Post 414.

I WRITE ON a glistening wet morning in dry season, expecting flooding in some areas, thinking of farmers with crops at risk, wondering whether the poui trees which glory in hot, dry breezes are shaking their heads in confusion. 

The rain has been lulling, like a river flowing through the dawn and again rising in the afternoons over these past days. The Northern Range breathes cool air, perhaps in relief, as threatening fires are drenched. Held close indoors by the surrounding water, it’s a time to appreciate home and family, an opportunity already provided by covid19, once those spaces and relationships are safe. 

It’s hard to predict the direction our ecology is going to take, it could be extended dry seasons, it could be a heavy wet season. There hasn’t yet been an observed trend between 1900 and 2014 in the Caribbean, but longer dry spells and hotter days are predicted. Hard to imagine on such a rainy day. 

Climate change is hard to connect to precisely because such changes are hard to imagine. Yet, the science is clear. 

The Guardian Observer reports that 19 of the 20 warmest years on record have been recorded since 2001. The Paris agreement set a target not to exceed 2C, with the ambition to remain below 1.5C. Temperatures have already risen above 1C. Levels of CO2, which contribute to warming of the atmosphere, are at the highest level for millions of years. 

Our neighbour, Guyana, which is set to extract more oil that we can imagine, is about to become one of the biggest contributors to the temperate rise in the southern part of the Americas. Wealth extraction at the bottom of the Caribbean chain will circle into wealth loss at the top, where Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and the Antilles lie. More severe hurricanes and sea-level rise are already realities. 

Last year’s State of the Caribbean Climate Report pointed to a long-term 80 per cent increase in storm strength and a potentially larger than 30 per cent increase in rainfall in the hurricane’s core by the end of the century. That feels far away, yet I find news reports on ice cracking apart hard to watch because that ice is unlikely to freeze again, and already we can see the difference on eastern and southern coasts of the country. 

Again, it’s hard for these connections to feel real or present on a regular, working Monday or at month-end when families may barely be making it to or past pay day. Except when heavier rains result in lost crops and higher food prices, the daily impact isn’t quite apparent. The changes are so expansive and yet feel remote; from the bleaching of coral reefs from warming sea temperatures or the food challenges for polar bears to the need for changed regional state policy and industrial practices as well as changed consumer demand. 

Of course, women, men, girls and boys will be differently affected by these changes, depending on their responsibilities to the family, the assets they can access, the decision-making power they have, and intersecting issues of age, class, gender expression, sexual orientation and disability. 

According to UN Women Watch (2011), women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of responsibility to secure water and food, unequal access to resources and to decision-making processes, and limited mobility. Fewer women than men may be able to swim. In some countries, staying with the elderly or sick puts women at greater risk. Women may also be likely to face sexual harassment, unwanted pregnancies and vulnerability to diseases from their increased vulnerability.

In Grenada, following Hurricane Ivan, Grenadian women had more restricted skills, higher rates of poverty and less mobility due to the burdens of care-giving. They, therefore, took a longer time to economically recover. For example, Kambon et al (2005) point out that, within the nutmeg industry, female farmers took a longer time to come back to their income stream than the men because of these realities.

By contrast, men are at higher risk because they are more likely to be involved in dangerous rescue efforts, to take fewer precautions with their health (and therefore contract, for example, leptospirosis), and to be injured as they protect their homes, boats, farmlands and livestock. Men with disabilities, poor men, unemployed men, gay men, and transgender people have higher vulnerability.

Climate changes may seem far away, but that gives us a chance to address these inequalities. Even now, these rainy-day conversations are necessary, from regional corporations to community charities.

Post 413.

I WAS DEEPLY saddened by the killing of 15-year-old Akid Duke and 17-year-old Christopher Cummings. These boys were still children. It made me think back to 17-year-old Denelson Smith and 16-year-old Mark Richards, whose murders in 2016 were described as a “slaughter of the innocents.” You may have missed the story of 14-year-old Michael Sooknanan, electrocuted and abandoned, until found on top of an electricity pole last month. 

All of these are tragedies, leaving grieving families.

There can be no single explanation for why people march for some dead and not others, some children and not others. Sometimes, it is a question of race, class and respectability politics. Sometimes, it is explained by the time of year, the breaking point a population has reached, or the circumstances of a killing. 

It’s been asked why the country protested the killing of women, but not the murders of men and boys. It’s a question without any single answer, but it’s not the right question. 

There is insufficient response to the deaths of men and boys, just as there always has been, and remains, insufficient response to the daily threat of sexual and physical violence in the lives of women and girls. 

There have also been vast resources spent on trying to curb men’s violence against men, gang violence, proliferation of guns, and crime. Far more than has ever been spent on ending violence against women. 

In this context, the question isn’t about why women’s deaths are getting more attention than men’s. The question is, why do men continue to be violent to women and other men? Not all men are violent, but there’s enough violence by men, including against each other, for us to ask the right questions.

Men’s murders of other men and boys, including in domestic-violence contexts, are only one side of male violence. The other sides of this triad are men’s violence against women and men’s violence against themselves. Such violence is not simply an emotional-intelligence or relationship-conflict issue. It can be to assert and prove public status and power, and gain inclusion and respect. As well, low levels of skills and literacy, family and community insecurity, limited legal livelihood options, and easy access to weapons and drugs create a risky environment for boys to grow. Schools, courts and prisons also have combined culpability.

Men and boys are not bad people. Patriarchy harms and dehumanises men even while it accords them privileges denied to women and girls. Patriarchal gender ideals that valorise violence and associate it with dominant and invulnerable masculinity are the deep root of this issue. It’s the reason why we bring up youth in a world where men call each other names such as monster, criminal, shotter, soldier and badman as signs of respect. It’s the shadowy culprit that should be the target of those concerned about the threat to our boys. 

It is true that women can also be violent and predators, but their harm to men and boys, measured in sexual abuse, rape and killings suggests far different prevalence, severity, form and impact. Not everyone is equally violent across sex, and there are good reasons for highlighting violence against women. There is a war against one sex by another, regardless of age, ethnicity or place of the victims. Indeed, women and girls become targets of men precisely because of their sex. This year’s gatherings against men’s violence against women were decades overdue. 

Our greater silence about male deaths is because we want killings to stop, but manhood to remain the same, even at the cost to boys’ lives. We practise the stoicism we have assigned to men. Our response to murders of our boys is also related to the fact that they are often, but not only, working class and Afro-Trinidadian, and those bodies are stereotypically associated with criminality and lesser humanity. Anti-blackness means that black bodies carry lower value, whether to their killers or to the public, regardless of whether they are innocent or children. 

My friend Colin Robinson cheekily said to give a boy a doll. He argued in his column that masculinity doesn’t protect boys from violence, and for “socialising boys from infancy to be nurturers and to welcome and manage loving feelings” (March 11, 2018). 

The senseless death of another boy should make sorrow boil over, again leading citizens to the streets. Not to protest attention to women, but to protest the taking of each life by cold-blooded ideals of manhood which we must let go.

Post 410.

IN THE hope that you reach out to support, I’m beginning to focus on violence prevention by organisations in our communities and nation. My mantra in this series, over the next weeks, is that we should first strengthen the work of those groups with long experience in gender-based violence prevention, amplifying the leadership and impact they have been making over these decades.

New groups have a real contribution to make, but also a lot to learn in terms of analyses and strategies. That’s okay too, movements are meant to be inclusive and evolving, bringing in new ideas, voices and leaders and connecting them with the expertise and knowledge generated by those speaking out and organising for a longer time.

We always have an opportunity to make a difference, and this series points you to some ways we can. If you recently attended a vigil or a march, walked with your placard, or called for solutions, you may now have a greater connection to your power to create change. Know that you can do more than cry out on social media, and there are organisations that can help turn frustration into ongoing action that heals, helps and provides hope.

So many groups are now providing charity, helping to secure housing or even providing tech-solutions for transportation. Nonetheless, the core work of ending violence against women and girls also always changes our beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood, addresses the vulnerabilities and traumas created by those beliefs, differently socialises girls and boys, and holds states accountable for socio-economic decisions that promote equality, meet family needs, and build paths to peace.

This week, I’m first highlighting the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, a network of women’s groups that has taught me so much since the mid-1990s. Over the years, I’d have an idea and asked Hazel Brown and others about it, only to find out it had been tried and there were already important lessons learned, that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel and could get excellent wisdom to guide my own approach. For those even wanting to chart a path for their own newly-formed group, the Network is a resource. Reach out for mentorship.

Currently, the Network is trying to estimate the economic cost of violence to women and girls, and to get help for a project that measures those costs. As convenor Jacquie Burgess says, “Measuring the costs of VAWG (violence against women and girls) enables policymakers to make data-driven decisions about resource allocations, test effectiveness of various strategies and provide a rationale for private sector involvement. It also strengthens the argument for ending VAWG because it is a violation of women’s human rights which we can show sets back society both socially and economically.” (Contact Jacquie Burgess at 678-7549.)

“Girl Power” is another Network project which was rolled out in one urban and two rural districts in Trinidad, targeting adolescents and young adults. This project provided a safe space where young women and girls could develop into citizens safe from sexual and physical violence, and the burden of unwanted pregnancies. Participants benefitted from sex and sexuality, and physical security modules which were incorporated into sports and physical activity along with a module on financial literacy and empowerment. Network plans to adapt that project to target girls ten years old over the next year, as a prevention measure. For this work in the area of violence against women and girls, your help is needed.

Women Working for Social Progress (Workingwomen), another stalwart women’s organisation established in the 1980s, with a focus on cross-race and cross-class solidarity, has a drop-in centre. Insufficient human and financial resources have left it unable to be fully operational for over two years. The centre once provided a space where families found solace and remedies for their problems in a community setting. The drop-in centre is located along the east-west corridor, which may better meet the needs of those for whom reaching Port of Spain is a challenge.

Workingwomen takes the kind of whole family approach in which so many believe, so while primary focus is on women and girls, their model also engages boys and men as allies. It also identifies where boys and men are hurting so healing can reduce harmful behaviours that perpetuate violence. Those of you interested in creating spaces for healing among men and boys may find a home with the non-judgmental approach of Workingwomen.

To maintain momentum, let’s put our desires for change where our energies can make a transformation.

Post 406.

What is our plan?

Given that “46,770 students at both primary and secondary level” have “never logged on to portals facilitating online learning,” according to the Ministry of Education, we have to ask ourselves what the impact will be in five years and ten years when primary schoolchildren reach adolescence, and those in secondary school become young adults.

School closures have impacted children’s access to food, mental health services and recreational activities. They have left children more vulnerable to witnessing or experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse. Some children will recover, but a portion will never catch up; most likely those unable to cope with our approach to schooling and whose examination results already show low school-leaving skills.

In its August 2020 publication on Latin America and the Caribbean, “Education in a time of COVID-19,” ECLAC reports that “even before the pandemic hit, the social situation in the region was deteriorating, owing to rising rates of poverty and extreme poverty, the persistence of inequalities and growing social discontent.” Youth unemployment was high, hovering around 20 per cent in the region, and already considered to be eroding Caribbean young people’s psychological well-being, with young women experiencing higher rates of unemployment than young men.

Last year, the ILO also noted a lack of decent work opportunities combined with fair wages, social inclusion, social protection and labour rights. Young people were entering a world of insecure and informal work. The ILO warned that resulting discouragement and frustration can be linked to protests.

Think of those that happened last year in Port of Spain in relation to police brutality, but which were also combined with feelings of exclusion, joblessness, idleness and anger. Think of the fact that men who commit crimes tend to start young, including in terms of handling weapons, and consistently have literacy challenges.

In this context, the most important issue for an emerging generation is an expected increase in major gaps in educational outcomes, including for migrant children and children with disabilities. Rural children will also experience greater exclusion, and this is a group with typically high rates of primary school dropout in Victoria County and secondary school dropout in the county of Caroni.

We can expect decreased literacy rates, examination passes and certification. We can anticipate increased risk of criminal behaviour as illegal and informal livelihoods become accessible options, and we should expect higher vulnerability to conflict and violence among this generation.

For some of those children, such education gaps translate directly into risk of joining gangs, substance abuse, and incarceration for young men. They mean greater risk to sexual violence, early pregnancy, HIV and prostitution for young women. This isn’t happening to those with family and financial security or with internet and computer access, it’s happening to those children who were already most at risk because of an existing gap.

We have long known the effects of poor educational access and inclusion for children across the region. From Belize to Jamaica to Guyana, peace-building programmes all provide basic literacy and certification, life skills and conflict management, and livelihood options that offer alternatives to the illegal economy or dire, intergenerational poverty.

Missing school is correlated with higher rates of school dropout, and reduced lifetime earnings. What is ahead of us is also an impact on the national economy and GDP, which can deepen a recession and exact a long-term cost in both productivity and social cohesion.

I’m suggesting we plan now for how we are going to engage in risk prevention, treating the digital divide as an educational issue, but also an issue of peace and equality. If the global data suggests what I’ve described is a likely scenario, we can plan for five and ten years ahead, not waiting for adolescent pregnancy or crime to rise.

There’s an educational crisis that’s immediate, because tens of thousands of children have not accessed months of schooling, and have no increased capacity to do so in the near future. There are obvious remedial efforts required, and extensive support to parents which can enable them to protect and educate their children as much as those with access and privilege. It will be expensive to roll out a strategy targeting these students and their families. It will be more expensive, selfish and short-sighted not to.

We can plan now, knowing that these risks are real, and must be addressed. We are looking in the eyes of a potentially lost generation and these children are looking back at us, hoping we will commit to a solution.

Post 405.

Now facing one of the driest economic seasons in 25 years, we need revenue generation, but also strategies to conserve both state finances and the sustainability of our communities. Covid19 led to quick decision-making, in relation to virtual courts, that could save $80 million. It also led to timely and merciful release of prisoners. We can choose the right strategies. As always, it is a question of political will.

Prison reform is one of those strategies, and there are decades of good recommendations to implement. Incarceration is costly to both governments and GDP, but it also costs families and communities of those who are never able to rehabilitate their lives, heal from childhood or family trauma that put them at risk of criminality in the first place, get drug treatment, safely escape the risks posed by gangs, or find legal decent employment.

As old slave colonies, Caribbean countries made early investments in prisons. Indeed, for enslaved and indentured workers, plantations were prisons. As a recent regional Caribbean report, “Survey of Individuals Deprived of their Liberty: Caribbean 2016-2019” (IDB 2020), outlines, it is therefore not surprising that, today, “six of the 15 countries with the highest incarceration rates worldwide are Caribbean islands.”

This includes The Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Suriname, and TT. Yet, incarceration has not made us safe. The Bahamas, Guyana, Jamaica, and TT “all have homicide rates more than three times the global average.”

Notoriously, our prisons also have high numbers (between 23 per cent and 50 per cent) of non-convicted people who may be first-time offenders or committed for non-violent or petty drug offences. If you have ever known anyone on remand, there are no social programmes, goods which must be bought at the prison are expensive for families, violent and non-violent offenders may be housed together, and court delays mock the right to justice on time.

In fact, prisons are hardly part of producing greater justice at all. The majority of those imprisoned are poor men with unemployment rates higher than the general population. They have been failed by unhealthy but dominant masculine ideals, by schools which they leave with lower rates of literacy and fewer livelihood skills, and by nations that accept class and race inequalities, and their harms, as the status quo. It is no coincidence that jails are full of poor people rotating in and out of hell.

Disturbingly, family problems – from domestic violence to a need to look for work during adolescence, abandonment or separation of families or being expelled from home – were key issues that prisoners had in common. As the IDB report emphasised, “Inmates who grew up in deprived settings – characterised by family violence, drug and alcohol abuse by parents or caregivers, incarceration of family members, early separation from their household, and criminal gangs in the neighbourhood – were more likely to commit a crime and showed higher levels of recidivism.”

It is so serious that “41 per cent of inmates surveyed in the six Caribbean countries were recidivists” and “40 per cent of prisoners that recidivated were imprisoned within a year of their release. In Guyana, Barbados, Suriname, and The Bahamas, roughly a quarter lost their freedom again in less than six months.”

This is a direct outcome of insufficient prison rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, pre- and post-release support, incentives for employers, and programmes that keep prisoners connected to families. Most incarcerated people have children, and children with incarcerated family are at higher risk themselves. In four countries, Barbados, Jamaica, The Bahamas, and TT, such cyclical incarceration began with juvenile detention. If we can protect adolescents from risk of criminality, and even adolescent ownership of firearms, and adopt non-carceral solutions, we can stop the cycle.

This requires investment in prevention in at-risk communities, which is also less costly and more humane than the social damage, and police suppression, of crime and violence. It also requires that we recognise how the violence and overcrowding among inmates create further conditions for violence, as men adopt hyper-masculine identities to survive, ally with gangs for protection and then are indebted upon release, and return to their families with anger, mental ill-health, and experiences of violation.

We must ask ourselves whether we value punishment, like the plantation whip, so much that we will continue an approach that increases incarceration and crime, or whether we will do whatever it takes to make our small societies safer, more just, more peaceful and more loving at this difficult time. Read the report. It’s clear what we ought to do.

Post 398.

In recently announced changes to the GATE programme, undergraduate degrees will remain subsidized to an extent determined by a means test. Post-graduate degrees have been substantially defunded for future students.  

Regarding reduction of tertiary education subsidies, and the increased availability of loans, the effects are well-documented in the US, which made this switch in the 1980s and has since witnessed skyrocketing student debt and family indebtedness; resilient labour market inequality by class, race and gender; and exacerbated economic slowdown.

In her prescient book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Melinda Cooper describes student debt as a “lucrative interest-bearing asset in global securities markets”. It works for both governments and banks. The first can still assert that tertiary education is accessible to all despite shifting from free access to university whether rich and poor. The second can profit from state policy to replace or supplement public funding with private deficit spending. 

As Cooper puts it, “Instead of the government going into deficit to spend on public services…the individual consumer would go into debt to purchase these same services”. Fiscal austerity and credit abundance are being presented hand in hand, and as the national economy continues to contract, this is a policy direction that we can anticipate. 

It will be interesting to see if tertiary education loans increase. One could argue that families are responsible for their children’s education, but one could just as well argue that decades of corruption and mismanagement have wasted billions of dollars that should have been available for investment in education as a public good and economic stimulus strategy (though, for us in the Caribbean, this is undermined by emigration and ‘brain drain’). 

Some families will be able to afford their children’s tertiary education, and even post-graduate degrees. Low- to middle-income students will likely hit a qualification barrier if they cannot afford (rising) tuition and other costs. In reality, most students cannot qualify for a loan on their own so that student debt becomes a familial and intergenerational obligation. 

Additionally, Cooper notes, “a student with no assets or savings is more likely to have to defer, refinance, or default on a loan, accumulating a much longer temporal burden of interest payments than the student who can pay on schedule”. Alternatively, for Trinidad and Tobago, where for decades women have graduated from university in higher numbers and yet on average earn lower incomes, loan repayments could be a higher portion of monthly wages, acting as a form of regressive taxation. 

Cooper describes this as a way that “private credit markets…perform democratic inclusion without disturbing the economic structures of private family wealth”. Simply put, in repaying loans, with interest, poor families will spend more on education than wealthier ones who have less need for additional funds and greater capacity to repay. 

The government analysis that led to the recent GATE reforms isn’t clear. Is the expectation that students will turn to vocational training, the labour market, or other options? This makes me wonder whether the government forecasted the effects of the recent GATE reform, and has a macro plan in relation to those effects.

That macro plan should differentiate the student population affected by class, age and gender. For example, at UWI, 63% of students are women, 37% are men. This means that GATE has been an irreplaceable source of public investment in women, who are the main sex seeking both undergraduate and post-graduate qualifications (except in Engineering), principally to improve their chances in the economy. 

The majority of UWI students are also 18-24 and young women in this age group have the highest rates of unemployment, possibly because they are deferring employment for education in order to improve their chances beyond low-waged retail, service and clerical jobs where women remain clustered. Since 2015, enrolment has been dropping in all faculties except for Law, and Science and Technology, suggesting the economic downturn has already been making an impact. So, it’s a perfect storm out there for students – increased unemployment and decreased access to higher education. What choices do we expect them to make? 

This is an example of how austerity measures have feminized impacts, and so too may be education-related increases in private debt. At the same time, public debt financed vanity projects, such as the port in Toco, and other construction stimulus plans, will disproportionately benefit men as they comprise 80% of that sector. I’ve been calling for gender responsive budgeting, which makes visible such inequitable costs and benefits of gender-blind fiscal policy, for precisely this reason.

Post 396.

I’ve struggled with what to express other than haunting sadness at the killing of Tenil Cupid, and my condolences to her family and her children. I’ve wanted to write a column printed with blank space, where words would otherwise fill the page, to compel a pause, a moment of quiet, when we all still our steps, as we do for the national anthem, to remember that she was just 23 years old. We are a nation where young women are not safe, where they cannot love and choose to leave, and where men’s lethal violence produces generational trauma, pulling both boys and girls into its cycle.

I’ve struggled because statistics predict such pain and loss. All the recent studies of violence prevalence in the Caribbean, from Guyana to Jamaica to Grenada to TT, point to established risk factors in young Tenil Cupid’s life.

First, entering intimate relationships before 18 years old, particularly with much older male partners (who are legally sexual predators committing the crime of rape and child sexual abuse).

Second, motherhood and, especially, adolescent motherhood, for example, beginning at 15 years old and continuing through teenage years with multiple births.

Third, limited education, as well as relatively low school achievement of male partners.

Fourth, insufficient income and economic dependency on partners with low income, particularly when children must be fed and schooled. Keep in mind that young women under 24 have higher rates of unemployment than young men, suggesting complex power relations which they must negotiate to be secure and survive.

Fifth, the decision to end a relationship and to escape a male partner’s controlling behaviours and dominance. These behaviours are an absolute key red flag for femicide, whether the triggers are substance abuse or a new relationship or financial crisis and conflict.

There are hundreds each year who enter young womanhood in these circumstances, and additional experiences of child abuse and neglect. These are girls raised without sufficient information and support to make healthier decisions, and in circumstances that increase their vulnerability to much of what Tenil Cupid lived.

In the women’s movement, we worry whether women are being killed at younger ages, at the increase in such killing and at the state’s inadequate response in terms of having social welfare workers go to vulnerable homes in communities as they used to; appropriate psychosocial intervention for children at an age when it can still make a difference; and a serious national campaign against male predation as an accepted social norm.

As the Coalition Against Domestic Violence cautioned, after the murder of 29-year-old Reshma Kanchan, “we cannot run away from the intersecting relationship of domestic murders with gender inequality and harmful masculinities.”

That this intersection affects women everywhere was poignantly shown in Womantra’s Silent Silhouettes short documentary where murdered women and their children were shown in everyday places, their absence marked by the dark space and shape left by their missing bodies.

Conceptualised around 2006, by the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, to encourage us to emotionally connect to lost lives such as Tenil Cupid’s, these silhouettes also represent Jezelle Phillip Fournillier, Gabriella Dubarry, Naiee Singh, Trisha Ramsaran-Ramdass, Adanna Dick, Vera Golabie, Sherian Huggins, Joanna Diaz Sanchez, and Reshma Kanhan; all murdered by (mostly former) partners this year.

To better understand femicide prevention, the coalition has called for “comprehensive and multidisciplinary investigation into domestic murders” to assess the circumstances of both victim and perpetrator, whether a history of abuse was known to family and community, whether actions were taken to protect the victim, and whether any services were sought from state institutions. It also continues to recommend “school and out of school-based interventions, gender sensitive parenting programmes, and programmes engaging men including perpetrator/batterer interventions.”

The GBV Unit has responded, citing 220 arrests and 290 charges since January. However, convictions are beyond the unit’s ambit, and in TT are notoriously low, signalling how the judicial system slowly but surely reproduces impunity.

As Conflict Women urged this week, the Government must make “prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for covid19,” and men and citizens must “speak out, report and act against violence against women and girls,” perhaps saving another woman and her children from becoming statistics.

Meanwhile, at the end of this sentence, please stay with me for a moment of stillness, silence and sadness, for loss of words, for Tenil Cupid, just 23 years old, and taken too soon.

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 383.

The school term finally ended, one like no other in our living memory. The experience our children had will connect them as a generation for the rest of their lives.

Ziya’s school taught classes every day, covering some math, English, Spanish, social studies, music and PE. The children learned a lot, both about distance and connectivity.

As a working mother, I was grateful. It’s challenging to work and parent simultaneously, and school provided a few well-organised hours of focus. I’d listen with one ear while the teacher chided the class for not knowing all the words to the anthem, reminded them not to eat at the computer, repeated the importance of learning to listen, and tried to instill all kinds of manners. With their voice present daily inside my home, I grew grateful for how much teachers contribute, freshly appreciating their daily commitment to filling gaps in our parenting. Teachers, like nurses, should be better paid than CEOs.

Meanwhile, soon after knocking water over her laptop and frying its electronics, Zi became computer-proficient. She could type, upload her assignments and check her own e-mail. Suddenly, she understood e-mail. I loved seeing her upskill even as I noted our own entanglement in the expanding digital divide.

There’s no doubt about it, computer and internet access are a privilege, and will deepen systemic class distinctions in exam results and school places. They will exacerbate unequal opportunity for children globally, which is why access to the internet is increasingly considered a human right. Our children are in a world so different from our own childhood.

One evening, when she was resisting a rule I had insisted on, Zi even threatened to put me out of the “Zoom meeting.” It was like a newspaper headline marking a historical moment. We were lying on her bed, not actually in a Zoom meeting, and I could only shake my head at post-covid19 lingo for punishment for giving trouble. Imagining the new vocabulary that will define school chatter and news-carrying in September makes me smile.

Zi loved dressing up in clothes she chose, attending class in shorts, eating breakfast leisurely, having lunches together, and being near to us all day. She missed her friends and wandering the hall in her school terribly, but when term opens, it will be clear that there was much we gained during this time.

Prior to schools closing, she was racing from school to extracurricular activities to her grandmother’s or her dad’s, and then home. It seemed we were always arriving back late from my work hours and hustling to bed, or getting home and spending the evening doing homework. The whole week felt like a rush. It was a joy and labour of love, but pace.

Being freed of traffic, experiencing school without stressful demands and the anxiety of tests, inventing ways to occupy herself on evenings, and simply staying in one place seemed to enable her to mature and mend. We cooked, gardened, took walks, and it genuinely felt like she exhaled. She just needed to come off the treadmill and its breakneck haste.

I began to think about the costs of our emphasis on achievement. Seeing her now, more loving, independent, settled and calm, I know her heart would not have grown as much at the speed she was functioning, with the rotation of activities she was doing, or with even the number of people she was interacting with on a weekly basis.

You have to know your child. Some need greater stillness and quiet, time between transitions from one place to the next, less pressure and fewer personalities, and the room they are given becomes filled with emotional growth.

I wonder how many children are like her, keeping up and even thriving, but with inner needs that our world undervalues or speeds past. I think about the children whose aggression would subside, whose silences would break open, and whose capacity to navigate difficult feelings would improve if they had to manage a little less for enough time, could fit into themselves, and, without fear of failure, slow down and breathe.

I’m in awe at how little I understood this, perhaps because there seemed simply no chance to stop until everything ground to a halt. I’m alarmed by the fact that I would have pressed her through, which at the same time would have held her back. What she lost in schoolwork, she found in her heart. After a term like no other, it’s the lesson I’ll remember.