But Race Still Matters
Tuesday, June 12, 2007.
By Nicolette Bethel
I'm writing about race, not racism. The first one is the idea that human beings, like animals and plants, are members of different groups that are physiologically and genetically different. The second one is making distinctions — social, political, economic and otherwise — based on these differences.
I'm writing about race.
It's an idea that has been around for a while, but not forever. It's an idea that can be traced back to a specific political point in history — and by history, of course, I mean the history of the world, and not of the Bahamas. The idea of "race" was invented, and its invention had a function. That function: to conquer the world.
You see, it's a fundamental human trait to organize in groups and to create some cohesive group identity. It's also a fundamental human trait to look at other groups and define them by how they are different from our own group. Anthropologists call that ethnocentrism, the belief that every group does things in the best way possible, and every other group's way is inferior.
The idea of race, however, takes this tendency and solidifies it, makes it universal in application. No longer does the idea of each group doing things its own best way have currency. Different groups are categorized according to their physical appearance, and slotted into place on a ladder of superiority. And of course the people who do the slotting (who happen to be Europeans) put themselves at the top. By doing so they are exercising the fundamental human practice of ethnocentrism.
But it doesn't mean they're right.
What the invention of race has done for people of a non-European heritage is to pervert the tendency of the group to look at other groups and consider its ways superior. On one level, this happens; we Bahamians believe that we are better than other West Indians, for instance, for any number of unjustifiable reasons.
But on another level, groups who fit into the racial categories invented by Europeans to fill lower rungs on the ladder see themselves as a whole as being inferior on a global scale.
The trouble is, race doesn't actually exist. Not genetically, at any rate. A few years ago geneticists completed a genetic typing of the entire world, and discovered a number of very interesting things. The first was that "race" and genetics do not go hand in hand.
There are more genetic similarities between Jews in Israel, and black Jews in South Africa than between those South African Jews and the Shona next door, from whom they are physically and linguistically indistinguishable. The second was that no group of people, no matter how apparently similar its members may be on the surface, is genetically "pure".
It turns out that the things that we have been taught to regard as fundamental to our own identity here in the Bahamas, things that are so deeply ingrained in us that we are unaware of their existence (no matter what our superficial skin colour happens to be), are based on a lie.
But it's a lie that is alive and well in the Bahamas and in the world. And we still believe it.
We may not claim that belief with our mouths, but we show it with our actions. Many, many Bahamians believe in their very cores that white people are superior. Many, many Bahamians have swallowed the lie of races so completely that they believe not only that white people are superior, but so, in varying degrees, are yellow people, red people, and brown people.
Black people (which most of us are) lie at the bottom of the heap — right where the Europeans placed us when they invented that ladder to begin with.
You doubt me?
Seat a white person, a brown person, and a black person into a restaurant and watch what kind of treatment each gets.
Ask three people to tell the same fiction. Make one of them white, one of them black, and one of them in between. See who gets believed.
Or hold a PTA meeting. Set up tables with a black West Indian teacher, a black Bahamian teacher, a black Bahamian teacher with an English accent, a brown/red/yellow teacher, and a white Euroamerican teacher. Have each them tell a parent the same bad news about her child and see what happens.
Every one of us carries in our psyches the idea of this racial ladder, and has been raised to believe it.
So we tell young beautiful black girls they are "ugly", but call plain brown girls "pretty"; we call young brilliant black boys "stupid", and consider ordinarily intelligent brown boys "smart"; we believe Bahamians of the paler hues always to be "rich" (as though money were encoded on their skins), while we expect blacker Bahamians to be "poor".
Too many of us believe, though we don’t always say it, that we are not going to "get anywhere" in the world because black people just don't. Part of that belief is justified by the idea of victimization. But part of it is rooted in the idea that black people are limited because they are black.
I had a class of students who complained because most of them had got Ds and Fs on a particular assignment; the best of them had got Cs.
"Dr Bethel," one said, "you're marking us too hard. You're marking us on some university standard from away. We're only high school graduates. You can't expect us to be on the same level."
I told her that I was marking them on that university standard because 200-level courses at COB were of the same standard as 200-level courses anywhere. I told her that I didn't expect Bahamian students to be any less capable than students abroad. I've been abroad. I know. But I heard what she was really saying: don't judge us by those standards; we're only black.
The ol' bottom-of-the ladder syndrome had struck again.
Nicolette Bethel currently serves as Director of Culture for the Government of the Bahamas .
She is a social anthropologist and a writer. Her plays have been produced locally, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in various collections.
She blogs at Bahamapundit
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