Defining Race and Racism – Part One, Black & White

Very often I find that miscommunication is a huge problem in our society, and often serves to reinforce or continue stereoptpyes or disagreements within our social and political discourse. One of the more common ones in our discourse at least are connected to that constant of Bermuda, race.

There is so much to discuss on this issue, with the need to work out common definitions in order to really progress with any real constructive dialogue, otherwise we are likely to continue misunderstanding and building afresh new defensive walls. It is quite likely that race will continue to be the mainstay of our discourse for the immediate future, with which all other discourse, be it class, colonialism, environmentalism, feminism or other will be framed.

It was W. E. Du Bois that wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” It is unfortunate but true that in this, the early years of the twenty-first century, the clour-line continues to haunt us.

My objective here is to provide my understanding of some of the common terms used in our discourse on race, with the hope of both establishing some common definitions to place discourse on a better foundation, and to help in a small way to help exorcise this clour line problem from our present.

I should state right now that to me the individual ‘rolling back’ of one particular form of hierrachy – of which race is one (gender and sex, ethnicity, religion, class and such are others) – in and of itself, while progressive, cannot be regarded as a ‘final victory’ unless all forms of hierrachy are rolled back. Hydra like, hierrachy can constantly rejuvenate itself, and as long as one form of hierrachy exists, it provides the germ for the reconstruction of older forms of hierrachy.

Of course, this is a highly complex subject, and its hard to really work out where to begin. So I”m just going to wing it and jump right in.

Black and White

In general it is my understanding of these terms that Black is any one with even a single African ancestor, but this can – and has – been expanded to include any non-European ancestor. In Bermuda the discourse is largely one of African and European ancestry, but in other areas races such as Indian, Asian, First Nation/Native American, could also be covered under this term of ‘Black.’ In Bermuda we have a really huge skin colour gradient, indicative of high levels of miscegenation in our past.

There is no legitimate scientific theory of race, race is in fact a social construct rather than a biological one. In general in Bermuda people of darker skin and with some or all ‘typical’ African features are regarded as ‘Black’ but there are many people who I at first glance percieve to be ‘White’ who actually self-identify as ‘Black’ and cite African ancestry. Rarely, in fact I think only once, have I came across an individual who I percieved to be ‘Black’ who self-identified as ‘White.’ He had one ‘Black’ parent, but self-identified as ‘White.’ In general however it seems that even one ancestor of ‘Black’ is enough to render one Black, even if the majority of ones ancestry is White.

This is not entirely true of course, as I’m sure there are many Old White Bermudian families who, if we were to analyse their genetic history, we would find some ‘Black’ ancestry.

I myself self-identify as White. My ancestry is mostly Scottish with some English, Irish and Flemish. Despite this I am often mistaken as Black, a fact that I find of constant amusement when it occurs. I have often explored why these people have made this conclusion, and I have found it quite illuminating into the Bermudian social construction of race. First, I should explain that I have rather pale pink skin, I don’t tan very well, but I do burn spectacularly quick. I do have very curly black hair, and apparently a rather semitic lookin nose and thick lips.

I have found that those identifying me as Black cite a combination of my physical features, in particular my very curly black hair and my lips in connection with the context that they have met me. These incidents have always occurred in contexts that in Bermuda have come to be identified primarily with being ‘Black.’ People meeting me at Progressive Labour Party meetings, rallies, or when out canvassing for the Party, or otherwise wearing PLP paraphenalia (shirts, hats, pin) have percieved me as Black. People meeting me at football games or at ‘Black’ pubs, such as Social Club, Leopards Club, Captians, have percieved me as Black. When out with a predominantly Black group, I am percieved to be Black. When I have dated Blacks, I have been percieved as Black.

I should stress here that it is both Blacks and Whites that have made this perception, and I have not noticed any real difference between the races in this area. It is true that in at Party meetings and rallies, or in ‘Black’ pubs, the majority of people mistaking me as Black are largely Black themselves. Whites seem to make this judgement only when I am wearing Party paraphenalia, or out canvassing for the PLP, or on the rare occassion that they meet me in a ‘Black’ pub or at Party rallies.

Outside of a ‘Black’ context, I am percieved as White by both Blacks and Whites. In Flanagans I am White. In Social Club I am apparently Black. At Sunday brunch I am White. At a fish fry or codfish breakfast I am apparently Black.

Interestingly the vast majority of tourists that I interact with have apparently percieved me as mixed. I assume that this stems largely from their perception of Bermuda as a whole being ‘Black’ relative to their home, and are ready to percive me within this context, taking apparent confirmation from my wooly hair and thick lips. I have even had a hair-dresser, recently arrived from England, apologise while cutting my hair that she had never cut Black peoples hair, but she would do her best.

While I lived overseas, studying in Canada I also had some interesting racial experiences. For three out of my four years living there I shared a house with a guy from Sierra Leone and a guy from Tanzania, who remain very close friends to this date (indeed, my Tanzanian friend, a Christian Socialist, introduced me to the writings of Julius Nyerere, who was my third ever exposure to socialist theory after Orwell and a handful of works by Marx). Our mostly White neighbours regarded me as Black apparently due to my living with two Africans, especially as they knew I was Bermudian. While some Canadians did express there suprise that I was both Bermudian and White, most assumed I was mixed almost exclusively on the basis of my nationality. On a related note, those who met me in the context of radical politics almost exclusively assumed I was Jewish. Also, for some reason that I have yet to fully understand, in Quebec I am universally percieved to be Jewish.

So, it seems to me that whether one is percieved to be Black or White, in Bermuda at least, is a combination of physical characteristics and social context.

A dark skinned person, even with very European features, is universally considered Black.

A fair skinned blonde person, even with otherwise African features, is universally considered White.

But those individuals that do not fit clearly within either of the ‘White’ or ‘Black’ categories, that is a person with enough apparently mixed features, is racially categorised on the basis of social context. In my personal experience this has been largely based on my political affiliation, as well as particpating in ‘Black’ recreation, such as Black pubs and football. Otherwise it has been based on ‘by association’ such as when out with a predominantly Black group of friends.

Culturally, or perhaps ‘socialisation-wise,’ I fit in better in the White Bermuda. My interests, that is taste in food, restuarants, recreation (TV shows I like, books and magazines I read) and general conversation tends to fit in more with ‘White Bermuda.’ That is largely a fact of my upbringing in what I percieve to be White expatriate Bermuda – my parents were Scottish expatriates, and our closest family friends were almost exclusively other British expatriates. I went to a historically ‘White’ school, Saltus. Sunday Brunch was part of my upbringing. I was born into the Chruch of Scotland, a Presbyterian denomination, that is predominantly White in composition (interestingly, my subsequent atheism seems to be shared by a demographically representative section of the community, but in my experience Whites are more secular – there doesn’t seem to be a similar secular Christian grouping amongst Blacks).

Politically though, and especially since my joining the PLP in 1998, I have been outside the mainstream of White Bermudian thought. Honestly, I appear to have lost many of the White friends I had, and the majority of my friends today, outside of close family friends and co-workers who instead give me heated discussions, tend to be Black. I am not sure whether this is because my White friends have chosen to disassociate with my, or whether our general political divergences has made our potential for friendship too difficult to maintain. I don’t know.

This situation does give me some interesting insights though. I can enter a predominantly White social setting, and, even when people are present who know of my politics, can partake in political discussions that I don’t think a Black Bermudian would be able to have with them. There is a sort of ‘group identity’ social thing there. Normally I take these situations as information gathering oppurtunities. Not so much to gather any particulat information, but rather to get an insight into the thoughts of White Bermuda, its fears and its hopes.

I realise that this post has become largely biographical. I don’t think that can be helped. These are my experiences, and those are my thoughts based on them.

In summary, it appears that outside of clear cut racial categories, ones race is percieved on the cues of some ambigous racial features combined with the social context within which one is found at any particular moment in time.

What does anyone else think?

What is Black? What is White?

How do you determine who is Black and who is White?

And yes, I personally identify more with being some sort of Bermudian creole, and advocate the creolisation of the race discourse, but I cannot avoid the very real fact that in Bermuda the discourse is still that of Black and White, and that I consider myself White, and that in certain contexts I’m considered Black.

Anyway, I’m really interested in disussion on this.


7 thoughts on “Defining Race and Racism – Part One, Black & White

  1. My interaction of race and racism in Bermuda has been quite an interesting experience over the course of my life.

    As you know Jonny, and as anyone who reads my blog knows, I identify as American Indian, that is my mother’s family is Indian, it is the side I know most well, the side I feel most connected with, I’m enrolled in our tribe and our reservation is also my “home away from home”. However, I am not a pure-blooded Indian (almost no one is), in deed I have significant portions of Irish, French and English in me, which come from my father’s side of the family as he is a white Bermudian. My grandfather always used to tell me that being an Indian is not in one’s blood or skin, but in someone’s mind and heart, and I have taken that view onto myself.

    So I like I said, I do not identify as white, never have, which has lead to an interesting relationship with my father. When I am with his family, with the exception of a few members of it, I feel out of place, like I do not belong, and my mother and younger brother feel the same way most of the time. His family is Anglican and Presbyterian (though he himself does not practice), but I was never raised in them, I am an atheist, though I do feel some closeness to the traditional beliefs of my tribe, and this only creates a further wedge between myself and that part of me.

    As to my physical features, I am ‘brown’ in terms of my skin colour (in the summer I become quite reddish-brown) and I share a number of other physical features that are atypical of the general Bermudian populace, but are typical of an Indian, such as my high cheak bones and the shape of my nose. Though my hair colour is a bit of a hodge-podge. I was born with very Indianesque jet-black straight hair, however as a child my hair became quite blonde and now it is a very dark brown with bit of red in it (from the Irish), but I have recently taken to dying it black because I do not like the brown-red colour of it. I also have facial hair, which is atypical of full-blooded Indians, but has become more common as most Indians now have ‘black’ or ‘white’ in them.

    As a result, I have been called may things during my life in Bermuda. I have never been called ‘white’, but I have been called Portuguese, Mexican (not surprising as many Mexicans and Chicanos/Mexicanos are at least part Indian), and others. I, as far as I know, have never been considered to be of mixed black-white, probably because though I am darker than a number of mixed black-white people I know, my hair is not curly, nor is it black (naturally), nor do I share most other features that are considered ‘black’.

    Like I said though, this has lead to a number of interesting discourses in my life. One of the more common expierneces I have come across is people being confused as to my ethnic identity (likely because there are not many self-identified Indians in Bermuda, so many have never met one), and when I clear this up it leads to different things depending who I am interacting with. Often when I interact with whites it’s an “oh, that’s interesting” type of response, and when I interact with blacks it’s also an “oh, that’s interesting” response, but they have different connotations. I find with whites it doesn’t do much, sometimes they start to act a little more nervous (especially if they’re American or Canadian), but with blacks I have often found that it seems to establish some sort of common ground between us, probably based on our shared status as a oppressed peoples. As a result, I have often found I am better able to interact with ‘blacks’ in Bermuda than ‘whites’, though this is in no a universal. I have come across an opinion in Bermuda, quite rare, that if you are not ‘black’ you are ‘white’ regardless of what you are. This I think has begun to disappear as Bermuda has more and more people of South Asian, South East Asian and East Descent living here, resulting.

    For me it doesn’t come down so much to social situation, I tend to get stared out most places I go by most people. In my current line of work I work almost exclusively with Afro-Bermudians, and ad at first I was regularly called Portuguese or Mexican, though this began to change as the other guys at work got to know me better and better.

    I agree with your idea of advocating a creolisation of the race discourse. Race is the giant, mutant elephant in the corner in Bermudian politics, but it is not an insurmountable issue, we can get past it, and get past racism, but there are many things that have to be done first.

  2. I have a simple test for black and white,

    Close your eyes and pretend it’s April 29th 1992 and you are at the intersection of Florence and South Normandie Avenues.

    If you are getting beat then you aren’t seen as black.

    And I’d be willing to bet that both of you would have gotten beaten.

  3. Of course that leads directly into the point I made about mentioning the mind set of someone being either black or white, which is problematic for multiple reasons.

  4. sorry for the two part post, I accidently hit submit comment before I was finished.

    Like I said, I’m neither black nor white, I guess I would be red to use an anarchronistic label. So to use a model like this would be to put anyone not black, but also not white, be they brown, red, yellow, or whatever into the category of white. This is a simple “your like us, or like them” model with only the simplist option of two.

    Of course I would not expect to be percieved as black, but I also think that anyone who percieves me as white should have their eyes checked because I am also clearly not a “white” person.

  5. Felix,

    LOL. I have no doubt that in that instance you would be quite right! However the classification of Black and White in America I feel stems from different premises than here. I have found that in the States ones skin colour is the predominant factor in determining whether or not one is ‘Black’ or ‘White.’ In Bermuda ones lifestyle often seems to be the key. As noted, this is only for those who have more or less ambigous features.

    I’m sure there are a lot of people here in Bermuda who here are considered (and consider themselves to be) Black who in the States would not be considered ‘Black.’

  6. Such an interesting & good read! In the past year or so, I have become so sick of all this talk about colour. I think the elections is what did it for me. Why define? Why not embrace the person for who he/she is? Why not go one layer deeper, instead of focusing and grouping someone based on their pigmentation. Why the assumptions? When are we going to get there? Are we ever going to get there? A day when we’re all beige? When all this talk of colour is going to be moot. The day cannot come soon enough…

  7. Um, hi Fidel. I totally got your name wrong. I was in a rush and called you ‘Felix’ by mistake – I was actually writing a separate letter at the time to a Felix and got the names confused. I’m sorry.

    Hi Ms. Cute Pants,

    Welcome to the site, I enjoy reading your blog by the way.

    I think the vast majority of Bdians would agree with you about the need to obtain a colour-blind society, but the pathway there is one up for discussion.

    I personally believe that race continues to be the dominant paradigm of Bdian discourse, although I think that class is increasingly coming to the fore. I am also of the opinion that it is important to discuss the race issue and not hide away from it, what I consider akin to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. Alot of Bdians personally feel this technique to be uncomfortable, something they generally describe as ‘divisive.’ I don’t think talking about reality is divisive, but I do acknowledge the potential for it to be uncomfortable and it is important that a disctinction is made.

    Alot of people, most of them who consider talking about racial realities as divisive took umbrage with the Big Conversation statements about the need to be uncomfortable. They were largeyl taken out of context and misrepresented for political ends, at least from my perspective.

    In its original context it referred to the fact that many people are either unconscious or choose to suppress their feelings regarding race in Bermuda, but in order to overcome the racial problem one of the first steps would have to be becoming conscious about ones own feelings and the general tendencies within our society; and that this initial process would more than likely cause some discomfort, but it would be akin to the discomfort one feels about clearing a wound or removing a dressing in order to redress a wound.

    Painful at times, yes, but necessary in order to both prevent infection and cure a long festering wound on the body politic of Bermuda.

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