“I want to feel
though you own
the silver tea service
the communion plate
you don’t own
the tropics anymore “
– from Olive Senior’s “Meditation on Yellow”
Until we write it, historical anti-black racism and white imperialism will continue to whisper to us, the shadow of our specific strain of xenophobia.
So I’m writing it today.
Anti-black racism refers to the specific and directed racial oppression of people based on their blackness – the darker one is, the more susceptible one is to experiencing it.
White imperialism refers to the system of privilege that benefits white people of imperial nations such as former colonizers England, France etc, and neo-colonizers, most notably the United States of America.
Nigerians and Venezuelans, aren’t the only immigrants we host in Trinidad and Tobago. Guyanese, Jamaican, Vincentian folks and folks from other islands often immigrate here for varying reasons. The other immigrants we host, (more often called “expats”)
are immigrants from the United States, England and other European countries.
Anecdotes about the mistreatment of immigrants from non-imperial nations rarely if ever mention immigrants from the US or Britain. Truth be told, there isn’t very much information available on the experience of the US and the British in Trinidad. However, the immigration privileges these nations (as well as others) hold show a clear difference in who is welcome here, and to what degrees. Imagine, British passport-holding citizens do not require a visa for vacation, business or employment. Imagine, US passport-holding citizens do not require a visa for vacation or business for up to 90 days. Other countries with similar freedoms to walk in and out of our nation include Denmark, France and Sweden. That makin sense?
Actually, if we consider white imperialism it makes perfect sense. According to the itemized list provided by Trinidad and Tobago’s immigration website, developed countries constitute the majority of countries offered the privilege of movement through our nation. There must be reasons for this, some could argue that inviting folks from the developed world specifically, to do business here could benefit our economy. Or that citizens from these countries are less likely to remain in ours beyond their appointed time and therefore less likely to drain our resources. However, because the citizens of these countries are predominantly white, what these policies communicate is that white people have greater access to our country than others. The law enshrined in our foreign policy offers access. Culture’s domain is welcome. And the welcome we extend to communities of immigrants and/or visitors, relates curiously to national identity.
CARICOM members, predominantly black nations, have similar immigration privileges to those of imperial powers. But then, what accounts for the differences in the experience of a citizen from Britain, and the experiences of a citizen say, from Jamaica? Why do citizens of CARICOM nations, with identical privileges to citizens from Britain, experience xenophobic discrimination and stereotyping?
White imperialism and anti-black racism intersect in the Caribbean in this way, to ensure that, even here, white people always have more privilege and freedoms than black people.
We treat citizens of CARICOM nations differently partly because of our colonial heritage. The intrinsic disdain and distrust of black people and black culture inherited from white slaveowners made poisons of our ancestor’s languages and “witchcraft” of their religions, demons of their deities.
We learned to envy the enslaved in higher, more privileged positions on the plantations for their access and their perceived alliance to whiteness, at the same time hating the enslaved in lower, less privileged positions for their potential to replace us, and relinquish our earned freedoms. “Crabs in a barrel” is a term used to describe this trauma. This trauma lives on in culture. To this day, we respond to black people with various prejudices, each informed by the original anti-black rhetoric we inherited from European colonizers. And each of which serve the singular purpose of blinding us to our own humanity, and therefore distancing us from each other.
To put this in perspective, Haiti is the only nation in the CARICOM roster that requires visas for employment, business and vacation.
Haiti was the first black nation in the Western Hemisphere. Theirs were the first enslaved to achieve liberation on their own terms. For fighting for their freedom, European nations and America, forcefully ostracized Haiti politically and economically. As a result Haiti has become one of the world’s most impoverished countries. Haiti’s attainment of their freedom inspired other revolts, and made it clear that slavery was no longer economically viable to Europe thereby ushering in emancipation. We owe Haitians a great deal more than we owe Europeans (Europeans owe us by the way, but that’s another tory). And now, we have communicated with our immigration policy that the citizens of the oldest black nation in the western hemisphere has no place here. Or at least not as welcome as their CARICOM counterparts, and certainly not as welcome as white people from Europe and the US.
What does this say of us? We are anti-black. I mean it shouldn’t be news to us tbh. We been anti-black. Our policies, the ways in which we exhibit xenophobia make it clear that black people are not as welcome here as white folk. And in so doing, we continue the intent of colonization, to make our lands, our economies, our cultures and our peoples accessible to white people, on their own terms.
The other intent we achieve, by our disproportionate xenophobia toward black people, is the severance of diaspora community. Haiti’s situation demonstrates this most. Haiti, surrounded by black nations, still experiences exclusion based on their blackness and their offense to the white world (the offense was an assertion of their freedom). We, who have benefited from their struggle, now turn our backs, and pander to white folks. And where we do, in policy, extend welcome to black nations, such as those in CARICOM, the welcome ends at the airport, once they open their mouths elsewhere, they are greeted with set-up faces, whispers, steupses and so forth. With particular irony, for we consume other Caribbean cultural products no end, while maintaining xenophobic rhetoric around other Caribbean islanders’ presence here.
We inherited the nation, and the definition of citizen from Europeans. Our young nations began as subsidiaries to European nations, our industries served the only purpose of contributing to Britain’s economic growth. They never meant for the nation to enhance us. We were never meant to be citizens of their nations, and barely meant to govern ourselves as citizens. Enshrined in this vision of nation and citizen is the idea that only citizens deserve the fruits of the nation, and only the nation should derive benefit from its citizens. Beyond that, when we consider the major brain drain we suffer when our best and brightest leave the country to pursue education elsewhere (in the US and Europe primarily), and when we consider which visitors and immigrants are welcomed to do business here freely, we should see, with clarity the real underlying intent of the concepts of nation and citizen. The intent? White citizens deserve the fruits of all nations, and white nations, should benefit most from the world’s citizens.
Friends, we cannot continue to allow ourselves to act as vessels for the colonizer’s intents. We must radically extend welcome and acceptance to black nations, both in terms of foreign policy, AND in terms of our culture. Mistreatment of a person based on their status as an immigrant in Trinidad must be actively discouraged. Yes we love we ole-talk, but when you encounter ole talk at the expense of an immigrant population, we have to say aye, that is we people too. Haitians is we people too, Nigerians is we people too. They might seem harmless, the ole talk, the derision, but encoded in each of those, particularly when disproportionately applied to black immigrants, is the colonizer’s notion that black people are less human than white people. And that we do not deserve unity.
Welcome is about small acts. It’s about hearing a foreign accent and greeting it with wonder, not disdain. It is giving an immigrant sale, supporting a business. Providing directions to a desired service, lending local expertise of place to people that do not have it. Small, intentional actions express welcome to people that need it.
White people will not save us. England and Europe will not save us. The US will not save us. Only we, our multiple creole, selves have the power to save ourselves. As Haiti so dexterously showed us centuries ago. Radical welcome to black nations and immigrants who need refuge such as those from Venezuela, is more necessary now than ever before. As our nation’s economic buttresses of oil and gas break, as our economy and governments transform, as the old whithers, an opportunity flowers. What possibilities arise with the combined capacities of multicultural people, who exist in the same land? We do not know it. We have references, the Creole, pelau, London, Swahili, America. But we do not know what happens when all people find welcome in addition to access in a land. We do not know where every creed and race finds equal place. We do not know the history we can write.
Until we write it.