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Virtual symposium explores race in Caribbean context

The legacy of European colonization in this region has left its people valuing "whiteness"

Laura Ann Phillips, Catholic News Service

Laura Ann Phillips, Catholic News Service

Updated: July 22, 2020 01:21 AM GMT
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Virtual symposium explores race in Caribbean context

A man wearing a t-shirt reading "Black Lives Matter" takes part in a demonstration demanding legal papers for migrants in Malaga on July 19, 2020.(Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

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Black lives matter in the Caribbean but, here, "blackness" takes on a different hue.

"I'm 'red' in Trinidad, Black in the U.S.," said Trinidad-born Alison McLetchie, speaking at a virtual symposium hosted by Caribbean Theology Conference Today.

In Trinidad and Tobago, "red" describes a mixed-race person of Black and white heritage; the term applies also if other races are included in the mix.

A Catholic race and ethnicity professor at South Carolina State University, McLetchie later added that, growing up, she was conscious of having, "late for school hair" -- a derisive local expression for African hair -- unlike her other relatives, who sported "good hair," the term used to describe any variety of non-African hair.

Centuries of slavery, indentureship and immigration in the Caribbean have peopled Caribbean islands and continental territories with a variety of white, nonwhite and mixed-race ethnicities. Nonwhites dominate the population, but, the legacy of European colonization in this region has left its people valuing "whiteness," or the nearest possible equivalent, so the lighter one's skin and the more "un-African" one's hair, the more highly one is esteemed. This carries over into commerce and culture.

During the July 16 virtual symposium, Father Stephan Alexander explored Black progress in Trinidad and Tobago since the 1970 Black Power Revolution. Before then, he noted 53% of business was owned by whites. The rest was shared by mixed whites, East Indians, Chinese and others, with Blacks owning just 4% of the commercial pie. A 2012 news story by journalist Tony Fraser reported that "in big business, Black ownership and control are almost nonexistent."

Father Alexander cited a common Trinidad saying: "Black people (are) not good at business," noting this belief further helped Blacks "undervalue themselves."

He believes the British-influenced education system's "inability to transmit the greatness of their history" has left Blacks "ignorant of African contribution," leading to the "African rejection of African culture."

He identified popular locally spun memes and hashtags on social media that poked fun at underdeveloped, mostly Black, communities and Black involvement in crime, turning "Afro Trinidadians into caricatures."

He criticized the sentiment, "I don't see color; I want a noncolor society," often expressed in Trinidad, saying this actually signaled, a "failure to see the worth of Afro Trinidadians."

Caribbean Christian culture may have also contributed to this self-loathing, suggested the Rev. Sonia Hinds, rector at St. Leonard's Anglican Church, Barbados. She shared the circumstances of her own baptism.

"Contrary to the understanding of baptism as an all-inclusive sacrament," Rev. Hinds said, her "Black, unmarried, working-class" mother was not allowed to baptize her at the Sunday morning service, as was usual for baptisms, but on a quiet Thursday morning, instead.

That type of "institutionalized racism" within the Barbadian Anglican Church was "less perceptible," said Rev. Hinds, "because (it was) less overt, more hidden," and served to "justify racism (and make it) acceptable."

McLetchie lamented that many still fail to "not understand the common dignity we all share, the common universality of the soul."

The slogan "'Black Lives Matter' isn't saying all lives don't matter," noted McLetchie. "It means people in this part of the world support a political and economic system that hasn't allowed (Black people) to actualize alongside other citizens. We want you to help us dismantle that system."

Believing that all lives matter, however, does not change the reality that Black people "continue to be the only people whose claims to be fully human have not yet been fully recognized," said the Rev. Kortright Davis, a professor of theology at Howard University, Washington, D.C.

But, "incarnational spirituality," suggested Father Alexander, "where true right comes from," can lead to healing and true self-acceptance.

"With that intimacy with Christ, we can come to see Christ in everyone," he said. "We will see how easily all lives matter." 

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