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