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Concluding my series on the race conversation

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I never imagined that there would have been so much unease with the call for a discussion of race. What is even more astonishing is that the persons expressing the greatest feelings of discomfort are those of African descent, some even seeing it as anachronistic. But to see it as anachronistic is to misunderstand what the call for the conversation was all about and what prompted it.{{more}} What stimulated the call was a reference to two black persons as monkeys. Even if this was meant to be a joke, it was insensitive, and concealed in it was a baggage full of a long history of symbols and language that could be called self-deprecating and that the speaker might not have even been conscious about. Some of the language and symbols have traditionally associated persons of African heritage with monkeys and with anything derogatory. It was, therefore, not just pulled out of the hat but was part of a range of images and symbols that we carry around and perhaps, in most cases, have not been part of a process of reflection.

I will be the most surprised person if we could come up with any case or cases of racial discrimination or even prejudice, but racist images and language persist. I have said from the beginning that my interest in this conversation and on the issue generally had to do with how people of African descent looked at themselves and the images they considered beautiful and civilised. Obviously, a lot of the issues and concerns that existed even up to the 1960s no longer seriously exist. There are many more black dolls around today, there are many more black and coloured faces on television; blacks in SVG exist in every sector and category of society. An example of the power of images can be seen when Vincentians who had gone to North America for the first time in the 1960s and before, tell you that they were surprised to see whites doing menial jobs. It is easy to say that we do not have a problem, but some blacks are certainly not comfortable with their blackness. The extent of skin bleaching that exists in SVG and other parts of the Caribbean is a damning testimony to this.

Many of these issues emerged from efforts to justify slavery and rationalise colonial rule. The colonial society continued after slavery. There was very little education during slavery and what existed was in an effort to teach the catechisms. With the end of slavery, some of the legal and non-legal controls sanctioned by slavery no longer existed, so measures had to be put in place to maintain control. The Nigerian writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues that control by force could only exist when force could be maintained. Control of culture through education was more formidable. But the arsenal of the colonial world under education involved language, the creation of myths, images and values. Education, it must be remembered, is never neutral.

And here is where class bias and prejudice came into play and replaced racism. The ideal, the height to which it was necessary to climb to be successful was European civilisation which could be achieved through ownership of land or education. As some of the former slaves claimed to have arrived at the pinnacle they began to see themselves as being different from those they left below. So the racist symbols were translated into class symbols as they began to see those at the bottom in the same terms that the Europeans had seen all of them during slavery. The emancipation from mental slavery is still not complete.

(fraser.adrian@gmail.com)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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