Symonette Refuses To Deal With Race Issue
It concerns me that a leader who is white and Bahamian could express wonder at why race is still an issue in today's Bahamas.
As a Greek Bahamian who grew up in Nassau, my life has been deeply and profoundly influenced by African Bahamian culture. For me, I have come to understand, this has been a privilege which afforded me lessons, insights and ways of seeing and being I could not have learned anywhere else; certainly not in America, where the majority anglo populations again and again turn away from the possibility of creating something new out of real engagement with communities of colour; the possibilities for transformation that the perspectives of non-white cultures might offer.
It is with a recurring sadness then, that I have read the letters of Dr. Russell, of Professor Moss, of Mr. George Capron, all of whom have spoken from their hearts and minds regarding the reality of racism in our country. I say 'recurring sadness' because this is an old discussion, one 'we' (white and black and everyone in between) haven't really had. A conversation that white Bahamians by and large, either want to dismiss, with common phrases such as “I don't think about race,' “race doesn't come into it,' or “we're over that', or, become defensive and speak of “reverse racism', that “the tables have turned' and white people are now the victims of Black oppression. (This particular accusation is founded upon the lack of knowledge of what 'racism' really means… but more about that in paragraphs to come.)
I recently reread these letters, remembering that if I want and need this conversation to happen, I have to enter it, and speak. Eventually, I found my way back to the interview Christian Campbell recorded with Mr. Brent Symonette in The Weekender, May 27-29, 2005. I needed to see first hand the statements being responded to by Dr. Russell and others. I needed to see for myself what kind of leadership I could expect from Mr. Symonette.
What I read in that interview was shocking at first, but, I had to admit, disturbingly representative of a vast number of white Bahamians, especially of middle and upper classes. It could take pages to unpack all that was said there, (not said there) and perhaps one day it will, but for now, let me say that it concerns me terribly that in 2005 (2006) the consciousness of white leadership around issues of race and culture remains grossly stunted, without vision, without the twin forces of emotional integrity and intellectual honesty. And perhaps it is possible to run a small business without any of these qualities, (in a capitalist's nirvana – where human spirit and human life are not part of the equation,) but a country is not a small business, it is communities of human beings who are struggling to make it; communities of human beings struggling to know how to live together in a small place; communities of human beings, the majority of whom are struggling to keep soul intact when body is hard-pressed to make a living, hard-pressed to love herself, himself, in a global environment that does not value the lives of Caribbean people, of Black people, of Indigenous people anywhere.
It concerns me that a leader who is white and Bahamian could express wonder at why race is still an issue in today's Bahamas. That somehow “to come to grips with our history' means to accept it and move on. I think what white Bahamians really mean when we say this is “Black people should accept what happened and move on…' What we are really saying is “I don't want to have to think about how I as a white person have developed an identity in an age of racism; I don't want to have to think about how four hundred years of European enslavement of Africans affected who I am today.'
We don't want to have to think about white privilege and how it most certainly does affect how we live in the world, perceive ourselves, how others perceive us, our presumed power. We don't want to have to think about the legacy of whiteness, regardless of whether our foreparents were slave holders or not; how whiteness developed as a system of standards and values and ways of desiring in the world – a system that thrives still and assimilates into it anyone who is standing too close to a television set, (or just standing…) with ears to hear and hope for sale.
But Mr. Symonette doesn't want to reflect on what the differences might be between Blacks and whites in this country. “You're a Bahamian, I'm a Bahamian, end of subject,' he tells Campbell. Further on he does not acknowledge that segregation may exist along racial lines, asking Campbell: “Are we making this an issue when it isn't?'
It is too easy to use the word 'Bahamian' to excuse ourselves from having to talk about the differences between us, too easy to accuse others of seeing something 'not really there', so that anyone who brings up race is deemed fanatical, somehow, suspicious, as though they are seeing ghosts. (And, perhaps they are.)
It concerns me that a leader who is white and Bahamian can continue to perpetuate the confused notion that (alleged) discrimination of a white person by a Black person is “racism in reverse'. What is not discussed in these overly simplified debates is that racism is about power within a well defined (local and global) system of relationships; it is not simply a dislike of a person because of their skin colour. This system of relationships forms a structure, one that systematically imposes the values, standards, ways of being, ways of seeing, ways of doing and speaking of one race upon another race of people. Because structure, like the walls and supporting beams of a house, is so omni-present, it is difficult sometimes to notice it at all, (especially when we don't have to notice it, when we are comfortable inside that house, when we profit from the structures being exactly where they are).
We may think that what is racism are the accessories in the house – a history book that tells a one-sided story, lying on a coffee table. So we get rid of everything antiquated, (perhaps), throw out the books, (perhaps), take down pictures of the Queen, perhaps. But the overall structure is still there, and in this age, it is a white structure, (think about educational curricula, think about the legal system, Judeo Christian church hierarchies, the English language itself) and it carries on what it set out to do: perpetuate white values, standards, ways of being and seeing, ways of doing and speaking – to the exclusion (suppression, condemnation, ghettoization) of any other structures, i.e. ways of thinking, seeing, being that belong to other cultures, in our case, African.
Within the context of the Bahamas, which is not separate from the larger economic and political realities of the world, a Black person might be 'prejudiced', may call into question a white person's trustworthiness, but I would hesitate greatly before using the term 'racist', since I think white people globally and locally still maintain economic power, and since the social structures most of us live within here are largely defined by white (European and American) cultural value systems.
Dr. Russell made a vital point in his explanation of “ontological whiteness' (November 29, 2005) as a perspective that not only imposes its values upon others, but also “insists upon the masses having a sustained collective amnesia about history, so that its grotesque face and diabolical actions can be washed away in a river of forgetfulness'.
I agree that the key to colonialism's success, to whiteness perpetuating itself, is a cultivated amnesia: rob people of their memories and they have no where to go, nothing to go back to. (All the better to seduce you, control you, create you in the image of the colonizer, my dear.) What is not always recognized is the way in which those perpetuating oppression must also teach themselves to forget, to not know, so that they can continue to justify who they are and the structures that they are committed to, in spite of the suffering these same structures have and continue to cause in the lives of others.
What I found most disturbing in this interview, which I think is also reflective of the wider white Bahamian community, is precisely this cultivated forgetting; an overwhelming sense of denial expressed by Mr. Symonette so absolutely, so completely in almost every sentence. He denies thinking about race as an issue; he denies thinking about the possibility of his African ancestry; he denies thinking about why his class or wealth should be a matter of discussion; he denies that the legacy of 400 years of white colonialism (and in particular his ancestral lineage) has had any influence on the way he sees the world today. But perhaps most striking to me, and perhaps most frightening, was his admission that African Bahamian history and culture have nothing to do with him, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. And here, I must again quote what Mr. Symonette himself purportedly said when asked by Campbell why it is that white Bahamians “find it difficult to celebrate African-rooted culture'?
Mr. Symonette responded; “My heritage is France, hence the name “Symonette.' France to England and possibly to Bermuda and then here. When Alfred Sears stood up and talked about Clifton, he painted this very emotional picture of the black slave captured in Africa (sic) and landing into freedom in The Bahamas. I didn't come that route. (Italics mine). So my cultural history isn't based in the navel string of Mother Africa, so how can you ask me to celebrate that heritage?'
After reading this sentence, I felt winded, the breath knocked from me. I had read a portion of it in Dr. Russell's letter, but reading the entire conversation trounced me. “I didn't come that route', said Mr. Symonette. As if African slavery and the arrival of white colonialists were not connected; as if the two histories are not integrally, irreversibly intertwined and still to this day rub up against each other and hurt when rain is coming, when hurricanes start brewing, when it is just another ordinary day in a small place and we don't know how to look each other in the eye and tell the truth.
I cannot identify with Mr. Symonette's feeling. I am only the granddaughter of immigrants, still arriving in so many ways, and yet, my own experience has rooted me in an African and Greek cultural reality which I could not shake if I wanted to. I do feel that the history of my sisters and brothers of African descent in this place is now a part of my history, and that my Greek history must also be a part of theirs. I not only want to celebrate “that heritage', I want to love the people connected to it, people I consider to be my people. I am no longer one, here in this new world. I am more than one.
Know also that I have grown up in this body, in this white skin, and am conscious of what racism feels like, looks like, the power it has to keep me from wanting to tell the truth. I am conscious of what white privilege feels like, how it can separate me from Black people, because it is supposed to; how if I don't see it for what it is, I too could be duped into believing that whiteness and all that comes with it is the way; see everything and everybody not white through that white light that distorts faces, cultures, histories, makes them all seem less than 'mine'.
The story Mr. Symonette is telling covers up a deeper one, one that is harder to hear and to tell. White people aren't used to being that uncomfortable. Not used to having our identities shake along with the structures we were born into or bought into, one way or another. And the truth is, in the Bahamas, we haven't had to challenge ourselves much. Majority rule is one thing, having economic power is another. The ground under our feet didn't shake, much. Most of the same old buildings are still standing. We're still right here, aren't we?
And yet, there is hope; there is hope in the nature of stories: stories want to be told. Stories refuse to be kept down or hidden. They find ways to rise up to the surface of things. And when they do, they can't help but change everything. True true stories are rebels. They have the power to liberate people. From our own lies. Even when we are afraid. True true stories grab us up and pull us trembling to places we never thought we would go. True true stories are the voices at the back of our head, dangerous, persistent, inconvenient, shocking. It is the courageous man who listens to the true true stories, and upon hearing them, speaks.
By: Helen Klonaris
New College of California
San Francisco, CA
Read the rebuttal to this thesis from the Nassau Institute