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Culture Clash: Lessons from Beyoncé at Coachella

Coachella, the annual music and arts festival held in California, was renamed “Beychella” — to the sound of air horns — by DJ Khaled last weekend when Beyoncé headlined with a two-hour performance. Not only did she become the first black women to headline Coachella, but she brought the HBeyCU theme, a play on HBCUs and “Greek life”. Beychella is arguably her best, most talked about performance to date, possibly rivalled by Superbowl 50.

The Beyhive has been endlessly posting on social media about its blackness and feminism. The commentary almost mimics that of the Superbowl 50 performance, but this time it is more accurate. This might not be because of Beyoncé’s dedication to black feminist politics, but a reading of the market, from its interpretation and reaction to Formation — and, more broadly, Lemonade — and understanding the benefit of feeding this narrative. Beyoncé, as we all know, is a businessperson first, and strategy is key.

Beychella brought some of the most celebrated aspects of African American life and culture. There were more than 100 dancers, a live marching band, a drumline led by Don P Roberts with members from Florida A&M University, Alabama State University, Norfolk State University, Bethune-Cookman University and Tennessee State University among others, and step segments. There was baton twirling, a crane, guest performances, and outfit and nail polish changes. Beyoncé presented a fictional sorority — Beta Delta Kappa — and for part of her set, wore this sorority’s sweatshirt with short shorts, cheeks out. She told the audience she had been dreaming of this performance since she cancelled on Coachella due to her pregnancy with twins, and everyone could tell.

There is no question about the work that went into Beychella. Not just the lighting, choreography, musical arrangement, or auditions, but the imagination. How many hours must have gone into the planning and orchestration of the performance? What fears had to be overcome to see it as a possibility? Is this an ability that comes with money and fame, knowing that whatever you dare to envision can come to life because you can pay for it and your fan base will sing your praises in response?

Beyoncé lives a life of tremendous privilege. She has one of the largest, most loyal fan bases that dedicates copious amounts of time and energy to celebrating her, following her every move, predicting her next steps and defending her at all costs. Who needs a PR team? Whatever she does is well done in the eyes of the Beyhive. It has been interesting to read responses to Beychella on their own, but also to compare them with the rhetoric around other women of colour.

Beyoncé brings other people to the stage with her and she is gracious, kind and a team player. Another artist brings other people to the stage and she is tired, lazy and knows she cannot carry the show on her own. Beyoncé drops unexpected expletives in her music, and she is righteously angry, turning a new leaf and keeping up with her audience. Another artist sings or raps explicit lyrics and she is unintelligent, attention-seeking and stereotypical. Beyoncé wears booty shorts and she is empowered and empowering. Another artist wears booty shorts and she is an unladylike embarrassment.

Everyone has a favourite. There are people we want to excuse, no matter what. We find it easy to explain away their (perceived) wrongs and manage to find good reasoning for actions that go against our own values. We find ways to align behaviours with values that, in our minds, would not otherwise match. What is the difference between the defended and the defenceless? What makes us want to support one person while maligning another, and for similar behaviour?

Video clips of Cardi B’s Coachella performance have been shared on social media over the past few days – the responses have been a far cry from those to Beyoncé’s performance. The two performances were, of course, quite different. They are different genres and different personalities. It is easy to believe all that exists between Beyoncé and Cardi B are differences. It is easy and expedient to deny obvious truths and ignore commonalities.

They are women of colour. They are performing at levels no one could have predicted. They each have their own following. They have their own social media strategies and regularly make decisions about how much of their lives they will share. They are in control of their image. They use profanity. They wear, say and do things that make them feel like themselves or, at least, the people they want to be. They have presence. They demand attention for more than their talent.

Cardi B’s 30-minute Coachella set included Chance the Rapper, 21 Savage, G-Eazy, YG, and Kehlani and four acrobatic dancers on scaffolding, seemingly an homage to her past as a stripper. While the crowd enjoyed the show, social media jumped to conclusions and judgments.

Why is Cardi B performing while pregnant? Does she have all of these guest performers because she can’t hold her own? How dare she twerk while pregnant?

People simultaneously lambaste Cardi B for twerking-while-pregnant, but reference guest performers as insults to her stamina. This is a perfect example of the impossibility of pleasing everyone. The same people who went wild over the booty shorts worn by Beyoncé — mother of three — and raved about how empowered they felt came down hard on Cardi B for daring to wear all white, highlighting her pregnancy, while unapologetically doing what she does.

Myles E Johnson wrote about Beychella for the New York Times, hailing the performance as “[writing] the book on black respectability politics.” While exciting and gratifying to think about, the assertion could not be further from the truth. He is clearly heartened by Beyoncé’s refusal to “divorce herself from black culture,” which is certainly debatable, but even if we take this as fact, there must be consideration to platform and stature. Beyoncé can afford to do that. Light-skinned, rich, and quite literally untouchable, she does not represent the most oppressed among us. Her performances do not change our reality, or even revolutionise the way we treat one another as black people, as women, or as black women in particular. In one weekend, we have seen Beyoncé celebrated for the same things that bring Cardi B and other “regular degular schmegular” women ridicule and disgust. Respectability politics remain alive, well, and reinforced by systems from white supremacy to internalised racism.

Beychella seems to have meant the world to black women, but not enough to change the narrow-mindedness the world has about blackness, womanhood, and sexuality. We cannot get any further ahead or do any better if we continue to change the rules based on who we put on the stage or under the microscope. If we are going to celebrate, encourage, and live a black feminist politic, we need to do it all day, every day, without exception. There has to be room for everyone. Single, married, child-free, and parent. There has to be room for people of different religions, sexual orientations, educational backgrounds, and locales. There has to be room for various forms of expression and ways of living in our bodies, refusing to be stifled or made invisible due to misogynoir and hypersexualisation.

In the words of Beyoncé, “Are we smart? Are we strong? Have we had enough? Show ‘em.”

Published by The Tribune on April 18, 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: 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: Justice for All – It Takes Work

Social justice is, at the moment, an imagined future where wealth and opportunities are justly distributed. It is a world free of oppression and barriers due to gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, or all other identity markers.

Social justice recognises the equal worth of all individuals and the right to have basic needs met. It is a move toward better, more inclusive systems that leads to gender equality, poverty eradication, fair employment, environmental health, access to education and numerous other improved conditions.

Social justice as a field, study and practice is sometimes divided into three parts: legal justice, commutative justice and distributive justice. This comes from the idea that we owe society, we owe each other and society owes us. A great deal of focus tends to be on the latter because we need to have systems and institutions structured in ways that protect, affirm and promote our human rights and give us equal opportunity to participate in political and social life. Social justice cannot be achieved without challenging political and societal norms, deconstructing privilege, and having uncomfortable conversations about history and its widespread effects. Maybe even more importantly, it won’t be realised until we learn to engage people who are not in our communities, schools of thought or organisations.

More awareness, more connection

Social justice movements are increasing in number, inclusion, reach and impact. This is not necessarily because we are facing more issues now than we did ten, 20, or 50 years ago. For various reasons, including the advancement of technology and its impact on ease and speed of communication, we have become more aware of national, regional and global concerns. Some would say we are hyperaware and, for some of us, sensitivity is heightened. We know we have to respond.

While seemingly working on disparate issues, social justice movements are growing more interconnected and interdependent. The 2015 adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations General Assembly has played in role in bridging the gap between communities.

The SDGs cover a range of social and economic issues including education, health and wellness, gender equality, climate action and economic empowerment. Each goal has specific targets. When all 169 targets are reviewed, interdependence of the goals and relevant issues is confirmed. For example, gender equality is dependent on target 4.5 to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable”. None of the goals — a distillation of global issues — can be met without working to meet other goals. Collaboration is key.

How we do the work

There are many different approaches to social justice work. For some, direct action is the way to go. Some use it for everything at all times while others see it as necessary in specific circumstances.

One of the best known forms of activism is protest. People flood the streets with placards, demanding action from bureaucratic bodies. Sometimes they are silent, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are peaceful, and sometimes they are not. They are never both the beginning and end of a successful movement. The protest seemed to have died in The Bahamas until recent years. Even being revived, they only seem to draw a few dozen people for any number of reasons. The issues seem too niche, people are generally unbothered, or the action is too inconvenient. Most Bahamians seem to be interested only if the issue personally affects them, and if they can join the protest without consequence. Our protests do very little to disrupt systems and institutions. We protest politely. We give notice, get permission and pack it in after a few hours. No one is unduly bothered, but protests usually make the news.

The petition is another popular action. It is easy on time, effort, and commitment. We can easily create and share petitions, collect signatures, and notify appropriate offices of our demands and the number of people in agreement with us. A petition, however, doesn’t do much to inconvenience the people we need to take action. They can block our emails and ignore the digital masses. They know it’s much more challenging to get the same people who signed to show up and take another action.

Two of the most popular, widely-used forms of direct action are fairly easy and ineffective. This is not to discount the usefulness of these methods, but to highlight the need to take more than one action, and more than one type of action. More than raging against the machine, social justice work requires that we raise awareness, build community, centre the people most affected, open dialogue with relevant bodies, learn, understand and use the law and international commitments to frame and support demands. No one action can get the job done and it’s time to be more creative about what we do, how we do it, and who we invite to join us.

Solidarity

A frequently overlooked component of effective social justice work is solidarity-building. Few communities are large enough to affect change for themselves on their own. Support from unaffected people is critical to building mass, spreading the workload, and resourcing movements. In most cases, for the plight of a group of people to be seen, people outside of that group have to be seen to care. When students were being sent home for having natural hair, non-students and people with chemically processed hair had to stand with them. Numbers are important, and so is empathy in action.

Publicity depends on people, and word of mouth and media are both powerful. International attention to national issues is known to impact the way they are addressed. In banding together, however, we need to be careful. It’s important to be mindful others’ intentions and the ways we all influence outcomes, especially when we are on the outside.

For example, when monitoring events in other countries — especially if the cause is close to us — it can be tempting to jump into action. Even with the best intentions, this can be a careless, dangerous response. There is usually someone on the ground, already working and strategising, and outside voices or initiatives can steal their thunder, confuse community members, and potentially sabotage the developing action plan. It is not only courteous, but responsible and professional to do research and reach out to people who are already doing the work. If you don’t see anyone doing it, you’re probably not very good at research. Get some help.

The role of civil society

Civil society is critical to a fully functioning democracy. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are more powerful than the people we elect. We need to collaborate, and create opportunities for knowledge-building and skill-sharing. Social media has made it easier for us to raise our voices, but also to preach to the choir, and facilitate laziness. We need to reach people who disagree, and people who are undecided. We need more conversations than sermons. We need to find new, accessible ways to engage. If we fail to engage and onboard new people — those who do not look or think like we do — we won’t get to that world we imagine. Empathy and creativity need to be in the social justice toolkit. They are critical to building a community prepared to help drive us into a better future.

Published by The Tribune on February 21, 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: 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.

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Culture Clash: Time To Ask Ourselves – What Do We Truly Believe In?

At this time of year, before looking forward and making plans for a better, more productive and successful year, it is wise to review the previous 12 months.

This year has been particularly interesting given it was an election year and we saw a record number of independent candidates, several political parties and a landslide victory for the Free National Movement. The May 2017 change of administration filled some with hope while satisfying others that the Progressive Liberal Party was rejected without question and left with four seats in Parliament. Some of us were concerned about what the imbalance in Parliament would mean for the country. Now it seems more are beginning to understand our line of thinking.

It had been said before, but this year’s general election was a clear demonstration and evidence of the inadequacy of the two-party system and our election practices. We are now at a point where we want to be able to choose our Members of Parliament without endorsing the party leader. We want to be able to vote for an independent candidate and still help choose the Prime Minister. We want to be able to participate in advance polls as needed, to vote from abroad when The Bahamas is still our home, know our constituencies and participate in an organised, drama-free process.

We need to know candidate and party positions on critical issues like taxation, immigration, gender equality and the death penalty. We need to know how much political parties are prepared to acquiesce to non-essential entities like the Bahamas Christian Council and whether or not they will extend the same courtesy to other religious groups.

We need evidence of their willingness to enter discussions with advocacy groups and organisations representing underserved communities. We need to know their plans for governance; not just a bulleted to-do list, but comprehensive plans that speak to execution, necessary partnerships and requisite processes, policy changes, legislation and constitutional amendments to meet their goals.

We may now have less party loyalty than ever before. We also have four years to make this clear to current Members of Parliament and prospective candidates in the 2022 general election. The FNM is still on its high horse, the PLP is still licking its wounds, the DNA has disappeared along with all other parties and independent candidates are, for the most part, back to their regularly scheduled programmes.

Who is still doing the work they claimed was of the utmost importance to them? Who has kept the promises they made a few months ago? How are they living their mandates and how are they not? Who have we allowed to use us for our numbers and power, all for their own gain?

This is the time to assess parties and candidates — outside of the election season. This is also the time to get clear and be clear about what we need as a country. Starting now would give us a significant advantage. We could spend the next few years holding the FNM accountable and making demands of the administration and calling on the Opposition to stand with us while creating our own agenda for 2022.

We often think of ourselves as a nation in its infancy, but we have significant talent, skill, intelligence and expertise in The Bahamas and the diaspora to bring collective vision to fruition. It requires an exercise of national reflection, visioning and community-driven action. We know we have the numbers; we need to understand how that translates to power and use it with vigour and certainty.

Before we can mobilise ourselves, get buy-in from other community members and carry out our own agenda, we need to be honest with ourselves. What do we truly believe in, without reservation? How do we identify, as individuals and how do we see ourselves fitting into the whole? In what areas are we likely to discriminate, or excuse discrimination by others?

If you believe women should have the right to vote, but not to say no to sex within marriage, you need to ask yourself some questions about the way you view women and their rights.

If you believe murder is wrong, but the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, you need to ask yourself some questions about your views on the value of human life, rights versus wrong, and, if relevant, which segments of religious text are more important, relevant, or correct than others.

We talk about thin lines all the time, and we need to know where ours are, and why. Only then can we ask the most critical questions of current and prospective representatives and determine whether or not they deserve our support and will appropriate reflect our views on the national, regional, and international stages.

In holding government administrations to account, we sometimes forget or wilfully shirk our personal responsibilities as citizens of The Bahamas. It is not good enough to realise there is poor representation of women in Parliament after the election results when the winning party only put forward four women — the least of the major parties.

It is not good enough to rebuke the Minister of Social Services and Urban Development’s stance on marital rape while tithing in a church whose leadership does not believe married women have bodily autonomy.

It is not good enough to use hashtags and link to articles about Jean Rony when you pay migrant workers below minimum wage and complain about their children attending the same school as yours. Are you all in, or not in at all?

As 2017 comes to a close and we stare down the start of 2018, perhaps we should take some time to study the Bahamas Christian Council. What other group has been able to penetrate successive government administrations? Who has been able to pause, halt, or force more than the BCC? This group infringes on the rights of Bahamian people, but because of its name and membership, it is able to scare political parties and leadership into acting in its interests which are seldom the interests of its membership.

The BCC has recognised its power, and it is not afraid to use it. It is not worried about offending anyone outside of its constituency. It is single-minded in its approach and action. It is unmoved by our calls for it to respond to issues like incest, child abuse and domestic violence, continuing on its path to preserve what it deems to be Christian institutions like marriage.

Perhaps what is needed is for the rest of us to be as dogged, unrelenting and consistent in our advocacy. We need to refuse to be moved or silenced. We need to be unapologetic in our exercise of full citizenship and in the fight for the expansion of the rights of all human beings living, visiting, studying and working here.

Maybe we can figure out how to do it before the first day of a new year. Again, we have four years to make our voices heard and presence felt, marching together to a common loftier goal (not to be confused with individual goals on one march).

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 27, 2017

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Culture Clash: Let’s Admit It – Jean-Charles’ Problem Is We See Him As Just Another Haitian

The story of Jean Rony Jean-Charles has been flooding social media, raising questions, highlighting glaring issues and exposing the flawed value systems of many among us over the past week.

Trying to get accurate information on what transpired with Jean-Charles is like trying to catch a chickcharnee. Who should we expect to have information on his whereabouts when the Detention Centre and Department of Immigration are both incapable of providing proof of their actions and the Haitian Embassy has no record of his supposed deportation? Further, how do we justify repatriation when a person is not sent to the country of their birth?

Jean-Charles was born in The Bahamas to Haitian parents and is said to have never travelled outside of the country. He was detained for three months and is now effectively missing. We do not know where he is and his family is concerned. Really, we should all be concerned. When people are taken into custody and disappear without a trace, there is a serious problem. This should be obvious. It isn’t. Why not? Because, to far too many Bahamians, Jean-Charles is not a human being. He is not deserving of dignity and respect and full access to human rights. He is not a person with a family. He is a Haitian.

We, Bahamians, think we are special. We see Bahamian citizenship as an exclusive good. We are happy to access and give our children access to other nationalities and nations, but believe Bahamian citizenship and The Bahamas must be kept for ourselves. We want it all. We want to take what we are not willing to give. We even pride ourselves on this attitude, leaning on the law to support our narrow points of view. We belabour the definition of Bahamian and how citizenship can be gained according to the The Constitution of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas and the Bahamas Nationality Act. This is what makes us better than the other — the non-Bahamian.

We have a complicated relationship with the foreigner. We strive to be as good as the European and the North American foreigner and we look down on the Caribbean foreigner.

We have bought into the myth that Gross Domestic Product is an appropriately comprehensive measurement of value and stability.

We are proud of the extent to which we have been Americanised and constantly try to divorce ourselves from the history and continued struggle we share with Caribbean countries.

We set ourselves apart, calling everyone else “other”, failing to see we are the other.

We are caught up in our false Christianity as a nation, refusing to be our brothers’ keepers in favour of amassing wealth that cannot possibly be the loftier goal we are meant to march toward.

We do not see that in leaving our brothers and sisters behind, we betray our ancestors, spit on history that should guide our steps and contribute to a negative narrative of nationhood that will not help us when we become climate refugees.

Yes, our time will come. By then, our borders may be too tight and death and disappearance toll too high to engender empathy or kindness from any nation that might otherwise be inclined to offer assistance.

The Bahamas has the right to protect its borders. Few people would disagree. It does not, however, have the right to endanger or cause harm to people of any country. It cannot be excused for violating human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear in its 30 articles that state and protect the rights and freedoms of all human beings. It includes the right to a nationality, to seek asylum in another country, recognition as a person under the law, a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing and protection from arbitrary arrest or detention.

The Bahamas has signed the declaration and must abide by international law. Unfortunately, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not govern individuals. It is not part of our curriculum, so many are unaware of it, or do not understand the commitment.

That aside, we are not doing enough to sensitise the Bahamian people to the plight of migrants from Haiti or other countries, or the obligation we have as signatories and, let’s not forget, a Christian nation.

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and the world is well aware of its political and economic instability, economic inequality and vulnerability to natural disasters. According to the World Bank, 59 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line of $2.41 per day. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew damages were almost one-third of GDP.

The Bahamas, in comparison, is the land of plenty. To hear many Bahamians tell it, this country is populated by Christian people who love their neighbours as themselves and find ways to share five loaves and two fish with thousands. Sadly, we do not live up to this reputation. We, on the contrary, fail to see certain foreigners as people. If they do not come by plane with credit cards and US dollars to gamble in casinos, get their hair braided and buy mass-produced non-Bahamian souvenirs, they are of no use to us.

If they are looking for a better life and intend to work, we see them as thieves, coming for what is ours, even if we are not willing to do the same work to access it. We had probably convinced ourselves that we only have the problem with Haitians because of their large numbers and illegal entry, but the national response to the government’s assistance to Dominica proved otherwise. We have a problem with helping. We are willing to put our hands out, but not interested in giving a hand up.

We, who go to Florida to give birth so our children can have American citizenship, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who think ourselves too good to weed, cut the grass, shape hedges and wash windows, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who raise and educate our children to live a better life in a better place, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who were stolen and loaded on to boats, dropped off and made slaves across a chain of islands, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who don’t know where we are really from because we left many decades, generations, languages and plantations ago, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who pride ourselves on the bit of colour or soft hair or whatever other sign of mixed identity we can find, have a problem with migrant people.

We forget that we are migrant people. We forget that the Haitian Revolution was the beginning of our freedom, or maybe we just don’t know. Maybe we don’t know about Saint-Domingue in the late 1700s. Maybe we don’t know we might not actually belong here either, or that everyone deserves to be treated like human beings, or that no human being is illegal and there is a difference between a person and their actions, or that we are going to need somewhere to go before the end of this century.

Maybe we don’t understand English. We may need to get the message in French.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 13, 2017

Photo: Attorney Fred Smith with Clotilde Jean-Charles, sister of Jeanrony Jean-Charles, who is said to be missing from the Detention Centre. Photo: Shawn Hanna/Tribune Staff