|Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali
Monday, April 21, 2003 One issue I don't think I've ever blogged about, at least not from a personal point of view, is race. Today I witnessed an incident that gives some anecdotal insight into an issue that affects us all, but one that we're often loath to openly talk about.
I was with a friend, who happens to be white, a fellow from my secondary school days, who lives in London and is home for a few weeks' holiday. We were riding in a boat, travelling, in local parlance, "down the islands", heading to one of the little islets just off Trinidad's north-west peninsula, between the island and Venezuela, in a strait known as the Dragon's Mouth - Boca del Dragon, Columbus had named it.
We were heading to a little weekend holiday house owned by my friend's grandparents. With us were my friend's mother and his English (and white) girlfriend. Just after lunchtime. The sun overhead in an almost cloudless sky. The sea a deep turquoise, equal parts dark green and blue; it sprayed up into the speeding pleasure craft.
As we approached the islet we noticed another boat, off the jetty that belonged to my friend's grandparents. It appeared as if it was attempting to pull up onto the little, pebbly man-made beach to the right of the jetty. It also appeared as if its occupants were, to a person, not white: black, Indian, mixed.
"What are they doing?" my friend's mother said.
"Looks as if they want to land on the beach," my friend said.
"They can't do that," his mother said.
As we pulled up to the jetty the other boat was pulling away, heading out into the open water. It was then that my friend's mother noticed one of the men on board as being connected to the holiday house, the caretaker perhaps. With him, and all the others in the boat was a little white girl, my friend's mother's niece, her brother's daughter.
We moored the boat and got out. A large, newish-looking plastic sign posted on the jetty read: "PRIVATE PROPERTY. KEEP OUT. BEWARE OF DOGS." My friend's uncle, who was staying with his family at the house for the long Easter weekend, came down to greet us, and we followed him from the jetty, up the hill that led to the house, tucked away behind a screen of trees.
We sat in the verandah, me, my friend, his mother, his girlfriend, my friend's uncle, the uncle's wife. After pleasantries were exchanged and drinks passed around, my friend's mother lapsed into dialect and began animatedly to relate what had just happened. She ended the story: "And then I see Julia in the boat with a set of Creole!"
Instantly her hand went to her mouth, and she turned quickly towards me, an expression of shock on her face. Her brother, a loud, robust man, perhaps not even noticing the gaffe, went right on to talk about his little daughter, of her independent and impudent spirit, in effect declaring that he had no problem whatsoever with her going for a boat ride "with a set of Creole."
Well, neither did I, nor did I see the need for my friend's mother to be embarrassed by what she'd said. I found it slightly amusing and ironic that she would be, though, and not just because she felt I might be offended by her use of the word Creole, a word with an almost infinite number of meanings (none of them offensive), a word that could be used to describe even her. I was amused because what I'd just seen was behaviour not exclusive to white people in Trinidad, though I could understand why whites would not want to be seen engaging in such talk. But really, change the race of the people having the discussion, the circumstances of the story, the epithet, and you could be describing a characteristic of every racial group in Trinidad.
Have I not myself, when in the company of my own family, heard talk about "the white people" or "the Syrian and them" or "them Negroes" or "the Chinee people"? And I have no doubt the same sort of talk goes on in other places where people of one race or another are gathered, and "the Indians" then become the subject of conversation.
To write with such casualness is not to condone such behaviour. Nor is it to condemn it. It is simply to acknowledge a particular national trait, birthed in our colonial past. It is a phenomenon at once both simple and complex, one that still holds strong, even in this anodyne, politically correct age. In essence it has to do with the harsh colonial mentality of not allowing anyone else dignity, of seeing everyone as being in the same leaky boat as yourself. Since no one was exempt from being lampooned - not even the white masters - the result was that, in the main, and once you weren't being genuinely offensive, no one's pride was damaged. In any case, there was no such thing as racial pride to be damaged. No solid notion of racial consciousness had as yet been formed.
Of course, now we're up to our ears in racial pride - almost exclusively African and Indian - which has more to do with politics than it does with any genuine concern for ancestral heritage. But peel away that flimsy layer and beneath is the true Trinidadian, who, regardless of his race, and whether he wishes to admit it, or even if he doesn't realise it, is the same as everyone else: a Creole.
posted by Jonathan | 1:45 AM 0 comments