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Culture Clash: How You Can Prepare for the Arrival of VAT

Value Added Tax will be increased to twelve percent in a matter of days, and many of us are still trying to figure out how to make it work. Adjustments have to be made, some on a daily basis, but this does not mean we have to be uncomfortable. It means we have to plan, and we have to look at what we have.

Some people do not like to look at their money. Sure, they cash checks, make withdrawals, and make cash transactions, but they do not like to count the money they have and face what it means for their lives and lifestyles. They avoid it, at almost any cost.

When is the last time you checked your account balances? Do you know how much cash you have in your wallet and stashed in other locations?

Some of it could be laziness, but the reluctance to check balances is most often linked to fear and discomfort with facing the reality real numbers force upon us. If you know you have two hundred dollars for the next month, you may be forced to make some decisions about what and where you will be eating, how you will get around, and which invitations you can accept. If you do not know there is only two hundred dollars left in your wallet, you can go for sushi three times in ten days, grocery shop without a plan, and pick up that layaway without stress. Not knowing is false freedom, and it can feel good. Until the consequences creep up.

How are you approaching the twelve percent VAT and its impact on your purchasing power? Do you plan to operate as usual until you run out of money, or are you making a plan?

Changing the mindset

It may be helpful to view the increase in VAT as a pay cut. It has the same effect. You will not be able to buy the same items in the same quantity as before. Once you come to this realization, having a plan will probably feel more important.

It is a good idea to spend some time on a budget. No, budgeting is not fun for most people, but it can significantly reduce stress. Start with your income, then assess your necessities including your mortgage or rent and payments on debt. Keep in mind that every monthly bill is not a necessity. Yes, this is a direct attack on cable television, Netflix, and other subscriptions. These are luxuries and they belong in a separate column so you can identify them easily if and when you need to make adjustments to your spending.

Negotiating and eliminating expenses

What can you spend less on? If you usually buy lunch, figure out how many days you need to take lunch to work instead. You can not negotiate necessities, but how can you reduce the cost? Maybe it is time to move into a less expensive apartment or get a roommate. We all need grocery and sometimes we need to get that hard-to-find ingredient, but we do not need to buy everything from the most expensive store.

One of the ways we can begin to work around VAT, eat better, and live more sustainably is growing our own food. We may not be able to produce everything for ourselves, but we can at least grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs. It does not have to take up a lot of space, and there are even options for people living in apartments with no ability to plant in the ground. A few years ago, I bought a hanging garden from a friend who put them together for clients. The twelve plants included green pepper, onion, Bahamian spinach, and rosemary. I hung it on a fence, watered it as instructed, and watched my food grow. The next year, I sourced my own seeds and seedlings and set about it again. There is really no satisfaction like eating food you have grown yourself, VAT-free. We all know people who garden. Talk to them, ask for a little something to get started, and get to work.

Let’s make a deal

On the same day the 60 percent increase in VAT was announced, bartering became a serious topic among groups of friends and acquaintances. Bartering is not over. Many people barter all the time without realizing it. Civil society organizations often exchange meals for hours of service. People do not mind spending an hour or two at a booth or packing welcome bags if they get lunch and a networking opportunity in exchange. People in the beauty industry exchange services among themselves — a massage for makeup application, for example. No money is exchanged, but two parties exchange products and services of equal value. This is bartering, and it is time to be more intentional about it. What do you need, and what you can provide in exchange? Check out the bartering groups on Facebook, start the conversation within your own networks, and reduce the amount of money you spend on services when you can trade skills.

Sacrifice to save

Saving money is difficult under any circumstances. No one really wants to set money aside for short-term or long-term savings instead of spending it on immediate desires. Many of us are living hand-to-mouth with little or no room to save. Where saving is a possibility, it definitely requires lifestyle changes. If you can afford to buy a hot beverage every day on the way to work, you can save. If you can drive to and from work every day, you can save. It may not been convenient, and it may cramp your style, but you can do it. Make your morning beverage at home, put that café money in a jar every day, and deposit it monthly. Carpool with your family members, friends, and coworkers. It could be part of a go-green initiative at the office, or a way to catch up with the cousins you never find the time to meet. This may not be something you do all the time, but it is an option for reducing spending on gas.

There are a number of saving strategies that come up with a quick online search. A popular one is never spending five dollar bills. Any time you get a five dollar bill in change, you put it in a separate section of your wallet or a different pocket, then deposit it to a container or account. Do this for a year, and see how much you save. If you are inclined to open a savings account, check out the credit unions. They offer far better interest rates and service than commercial banks, and the asue accounts are definitely worth consideration.

Community

We are all paying the same VAT, but we all have different income levels. No matter how much we would like to think we are all in the same boat, we are not. Women and approximately twelve percent of people in The Bahamas living below the poverty line are disproportionately affected. Some can not even begin to think about budgets or saving. Look out for them.

This unfortunate increase is coming, but maybe a better sense of community and willingness to help one another can come with it. Can you help someone start a business? Maybe you have raw material to help them get started, a space they can work from, or money they can pay back in service. Check in with your loved ones. Make strategies for dealing with the VAT increase a community effort. Grow food together. Exchange goods and services. Start a savings challenge. Let’s get creative.

Published in The Tribune on June 27, 2018.

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Culture Clash: The Lessons We Can Learn from the Budget

The world of partisan politics is never dull. The Budget Communication certainly makes for a lively few weeks, full of debate, pontification, and a range of emotions. It is probably the time we are most attentive to the government and political maneuverings aside from election season. It gives insight into the real agenda of administrations and reveals values like nothing else. In their contributions, our representatives show us, in practice, what is important to them. They speak to specific parts of the budget as we listen for signs that they are just another cog in the wheel, or thinking representative giving due consideration to the everyday realities of our lives before taking a position.

More information please

The 2018-2019 budget could keep us talking for days on end. The controversy and confusion that arise from the budget debate often lead to conversations, arguments, research, and critical thinking, increasing our knowledge and understanding of governance and government. Other events — like the vote of no confidence by the rebel seven in 2016 — become practical teaching tools and open our eyes to what was previously unknown. Many of us only recently learned that the official Leader of the Opposition in Parliament is not necessarily the opposition party leader. We are learning as we go.

How is that working for us?

Sure, there is always more to learn. Yes, it is great that we are able to start and sustain conversations in the aftermath of political events that lead to an expansion of individual and national knowledge, but are we figuring it all out too late, and too piecemeal?

We are in desperate need of a national civics lesson. Yes, some schools have civics class, but not all of them. It should be a requirement at every school in The Bahamas. If we can give five-year-olds projects on the governor generals of The Bahamas, we can offer civic education to school-age children. There should be educational programming on television and radio, supplements in newspapers, open online courses, and resources in public libraries. If political parties and candidates can go door-to-door with their paraphernalia, they can make information about the Westminster system, political history, and governance easily accessible to every Bahamian resident.

Voting against party position

Over the past few days, we have been talking about the four FNM Members of Parliament who voted no on the bill to increase Value Added Tax to twelve percent. Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller, Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine, Bain and Grants Town MP Travis Robinson and Centreville MP Reece Chipman did not support the VAT increase, and seven other FNM Members of Parliament did not show up to vote. This came after Attorney General Carl Bethel said “the whip is on” and suggested to anyone voting no, “you may as well tender your resignation at the same time that you vote with the opposition.”

Many people of varied political allegiances expressed disdain, shock, and disappointment at the Prime Ministers actions yesterday. Robinson and Miller were terminated from their parliamentary secretary positions at Ministry of Tourism and Aviation and Ministry of Social Services respectively, and McAlpine was terminated from his position as chairman of the Hotel Corporation. Their termination letters referred to Part III, Section 21 of the Manual of Cabinet and Ministry Procedure.

Following their budget contributions, it was made clear to these Members of Parliament that they had a decision to make. They could support the budget in its entirety, including relevant bills, and keep their appointments or they could represent their constituents by not supporting every aspect of the budget and be terminated. They chose to stand for the people, knowing the consequences stipulated by the Westminster system.

The Minnis mistake

Minnis is obviously trying to look strong. He is opposed to compromise. He is not interested in engaging the press, or communicating with the Bahamian people. He wants to eat lunch. He disappears and goes quiet, pushing other people to the fore. Maybe he thinks we will not see him as the bad guy. Maybe he thinks if he is not the one to deliver the bad news, we will not know where it came from. One thing is certain — he does not take kindly to being opposed, questioned, or criticized. That is too bad, especially since opposition, questions, and criticism could be instructive, especially for someone so clearly out of touch.

Minnis does not seem to understand the implications of the budget. He has not grasped the fact that the Bahamian people are not interested in any of the spins being offered. We are especially not going to accept the idea that we have to suffer now to benefit later.

Minnis said, ”My budget is not necessarily about VAT. My budget is more about a better tomorrow for the young people of this country, the future.”

In two sentences, he took ownership of the budget, demonstrated his lack of awareness of the general understanding of the budget and the most dominant component, and suggested that there is a focus on youth and the future. There is too much in that statement to refute here and now, but young people are not buying it; especially not after Robinson’s termination yesterday.

The Robinson effect

Many people are confused by what has taken place. Some are likening Minnis to dictators and fascists. There have been numerous questions about the validity of this move, whether or not it was necessary, and possible loopholes. More than anyone else, Travis Robinson has the attention of the Bahamian people — especially young people. For many, his termination feels like a punch to the gut. We have to remember, however, that he remains the representative for Bain and Grants Towns, that was what he wanted at the beginning, and his current situation is the outcome of fulfilling his duty to the people of that constituency. He has done what many others have failed to do. He consulted with his constituents and spoke on their behalf, even when it was to his own detriment. He has proven that a young person who is new to politics and has been courted by a major political party can truly represent the people.

What will this do for Bahamian politics? Maybe we will see a wave of more inspired leaders and leadership emerge. There could be new boldness. Perhaps we can expect present and future Members of Parliament to give careful consideration to everything put before them, consult with constituents, and truly work for them rather than the party. We may get representatives who care more about our communities than their own titles and salaries. Didn’t this seem unrealistic a short time ago?

Whether or not we see change, incremental or substantial, in the practice of politics depends on more than one person. Travis Robinson, at the very least, took a risk. What about us? What is our response going to be? Beyond the initial social media posts and paraphrasing of what others have said, what are we going to do?

At this point, our action is just as important as his. If we want to see more representatives truly representing us, we have to show it with our support. That means resisting the urge to make jokes about his lost income, and going beyond the lazy explain-it-away method of posting a screenshot of the relevant Westminster rule or section of the cabinet manual. Okay, the system brought us here. What now? What of that system? Is it serving us?

We talk about democracy in very general terms, and most of us have done very little to learn more about it. We go through the motions of a specific part of democracy. We vote every five years, and spend all the time in between making threats about what we will do with our one vote when the time comes again. Democracy is and must be more than that. We have to be able to talk about what it has and has not been for us, and co-create a better functioning democracy that goes beyond a vote. We can have our say on any day at any time, if only we learn to tap into the power of the collective. When we do, as Progressive Liberal Party Deputy Leader Chester Cooper put it, “The day of reckoning is going to come. And that is the beauty of democracy.”

Published in The Tribune on June 20, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Facing Up to Mental Health Challenges

I know people with mental health challenges, some of whom are getting professional help and others who cannot afford it, do not want anyone else to know what they are going through, or do not think it would help. I have received phone calls and in-person visits from people who needed immediate assistance. During and after university, I was a live-in youth worker for at-risk women and girls. Before that job, I harshly judged people living in poverty, drug-addicted people, teenage parents, and any number of other people. I had decided that we all get to choose what we do with our lives, and our ability to succeed is completely within our control.

Coming face-to-face with my own ignorance and hypocrisy in a matter of days was nowhere near easy, but it was the most life-changing experience I have ever had. Among other opportunities and challenges, I completed suicide intervention training with a group of social workers. It was long, intense, transformative, and unexpectedly emotional. It reminded me of previous experiences, made me question the way I responded to situations in the past, and committed me to paying attention, asking questions, and listening for what is not being said.

On June 8, Anthony Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in Strasbourg, France. The host of the award-winning CNN series Parts Unknown who had publicly talked about his mental health struggles died by suicide. Many people, so accustomed to watching Bourdain explore new places and food with acerbic wit, feel like they have lost a friend. They were attracted to the contagious curiosity that led him to ask people what they liked to cook and what they liked to eat, and the honesty that delivered his unfiltered thoughts.

Bourdain was not without success and did not lack money. He was a world-renowned chef and bestselling author. In Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Bourdain went beyond food, telling stories about his abuse of drugs and sex. He consistently proved himself to be a real, multidimensional person, but that he could suffer from depression and exit the world by suicide is still a shock. We have certain expectations of the rich and the famous.

Don’t they have everything they could possibly want and more? Can’t they afford to pay every problem to get lost? And what is there to be depressed about?

Bourdain’s partner Asia Argento described him as her love, her rock, and her protector. He stood by her side when she went public with accusations against Harvey Weinstein and spoke out in support of the women of the #MeToo movement. Bourdain is an example of a person who managed to support other people, but did not manage to save himself.

Are we supposed to save ourselves?

Just days before Bourdain’s death, fashion designer Kate Valentine (previously known as Kate Space) died of suicide in her apartment in Manhattan. Though she had not had a hand in the brand still bearing her name, many people responded to the news of her death with stories of their first Kate Spade handbag purchase.

Both Bourdain and Spade had what most of us are still trying to achieve. They found their passions and ways to share them with the world, and got more than pay checks in return. They each had a fan base. They had families and friends. They were household names. Still, something else they had in common overshadows all of their achievements and possessions and the love in their lives. That may be what is most difficult to understand about depression. It does not match itself to the good in our lives. As large as the sun is, clouds can completely obscure our view of it. We may know it is still there, but that knowledge does nothing to replace the light. At night, when darkness comes, there is no sign that the sun will rise again.

As a child, I heard people talk about suicide. I learned that people saw it as a dishonorable act. A selfish act. A cowardly act. I heard people talk about depression too. I learned that people saw it as a weakness. A demon. A punishment for wrongdoing. A clear instruction to turn to god. Good, god-fearing people, then, did not have depression. Brave, selfless people did not attempt suicide.

To prove I was living my life in the best possible way, I had to ensure that there was never a sign of depression, or even sadness. Even if I experienced them, no one could know. This dictated countless thoughts and actions. This knowledge made it so that I never admitted to anything being wrong, and whenever anything was wrong, I suffered alone. I know that I am not the only one. There are other people who go to battle with parts of themselves that want to be vulnerable and honest, and allow someone else to help. They fight those parts because we are taught that it is better to be strong, smiling, and satisfied with whatever we have.

It has taken me a long time to realize that vulnerability is not weakness, and having challenges does not mean we are, in some way, deficient. It is still difficult for me to treat myself with the same kindness I extend to my loved ones. Maybe it is because I came to my understanding of mental health issues through my role as carer for others that it is easier to acknowledge, affirm, and attend to the needs of others than it is to even sit with my own. Part of it too, of course, is the way I heard people talk about mental health challenges when I was growing up. It is hard to trust people with personal information when it feels safer to keep it secret, even from the closest people to us. The people who are, perhaps, the most judgmental of them all.

After reports of suicide or attempted suicide, there is always an influx of positive messaging around mental health. Social media is flooded with posts encouraging people to seek the help they need. Talk to someone. Call a hotline. Text a friend. See a psychologist. There are numerous barriers to what seems like a quick and easy solution. To talk to someone, we have to trust them and be reasonably certain that they will only do what is in our best interest. To call a hotline, we probably want to be assured that we can maintain anonymity, and that the person on the other end is a trained professional. To see a psychologist, we need money. And not a small amount of money. To ask for help, we have to admit that we do not always have it all together, we are not always as happy as we look, and our strength sometimes wavers.

We have a great deal of work to do. We have to earn the trust of the people around us. We need to understand mental health and recognize that it is just as important as physical health. Depression and anxiety are public health issues and should be treated as such. Health care needs to include mental health care.

We have to do more than pray. As family members, friends, coworkers, and club members, we need to pay attention, be willing to listen, and hear what is not being said. We need to advocate for policy change. We need to check on our people, and not always expect them to ask for the help they need. Suicide is not a choice, and it is not selfish. Limiting lifesaving options through stigma, however, is a choice. Give your loved ones the chance to cope, to overcome, and to live. Do research, start conversation, and demand mental health care services.

Published in The Tribune on June 13, 2018.

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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.