbers of stateless people living among us, and yet we refuse to discuss any sensible policy relating to immigration and citizenship. And, forty years after majority rule, we remain a deeply divided society that continues to remember and celebrate distinctions based on colour.
So let’s call a lie a lie. Race matters. And we need to talk about it in order to make it matter less.
To begin with, in our multicultural society, minorities are virtually invisible. The Bahamas is different from the vast majority of English-speaking West Indian nations because of a relatively high percentage of native White Bahamians. In Jamaica, the percentage of the population that is of European descent is 0.2%; in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana both, it is less than 1%; even in Barbados, where native Whites occupy a substantial sector in the society, it is 4% (my figures are taken from the UK Foreign Office Country Profiles). In The Bahamas, accepted figures suggest that between 12% and 15% of Bahamians are of European descent.
And yet, except for their involvement in political activity, the presence of White Bahamians in day-to-day Bahamian life is so slight that many young Bahamians are under the impression that the only people of European descent who live in this country are expatriates. For them, “white” Bahamians are people of visibly mixed heritage who refuse to acknowledge their African connections; European Bahamians simply do not exist.
White Bahamians may be invisible; Haitian Bahamians are silent. Although we do not have specific figures, estimates suggest that “Haitians” make up perhaps 20% of the overall population. We have plenty to say about our “immigration problem”, but we rarely, if ever, acknowledge that people of Haitian ancestry are here to stay among us. And as a result, many Haitians seem to disappear in Bahamian society, Bahamianizing surnames, speaking with Bahamian accents, and keeping what is most precious separate and apart and private.
I could go on to talk about how we ignore other ethnicities that make up our population, but I think that the point has been made. Race matters in The Bahamas — so much so that the people who are not of the accepted ethnicity choose to melt into the background rather than challenge the status quo.
But when we place these concepts next to the fact that in the USA, 12.9% of the population is African-American, and realize that it is impossible to ignore the African-American experience in and contribution to the United States, we can come to only one conclusion about race in The Bahamas: race matters so much to so many of us that it prevents us from building a society.
It matters because the black, English-speaking majority run the risk of being the only people who ever feel truly at home in this Bahamaland of ours.
It matters because the appointment of a self-identified White Bahamian as Deputy Prime Minister has given White Bahamians a chance to feel as though they belong in The Bahamas again.
And it matters because the appointment of that same self-identified White Bahamian as Deputy Prime Minister has for some raised the fear that the oppressive forces that were fractured in 1967 will return and change The Bahamas back to what it was before Majority Rule.
It’s time, I believe, for us to open our mouths and start talking to one another. Until we examine the things that shape our race relations — like slavery, emancipation, labour’s struggle, the fight for equality, and the massive influx of Haitian immigrants — we can never hope to build a united society. Although it’s no longer a matter of law or custom, there are still churches and clubs and parks and professions and schools that are avoided by whites or blacks. There is still very little opportunity for mingling, for getting to know the people beneath the skin. And we have to say so.
It’s time for us to ask hard questions — like what makes some White Bahamians feel as though they don’t belong in The Bahamas? Why do some Black Bahamians fear whites who hold political power so much? Why do we still refuse to accept the fact that Bahamians of Haitian parentage have a place in our nation?
It’s only in asking tough questions, starting arguments, and listening to one another that we will go beyond our current uneasy political unities and build a society that is unified. Let’s begin by agreeing that race matters. To pretend that it doesn’t is to trap The Bahamas forever in a cycle of prejudice, bigotry and hatred that will stunt the growth of us all.