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.