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ON HISTORY AND BIGOTRY

By Nicolette Bethel

Friday, April 24, 2009.

The story I’m about to share is nothing new. It  is an old complaint familiar to many West Indians. I’m going to put it side by side with another one, a different one from a different
Caribbean nation. The problem isn’t just with the fact that the incidents happened. The real problem lies in the fact that we not only let them happen, we appear to invite them.

 

Recently, many West Indians seem to be more than happy to twist history to fit the prejudices of a few white people.  Just like this  story of a qualified young woman who went for an interview at the biggest plantation of them all, the one that calls itself Atlantis and invents for itself its own history, a history which is not ours, and from which Bahamians are excluded fairly routinely unless we agree to pay for access to it, or unless we can pass for tourists.


Now this young woman had the qualifications to get the job. She went on an interview with the Human Resources Department, and sat before two Bahamians, and impressed them; she was offered the position right there and then. But before she could take up the position, she was contacted by the HR manager — who was not Bahamian, but from the UK, to say that the job was hers — if she would cut her hair.


The young woman, you see, has locks. And locks, apparently, are not respectable enough to be worn by Bahamians who will be in positions where they can be seen by the tourists.


Now I have a feeling that there are some people who will rise to the defence of this position — many, presumably, since this policy has been in place since 2000 and no one has spoken out against it in a strong enough voice to have it reviewed or changed by the resort.  This includes, clearly, five years of government by a political party that purports to champion the welfare of the Bahamian of African descent, as well as by a political party that does not purport to do so.

 

The fact that we accept, and have accepted, this policy, without much of a murmur, tells us more about ourselves as a people and as a nation than it does about the resort or our governments.


It shouldn’t surprise us that this happened at Atlantis, which has invented for itself its own space that functions, ironically perhaps, or predictably perhaps, rather like the so-called South African “homeland” in which the brand was developed — Bophuthatswana.

(
For more on Sun City, go here. Or go here.)


OK, so you may be thinking, what’s the relevance of that twenty-year-old video to The Bahamas today? Well, nothing really, except that the brand that is Atlantis was invented there and transplanted, with some adjustments, here nine years or so after the above video was made. And because of that transplantation, Kerzner was able to remake its image and to whitewash (pun intended) its name.


And I wouldn’t be so concerned about things that go on over there if the resort weren’t still functioning in many subtle and economic ways the way it did in the place it was invented. Like if, say, the black people that it hired were permitted to express their blackness in ways that they — and not the South Africans who run the resort — deemed appropriate and acceptable. 

 

As for the young woman who’s faced with choosing between the way she has decided to express her identity and a middle-management job: this is a young Bahamian who was fortunate enough to travel widely while she was being raised and who came into contact with intellectuals and other successful individuals who were not afraid to embrace their culture by dreading their hair. She is questioning the so-called “dress code” because she’s arguing that the way she wears her hair should really have nothing much to do with the job she is called to perform.


And the situation is as subtle as it is destructive. Her hairstyle didn’t stop her from being offered the position, but is enough to stop her from being permitted to take it. The choice has become hers, not the resort’s. (This is only true, by the way, because she is not a Rastafarian; if she were, she would not have to make the “choice”; the “choice” only comes into play in the case of aesthetics, not in the case of religion.)  And in forcing her to make it, the job is forcing her to regard as equal two issues that are not. In a free country, identity and employment should not be linked. One should not be dependent on the other.


But are we really free?


Ian Strachan, like many other intellectuals, regards tourism — or the practice of tourism as it takes place in the Caribbean — as a revival of the plantation system in contemporary times. And indeed, the resort business as practised here shares many similarities with the plantation.

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