Some years ago I was introduced, by a mutual friend, to the owner of China White, a famous London nightclub in one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities. Within a few minutes our discussion touched on the issue of immigration and race relations in the UK. Sitting directly across from me he leaned forward and declared, “I am a racist!” My eyes narrowed and I look across to my friend, Charlotte, a Romanian Jew—silently asking her why had she had introduced us—then I looked back at this 50ish, white Englishman. Before I could respond to this offensive remark, a smile crept on his face and he added, “I hate all races.”
A few months ago, while being interviewed on CNN, US Congressman and veteran civil rights activist John Lewis addressed the issue of whether or not presidential hopeful Barrack Obama was “black enough” by stating Obama had “escaped the shackles of racism.”
In both instances, the reactions acknowledge the damage done by racism while attempting to chart a way forward that transcends the limitations imposed on a racially stratified society. We must work to accomplish the same for Bermuda.
Bermuda is currently beset with racial unease; it overflows into political debates, social interactions and the ubiquitous yet therapeutic talk show programmes. Race is the prism through which all social, political and economic discussions are refracted today; it cannot be our primary framework for interaction tomorrow. We must move beyond this if we are to build a strong, prosperous, self-sustaining Bermuda; one which all of us feel a part of and are committed to improving for the benefit of all.
How, then, do we move in that direction?
There is no panacea which will immediately cure the ills of racism but there are a number of steps the Bermudian community—all who live here—can start to take which, collectively, can help ameliorate our present condition.
First, we must understand our history. Knowing Bermuda’s history is less about memorizing the dates of successive events and more about understanding the forces that have shaped the present. It is important to understand, for example, how the economics of slavery worked very differently in Bermuda compared to most other slave societies in the Western hemisphere; or that Bermuda’s economy has long been service oriented and externally focused. And of course, in the context of this present discussion, that racial segregation ended a mere generation ago, with Bermudians in their 60s and older having been both oppressed by and the beneficiaries of a racially divided country. All of us need to understand, as Karl Marx once commented, how “the past hangs like a nightmare over present generations.”
To understand history will help to ensure it is not used as a crutch or to prop up silly ideas—that black people have a superior claim to Bermuda than whites, for instance. It will also help dispel the equally silly notion that Bermuda today should be assessed without reference to its past.
Secondly, we need to create a framework that credibly ensures people are given real opportunities in the workplace without regard to race. There is an abundance of data pointing to the under-representation of blacks at the senior executive level and from this many have inferred discriminatory practices. As a consequence, we have had extended public discussions on this matter and a wide range of views about how to end racially discriminatory practices in the workplace. On the issue of opportunities in the workplace, I propose what some may see as an overly simplistic approach: focus action around a policy that ensures every qualified Bermudian is gainfully employed in a position for which they are competent and that they are on a track for upward mobility. With 10,000 work permits issued this cannot be a difficult undertaking. By shifting the focus to job satisfaction for qualified locals—irrespective of race—we will be able to move beyond requiring companies to meet what are likely to be artificial and impossible to reach targets.
A third area is one which each of us can act on immediately: tone down and work to eliminate the racial rhetoric in our public pronouncements and private discourse. Of late there have been an embarrassing abundance of racially inflammatory comments by politicians, talk radio commentators, and members of the public to one another. This type of dialogue does nothing to progress the country on any front and actually sets us back. Before we use racially constructed language in our discourse we should first assess whether if said in reverse by someone of the opposite race whether it would offend us. If it would offend that should be your guide to refrain from making that comment. The racist, of course, will persist. But then we must challenge him or her every time. Privately, there are racist comments made in segments of the black community, much of which is a reaction to the subordinate position blacks were subjected to in the past. From my white friends, I know there are racist comments made in segments of the white community, much of which stems from an inherent sense of racial superiority. This is more difficult to challenge but will certainly abate when we make progress in the public arena.
Bermuda has historically been a bi-racial society; we are now increasingly multi-cultural and this can only be a positive thing as we move forward. We must work actively to break down the racial barriers that divide us and we must work collectively to build a stronger Bermuda. I am undertaking my part to achieve this goal and have been doing so for more than fifteen years. What are you prepared to do?\
* This article was first published in October 2007