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On Hegemony in the Caribbean

 

By Nicolette Bethel

 

The word "hegemony" -- which sounds, by the way, like a cross between "hedge" and "anemone" -- refers to a way of seeing the world that's created by a small group of people who are in power. In the past, people might have called it "brainwashing", but it's far more friendly than that. 

 

Hegemonies masquerade as truth, and they govern the way in which we see our world in ways that are often so subtle we aren't aware of them.

 

In the Caribbean, hegemonies undermine our sovereignty in ways we may not even be aware. Because we are so ignorant of our own history and our social context, we are often governed by realities that are not our own.

 

For instance, many of us seem unable to draw distinctions between the Bahamian experience of race and the American one. It has become commonplace to conflate the two. Especially among young Bahamians, who are far more exposed to American constructions of the world than they are conscious of Bahamian realities, there is a persistent belief that "white Bahamians" are controlling the lives of "black Bahamians".

 

This is a belief that, to my mind, is an extension of an American hegemony or worldview that has very little meaning in our country.

 

Unlike the USA, where there was one society of oppression and exclusion, in The Bahamas there were two separate societies. While it is true that for much of the first half of the twentieth century, there was an unofficial code in Nassau that permitted the existence of whites-only clubs and hotels and restaurants and bars, that code was never written into law.

                      

 

Now the difference may seem minor -- after all, when you can't go somewhere, what does it matter if the reason is a legal prohibition or a lack of welcome from the powerful? But it is fundamental. The passage of laws has the effect of enforcing a worldview in such a way that one has to become a criminal to want to change them.

 

In The Bahamas, the racial debate of the 1950s and 1960s was a question of common sense and morality rather than a question of law.

What existed in Nassau were two societies, each equally stratified by class.

 

White Bahamian society was never the unified monolith that we like to imagine. While it is true that the richest Bahamians were White, they accounted for only a handful of White families in the middle of the twentieth century. Indeed, some of the rest were so poor that the term "conchy joe" had been invented just for them -- they could afford to eat nothing but the conch they dived from the shore.

 

Black Bahamian society overlapped with White Bahamian society economically. At the top were Black (and "coloured") Bahamians of relative wealth and standing like the Adderleys, the Norths, the Isaacs, the Dupuches, and the Butlers, an upper class of blacks that could share some of the economic and educational privileges of the upper classes of whites, but which could not share their social -- or political -- space.

 

This didn't mean that they were excluded from the House of Assembly, either. The Hon. Paul Adderley, currently Acting Governor-General, is the fourth generation of MPs in the Adderley family.

 

What it meant, though, was that until the 1960s their political power was neutralized by the political and economic bloc that was made up of that small group of White Bahamians known ultimately as the "Bay Street Boys".

 

In this scenario was a third class of people, the "Out Islanders", who were all disadvantaged. If you were a white Out Islander, you would have more of a chance to make it in Nassau than if you were black, but your poverty and lack of connections often made that more difficult than the same kind of advancement would be for the Black Nassauvian upper classes.

 

Race in The Bahamas was not the unifying entrée to power or oppression that it was in the USA.

 

So for us to imagine today, in the twenty-first century, that "race" in The Bahamas was (or is) in any honest way comparable to "race" in the USA (which shares similarities with the Indian caste system), is a function of a hegemony, or worldview, that is as dangerous as it is invisible. It's dangerous because -- as I've said before -- it erases the differences that come from class, and that transcend many considerations of race.

 

There's something else that we tend to ignore in the acceptance of that hegemony, something with which I'll leave you to think about, because I haven't made any fast conclusions about it yet.

 

It's this: the people who disseminate the Bad-Whitey rhetoric that so many of us grow accustomed to swallowing, largely through channels like BET and Tempo, are white Americans. And they control, ultimately, the kinds of information and images that get broadcast.

 

It's no accident, to my mind, that the debate that takes place about race these days is a pretty simplistic debate. It's a debate that focuses on victimology, and it obscures -- deliberately, I believe -- references to the strength and power and intelligence and dignity of people who are not white.

 

By far most of the music and images played on so-called "black" channels are misogynistic and violent; on the other hand, most of the sit-coms that focus on "black" people are stereotypical in terms of the attitudes and achievements of their members.

 

Tempo profiles the great entertainers, but does not feature so prominently great Caribbean thinkers like Eric Williams and C.L.R. James and Rex Nettleford and Arthur Lewis, or great African leaders like Jomo Kenyatta or Kwame Nkrumah or Julius Nyerere.

 

To do so, I believe, would create a worldview in which people of African descent are far more varied and valuable to humankind than the current hegemonies allow.

 

And so we have to be careful whose worldviews we consume. We need to be ready to question them, to analyze their messages, and not to be blinded by the colour of the faces they feature. Because it's just possible that those worldviews, those hegemonies, are the new masters -- and we are the slaves.

 

 

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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