Post 387.

There’s much to say about debates over race and ethnicity in Trinidad. What’s clear is the extent to which ideas circulating in our society take on a life of their own. They speak not only to the power of old, pervasive stereotypes, but the bed of trauma on which such views land, making their harm even more painful, and making conversations difficult unless there is mutual acknowledgement of such pain. 

For example, in her racist response to the UNC’s loss, Naila Ramsaran said “I hope Rowley starts putting contraceptives in their water supply”. Her comments echoed eugenist ideas of population control of the poor, primarily because of additional stereotypes of their burden on the state. These have been racialized in terms of Afro-Caribbean family systems and sexual practices since British colonial response to labour resistances of the 1930s, and the emergence of an idea of a state welfare. 

Contraceptives are not poison, and she didn’t threaten to put any in company products, but public condemnation justifiably moved from disgust at her demeaning of PNM supporters to fears regarding public health and the risk of genocide that deliberately poisoned products could pose to Afro-Trinidadian people’s lives. 

The problem isn’t only the racism of individuals on social media today, it’s the ease with which these racist logics circulate, appearing as accessible truths to understand others, but also to undermine them, and it’s their power to take on a life of their own.  

I don’t think the UNC intended its ad, for example, with a poor African child to be racist. I think the UNC was targeting poor Afro-Trinidadian voters who have been abandoned by the PNM, those willing to kick floodwater at Fitzgerald Hinds, those living in the marginalized communities of Chaguaramas and Sea Lots, and those who are the targets of the PM’s committee established after the protests in July.

They were not wrong to target these voters, in fact it’s necessary, but their targeting took up widely available narratives that are reductionist and misleading, and become racist representations. The same emphasis on poor Afro-Trinidadians at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy comes from some local Black Lives Matter voices, and from those calling for an end to the Concordat because schooling disparities leave young Afro-Trinidadians poor and excluded. 

The idea of Africans at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder is an Afro-Trinidadian discourse that non-Africans hear, and may also believe, and it combusts into a life of its own as it moves across ethnicity and when it is then taken up in simplistic or opportunistic ways or should not be taken up at all.

So, the conversation isn’t whether the UNC or PNM, or Indians or Africans or anyone else, is totally racist. It’s not about a contest to list offensive political advertisements or statements, or post social media screenshots. 

Both parties have played on racial logics for decades, and swathes of the population heard and felt echoes of these logics as, at best, race-baiting and, at worst, as deliberate racism. These perceptions are the reality we have to unpack and confront, for it is here that layers of historical narratives, stereotypes, fictions and exclusions step in, creating disagreement over both history and the present, and a sense that the other does not prioritize our hurt or healing. 

What is critical is that different groups may hear these logics differently, sometimes may not hear them at all, sometimes may not consider them valid perceptions, or may see them as inconvenient but historically-accurate truths. 

Ideas we hold and convey about ourselves and each other are filled with dangerous myths, which at some times are expediently wielded and at others deeply wounding, bringing many to conversations about race with deep sense of pain. Political parties will play all this as long as it exists. We will have solid bases for accusing each other of racism, and blindness to it, as long as such logics live and breathe in our shared terrain.

There are continuous examples of victimhood because racial, gendered and classed ideas determine our grasp of history, validate shortcuts for explaining distrust and inequities, create both platforms and silences, and establish group identities and boundaries that can be conveniently exploited for political power.   

Where these discourses come from, when they can be drawn upon, why they remain effective, what truths they capture and hide, and what harms they continue to enact are necessary conversations to have as people making one nation out of the challenges of such complexity and contradiction.  

Post 198.

More than once, Ziya has initiated conversation about skin colour, telling me that she wishes she had lighter skin or was white. Where this comes from, I’m not exactly sure, though the nexus of value and colour is inescapably embedded in our entire colonial legacy.

Most people blame ‘the parents’, that dynamic duo supposedly capable of successfully fighting all the world’s bad influences through their super skills in setting an all-powerfully influential example. Parents might blame ‘the media’ which, even if we police our own little sapodillas’ consumption of children’s shows, still manages to infiltrate their consciousness through conversation and time spent with their friends and other family members who watch TV.

So, Zi tells me that having light skin is prettier because you can have pink cheeks, like Anna from the film, ‘Frozen’. She apparently watches ‘Barbie’ and other Disney Channel shows when not home. And, she and her school friends clearly work through concepts of colour, status and beauty when talking, and even through skin colour matching games. She’s also reasoned to me that ‘light skin can be pink and girls are supposed to like pink, that’s why I like light skin’. This is not a conversation Zi is inventing or having alone.

When I’ve discussed this with people, they’ve gone through the list of sources of blame. I’ve checked each off one by one. Zi gets books chosen specifically with a range of considerations, including race, colour, gender, geography, art and science, in mind. I’ve only ever bought her brown dolls. Her allowed shows include Doc McStuffins, Dinosaur Train, Word World, and others vetted for their messages and representations.

What’s out there isn’t perfect, but some choices are better than others. Still, some choices are not great. There are far too few Caribbean music videos, particularly by women, that she can watch. So, it’s not entirely surprising that the ‘Roar’ video, where Katy Perry’s cheeks are quite pink, has swept the four year old world like an unstoppable anthem.

I say all this to make the point that when our children start to show familiarity with a world we know is sexist, racist, classist and more, our first reaction is blame. But, beyond family, schools or media, this is actually the world as we live it daily, like normal. Our kids were going to encounter and even assimilate it inevitably. As a parent who has made a real effort, while also having to balance not being fascist about my attempts at indoctrination, I refuse the neoliberal idea that fault is in individual failure to fulfill that checklist.

A long time ago, we realized that real change requires more than individual empowerment and effort, it also needs mass movements, attempting widespread shifts in social consciousness and political-economic relations. The global Black Power movement knew this. It challenged class-colour barriers, the connection between whiteness and power, and disparagement of hair and skin considered ‘too black’.

For children, whether Indian, African or mixed, there’s a great deal of that transformative politics we still need to achieve, and we are a generation that can redesign the wheel while not having to reinvent it. Thinking about this makes you wonder about all the reasons for, and the losses of, such hopeful, collective Caribbean movements no longer existing today. It’s a lesson for us that such great efforts can be undermined, forgotten, even stereotyped over mere decades.

As a mother, I feel that once hierarchies penetrate our children’s understanding of the world and their place in it, they can now only be in resistance to such frameworks, no longer innocent of them or fully free. I dream that we could make such emancipation a real possibility. None but ourselves can free our minds, and luckily schooling and parenting can together be revolutionary.

So it goes in our contradictory, complex postcolony. For now, I’m keeping it simple. Mummy says all skin colours are beautiful.