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Racism and Colonialism in the Bahamas



Helen Klonaris, a white Bahamian, recently published a letter on the issue of racism and colonialism in the Bahamas. Her letter prompted several responses, among them a rebuttal last week from The Nassau Institute.



By Andrew Allen

While it is easy to disagree with some of Ms Klonaris' suggestions (such as the supposed racism of most whites, or the extent of 'white' economic power in The Bahamas today) it would seem that the writer of the institute's response either did not understand or did not want to understand the broader thrust of her arguments.

In fact, to her credit, Ms Klonaris sets out, in a compelling way, some of the legacies of the colonial and racial domination that did undoubtedly blight most of our history.

While we may or may not agree with her observations about race relations today, her basic ideas about some of the psychological effects of a colonially imposed value system are not effectively countered in the Institute's long-winded response.

It is perhaps natural that the Institute should focus on economic theory in addressing some of Ms Klonaris assertions. But it is unfortunate that, having initially taken up what would seem to have been her central point, the letter from the institute then fails to directly address it.

That point is that there is, in our society, a "well defined system of relationships" including "educational curricula, the legal system, Judeo Christian church hierarchies and the English language itself whose effect is to "suppress, condemn and ghettoise " other cultures.

It would be interesting to see how the critics of Ms Klonaris can directly deny, for instance, that, where Judeo-Christian values have been imposed among indigenous peoples, their proponents have uniformly stigmatised and undermined the legitimacy of the thought systems they have sought to replace, including in The Bahamas.

This also ties in with the experience of colonial interactions throughout the world, where seemingly indisputable patterns emerge.

The African in the new world is often wrongly thought of as a blank slate who only began accumulating culture upon contact with his new colonial society. In fact, he brought with him a fairly complex system of social rules, beliefs and values, including religious ones.

In the case of the Yoruba, for instance, he brought a pantheon of Gods, including Ogun, the chief god of the Santeria religion still practised in Cuba today. So he did have values of his own.

But unlike the Indian or the Japanese, the totality of his immersion in the colonial system produced a psychological lack of resistance to the prejudices and presumptions by which these were deemed worthless or even worse. In this respect, he had much in common with the Amerindians of the Andean nations especially.

Insofar as Ms Klonaris sees racism as being responsible for the ghettoisation of New World blacks, I would disagree. Like so many indigenous peoples, from Australia to Bolivia, it was the New World black who internalised the colonial value system, and so ghettoised himself.

To empowered people, the "racism" of others is a trivial matter. The tragedy facing the new world African, the Amerindian and others was not someone else's "racism". Rather, it is that he has internalised someone else's values not on the basis of a free exchange, but on the basis of an uncritical hierarchy, which places anything originating outside western institutions or western values at the bottom.

He was psychologically penetrated to the point that he no longer recognised value in anything arising from his own heritage, ancient or modern. In fact, he became an active accomplice in the stigmatisation of such things.

Take, for instance, the hierarchy of religions. To the colonialised new world black, while Hindu pantheism connotes a neutral Eastern mysticism and Greco-Roman pantheism connotes high classicism, African pantheism connotes a savage and unequivocally negative "black magic".

So where does this leave The Bahamas? For good or ill, most Bahamians, black, white and otherwise, today share cultural and religious values derived from sources from which only a minority of Bahamians physically descend. Most have also come to accept a basically western narrative of history, even though this narrative sometimes propagates harmful myths and assumptions.

None of this need be fatal to harmonious national development for The Bahamas, so long as our self-image is constantly "tweaked" to reflect the interests of the Bahamas as an independent nation of many races.

But huge and monstrous legacies of the colonial psychological system remain. Black Bahamians routinely associate African bone structures, curled hair and dark skin with ugliness, and seem to assume that there is some universality to that view.

In religion, it is shocking to observe the extent to which black Bahamians have taken up the almost militant Christian bigotry that once stigmatised their own ancestors. Only recently, Rastafarian students complained of the horrendous discrimination they faced at the College of The Bahamas.

From time to time, local pastors rail about 'black magic' and voodoo is often cited among the reasons for looking down at Haitian immigrants.

Less exposed black Bahamians, of course, will never realise that all these things come back to a rejection of the legitimacy of their own ancestors and, ultimately, of themselves.

On the other hand, some better educated black Bahamians may assume that whiteness in the Bahamas is a monolithic phenomenon, there being no diversity of views among whites on these very important, sensitive issues.

Which is why honest, well thought-out contributions from intelligent white Bahamians like Ms Klonaris are so helpful.


Allen is an attorney in the Bahamas, where he runs his own law firm. Allen's column - Perspectives - has run on Mondays in the Tribune since 1999. He has written articles for Caribbean Week, Private Wealth Management Review and the Bahamas Financial Services Review. He blogs at bahamapundit


The Bahamas: Prejudice in Paradise

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