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Culture Clash: Playing Follow the Leader

When we talk about leadership, we usually point to government as an example. The Prime Minister is seen as the ultimate leader. There is no one with more control. No one with greater power. No one with more responsibility. No one in a more important position. No one more unquestionable or beyond reproach. No one more silencing, domineering or undoubtedly correct. The prime minister is synonymous with leadership.

If you have managed not to rip this page to shreds, which of those statements made you uncomfortable? In which parts did you find irony? At which point did you think I could not be serious? What does this tell you about the way you feel about leadership in The Bahamas, and the positions and people we typically view as leaders?

Who’s in charge here?

It is interesting that we view politicians as leaders, even more than we see members of parliament as representatives. When we talk about leadership, it is often in ways that validate and celebrate dictatorial practices. One makes the decision for many. Consultation, if it exists at all, is at a minimum. The attitude is: “you put me here, so let me do my job”. This, however, only seems to work in one direction.

Members of parliament manage to say or demonstrate this to constituents, but ministers can not say this to the prime minister. It seems everyone is a leader until they have a leader, and in the presence of a high-level leader, all other leaders are stripped of the title.

Those who dare to behave like leaders, rather than subjects of the high-level leader, are scolded, belittled and threatened. The firstborn loses all authority when the parents get home from work.

What kind of leadership are we practicing if it is threatened by anyone else – even on our team – asserting themselves, offering criticism and developing solutions?

Leadership of a different kind

Minister of state for legal affairs Elsworth Johnson has been one of the only a few people to dare speak on even mildly controversial issues with any degree of honesty and both personal and professional understanding and obligation. In November 2017, he spoke strongly in support of proposed changes to citizenship law. Without pressing for people to adopt his position, he implored the Bahamian people to “come up to a higher level and accept certain truths as they exist in our society.” He encouraged respectful conversation, even if we disagree.

In March 2018, Johnson spoke to the issue of marital rape, noting people are not property. He encouraged a consultative process, accountability and transparency. He said: “It is accepted international standard that information maintained by the government is vital to civil society. That information when properly dispensed to members of civil society undergirds a democracy to give life to it and it allows people to properly involve themselves in the governance of the country.”

This is what we should expect of a leader. Willingness and ability to state positions on issues. Pushing the government to make information accessible to the public and provide opportunities for engagement.

Encouraging the public to participate in the process, access information and come to informed decisions. Johnson has demonstrated and exercised the ability to think for himself, challenge his colleagues and invite public discourse.

This flies in the face of the unspoken mandate of Bahamian ministers and members of parliament who are to tow the party line. The only opinion is the party’s opinion, the only challenge is to the Opposition, and the only reason to engage the citizenry is for votes.

Compare Johnson’s leadership with that of the “leaders” who refuse to take positions on hot button issues, sit small until their names are called, shy away from any forum giving citizens the opportunity to address them. Which do you prefer and which is most expedient for the head leader in charge?

Last week, Johnson went too far out of bounds. He dared to call for a chief justice to be appointed. Following the Bahamas Bar Association’s characterisation of no appointed chief justice as an “existential and constitutional crisis”, the former president of the Association spoke up. He said: “the right, transparent and accountable thing to do is for the PM to exercise his constitutional authority and appoint a chief justice”.

If a Minister disagrees and no one hears it, does it make a difference?

This is not disrespect. This is not unreasonable. This is a thought-out and explained position. Johnson said, rightly, that the vacancy should be filled. This is obvious. Without directly referencing the current state of the office – where senior justice Stephen Isaacs now serves as acting chief justice – Johnson challenged the self-loathing we all know exists in The Bahamas, and suggested that a foreign appointee would be properly compensated. Where is the lie?

Better yet, what is the problem? It is not what was said. It is where it was said, and who could hear it.

This must have made Prime Minister Hubert Minnis uncomfortable. Making this appointment was not on his agenda. He is busy balancing people’s-person and man-in-charge. It is not easy.

How can you be seen as a nice guy, but also have the respect of the people – especially those you consider to be beneath you? Having already called for a resignation and fired someone else very recently, we can only imagine the action taken to elicit the apology Johnson issued last week.

An apology for stating publicly what some say should have been a private conversation. A private conversation about a public matter.

We have grown so accustomed to being in the dark, to electing people and walking away, to being told our business is none of our business that anyone who attempts to involve us in the conversation is seen as out of order. We forget that they are employed by us. We, the people.

Who will lead next?

We have had a leadership crisis for some time now, and it continues. There are many new faces in the current administration, but has there been any real change? Can there be any substantive change within the same system that recycles not only people, but form and function?

The Bahamas is being governed using the same tactics we look back on and criticise, believing ourselves much evolved since the ‘70s. The play is the same. Same script, different cast. The actors of today learned from those of yesterday. They study and follow the notes left behind. They have bought into the same values, and have the same single-mindedness we rebuke and swear off with every election season. They are worn down. They join the cult.

Look at the ages of the people in positions of leadership, then look at the ages of the people in tomorrow’s obituary.

Look at the ages of the people locked out of the system or, when let in, are either silenced or brainwashed.

The leadership crisis continues. The crisis of representation continues.

We know public life is not easy, but do not often acknowledge that it is without reward for those determined to participate differently. Those who do not follow script. Those who speak out of turn. Those who do not bind themselves to convention or tradition, and do not feel indebted to the people or systems that brought them in to the point that they must become puppets.

We need to concern ourselves with the development of a new generation of leaders. In 20 years, who do we want to be at the helm, and how will we prepare them?

Watching Bahamian governance and listening to commentary would not encourage many people to be different. To speak up. To object. To demand better. To use positions of power to create change. We make leadership about popularity and longevity; not authenticity in the process of visioning, charting a path and equipping people for the journey.

Until we redefine it, it will be practiced in the same way, and we deserve to see change in more than time and faces.

Published by The Tribune on April 11, 2018.

Culture Clash: What’s Underneath Dress Code for Schools

What are you concerned about today? What is at the top of your list of qualms, battles to fight and issues to raise? It is always interesting to see what demands attention, riles us up and pushes us to take action. For so long we have been taking what has been dished out, finding ways to work around disadvantageous systems, and complaining in small circles.

To see people rise up is new for many, even if it has been happening in pockets for generations. Social media has increased visibility and, in some cases, given some a sense of security through anonymity. Resistance is uncomfortable, even for the people observing it. Sometimes it feels unsafe for people, but most times it just seems unsafe for the systems and norms we know well. Even change for the better can be scary. As they say, “Ya know what ya got, but ya don’t know what you gon’ get.”

It makes sense there are some things we just don’t want to let go. It makes sense when it directly affects us, but what is our excuse for opposing progress for other people? How do we decide what is progressive and what is regressive?

One issue we are not likely to agree on is dress.

While it has become acceptable to wear bright or pastel colours at funerals, red dresses at weddings and jeans on Fridays at the office, we hold on to some old, nonsensical rules we like to call “standards”. That term makes it easier to subjugate, shame and force people into compliance. It means anyone who does not fit the mould is less-than, and we can look down on them, never bothering to think about the real difference between us and them.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Education posted a dress code for “visitors” to school compounds on its Facebook page – and everything is wrong with it. To start, if we really want to talk about “appropriate” appearances, the Ministry should hire or contract a graphic designer, or at least graduate from using the word art in Microsoft Word.

In the post, the Ministry demands visitors refrain from wearing mini skirts, tank tops, pum-pum shorts, high cut or off the shoulder tops, visible cleavage, see through clothing, tightly fitted clothing, and t-shirts with violence or sexual images. It further states that security has the right to deny property access to anyone deemed “inappropriately dressed”. Far too similar to the Parliamentary Registration Department’s foolery during the voter registration period ahead of the 2017 general election, this dress code is misogynistic. It targets women, limiting what we wear in what seems to be an attempt to make us invisible by hiding body parts deemed dangerous to the sight of others — namely unsuspecting, innocent, impressionable childlike men. It does not address low-hanging pants or exposed butt cracks. Interesting.

What is wrong with a parent collecting their child in a tank top and jeans? What, exactly, is the issue with a v-neck that, on certain body types, will expose cleavage? Why are women expected to be ashamed of our bodies? Some of us have cleavage and many pieces of “work appropriate” clothing will not conceal it. It does not even seem possible to have a conversation about cleavage when this dress code reveals a problem with shoulders and legs.

The comments on the dress code post are not surprising, but disgusting nonetheless. People are celebrating this announcement, some asking for other articles of clothing — like leggings — to be added to the list while others suggest a similar policy for teachers. In a conversation about the inappropriateness of this dress code, someone tried to convince me that is acceptable because teachers and employees at other places of business have a dress code to follow. Rather than argue about the history of colonialism and its persisting affects on former colonies like The Bahamas, I pointed out that employees choose — though we can argue about real choice and the illusion of choice — to sign on to policies through employment contracts and that is not a sensible parallel.

Adults are free to wear what they wish and there need not be ridiculous limitations on what parents or guardians wear when collecting children from school or engaging with administration or teachers.

If I am a waitress whose uniform includes a mini skirt or pum-pum shorts and I take a break to collect my child from school, I will be in violation of the dress code. Is that more important than being there to take my child home from school? If I work shifts and break my sleep for the school run, I won’t be able to enter the school compound in a tank top and shorts? I need to suit up for the trip?

The dress code is based on personal taste, and what is deemed “inappropriate” is completely subjective. I wonder if the people celebrating this dress code are the same people who complain about how many children are left in the schoolyard for hours, or how few parents show up for meetings at the school.

Dress codes go beyond sex, sexuality, nudity and discomfort with the human body. They are often rooted in respectability politics. There are expectations of black people that are not held over white people because there is an idea that black people need to do more work to be worthy of respect. A white women and a black woman could be in the same place wearing the same outfits and receive completely different responses because of the way we see gender and race as a package. The same goes for women of different sizes, or even different ages.

In majority black spaces, it seems we work even harder to fight stereotypes, putting the burden on individuals to undo centuries of oppression by checking all of the boxes that are supposed to grant access to a better life and perception of the entire race. Still, it doesn’t work. A black man in a suit with a school-boy haircut, fancy watch, nice car and university degree is still a black man.

Students of the University of The Bahamas are currently fighting a battle against administration. UB president Rodney Smith — the same former president known for plagiarising part of a speech in 2005 — has banned stoles and decorated caps from future graduation ceremonies. He claimed such things are not “academic” or “dignified”. It is interesting he would dare to utter those words given his past, but of course a man with the gumption to reapply for the position of president of the University of The Bahamas, after accepting responsibility for plagiarism, would have the confidence to steal joy from his moral high ground.

UB students are not accepting his position. They are not prepared to give up their traditions because this man has decided it just doesn’t look good or fit his perfect vision of the ceremony. I hope they fight hard and refuse to stop until he and the entire administration acknowledge the ceremony is about the students. It is not about his personal taste. It is a celebration of many years — because we all know it takes far more than four trying years for many to be done with UB — of dedication, waiting to register, pay and be advised in the hot sun, rat run-ins and financial hardship. They deserve better and they deserve our support as they fight for it, whether we like stoles and decorated caps or not.

Just because you’ve bought into respectability politics doesn’t mean everyone else must. If you are comfortable living in that box, good for you. Wear turtlenecks, blazers, culottes to pick up your children from school. Shield the eyes of your children from the offensive legs and shoulders around you. Avert your eyes from the “undignified” newly-degreed young people. Let people have nice things, even if those things are not nice to you.

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Culture Clash: Transforming Spaces 2018

Transforming Spaces — an annual art bus tour in Nassau, Bahamas — was last weekend, and I took too long to purchase a ticket. It sold out quickly and so I was left to either sulk, or make my own way from gallery to gallery to see the work of Bahamian artists.

I buddied up with Charlotte Henay — storyteller and researcher who writes about cultural memory — and we moved from one gallery to the next, starting with The Current at Baha Mar and ending at Doongalik on Village Road.

Though we had both seen photos and social media commentary on the tour, we wondered what themes we would find as we explored the work on our own. We had been talking about the politics of storytelling, necessity of historical understanding, and what it means to be here now. As you would expect, this conversation informed and coloured my experience of the self-guided Transforming Spaces tour.

Baha Mar presented Instinct II: From Darkness to Light — “an investigation of dichotomies of concepts” that heavily references the Old Testament of The Bible with particular emphasis on Genesis 1. It was interesting to be surrounded by the work of women artists.

I was particularly interested in Sue Katz Lightbourn’s two pieces on plaster, shaped like bustiers. Installed next to each other, they immediately brought to mind the idea of leather versus lace. One is black, adorned with industrial material including screws and dark words like “scary,” “horror,” “arrgh,” and “eek”. The white, more bridal piece is covered by flowers, garter-like material, and soft words like “love,” “art,” and “I’m the happiest girl alive”.

There is no artist statement paired with the work to give context, making it even more interesting to consider. At a glance, it appears to be a commentary on womanhood, the balance of hard and soft, and challenging the idea of dichotomy as opposed to layered, complicated lives.

Occupying space at Baha Mar, however, it led me to wonder about what the space represents and how we show ourselves, as a country, to the outsider looking in from afar or dropping by for a brief, controlled visit. How do we define the hard and the soft? Which do we hide behind, and why? How can we complicate the narrative of The Bahamas and the deceptively narrow space between paradise and plantation?

Jessica Colebrooke’s work, one two sides of one wall, hints at answers to these questions. On one side, there are ocean-inspired framed pieces, perfect for the island home with wicker furniture, or the office desk as a memento from vacation days spent with toes dug into golden sand. They are normal for island life. They are simplicity. On the reverse, Entangled I and Entangled II stand out. They are both like a ball of yarn spun with care, but confusing to the unknowing eye.

We, as people and as a nation, can be complicated. We can recognise the surface beauty while acknowledging the complications of our existence and how we came to be. Investigating origin and history may not lead to a simple timeline, and the way we discover truth may not be linear, but there are ways to work from one end to another. Recognising the difficult and the troubling is not a slap in the face to the beauty we deserve to enjoy. We have the skill to do them both, and the outcome depends almost completely on our interest.

Hillside House, in its collaboration with the University of The Bahamas Visual Arts, deliberately looked back while creating a cultural experience through interactive programing that including the visual art exhibition, workshops in printmaking and bookbinding, a music panel, and poetry night among other activities.

The exhibition in the gallery space runs the gamut, from the copper sculptures by Q. Kimetria Pratt placing women on stage as superior, intentional beings to the poetry of Suhayla Hepburn remembering and reminding us of the grandmother we pay may not mind, even after she minded us on the porch we all know so well. Nowé Harris-Smith’s Colonial Subjection is a reminder of the chain around the necks of Bahamian men and women as we navigate or pretend not to notice the persisting, lingering ramifications of a history we cannot undo or escape, but also cannot transcend without conversation and restoration that must include reparations.

The work in this space, from artists of varied backgrounds taking on a wide range of subthemes, calls out the tendency to refrain, ignore, and accept, and call us to occupy, face, and reclaim by standing in our own power.

Doongalik is a place of pure, child-like joy and wonder. Few things bring the energy and excitement or highlight the skill and boundlessness of the Bahamian. It is always a pleasure to be in conversation with Pam Burnside whose love for Bahamian culture and dedication to its preservation is incomparable. She walked us through the space and we talked, at length, about Junkanoo, its “evolution,” and our role in ensuring it outlives us.

Having never visited a Junkanoo shack, the mini-shack by Junkanoo Commandos is a fun place to be. JuJukanoo Arts bring fun and nostalgia to Doongalik’s Junkanoo exhibition with its Junkanoo figures, pasted and fringed, free of feathers. The burst of colour and up cycling of Bahamian soda cans made us feel energised at the end of a long day. We marvelled at the fine work and imagined, together, what is would be like for Junkanoo to take its rightful place in The Bahamas.

Art and art galleries can feel like closed, exclusive places. We do not all feel welcome in these spaces, or even deserving. It can feel like a mysterious world, open only to those who have studied, collected and created works of art. Transforming Spaces has been a vehicle to transport the supposed outsider — the person who cannot afford a gallery entrance fee, much less an original painting, or the person who does not instantly understand a piece and is afraid of feeling lost or confused. It is an entry point, and one we should scale and replicate, not only in the art world, but in every industry.

Things do not exist for themselves, but for the people who can enjoy and benefit from them, whether through experience, direct engagement, or conversation. The Bahamas is no different. It is not here for its own good, nor is it here for the people who pass through once in a lifetime or spend a few months here per year.

Our conversations about who gets to visit, own, and claim The Bahamas are taking place in many different spaces among people of various backgrounds. If you are interested in having it, whether with or without other people, Transforming Spaces may be a good place to start. We could certainly benefit from more people talking about change-making as a practice, and seeing art as one of many ways to reflect on the past as we create our own future.

Published by The Tribune on March 21, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Marriage Isn’t a Good Idea for Women in The Bahamas

It is rare for a news items to bring concerned pause. Our positions are usually clear; we care or we don’t care, and then we choose a side. On issues of social or political concern, we generally have an opinion on what is and is not right. Something was different about the way we saw and responded to last week’s news story on the Bahamas Christian Council’s proposed Sanctity of Marriage bill. I saw scores of people share the article, but none of them added a caption. Some of them used emoticons, but no one made a clear statement about the Bahamas Christian Council’s drafting and submission of a Sanctity of Marriage bill.

The draft is meant to serve three purposes. It is to provide for the reinforcement of the sanctity of marriage, a marital duty of care, and strengthen the institution of marriage by ensuring “informed participation.” It also focuses on tax reduction for married people to enhance the value and serve as incentive for the maintenance of marriage.

It seems the Bahamas Christian Council and the loud voices we have come to know as “the church” are obsessed with marriage. They simultaneously promote it as a necessity for everyone and an exclusive good reserved for its community. We are clear on the church’s position on who should and should not have access to marriage. It was amplified by the 2016 referendum and its statements on the fourth proposed constitutional amendment bill which sought to add “sex” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Its opposition was rooted in homophobia which was framed as a “protection” of marriage, as though the legalization of same-sex marriage would be the destruction of marriage.

For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I will say only that the fourth bill was not about same-sex marriage, its passage would not have automatically led to the legalization of same-sex marriage, and this issue is far for the top of the list of concerns of the LGBT+ community.

It was made clear that the church believes — or wishes to make the public believe — it has a monopoly on marriage, and it is only a religious institution. This is not the case. It falls to citizens to remind the state of this fact, and respond strongly to the church’s attempts to control public goods and services and the private lives of citizens on the basis of its doctrine which we are free, constitutionally, to recognize or not.

The Sanctity of Marriage Bill as drafted by the Bahamas Christian Council raises many questions. There is very little we can point to and identify as right or wrong, but none of it is necessary, and most of it seems to be linked to a larger plan we cannot see. The group of religious leaders has submitted its own recommendations for amendments to the Sexual Offenses Act. Has the admission that rape is rape, regardless of the relationship between people, led the Bahamas Christian Council to worry about the state of marriage? Is the Sanctity of Marriage draft bill a strategy to influence engaged and married couples on issues including sexual assault? How does it intend to lead the proposed Marriage and Family Advisory Council in educating the public on marriage, and what do they know that we have yet to learn? If this is another strategy to control the legal contract of marriage, it is beyond time for us to pay attention.

The marital rape conversation has not been much different than the one about the referendum. Religious leaders came forward to quickly and loudly express their displeasure at the very existence of the conversation. Victim-blaming has been normalized in many ways and, sadly, it is what we have come to expect from many men of the cloth.

Why would a woman choose not to have sex with her husband? What’s a man to do?

These religious leaders reframe the conversation, taking our attention away from abuse and power. They distract us with the concept of submission as the primary duty and characteristic of a good, Christian wife. They erase married women who do not identify as Christian, some of whom did not even marry in the church. A broad brush is used, and the attitude seems to be if we choose to marry, we commit ourselves to the standards and obligations meted out by the church. Is this what the Sanctity of Marriage draft bill would enforce?

Marriage, in The Bahamas, does not seem to be a good idea for women. Sure, it can bring financial security, confidence in commitments made, and a reduction in judgment, especially for couples choosing to live together and have children. Unfortunately, it can result in a loss of physical security and legal protection. It is a challenge to get police to respond to domestic disturbances. I know because I have made the calls and driven to police stations to make reports. I’ve heard, “Them two again?” I’ve been told, “Miss, we don’t have time for that.” It is, as we have seen in recent weeks, difficult to convince people that married women are still human beings and have human rights. Why should women get married? Perhaps the Sanctity of Marriage draft is the Bahamas Christian Council’s way of preempting the inevitable — the refusal of Bahamian women to get married, giving in to the the societal and religious norms that continue to be reinforced by the law of the land. Maybe it sees the need to incentivize marriage while locking us in additional obligations through its guide.

I had the unfortunate experience of listening to men talk about marital rape in a barber shop a few days ago. I chose not to argue, but to listen to everything they said, and observe the responses of other people in the room. Someone in the room, well aware of my work, expressed surprise at my silence. I continued to hold it. They talked about how ridiculous it would be to make marital rape illegal. They shared strategies for “taking it” from their wives. These ranged from waiting for her to sleep to slipping something into her favorite drink. They argued about whether or not it would be fun without her participation. They laughed about how confused she would be when she woke up aching, or realized he hadn’t “asked for some” in a while.

These men commented on the views of the religious leaders who have been outspoken about the issue, and talked openly about raping their wives, completely without fear or the slightest reservation. It didn’t matter that there were people in the room whose positions they could not know. It didn’t matter that there was a woman in the room. It wasn’t until a religious leader entered that they ceased to share their marital rape strategies. Before, all that mattered was their hypermasculinity and the need to express it and assure one another that they would get what they wanted, whatever the cost. After all, raping their wives is not illegal, and some of the most revered and respect men in the country are fighting to keep it that way. Just not the one who last entered, and his position was respected.

This is the danger of the reckless influencer. They have the power and the platform to present, repeat, and sometimes enforce their points of view, frequently without challenge. I sometimes think about the churches full of women who practically empty their purses into collection plates, but led by men who do not regard women — especially married women — as human beings. How do women sit in those churches, listen to those sermons, fund those activities, and not think about the ways they and so many others are affected by the dangerous rhetoric spewed week after week in what they perceive to be a holy place? I have to remind myself that they have been conditioned for years to believe that they are less than men, and that religious leaders are a trustworthy authority. I saw for myself that religious power silences, scares, and controls people of all genders. It’s up to us to prevent it from disempowering us — not as citizens, nor as a nation.

Published by The Tribune on March 14, 2018. Picked up by AFROPUNK on Facebook.

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Culture Clash: What are the Women in Your Life Worth?

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is Press for Progress. The annual year-long campaign inspires people all over the world to consider the issues women face year-round, think about solutions and bring people together to take action for change.

Last year, the US women’s hockey team adopted the #BeBoldForChange theme, rallied for equal pay and caused a stir when it refused to play in the national finals without a satisfactory deal. They were inspired by the campaign and found a way to use it to their benefit. Throughout the rest of 2018, we are called to press for progress.

We have to do more than think, ask and wait and we certainly cannot settle. Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about work — what we do and do not see as work, what we think deserves pay and who we think should do specific kinds of work. Work is political.

As a gender rights activist, I spend at least a part of every day thinking about feminism, gender equality, the current state of affairs and what it will take to create the change we need. Around International Women’s Day, I think more deeply about where we are and what the campaign theme inspires. This time around, admittedly, my thoughts are at least partly guided by social media activity.

As I scrolled Facebook on Monday, I noticed a number of friends had shared an interesting article — “The Invisible Workload of Motherhood is Killing Me” — from the Scary Mommy website. It clearly struck a nerve with many mothers, in The Bahamas and elsewhere, who relate to having a long list of tasks no one else notices unless they go undone. Many of them seem like small things, like remembering birthdays, but when considered cumulatively, we have to admit they can be overwhelming.

We see some of the work mothers do. Meal preparation, laundry, shuttling children to and fro and constant cleaning are in plain sight.

This article, though, was focused on the mental and emotional work undertaken by mothers.

Knowing everyone’s likes and dislikes, remembering which grocery items need to be used before they expire or spoil, keeping track of permission slips and field trips, planning celebrations and making childcare arrangements are all in a day’s work.

How often do we think about these things and recognise them as labour? If someone outside of the household was responsible for this work, would we pay them? If we had to do this work for other people, would we expect to be paid?

I was reminded of the old song, “No Charge.” You’ve probably heard the Shirley Caesar version, especially if you spent any amount of time at your grandparents’ house listening to 1540AM. It’s about a little boy who went to his mother with a bill, itemising and pricing all of the tasks he’d completed. He charged five dollars for mowing the lawn, 50 cents for a trip to the grocery store and even charged five dollars for his own good grades.

It’s cute and funny, imagining a child demanding payment, but interesting that he recognised it all as work.

Seeing it as a teachable moment, the mother listed some work of her own, emphasising that she didn’t charge a dime.

For the nine months I carried you, holding you inside me, no charge

For the nights I sat up with, doctored you, and prayed for you, no charge

For the time and tears and the costs throughout the years

There is no charge

When you add it all up the full cost of my love is no charge

Summing it up in the last verse of the song, Caesar sings about Jesus giving his life for her, paying the price so she had no debt. On one hand, it’s a beautiful, moving comparison. On the other, how costly and how sad is it that mothers are, all at once, our salvation and our source of endless unpaid labour?

Unpaid labour doesn’t begin and end with mothers. It extends to sisters and daughters too. At a recent Women’s Wednesdays event, we heard from a number of women who talked about the burden of unpaid labour in their own homes.

They told stories of expectations and demands, made to do work that wasn’t required of their brothers. Cooking, cleaning and taking care of other siblings are duties generally relegated to girls and the pattern continues into adulthood.

Who is usually responsible for the care of elderly relatives? It was even pointed out that we understand the need to pay non-relatives when they cook, clean and care for us, but do not put the same value to work by our family members. Many of us don’t even think to offer our help.

In another Women’s Wednesdays conversation, this time about money, panelists agreed women should consider getting paid help in the home.

This led to two other points — every woman can’t afford to pay for help in the home and the women who are paid to help in others’ homes are generally underpaid. The conversation was a reminder and perfect example of how layered these issues are and how much work is left to be done.

We can agree it’s great to have help in the home, but what about the people who can’t afford it? How can we better at sharing the workload? It’s great to find affordable help, but what is the cost to all of us when they don’t get a living wage?

This International Women’s Day, I am imagining new ways of thinking and going about our work. I’m thinking about the women who have ten jobs, but only get paid for one. The people who get home from work to work even harder than they did at their full-time jobs are on my mind. I’m putting myself in the shoes of the people who are so desperate for help they don’t think about the long-term effects of underpaying the people they hire to help.

I wonder what I can do, you can do, we can do to see work — no matter where it’s done or who does it — as work, and figure out appropriate compensation, or how to share the burden.

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Culture Clash: Time to Face the Reality of Mental Health

Last weekend, I spent several hours at a book club meeting. We chose Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman as our February read, and it gave us more to think and talk about than we expected. Half of us did not even expect to like the book, but quickly realised it was a reflection of some of our own experiences, far-fetched as it seemed at first glance. Mental health was a dominant theme and it was easy to talk, at length, about the stigmatisation of mental health issues and the urgent need to address the inadequacies of health services, family support and often debilitating stigma.

What is mental health?

Mental health is the level of emotional, psychological and social well-being and our ability to manage stress. Like physical health, it can change over time, and conditions can be transient or chronic. They are sometimes biological, but can also be triggered by life experiences or trauma.

Two conditions resulting from life experience or trauma are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postpartum depression. Many people heavily and personally impacted by recent hurricanes now deal with PTSD, some of them triggered by the sounds of rain or wind. Experiences of postpartum depression are not often shared, but in recent years, celebrities have shared their experiences to help women going through it and to sensitise family members and community members to the experiences of new mothers who must also contend with a condition they cannot control on their own.

Crazy talk

We are quick to call people “crazy,” and make assumptions about their lives, particularly when their mental health conditions do not allow them to fully function, or they are homeless or under-housed. Maybe worse, some of us use neuroatypical people as a source of entertainment, recording videos of them and sharing them on social media.

People’s everyday lives become a joke, and we ignore their humanity. We forget they are people with histories, families and daily challenges to overcome. To us, they are just “crazy” and we assume their situations are their own fault.

In our careless commentary and self-serving entertainment, we can unknowingly alienate and offend people who may be high-functioning while dealing with mental health challenges. Even worse, when made aware of the offensive nature of our language — and interpretation of what have become common words and phrases — our reaction, far too often, is to become defensive, or reject the idea that we could ever unintentionally harm someone.

It’s difficult to change the way we speak, but becomes easier when we work on one thing at a time. With a few years of practice, I’ve taken “crazy” out of my vocabulary. It was not easy, but it was important to me, especially as a human rights supporter, a family member and friend of people with mental health challenges and a person who is not vaccinated against mental health challenges.

Support loved ones

Videos have been circulating of a man named Jeremy. Members of his family have said his life changed as a result of a laced joint. He walks the streets and, every now and then, they are able to get him to return home, but never for a long time. He has tried to get professional help, but like many patients, he does not like the way the medication makes him feel.

Medication for mental health conditions alter the chemistry of the brain. It can sometimes cause people to feel numb, or like they are losing parts of themselves. It is rare for a person to be prescribed the best possible medication the first time around. It can take a few tries to find the medication that helps a person to function without making them feel less than human, or even making their condition worse.

There is little support available for people facing mental health challenges, especially if they do not have the money to pay for care. Imagine having a health challenge, saving enough money to see a doctor, then saving enough money to purchase medication only to find that it is not the right one for you. You have to go back to the doctor, pay for the visit and purchase another medication. It is already not easy to get well. Think about how much harder is it to navigate all of this without support, or while seeing and hearing discriminatory remarks that aren’t even meant to hurt you, but they do anyway.

We all know people with mental health challenges. We may not know it, or know exactly what those challenges are, but they exist. The stigma around mental illness is more than inconvenient or sad. It can keep us from seeking the help we know and feel we need.

Because it so difficult for people to admit to struggles with mental health, seeking professional help and asking for support from family members and friends, it is important for us to pay attention to our loved ones. We often notice changes in people or the way they interact with us, but find easy answers to our own questions. “She got problems,” or “He got a bad attitude,” become our diagnoses. “Something wrong with them.” Unfortunately, we don’t see it as a health issue, but assume people have made conscious decisions to behave differently.

Seeing the signs

We need to learn to see the signs of mental health challenges and how to address them. Pay attention to changes in eating and sleeping patterns, energy levels and interest in hobbies. Listen to the ways loved ones describe how they are feeling. If they feel numb, hopeless, helpless, like nothing matters, or think about harming themselves or others, do not ignore or conclude that they are being dramatic. It’s time to listen. It’s time to find the necessary resources to help your loved one to get well.

Seeing a general practitioner is a good start as they are able to make referrals and, if you have a relationship with your GP, they may have a better idea of your personality and which psychologists and psychiatrists would be able to work best with you.

Mental hygiene

Mental health, like physical health, is not static. It does not stay the same over the course of your life. Just as important as recognising and addressing mental health challenges is practicing good mental hygiene. Take time to take care of yourself. Conduct regular mental scans. How are you feeling? Are you tired? Unmotivated? Wanting to be alone more than usual? Diving into work to avoid thinking or feeling? Pay attention to your coping mechanisms.

A lot of us find ways to take care of our mental health, whether through unscheduled days off, exercise, or regular practices like yoga or meditation. Some of us, however, need help with maintaining our mental health – and it does not mean we are “crazy.” It means we are self-aware and willing to commit to improving our lives.

Whether weekly therapy sessions or medication, there are options available to us, but mostly to those who can afford it. If you’re interested in group therapy, reach out to The Family – People Helping People which offers free sessions in communities all over New Providence. While we work to combat the stigma around mental health challenges, we also need to raise our voices to ensure it is included in national health initiatives. The mind is no less important than the body, and it needs care too.

Published by The Tribune on February 27, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Black Lives Matter in The Bahamas Too

It’s open season, but don’t worry. They’ll only kill the people they recognize, and only if they’re afraid. The Royal Bahamas Police Force is on a mission, and no one cares to intervene.

Many in The Bahamas have looked on and formed strong opinions of the Black Lives Matter movement and the actions it has taken in response to state-sanctioned killings by police officers. We often feel far-removed from events in the U.S., especially where issues of race are concerned. Black Lives Matter is necessary because black people were — and continue to be — specifically targeted by police.

Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th gave context to the issues of race, policing, and prisons experienced today, linking them to the historical oppression of black people from slavery to the prison industrial complex. Again, we have mentally distanced ourselves from what we read as a U.S.-issue. For most of us, the majority of the people we encounter on a daily basis are black. Our police officers are black. Surely that means we cannot experience racism. That has to mean black people will be treated fairly, and we are free of the oppression African-Americans suffer. Right?

If you hold those opinions, you are definitely wrong. There are two things we need to be aware of — internalized racism and institutional racism.

Internalized racism is learned. As we experience racism, we begin to develop ideas and behaviors that uphold racism. It is systemic, structural, and cross-cultural, so it can pit members of oppressed communities against each other. Think, for example, of how women can internalize misogyny, and begin to support the idea that we would all be better off if we dress and behave in particular ways, finding it easy to look down on a woman of different socioeconomic status, age, or marital status. Internalized racism functions in a similar way. He wouldn’t be pulled over if he would just cut his hair. Stop driving that Honda. Move with less people in his crew. Stay out of that area. We find excuses for people to be violated by those who hold power.

Institutional racism is enforced. It is a pattern of treating a group of people poorly because of their race. Examples include students being sent home from school because their natural hair does not meet the Eurocentric beauty standards. As in this example, the action seems to fit a rule or standard of the institution; not because it is valid, but because the institution was built for the benefit and service of white people. We don’t have to know it is happening to participate in it. Just two years ago, I heard police officers brag about chasing young black men out of the downtown area, sending them “back Ova Da Hill.” Hearing this, I asked them who The Bahamas is for, and why they think they can restrict people’s movement based on race, age, and gender. They could not respond, and were forced to acknowledge, among other issues, institutional bias coupled with internalized racism.

The rhetoric around police killing civilians is ludicrous. People would more readily excuse homicide than interrogate the practices of police officers on the street. The assumption is always that the person must have done something wrong for the police to be engaged, and if they have done something wrong — whatever it is — they deserve death. The entire justice system goes out of the window because we find it more expedient for the police to operate like vigilantes. We do not believe people are innocent until proven guilty. Location, appearance, association, and proximity to a weapon are all valid reasons to meet your demise. Did we believe that Trayvon Martin should have been shot for walking through a neighborhood with a bag of Skittles?

The Royal Bahamas Police Force’s press team has learned to use “in fear for their lives” to convince us that there was a good reason to shoot and kill a citizen. There is a popular opinion that fear is a reasonable excuse for firing a weapon to kill another person. In a social media post, Erin Greene said, “the constant response of ‘in fear’ suggests an emotional response, and not a determination made with critical reasoning skills.” This should terrify rather than assuage us. Are police officers not taught to think critically and consider all options? Even if the decision is to shoot, why shoot to kill rather than incapacitate?

Sure, police officers need to make quick decisions. It is also a reasonable expectation that they are sufficiently trained and able to police themselves. Police officers are not the judge or the jury. They should not be the executioner, especially given the ruling of the Privy Council on the death penalty. Wait.

Perhaps this is the RBPF’s way of carrying out the death penalty. It is entirely possibly that they, as has been rumored, are fed up with the justice system. They are tired of making arrests, putting their lives in danger, and waiting for verdicts. Maybe they are tired of seeing the people they arrested out on bail for extended periods of time, or being found innocent. Is this an informal strategy?

Do not be tricked into believing in a false dichotomy. A commenter on social media said, “We are at a junction in our development where we have to decide on whose side we are on; the police or the heartless criminal.” We must first understand that every person police officers encounter is not a criminal. Even if they are suspects, they have the right to a fair trial. Fighting on the side of criminals is not the same as demanding due process for all. It is not the same as acknowledging the value of a life. A text message to a radio talk show read (in part), “police have to get royal,” meaning they need to take extreme action to send a clear message. This is how the people around us are thinking.

There have been five killings by police in 2018, and 10 since November 2017. Minister of National Security Marvin Dames said, “the focus on counts shouldn’t be the issue.” Just last month, he reminded the PLP that there were 33 homicides in the first two months of 2017, and in September 2017, he noted that crime was down 19 per cent along with other statistics. Numbers are obviously important, and we need to pay attention to trends.

Dames, less than one year into the job, is shirking responsibility. He said of police officers, “[if] he or she feels threatened, I can’t make that decision for them. They have to make that for themselves.” So much for accountability. Zero tolerance only applies to civilians, and police officers can do as they please, so long as they feel fearful or threatened. What a license to have. Is any one else scared out there?

Dames would also have us believe it is excusable that most people killed by police this year were “known to police.” We all know people in this category, for various reasons, who do not have a criminal record. They may wear their pants low or have dreadlocks, and may have spent nights in the police station, but they are not criminals. That’s just too bad. They are known to the police, and it’s open season. What number must we reach, who must be killed, or which scripture do we need to read and understand to intervene in state violence and affirm the humanity of the black Bahamian people we know, do not know, and are “known” to the police?

Published by The Tribune on February 14, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Christian Nation

The Bahamas is a Christian nation. That’s what we like to say. It is the proclamation that sets us apart from other countries. It is the reason for every good thing that has ever happened to us. Being a Christian nation protects us from natural disasters. It wins elections. It provides the perfect excuse and opportunity for marginalizing vulnerable people, and with the backing of scripture, largely misquoted and misinterpreted, to which we do not all ascribe.

Where did we get this idea?

Aside from declarations by leaders of the Christian church and the rhetoric of laypeople, the preamble of the constitution is the main source of the belief that The Bahamas is a Christian nation. The constitution does not explicitly state The Bahamas is a Christian nation, and it does not commit the country to Christianity. It says the people recognize that “the preservation of their freedom will be guaranteed by,” among other things, “an abiding respect for Christian values.” It establishes The Bahamas as a “free and democratic sovereign nation founded on spiritual values.”

No one ever seems to mention the other elements — self-discipline, unity, or respect for rule of law — required for the preservation of freedom. They aren’t nearly as convenient for exclusion and alienation of others, or easily manipulated and redefined according to specific circumstances. A supposed commitment to Christianity is the answer to almost any question we don’t want to answer. “Christian nation” as a response seems to result in an automatic bye, and it is not being used to our advantage as a country, but to deny, deter, and delay. It automatically brings processes and conversations to a halt, because we can’t risk angering a vengeful god, or defying the words of the preamble to a bible-like text that must always, by nature of its existence, be right.

We are more tied to the preamble of the constitution than most of its articles. The referendum exercise of 2016 evidenced the lack of knowledge about, not only what is in the constitution, but its purpose and importance as supreme law. That is clearly stated in Article 1. If people haven’t made it past Article 1, how much weight can we put on their understanding of the constitution and the purpose of the preamble?

Stifling democracy

The “Christian nation” cry is a well-practiced, dangerous, self-centered move to divide and defeat. Citizens, presenting themselves as practicing Christians, find Bible verses to justify their points of view, and argue against any law, policy, or person they deem to be unchristian. This type of argument is seen as king. It is holy and untouchable because its words came straight directly from The Bible. While Christianity — one of many religions — is relatable and sets the bar for a subset of Bahamian society, democracy is for everyone. The democratic system has to work for everyone, and to the same extent. There is not supposed to be special treatment, allowances, or power granted to any subset, religious or otherwise. The constitution of a democratic country, then, cannot limit the rights of some subsets.

The same constitution that makes reference to “Christian values” includes in its chapter on the fundamental rights and freedom of the individual the right to “freedom of thought and of religion,” to opt out of religious instruction and ceremonies in places of education, and to practice their religion. How, then, can The Bahamas specifically be a Christian nation?

One of the core functions of democracy is rule of law. This is referenced in the preamble, immediately after “Christian values.” Rule of law says all citizens are equal under the law, regardless of demographics including religion, gender, and race. The law is to be fair and impartial. Another core function of democracy is the protection of the human rights of all citizens. For this to be true, there cannot be laws that serve on group of people to the detriment of others. The Sexual Offenses Act is a timely and relevant example. In its definition of rape, it excludes perpetrators when they are married to the victims. This is clearly a violation of fundamental human rights, and the issue has finally been raised again. In the name of Christianity, many have argued that rape cannot exist within a marriage because, according to The Bible, the two become one and certain agreements are implied and perpetual. Even if this was anywhere near acceptable as an argument — and it absolutely is not — what of the people who are not Christians? What about married people of other faiths, and those of no religious affiliation at all? Should the law of this country not grant them recourse? A Sexual Offenses Act that does not limit the definition of rape to occurring outside of the context of marriage would not force Christians to bring rape charges against their spouses, but would protect those who want to use it.

While the preamble to the constitution — not the constitution itself — suggests respect for both Christian values and the rule of law will aid in the preservation of our freedom, it is incumbent upon us to respect one another. We need to put as much emphasis on and effort into self-discipline, industry, loyalty, and unity as recommended by the same preamble. Christian or not, we live in a democratic country with people of different beliefs and practices, and the constitutional right to them. Christian or not, we are all entitled to the same protections, rights, and freedoms. Whether or not we are a truly Christian nation, the state has an obligation to its citizens. If we take the preamble as gospel, we must also believe we have an obligation to each other. It tells us what we ought to know and choose to ignore: our freedom is bound up in one another’s. As long as we choose to hold others down, or separate and apart, regardless of the reason or the way we use texts we believe are irrefutable — like The Bible and the constitution —  to validate them, the fight to preserve our freedom will continue without positive result. This nation is more than the preamble to its constitution, and if we, today, are truly a Christian nation, we should be aiming higher.

Published in The Tribune on February 7, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Consent

I’ve seen and heard about people lamenting the ongoing discussion about women’s human rights specific to our bodies. While it can be exhausting to engage in seemingly endless conversations on a popular topic, or even observe them, it is far worse to be repeatedly violated, taught to accept it, and face attempts to dissuade you from believing your own experience. We have to talk about sexual violence, particularly against women and girls, for many reasons. One of the most obvious is that it continues to happen, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us.

Conversations about sexual violence against women and girls are frustrating. It is emotionally draining for those of us who have experienced it and continue to experience it. There is a burden on us to talk about some of the worst things we have ever gone through, We are expected to participate in story-sharing campaigns, little thought being given to the psychological effects of reliving the trauma, or worrying about who may find out and treat us differently. It makes people uncomfortable — even those who consider themselves “good guys.” The black and white of sexual violence and rape culture scares people to the point that they are desperate to believe and convince others that a gray area exists. There can be no gray area when we are talking about people using their power to exert control over another person’s body. Whatever form it takes, it is a violation without explicit consent.

What is consent?

It’s difficult to address these issues without defining consent. In the simplest of terms, it is permission, a yes, and confirmation of willingness to participate from a person who is over the age of consent, conscious, and sober. Consent cannot be assumed. There can be no guesswork here. Certainty is a must, and that can only exist when an option has been offered, and the other person has been given the opportunity to accept or decline on their own terms. Silence does not count; consent has to be explicit.

Once you have consent, know that it is for the activity and time agreed upon, and remember that consent can end. It is not granted forever, and people can change their minds. You need continuous consent. It is possible to consent to something, start an activity, then decide not to continue. You may not like it if someone does this, but consent is mandatory so you need to accept it.

What isn’t consent?

Consent for one thing does not mean consent for another. You may think one activity “naturally” leads to another, but you need to check in with the person to see if they want to move on to something else. Consenting to kissing is not the same as consenting to kissing followed by digital penetration. Be honest about what you want to do, and respect the person’s right to decide whether or not they want to participate.

It is important that consent is recognized as a necessary step that protects all participants. It is not difficult, and it is not a hurdle. It is not a contest or a conquest. Coercion voids consent. No is no, and no amount of bullying, begging, or wearing down will turn that a no into an enthusiastic, continuous yes. Doing any of these things takes away the person’s choice, and creates a situation where the only answer is yes, and that is not consent. It is a violation on its own.

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is a term to describe sexual acts against someone who has not given consent. It’s a spectrum with harassment toward one end and rape at the other. Many people find it difficult to see sexual harassment and rape in the same category, largely because harassment is considered harmless. Street harassment, for example, has been so normalized that some refuse to acknowledge its affects on those experiencing it. An unwanted interaction can begin verbally, and has the potential to escalate to following or physical assault, regardless of the initial response.

Like rape, harassment and every other form of sexual violence is about power — not sex. Conversations about sexual violence are most often derailed by perpetuators of rape culture. These are people who believe the victim is somehow always at fault. They use respectability politics in attempts to put women and girls in our place, and hypermasculinity to excuse men and boys for unacceptable, predatory, criminal behavior. At Hollaback! — a movement formed to end street harassment — we challenge people to think about what could happen in the dark if we excuse harassment as appropriate behavior. Events like Junkanoo and Carnival give us an idea.

Law Enforcement Says

In December 2017, the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) foolishly made a victim-blaming post, warning women to “dress appropriately” to avoid sexual violence at Junkanoo. After significant backlash, the post was deleted. Unfortunately, some saw fit to defend the RBPF, suggesting that sexual violence is a response to certain styles of dress. This, of course, is incorrect, victim-blaming, and suggests the inferiority of the men and boys through perpetuation of the idea that they have no self-control.

Earlier this month, Trinidad & Tobago police took a different approach. Carnival quickly approaching, they advised the public that wining on someone without consent could be considered assault. Rather than addressing women and attempting to restrict their movement or choice of dress, they spoke directly to potential perpetrators. While this was lauded by women’s rights organizations and activists, some took exception the message. In particular, soca artist Machel Montano told a crowd to ignore the police advisory and “find somebody to jam.” In response, Police Public Information Officer ASP Michael Jackman said, “I want to make this clear that is important to respect any female’s right to say no to any physical touching in or outside the Carnival season, and that is the position of the TTPS.”

The police in Trinidad & Tobago clearly have a better understanding of the right to body autonomy, the mandatory nature of consent, and the appropriate group of people to address about sexual violence.

A (Trinidad & Tobago) “wining etiquette” flowchart has been circulating over the past few days. It is meant to make men think about their relationships with the women they want to “jam” on. Yuh know she? How yuh know she? Based on answers to these basic questions, it advises on how to approach her, whether, usually beginning with a face-to-face interaction. It ends with either “Gih she wuk!” or “Cease & desist.”

One part of the flowchart brings the marital rape debate to mind. From the “How yuh know she?” question, if the person chooses “We currently romantically involved,” the result is “Gih she wuk!” This suggests a romantic relationship gives a man access to a woman’s body, as though consent is automatic and perpetual (or lasts as long as the relationship). How is this different from Bahamian legislation where the definition of rape excludes the married rapist and victim? We still have work to do. All of us need to understand that people are not objects, relationships do not give us ownership, and consent is always mandatory. Whether it’s a wine/wuk/dance or a sexual activity, it is necessary to ask. Otherwise, your actions could be on the spectrum of sexual violence. You’re a nice guy? Great. Respect the other person. Ask for consent.

Published in The Tribune on January 24, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Resistance to Outside Influence

The U.S. has been a major influence on The Bahamas for a long time. Proximity and tourism are not the only reasons. “Foreign is better” has been a dominant idea for decades. Imported apples are redder, U.S.-based network television is more entertaining, and flown-in consultants are more knowledgable. We’ve grown accustomed to looking elsewhere for what we want, whether it’s because of cost, quality, or status, real or perceived. At the same time, we complain about the side effects of these decisions.

Small businesses are suffering, creatives struggle to get financial support, unemployment is high, university graduates accept offers elsewhere, and the country stagnates on various levels. We don’t listen to our own experts, and our governments engage people from all over the world, paying obscene amounts of money to tell us what we — at least some of us — already know. We are outraged when we hear about it, and not just because of the money. Even while we discredit and ignore our own, we are deeply insulted by even the suggestion that someone who does not live here could know or understand anything about our condition or potential better than us. We are compelled to resist “outsiders.”

Who’s Afraid of the UN?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women’s visit to The Bahamas and declaration that marital rape is the most pressing gender-based issue in the country drew vitriolic response. Dubravka Šimonović was invited to The Bahamas to make an assessment, particularly in light of our bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. It is her job to objectively look at the country and its laws, engage with civil society, and report on her findings.

Ms. Šimonović’s visit was not to force new legislation or amendments, and her position does not afford her that right. Her comments, however, helped to spark a necessary conversation spanning several topics including rape, rape culture, marriage, and religion. It was a springboard for organizations and individuals, and drew attention to an overlooked issue. No matter how we validate her position or explain her visit, Ms. Šimonović is continually regarded as a UN operative, seeking to control The Bahamas and Bahamians.

Religious beliefs and commitment to the protection of patriarchy certainly influenced the conversation, but so did fear. Are we so opposed to external influence that we willingly refuse to acknowledge — or outright reject — statements of obvious truth and recommendations of merit?  It seems as though nationalism as a principle and pride as a restrictive, selfish value prevent us from participating in the processes necessary for growth and advancement as a country. Fear of being dominated or losing ourselves convinces us to dig our heels deeper into the mire that is our current and persisting state. Are we so weak that we could be controlled by mere conversation and suggestions of non-Bahamians?

Bullied by Big Brother

The President of the United States reportedly referred to African nations, along with others such as Haiti and El Salvador, as “shithole countries.” A xenophobe and a racist, his sentiments were clear before this incident, but it demands a response. Governments, organizations, and individuals have rebuked his statement and made it clear that he is not welcome in their spaces. CARICOM condemned his statement, calling it “unenlightened” and “unacceptable.” Since then, the Caribbean People’s Declaration, with 200 signatories, deemed the U.S. president “persona non grata.” It declared that he is “not welcome in any territory of the Caribbean” and confirms that any visit will be protested by Caribbean people with “demonstrations designed to prevent President Donald Trump’s entry into any portion of the sovereign territory of our Caribbean region.”

The Bahamas has not made such a statement and, based on social media posts and comments, many believe our silence is necessary. What would it mean to be on the bad side of the U.S. and its president?

We need to spend more time thinking about ourselves in relation to our Caribbean counterparts. We have been comfortable with a self-aggrandizing narrative, seeing ourselves as superior to the people of other Caribbean nations. Our GDP inflates our egos. We are proud of our proximity to the U.S., pre-clearance, and ease of access to the tourist market. We argue about whether or not we are a part of the Caribbean, often failing to acknowledge the shared history that binds us. In our minds, there is more that separates us from the rest of the Caribbean than connecting us. Contrary to what many Caribbean people believe and often express, we know we are not American, but in many ways, we aspire to Americanness, and it is often our closeness to American values and ways of life that excites us. We do not want to jeopardize it. That said, when issues of rights and freedoms are raised, opponents are quick to accuse advocates of “bringing American issues here,” so we are only interested in certain parts of Americanness.

This commitment to being U.S.-adjacent — not just geographically — often keeps us silent. While Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis criticized the lack of response from the current administration, Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield would only say The Bahamas is part of CARICOM and “we speak with one voice,” suggesting the CARICOM statement is sufficient. Whether or not we believe cowardice is necessary, this is certainly a shameful silence.

Neighborhood Watch

On Friday, January 5, the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana held a town hall meeting to get a sense of the Bahamian public’s opinion on the decriminalization of marijuana. The announcement of this event was like a piercing, loud alarm for those against decriminalization. Without even fully understanding the purpose of the event, furious typing and fast-dialing into radio talk shows ensued. People warned against decriminalization and all manner of impending doom that would result. While there may be valid arguments against decriminalization or, more likely, issues to be considered, accusations against CARICOM were wholly unnecessary and completely inaccurate. Listening to the fearful and the conspiracy theorists among us without seeking accurate information, it would be easy to believe CARICOM is forcing legislative changes on The Bahamas.

That a conversation could scare us is more worrying than being shunned by the U.S., or the decriminalization of marijuana. That we are happy to accept frivolous, seemingly inconsequential imports like clothing and media, and determined to reject expertise or even the facilitation of information sessions is cause for concern. We do not have to accept everything — or anything — being offered. We can demand that Bahamians experts are called first. We can have differing points of view. What we cannot afford is to close ourselves off from the rest of the world, convinced that everyone wants to take something from us or force something upon us. There is nothing wrong with learning from other countries, receiving recommendations from international bodies, or standing in solidarity with sister countries in the face of fascism. These decisions are up to us. Our fight should not be for restricted access to knowledge, perspective, and dialogue, but for seats at the table and participatory governance. We need every engagement opportunity we can get.