If it’s not race, it's na­tion­al­ity. When will we stop shoot­ing our­selves in the foot?

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - By Kayra Wil­liams

The words were de­liv­ered ve­he­mently: “A black na­tion ruled by a white man!” I might just as well have told him the world was com­ing to an end. He went on: “A black post-colo­nial na­tion still haunted by tragedies of the past vot­ing into power its own slave mas­ter?” As far as my friend was con­cerned, that’s what had just taken place in Saint Lu­cia.

The no­tion was hardly orig­i­nal but this time it was ex­pressed by some­one not of my is­land but by a friend who lives in North Amer­ica; he had seen photos of Saint Lu­cia’s new prime min­is­ter and his fam­ily taken at this week’s Swear­ing-in cer­e­mony at Gov­ern­ment House.

I hadn’t given much thought to the colour of Allen Chas­tanet’s skin, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t at the fore­front of other peo­ple’s minds. The for­mer Tourism and Civil Avi­a­tion Min­is­ter wasn’t the first, and cer­tainly will not be the last pub­lic of­fi­cial to be thrust cen­tre stage into the not-so-for­giv­ing racial spot­light be­cause of other peo­ple’s per­cep­tions of their race and back­ground. Still, I couldn’t shake the feel­ing that I was miss­ing some­thing.

“Weren’t you the one who once told me some ho­tels made it dif­fi­cult for lo­cals to use the beach?” asked my friend, shoot­ing down my ex­pla­na­tions as we drove around run­ning er­rands on a re­mem­bered Sun­day morn­ing. “Who au­tho­rized that?”

The pow­ers that be, I thought but did not say. Mean­while, in my head I was toss­ing ques­tions: How many times had Saint Lu­cians been made to feel we didn’t be­long on our own beaches? How real were the ex­pressed fears that more and more of our coun­try was be­ing sold to (white) for­eign­ers?

The streets had been talk­ing through­out the just con­cluded elec­tion cam­paigns, and had all but gone quiet af­ter the an­nounce­ment of a United Work­ers Party vic­tory. Saint Lu­cians shared their fears via news broad­casts and over the in­ter­net. Key among them: out­rage over the pos­si­bil­ity that the new prime min­is­ter would al­low the coun­try to be over­run by for­eign in­vestors just for the money!

“You bet­ter work and you bet­ter not sell our coun­try to your for­eign in­vestors,” threat­ened a post on the prime min­is­ter’s Face­book wall. “I don’t want that be­fore the end of your only term that I will no longer be able to go to the beach be­cause it’s re­served for tourists. Building ho­tels is not the only medium for jobs and rev­enue. In­vest in the peo­ple.”

Shortly af­ter that my friend Melissa mes­saged me: “Don’t peo­ple know tourism is an ex­ten­sion of colo­nial­ism? Saint Lu­cia needs to pro­duce more goods. Noth­ing re­placed ba­nanas and sugar, and that’s hurt­ing the coun­try. We can’t rely on some­thing as fickle as tourism to be the main source of rev­enue for an en­tire coun­try. Go­ing on va­ca­tion is a lux­ury. If the economy fails, va­ca­tion is one of the first things peo­ple will sac­ri­fice. But food? That’s needed to sur­vive.”

Af­ter this week’s elec­tion, a racial and po­lit­i­cal war of words ex­ploded on the in­ter­net. One man de­scribed vot­ing in Saint Lu­cia as a process by which “the lesser of two evils” is elected.

My friend sneered. “The lesser of two evils? So they hand power to the same peo­ple who en­slaved us?”

Was anger the right re­ac­tion to my is­land’s new real­ity? Fear? The only feel­ing I was sure of was hope. But now I found my­self con­fronted by more ques­tions: Were the ex­pec­ta­tions of so many, in­clud­ing my­self, invalid be­cause of the tragic his­tory of these Caribbean is­lands? Was my de­sire to see a bet­ter fu­ture for my home is­land blind­ing me to un­de­ni­able

his­toric facts?

When I first ar­rived in Toronto the city was rum­bling be­neath the sur­face. I had never be­fore ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing like it. Here I felt blacker than usual, as move­ments such as Black Lives Mat­ter screamed in my ears. I was from the Caribbean, a pre­dom­i­nantly black re­gion, and I’d fully ex­pected to find in Canada seas of pale faces and cul­tures al­to­gether dif­fer­ent from my own. I never imag­ined my black­ness would be as rel­e­vant as it turned out to be.

In Saint Lu­cia I’d felt a cer­tain re­sent­ment and, yes, racism re­lated to my lighter-coloured skin. But in Toronto I was black - plain and sim­ple, with all its vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. In sub­tle and not so hid­den ways I felt the racism I’d only read about in nov­els about life in the South or con­fronted in Roots. It was heavy and undi­luted. I was now part of a new mi­nor­ity.

It was the sec­ond decade of the new mil­len­nium and as the days passed I re­al­ized I was liv­ing in the clos­est thing to a black up­ris­ing of my time. Names like Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and others flashed through the news, caus­ing out­rage and protests world­wide. Blacks were killed by the po­lice, much like what had been go­ing on in Saint Lu­cia.

It wasn’t just black peo­ple who felt the lash. So did the LGBTQ com­mu­nity and Na­tive Amer­i­cans, right on through to peo­ple fight­ing for re­li­gious free­dom; mes­sages of equal­ity re­ver­ber­ated across the sky­line.

Tol­er­ance was blos­som­ing among the masses. But at­tempts to rid the world of racism seem only to gen­er­ate more of the same. It seems “the more things change, the more they re­main the same.” On Su­per Bowl Sun­day, Bey­once was la­beled racist for her con­tro­ver­sial half-time show per­for­mance. Her song Formation would later serve as an an­them for pro-black move­ments, and as fur­ther in­spi­ra­tion for black women to value them­selves and their roots.

Still, time hasn’t erased the lin­ger­ing ef­fects of slav­ery, and other forms of racism. That was clear from my con­ver­sa­tion with my friend on the re­called Sun­day, and from what was cur­rently un­fold­ing in the pol­i­tics of my na­tive is­land.

“A priv­i­leged white boy who grew up rich, and floated through life with ease is now prime min­is­ter of a black na­tion,” my friend per­sisted. “All be­cause of our peo­ple’s sub­mis­sive men­tal­ity. We leave ev­ery­thing to hope and what-ifs, rather than tak­ing strong ac­tion, no mat­ter what.”

What ex­actly was he propos­ing? Mine is a poor coun­try cry­ing out for pos­i­tive change. But how to real­ize it? When­ever a third po­lit­i­cal party had dared to show its head, that at­tempt has been quickly de­cap­i­tated. If my friend’s in­ten­tions were good, why should it mat­ter that a so-called “man of priv­i­lege” who boasted suc­cesses in other ar­eas, not be given a chance to lead our na­tion to bet­ter days?

“You are de­fend­ing the peo­ple’s sub­mis­sive­ness,” said my friend. “The land is full of wealth, full of tourism; why is it that only a few are rich and have ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties? Peo­ple need to stop be­ing weak and go fight for what they want. They need to stop be­ing sub­mis­sive. Dom­i­nat­ing par­ties have no power if they don’t get voted in. The smaller par­ties will have power if they get voted in. You want change, go and cre­ate it. If you ac­cept what is hap­pen­ing, then don’t com­plain.”

“It’s not about be­ing sub­mis­sive,” I re­torted. “It’s about fight­ing against gen­er­a­tions of pol­i­tics based on colour and party loy­alty. This is mo­men­tous.”

“It is 100 per­cent be­ing sub­mis­sive,” he per­sisted. “The last mas­ter was bad, but I am hop­ing this mas­ter is bet­ter. Our peo­ple need to wake up.”

“Look,” I said fi­nally, “he’s Saint Lu­cian. He has ev­ery right to a chance at lead­ing his coun­try, just like any other na­tive daugh­ter or son. If he does not work in the favour of the peo­ple he will be put out of of­fice, as were his pre­de­ces­sors.”

“He’s not Saint Lu­cian,” said my stub­born friend. “He’s white. No ex­am­ple can be shown to our peo­ple when we vote a white man to rule a black na­tion. Change the whole struc­ture. Get rid of both par­ties. Vote for a black man from the peo­ple, who gets the peo­ple. Pe­riod. Not a rich white man.”

Did pol­i­tics re­ally have to be per­ceived as black or white? What will it take to get past our dif­fer­ences, and work in unity to­ward a bet­ter fu­ture? For his part the new Saint Lu­cian prime min­ster, since get­ting into of­fice, has done noth­ing more than thank the peo­ple for the op­por­tu­nity to serve them.

In what is be­ing de­scribed as the United Na­tions Decade for Peo­ple of African De­scent, I pray that racial is­sues will soon be seen for what they are and ap­pro­pri­ately dealt with, not shrugged off as an­other mat­ter of fact to be tol­er­ated. Only with united pur­pose will we fi­nally achieve our com­mon goals!

Jil­lian Estell, left, and Kevin Cost­ner por­tray a grand­fa­ther and grand­daugh­ter in a scene from the movie 'Black or White". Saint Lu­cians are fac­ing a new real­ity of dis­cussing grey ar­eas of race re­la­tions, much like those ad­dressed in the film.

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