Thursday, May 17, 2012

Identity and multi-culturalism

May is Heritage Month. It offers us an opportunity to reflect on who we are and what we share rather than the banality of that which separates us. Our Island has a rich heritage, celebrated in song, dance, sailing vessels, food and highlighted in the inimitable struggles of its people. We have much to be proud of and a great deal to celebrate. But we are a people in search of an identity.

An increasingly multicultural society, Bermuda has benefited greatly by becoming home to more people from more countries than ever before. Our community cannot but have been enriched by the cultural contributions of the wider Caribbean, Europe and Asia, in particular.

Whether it is in terms of new shared experiences, new ways of seeing the world, or even something as simple as appreciating the culinary delight that is nasi goreng, embracing, respecting and not merely tolerating differences is an important buffer against the attack on multiculturalism and the rise of xenophobia. We all need to reject Breivik’s vision for Norway and those who share his hatred elsewhere. 

Bermudian culture exists alongside these diverse cultures and there is no doubt our culture will evolve as a result of what some might call cross-pollination. This, of course, is the genesis of both the Gombeys and our traditional Sunday breakfast. 

What these cultures have, though, is precisely what we lack: A shared sense of identity. As rich as our heritage is and as much as we have to celebrate we have not collectively embraced a sense of what it means to be Bermudian. On the other hand, we are quick to point out what is not Bermudian.

A good friend of mine once told me she is intrigued how we describe foreigners living here as “non-Bermudian”: “I’ve never heard people described by what they are not anywhere else” she remarked. We may know what “they” are not, yet seem not to know quite who we are. Part of this lack of identity is intertwined with our history, our struggles and the divisiveness of colonialism, yet none of these realities are necessarily inhibiting. 

We can get beyond the constraints of our current condition. To do so we must actively forge a common sense of who we are as Bermudians — irrespective of race, ethnicity, class or country of origin. We must do so against a backdrop of self-doubt and the dangerous denizens of doom who deny we can do anything right.

We must “invent traditions” that build on a sense of identity as articulated by the brilliant historian Eric Hobsbawm. After all, the British forged a stronger sense of British identity by changing public attitudes towards the monarchy with invented royal traditions like the formal Coronation ceremony 100 years ago. 

We have worked over the centuries to build a materially wealthy country; we remain so. What we lack is the soul of a nation; it is inadequate to say you are proud to be Bermudian when we have no common identity of what that means.

And as uncomfortable as this may be some, you cannot be proud to be Bermudian while waving the British flag or singing God Save the Queen as your national anthem. You may be proud to be British, but that is something altogether different.

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