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Can we talk about race in SVG, please?


Fri, Feb 17, 2012

Editor: Last month, a colleague closed our meeting by stating in reference to two potential clients that he would “send the two monkeys” over to my office in the morning.{{more}} I assumed I had misheard him. He repeated it. Breath escaped me when he pointed out two men in his waiting room: one in Back Street business attire, the other casually dressed, both Black with very, very dark skin. Reading my dismay, he asked me whether I could not now see why he had called them monkeys. You will not publish this letter if I repeat my response verbatim. I remember surprise writ large across his countenance, his sheepish laughter, the claim I was overreacting.

In the wake of the incident, I have recounted the experience to friends and colleagues, too many of whom are simply unsurprised and vaguely offended. This is a commentary on the banality of Black self-hatred in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Self-loathing is not unique to our country. Epidemic skin bleaching in West Africa, bombardment of light-skinned women in hip hop and R&B music videos in the US, the multiplicity of biracial categorizations among Black Brazilians, light-skinned modelling in regional advertising of aspirational products such as banking services (everyday items like phone credit and detergent, not so much).

However, there’s something in the water in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Try buying a Black doll in St. Vincent. Better yet, try finding a Vincentian child who wants a Black doll. If memory serves, it was Searchlight Newspaper a few years ago which asked random children at Christmas what they wanted most; every Black girl interviewed said she hoped to get a White doll. Need to distinguish between two Black Vincentians of different complexions walking down the street? Call the darker-skinned one the Black one.

If you are under 51 and Vincentian, you’ve never voted in a general election that installed a Black prime minister. If you’re under 32 and Vincentian, you’ve never even seen a Black Vincentian prime minister. In 32 years of Independence, merely the first 4 were under a Black-led Administration. With only the benefit of our 2001 Population and Housing Census, and assuming no dramatic changes in the 10+ years since publication, this means that a paltry 16% of Vincentians are old enough to have voted in the last and only general election won by a party led by a Black man, viz Robert Milton Cato’s St. Vincent Labour Party in 1979. More than 60% of Vincentians had not been born yet.

The data speak to the staggering youthfulness of our population, and hence the mammoth responsibility this implies for Rastafarians, the progressives, and the generations of Vincentians who benefited from the identity politics of the 1970s, all of whom are now clearly in the minority. In part due to the relative silence and disengagement of these groups in our postmodern ethos, we enable the emergence of local leaders who exploit Black self-loathing. The current prime minister has described a then dissenting Black public servant Anesia Baptiste as “picky head[ed]”; asserted that only one with the face of Jesus could lead this nation, knowing that the popular conception of Jesus is White; and famously claimed that George Bush would not be able to see my father, his dark skinned Black opponent, at night, all to rapturous applause from his Black, invariably dark skinned supporters.

I see a real abdication of that responsibility by my friend Jomo Thomas. Mr. Thomas knows all too well the semiotic significance of comments like “every time Eustace stands next to Gonsalves, the PM looks like a genius” as he stated in his 3rd February 2012 “Plain Talk” column in The Vincentian Newspaper, and attempted to justify in his 10th February column following a discussion I had with him.

Given that he describes as “folklore” the claim that race “partly explains” (para. 2; 10/2/12) the longevity of Dr. Gonsalves and Sir James Mitchell, it is no wonder that he denies the revolting imagery his juxtaposition invites. Mr. Thomas forgets that in his 3rd February column he calls Mr. Eustace “silly” repeatedly. He does not merely disagree with Mr. Eustace’s decision not to accept Dr. Gonsalves’ offer to withdraw two defamation suits. He belittles instead. But the thrust of Mr. Thomas’ work suggests a caricature of Mr. Eustace as intellectually inferior and puerile. Mr. Thomas splits hairs when he argues that he does not criticize Mr. Eustace’s intelligence in general, just his political intelligence. What is a politically unintelligent politician? A man out of his depth.

Mr. Thomas’ criticism of Dr. Gonsalves as egomaniacal reminds me of an affected middle-class mother bemoaning her child’s distaste for ground provisions. Her complaint is designed to reinforce her child’s and, therefore, her own class standing. In the same vein, arrogance is not considered unusual among the highly intelligent; Mr. Thomas’ description does not diminish Dr. Gonsalves’ perceived brilliance.

I agree with Mr. Thomas’ assertion that we need more contrarians. It would be nice if Mr. Thomas were to join them.

We need open, uncomfortable and sustained discussion of race in St. Vincent and the Grenadines by Vincentians of all races and opinions, not apologetics. Black self-loathing is a national problem.

Respectfully,Maia Eustace