With the Black Lives Matter movement continuing to draw international attention, a group of our citizens staged their own protest opposite the United States Embassy last Monday, drawing a small but enthusiastic gathering. Along with this event, there has been a surge in conversations regarding race and race relations in our country. However, as we’ve seen on social media, not all opinions have been well-received, resulting in some awkward apologies and denials of espousing racism. Of course, in Trinidad and Tobago, we often accuse people of being racist, especially if they belong to the upper crust of society. That being said, it is encouraging to see citizens being socially conscious and taking a stand. But what is that stand really about?
The issue of race is a nuanced and complex topic for our country. Most of us are here because our ancestors came from somewhere else, either by force or willingly. More importantly, the vast majority of the population are people of colour. As such we have to be mindful about adopting the BLM cause; what it means in the US doesn’t necessarily or entirely apply to T&T. As I wrote in my previous column, BLM seeks to draw attention to the institutionalised racism that affects African-Americans, specifically with respects to law enforcement and the judicial system. Granted, there are similarities in that Afro-Trinbagonians are murdered and incarcerated at higher rates than other ethnic groups. But while people of African descent are a minority in the US, here they count for about half the population. Furthermore, since our independence, the Afro-centric People’s National Movement has had the longest stint in government, and our security apparatus is predominantly staffed by Afro-Trinbagonians. Therefore, our society can hardly be described as purposely oppressing Afro-Trinidadians. That’s unless you’re willing to argue that Afro-Trinbagonians oppress their own people.
Of course, that’s not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist; but, again, there’s a complexity to it. Yes, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with race and skin colour, but your socio-economic status, last name, and even social circle also contribute to whether you get ahead or are left behind. Allow me to share a personal experience as an example. My father is Arab-Trinidadian and my mother is Indian-Trinidadian; so while I do “blend in” owing to my dark complexion, my surname does open doors of opportunity. Here’s what happened. About 20 years ago I went to a popular nightclub in Chaguaramas; my first (and only!) time going there. I was charged $100 while everyone else in my “fair” group paid $45. It was only after my peers spoke up for me, and I presented my driver’s permit, showing that I was a “Hadeed”, that my entrance fee was reduced. Now, as a private business, they could charge patrons whatever they wanted. Fine. But the racial criteria the owners/operators “Base’d” that on was detestable. Unfortunately, this practice was commonplace in the nightclub scene back then. What made it even worse was that we (as young people) accepted that system. White, black, Indian, Chinese, Syrian —we all willingly lined up to spend our money knowing full well what was going on. And therein lies the problem.
As the before-mentioned example shows, we know the inequities that exist. But the contradiction is that we either tacitly support them, ignore them, or are misguided when it comes to addressing them. So when local protesters support “black lives matter”, I want to know what “black lives” they are talking about. Since black youth from communities along the East-West corridor are responsible for our high crime and murder rates, the citizenry is unsympathetic towards them. We even openly express the hope that they kill themselves off instead of innocent citizens. If black lives really did matter to our society, then we wouldn’t need what’s going on in the US to motivate us to take a stand. And, instead of protesting in front of their embassy, we would be protesting in front of our Parliament, demanding that the government take action to correct the social, economic, and educational deficiencies that exist in these “hot spot” communities.
Instead, we use the accusation of racism as a weapon or tool; frequently and casually wielding it to denigrate each other and as an excuse for our societal shortcomings. Again, I’m not suggesting that racism and prejudice don’t exist here. But the real question is whether we’ve exacerbated it into more of a problem than it really is. While locals are touting “black lives matter”, Afro-Trinidadians continue to kill each other in troubled communities. And calling for boycotts of certain “one-percenter” businesses isn’t going to arrest that from happening. Likewise, removing statues of Columbus or renaming our colonial-era landmarks isn’t going to erase our racial animosity. This isn’t about arguing between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”, it’s about identifying and doing “WHAT MATTERS” to help those citizens who are at-risk or have fallen behind. I imagine that such an opinion might upset some readers, and considering my surname, I might even be accused of being a racist. Believe me, it wouldn’t be the first time. And until we have an open and honest conversation about race in Trinidad and Tobago, it won’t be the last time either.