THE EDITOR: Sometimes it takes distance and time to see things clearly.
Just as you don’t notice the age lines setting in on your face, it’s hard to spot the slow cultural shifts taking place when it’s part of your daily reality.
As a Trinidadian expatriate, I’ve had that distance. My visits home have served as snapshots – moments in time that can be neatly packaged and compared to the ones that came before. So to my peers who find themselves shocked at the current climate, I say (with admittedly too much hubris) – you were just too close to see it coming.
For many, our refrains of “rainbow nation” and “cultural melting pot” have long rung hollow. Ethnocentric cultural divides were always clearly (although quietly) delineated and were reinforced through self-selective residential, educational, and religious homogeneity. Divisions were to be expected in a society where core aspects of our identity were centred in experiences shared predominately (and often exclusively) with members of our own race.
My generation, the millennials, saw the racial divides in subtle ways – parental dictates that governed relationships or the unspoken code of how long you spent in the sun. But we were “modern” (we thought) – products of a society that evolved beyond the “old world” racism of our preceding generations. We were content to work within the system and reassured ourselves that it would transform as the older generation aged out.
Then a shift occurred. The advent of social media breathed new life into racism in TT. The impersonal nature of online commenting increased the disconnect between hateful rhetoric and the all too real impact of the words we utter. If Gen Zers (broadly speaking, those born after the mid-90s) seem less surprised by the racism now on display it makes perfect sense. The only world they have ever known is one of cyberbullying and toxic rhetoric.
With each of my visits home, I observed an uptick in racial tension. Racists became increasingly bold in their public statements and, more distressingly, met with greater support and approbation. Each time, I saw an increase in the scapegoating of ethnic minorities; xenophobic views towards recent immigrants; and the public and private airing of racist sentiments (this last point most recently highlighted in the use of overtly racist slurs on political platforms and the revelation of WhatsApp groups dedicated to sharing racist sentiments).
So no, I’m not surprised to hear an educated woman call for involuntary sterilisation or a young man ridicule a religious icon. I’ve spent the past decade watching these sentiments be passively condoned by an increasingly polarised population.
For my peers who now wonder what their friends of other races truly think of them, my heart breaks for you. No one should have to live with distrust and cynicism. The only consolation I can offer (and it is small) is the hope that things are not as dire as they seem. Amidst the rise in racist statements and online hate speech, there is a glimmer of hope in another upward trend. Demographic data show a consistent rise in the percentage of our population identifying as “mixed.” It isn’t much, but it’s something to hold on to.
Maybe we really are more modern than those who came before us. Maybe future snapshots will reveal that the hateful voices were the loudest, but they were not the strongest. For the sake of our nation, I hope so.
ASHLEY-ANNE ELIAS BOHNERT