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Looking in the Mirror

Who am I? Bahamians are a sensitive lot when it comes to identity. I am one of the foremost sufferers from this anxiety of being. This comes from my mulatto / mangra / light brown skin.

As it stands the Bahamian identity is constructed as black, ghetto and male. This construction ignores, deliberately I believe, the 20 percent or so of the country that happen to be white. I have inadvertently asked a few white Bahamians “so, where are you from?” It’s polite conversation with a tourist but it’s the surest, most direct way to insult a native.

To be called white in the Bahamas is another way to say that you do not belong. Those who don’t belong are tourists. Visitors. Just passing through. Seaweed. Driftwood. In Nassau the quickest insult is usually to call me “white boy”. Hit a shot on the basketball court and I will hear “buhy! You let white-boy-archah score on you” or something to that effect. They know that I’m not white, but my skin-color places me in a liminal space. I’m not white, but to their minds I’m not black enough.

This color line is tricky. It’s no where near as rigid as the “one drop” rule that governs blackness in the United States. The Bahamian black/white line is a fluid boundary that varies in different islands and even in different settlements / villages on the same island. For example on the same island of Eleuthera, I am read as black in Tarpum Bay and white in Lower Bogue.

I self-identify as black. This is simply because I also self-identify as Bahamian. And to be Bahamian means that you must be black. Now there are myriad ways of performing blackness in the Bahamas, so even if you don’t have the correct pigmentation, you can find other ways to fit in, but lets leave it there for now.

Fast forward to Canada and here I am read without question as black. Now, the Canadian identity, crudely put, is a young white man brandishing a hockey stick in one hand, and a cup of Tim Horton’s Coffee in the other. He says “eh?” in between sips and ice-checks. Now with my Bahamian baggage already in tow, you can understand why I reject the label of Canadian. The Bahamian identity I want to hold on to won’t allow it. But my presence here has begun to complicate who I think I am; two recent experiences come to mind.

The first happened at a writers retreat over the summer in Trinidad. On the first day of the workshop, as the introductions went around the room I mentioned that I was a Caribbean person in exile in Canada. There was shock from the organizers. How could I, a member of the Caribbean diaspora, have made it into the program they asked? The workshop was only open to people from the Caribbean and not to people who came from elsewhere.

Surely, I thought, they must be joking. I have only been in Canada for five years, and this only to study at University. I hold nothing more than a study permit. Surely they can’t take my Caribbean-ness, my blackness away from me for this? Yet, they did. I protested and argued that I surely was not a Canadian, but the label stuck. Much to my chagrin.

The second experience happened a couple of weeks ago, at the MA student orientation in Canada. A white first year MA student says to me with a mischievous gleam in his eye,”you know a word that I like to throw out in my tutorials… Nigger.” The air was suddenly sucked out of the room. Needless to say I was taken back. I had never seen the “N-word” so close before. I really didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t directly calling me a N… of course, but he knew what he was doing.

My own shock took me by surprise, especially since the word in both Bahamian creole and Haitian creole translates as the politically / racial neutral “man.” So, yes, “white niggers” do appear in Bahamian creole, although the speaker will most likely correct themselves afterwards. In Haitian creole there would be no correction. Was I offended? Or did I merely want to be offended?

I give you all of this because I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently. It’s the first and most important question you need to ask yourself: Who am I? Honestly I’m not sure any more. After studying theories of nationalism and seeing first-hand the artificialness of national identities, I can clearly see how these “imagined communities” are more at the service of the state than anything else and have little basis in reality.

Through my study of Eastern thought I see what they mean when they talk about identity as “maya” / illusion. When I look in the mirror, what do I see? Do I see what I want to see? Can I only see the story that I am telling myself about myself: My name is, I was born in, I am. Can I even see myself anymore? Have I ever really seen myself?

12 comments ↓

#1 Global Voices Online » Bahamas: Black or White on 10.02.08 at 5:37 am

[...] color line is tricky. The Bahamian black/white line is a fluid boundary that varies…” Mental Slavery is grappling with his identity. Posted by Janine Mendes-Franco  Print Version Share [...]

#2 haitianministries on 10.10.08 at 4:16 pm

“I have inadvertently asked a few white Bahamians ‘so, where are you from?’ It’s polite conversation with a tourist but it’s the surest, most direct way to insult a native.”

Yeah, no kidding! Unless somebody is conspicuously dressed like a tourist or has a distinctive Rock Sound accent, I generally can’t tell the difference between a white Bahamian and a white North American either. Thus, I’ve found it’s best to just assume that all white folks in the Bahamas are white Bahamians and greet them as such. Better to error on the side of too Bahamian . . .

Great post, very informative! I’ve provided a link for my own readers.

#3 Celucien Joseph on 10.10.08 at 10:04 pm

Great post!

#4 Biata on 10.13.08 at 11:07 pm

This is awesome. I stumbled upon this website at 1:30 am EST because I was awakened by the thought of combating Mental Slavery with education of african ancestry. I am not sure of it {African Ancestry} myself. But I am sure that when I observe African Americans, in particular, the perpetuation of the social, political, and economical issues plaguing the ethnic group seems to be related to the lack of education. So it seems to me that one obvious way to combat the ignorance is to bring not only awareness, but identity to Black people through education.

#5 earl on 11.11.08 at 12:32 am

great article, i came across it researching the topic for my show number 2. Mental slavery in Black America.

Thanks I enjoyed your article.

#6 main slave on 11.24.08 at 2:18 pm

@Biata – Yes. Education is useful. But don’t ignore the systemic causes of the problems that black people face. Especially in the US. I’d recommend you read “The Debt” by Randall Robinson. He really breaks down a lot of the hidden barriers that black people still face today.

Also worth reading is something on the phenomenon of White Privilege. Tim Wise is a good author to check out, partly because he is white himself.

#7 o.korie on 12.26.08 at 7:21 pm

I’m Bahamian, black,but grow up in US since age 10…its hard to fit in. Blacks/whites/latins see me as a N, but I don’t. Great post

#8 Justin Minns on 08.31.09 at 11:45 pm

I’m a mixed heritage Bahamian myself. I was born in Nassau and my family has since relocated to Exuma. I came to Canada to study and have been here off and on ever since. I met someone at the Bahamian consulate house in Ottawa who forwarded this site to me. Very interesting. I have had a similar experience with identity issues due to skin color myself. I often found it confusing and sometimes unsettling growing up. Later though I decided that the problem wasn’t mine… it was an issue for the people who were struggling to determine my status/label based on something totally arbitrary, my skin color.I stopped worrying about it because, as I see it, if my skin color somehow affects how someone sees me as a person, then they are probably not worth dealing with on any meaningful level. I’ve been proud and happy with myself as a Bahamian/Canadian ever since :)

#9 Will on 11.16.09 at 6:42 pm

You are plural. Identities are not mutually exclusive, they are fluid and transient, Enjoy and celebrate the vast range of identities you can claim in different times and spaces.

#10 sher on 11.19.09 at 1:40 pm

Excellent article. I came across this while researching on menthal slavery for an essay i have to write. I must say i can relate to what you have stated as it’s not only in Bahamas but also in Jamaica as well. I share your views as i remeber growing up and was constantly based at school as a dun dus or white man pickney. Funny enough both my parents are black.

#11 Dwayne on 01.02.10 at 8:09 pm

Well said, Will. I am a Bahamian. An unquestionably black Bahamian. I am also a musician, trained in the European classical tradition. I listen to, and perform European classical music, as well as other genres, including recognized “Bahamian” music. As a result of this, many of my friends and associates are Caucasian, many expatriate. There are those in our community who see this as ‘social climbing’, as though an association with white persons somehow confers superior social status. As Bahamians, our National identity has been influenced by multiple cultures in our communities. We ought to embrace them all. ONE BAHAMAS!

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