Recently the Caribbean community in Melbourne celebrated the launch of their book ‘Adding Pimento’.
The book is a well-constructed collection of community stories that discuss the trials and tribulations of the West Indians’ migration to Australia.
The book also talks about how West Indians were received in Australia and what they overcame to take their place in the wider Australian populace.
However the book stops before exploring the varying degrees of integration into Australia, and does not focus on the continued internal conflict within the community.
This article will take the first steps to objectively discuss the conflicts within our small West Indian community.
It will discuss the rise of that which was once a growing organisation with the potential for greatness, and the fall of the association amidst narcissism and corruption.
So to begin…
The West Indian community in Australia is made up of people from several islands in the Caribbean, spanning from Cuba and Haiti in the upper Antilles, to Guyana and French Guiana in the lower Antilles.
Due to the White Australia policy, white and light skinned Trinidadians, and Guyanese were allowed to migrate to Australia before their darker-skinned equals.
This was not only considered a privilege by these white West Indians, but also served to reinforce the established and misguided belief handed down by slave masters and their offspring, that they were in some way superior to their fellow darker-skinned West Indians.
In the West Indies, we still see examples of this ‘high yellow’ mentality today from politics and banks, through to shops and restaurants, where light skinned managers, senior staff and the overly successful, oversee their darker colleagues.
Unfortunately some white and light-skinned West Indians in Australia have brought their slave mentality with them from the West Indies, and consider themselves better than their darker West Indian equals.
This ‘Slave-master’s child’ mentality is well documented.
David Lowenthal in a paper for MIT Press states “The coloured middle class helped to sustain this hierarchy just as their forebears had during slavery.”
Again Lowenthal “light-coloured folk assumed the roles, and the behaviour of the whites.”
Edward Byron Reuter writes “The black race is separated from its natural leaders and remains … a contented and helpless mass,”
Back to Lowenthal who writes “The elite in Haiti, Dominica, Grenada, and St. Lucia is no longer white but light-coloured…
He also writes “Middle-class obsession with status based on colour emphasizes sectional discontinuities and keeps the whole structure precariously balanced….”
He continues to write “Almost every West Indian territory is dominated by a small white or light-coloured group whose way of life is both the unattainable envy and the dreadful burden of the predominantly black majority….”
For the record, the immigration story to Australia includes the previous wave of migration after the first and second world wars, as Black West Indian and Black British service men made Australia their home.
In a country which, according to the latest census 1500 people in the state of Victoria in Australia claim West Indian heritage, this light-skinned middle class misguided superiority has now proven to be destructive, and a divisive mentality within such a small community.
Carter G. Woodson in The Negro Professional Man and the Community (Washington, D. C, 1934), details this superiority complex when he talks about a Trinidadian’s frank phrase, “a path to another niche in the elite of skinocracy.”
But I will put that to one side for now, and focus on the beginning of the story, or at least my entrance, stage left.
I was born and raised in London, where the Caribbean community was a cohesive group, forged in the flames of the Brixton and Toxteth riots.
In London, we were able to identify people from other islands, but largely this did not matter because black people were under siege, much like Muslims in the 21st century.
Blacks were being spat on, marginalised, and beaten in the streets back in the 50’s through to the 90’s, first by the rockers, then the punks, then the skinheads, but always by the police.
In England, we had learned to put our petty differences aside, to fight a more deadly foe.
So, when I came to Australia in 2005, I immediately sought out my fellow West Indians, and found them organised in their latest incarnation called The CaribOz Family.
I watched from the outside for a couple years, before becoming involved in creating an exhibition at the Melbourne Immigration Museum.
The headquarters of CaribOz was based in Sydney, so for grant reasons, in 2009 we officially separated, and formed a separate entity, and that was how the Caribbean Association of Victoria or CaribVic was born, of which I was made President.
The committee was made up of people from diverse backgrounds, representing a mixture of islands, and a spread of age groups.
The organisation was designed to be an all-inclusive association that was aimed at all those who associated with Caribbean heritage. We had regular committee meetings and public brunches every month to provide the community with an opportunity to meet, and mingle with each other. These brunches also served to welcome new members to the community.
In addition there were more periodic events such as cricket days, dinner dances, cycling, and cultural days which proved to be quite popular.
The organisation was not-for-profit, and through regular consultation with our members, our aim was to put the money back into the community, for the benefit of all those who had contributed to CaribVic’s development.
Now I am not saying that it was a Utopia, and I am certainly not suggesting that we did not have disagreements, but I am saying that it was a completely transparent organisation that engaged with many of its members in diverse ways.
I was replaced as president in 2011 but still remain part of the broader West Indian community.
After all, the association is only one part of the Caribbean community in Melbourne. There are now a number of organisations that service the community in different ways, and the community is better for all of them as long as being a member of one does not preclude you from being a member of any others.
So, there is the rise.
However, so far all I have done is tell a story.
Like most things in life, the points of analysis, and detailed discussion, do not begin until the fall.
One of the key projects that CaribVic undertook back in 2006 was a collaboration with the Immigration Museum of Victoria, the state where I live.
Entitled “Callaloo: The Caribbean mix in Victoria”, the installation told the story of those with a West Indian background and their migration to Australia.
When we were creating the installation, the differences between the social constructs of class crystallised into disagreements about how the West Indies should be portrayed.
Members readily admitted that, were they back in the West Indies, they would not fraternise with others around the table.
This clash of the Caribbean was because of the construct of class that I mentioned earlier in this article, reinforced by the “50 shades of black” construct.
There had been no beatings of West Indians in the streets of Melbourne. There had been no mass rejection of the West Indians that had made it past the White Australia Policy. There had been no hardship to rally all Caribbean people of different colours and stations behind a common cause or enemy.
We see examples of this in the Islamic communities across the world. The more that the world forces them into a corner, by trying to force them to conform with what the world considers to be safe behaviour by denouncing a small percentage of radical elements of their community, the more they retreat into their religion, customs and identity which only serves to galvanise them further as a community.
Ironically, it would be this lack of oppression that would contribute to the downfall of CaribVic.
There were a number of factors that contributed to an accumulating disquiet.
- The first was a superiority complex that manifested from a highly privileged, class and colour culture.
- The second was a belief that citizens of one island should dominate the committee of an organisation originally designed to treat all countries equally.
- The third was the belief that age determines your position in the hierarchy
- And the final factor was the concept that people will naturally default to a way of thinking that they know best.
So let us explore these points further.
‘A superiority complex that manifested from a highly privileged, class and colour culture.’
In the Caribbean, as mentioned earlier, there is a conditioned mindset where light skinned people are identified as being privileged, even better looking and more desirable as mates.
This condition is perpetuated by those with lighter skin and, surprisingly reinforced by the darker skinned, who appear to accept this unsubstantiated superiority, and even subconsciously reinforce it.
We see this evidenced in the number of bleaching creams that are on the market and the number of derogatory slurs and insults that all involve how dark someone’s skin is.
This mindset exists all around the Caribbean, but has been found to be more prevalent in countries that also had a high Indian population, through the indentured workers brought into the Caribbean.
The Indians brought with them the same “white is right” mentality from British occupied India. They also brought with them a caste system, that complemented the class system imposed by the British, and amplified the belief that light was right and privileged.
Now what does any of this have to do with CaribVic?
The committee went from having a pretty fair representation from different islands and consisting of a wide spectrum of skin tones, to only consisting of members from one island (Trinidad) and dominated by, not only the light skinned from that island, but the privileged middle-class from that island.
Effectively through corruption and nepotism, the committee became a representation of the socio-economic elite of that island, a direct reflection of the political landscape of the island in question.
Edward Byron Reuter, in his publication ‘The Mulatto in the United States’ (Boston, 1918) writes “The mulatto, . . . flattered by a racial designation that separates him from the peasantry and imbues his superiority to it, maintains [an] . .obsequious and respectful attitude of mind toward his superiors.”
‘A belief that subjects of one island should dominate the committee of an organisation designed to treat all countries equally’
I touched upon this in my previous point but I will illustrate it further now.
The misplaced superiority displayed by the later committee members verged upon arrogance.
The committee stopped having regular meetings which members of the community could attend, becoming the only paid member’s organisation I know that did not have regular meetings for its members.
In fact, the association had become so dominated by Trinidadians, that it was now widely known by its nickname ‘TriniVic’.
‘The third was the belief that age determines your position in the hierarchy’
The committee that now consisted of people of a certain age, reverted back to activities that were of interest to them in their youth rather than listening to what the broader community wanted.
They believed that their age made them ‘elder statesmen’ and they drifted further away from the reality of community needs.
The concept of being an elder is one that is prominent and established in the Aboriginal community, but is still tentative in the West Indian community in Melbourne.
Lowenthal states that “Light-skinned, Middle-class people often profess to be more ignorant of lower class ways than they really think they are.” And this had become evidenced here.
CaribVic attempted to create and sustain a steel band, but as opposed to drawing a vibrant energetic youthful band troop, it became seen a pet pastime for ageing pensioners, funded by the fees of an unimpressed membership.
This was demonstrated by the other activities that took place, which had now become few and far between. Those which were held began to be less subscribed as the community became increasingly disengaged.
‘Finally, the concept that people will naturally default to a way of thinking that they know best.’
Occasional educational lectures were still held, but instead of dealing with complex issues like slavery and abandonment, the focus shifted to less taxing matters such as the history of Caribbean music. Once again, the interest tailed off.
This ageing committee reverted back to what it knew best, putting on carnivals, playing steel pan, and becoming a band of minstrels, rather than an association that encapsulated the needs of those it served.
The committee had become out of touch with its community.
Factions had begun to manifest within the committee along country and colour lines.
The organisation quickly lost credibility throughout the community evidenced, for example, by the very poor turn-out at its staple events like the annual cultural day and the xmas party.
The Caribbean Association of Victoria was now lost.
H.Orlando Patterson in ‘The Social Structure of a University Hall of Residence’ stated “West Indians like to say that colour no longer matters to them. They know very well that this is not true, though it is more true than it used to be. But they will not like to admit it to an outsider or to have it suggested to them by anyone else…”
This is reinforced by A. P. Thornton in ‘Aspects of West Indian Society’ which states “A great many West Indians, in short, are highly sensitive about matters of colour. As one observer put it, to talk about ‘the colour question’ or race relations’ is to pick a way through thorns while walking on eggshells, as even the commonest adjectives of description appear to bear allusive barbs.”
Now by this time, although I had long left the running of the organisation, I had not left the community it served.
I had become involved in other community organisations, including the Black Caucus, about which I am also here to speak.
The Black Caucus looks at world issues from a black perspective and with local focus.
Like many organisations, the question of how to engage the community as a whole, but specifically the youth, is always one that is difficult to master.
The organisation that I manage now makes every effort to reach out and engage the community through every aspect of social media as well as lectures, forums and conferences such as this. [Caribbean Studies Association conference – Haiti]
We make every attempt to listen to our audience and reflect their views, as opposed to just the views of the senior contributors.
We ensure that we tailor our content for all aspects of the Black community, from aboriginal issues, through Caribbean and Black British news, to African migrant hardships.
The audience sometimes demands that we deal with harder, more political issues and, as an organisation that serves the people, we can not shy away from this.
The structure of the Black Caucus is such that there can be no colour bias either in its decision making body, or its content. This is because the Black Caucus is driven by the content of all its contributors. These contributors have huge editorial control over their submissions and anyone with an opinion that they are prepared to put their name to can submit.
The success and direction of the Black Caucus is solely in the hands of the contributors and the consumers.
The old slave mentality consisting of a colour hierarchy or “skinocracy”, reinforced by a self-serving age or elder structure, that is still evident in the Caribbean today, could not be sustained in a modern day, free thinking society.
Only an organisation devoid of these antiquated ideals will survive in an ever changing, increasingly equal society.