Carlie Ester on the culture of race in Barbados
IT IS A UNIQUE IRONY that Barbados celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the shadow of its ‘Crop Over’ festival – an event which is modeled on a colonial-era, slave celebration to mark the end of harvesting on sugar-cane plantations.
And with only a handful of critics on this unique cultural juxtaposition, local broadcaster Carlie Ester stood out when she used her début platform as a BBC overseas correspondent to criticise Emancipation’s marginalisation.
But it was her closing remarks on Barbados’ race relations — seen through the lens of Crop Over’s Grand Kadooment climax — that put her in the spotlight of criticism.
Kadooment, a street parade of rum-fuelled revelry that draws masqueraders from a cross-section of Barbadian society, bares an open secret that is rarely publicly questioned: it has a masquerade band whose members are almost entirely White.
“It’s such a fascinating thing to see, it’s like a little Bajan oddity, something that is so uniquely ours. And it’s a direct result of our history and a prime example of how cliquey we are.”
The band, known as Blue Box Cart, is traditionally always the first band to lead the Kadooment parade, and stands in stark contrast to all others that – by and large – reflect the Black ethnic make-up of the 166 sq. mile island. Says Ester, “to witness a sea of white faces gathered together is at first glance, surprising…[but] it’s just another way in which the race relations of plantation society curiously manifest themselves in 2014.”
And while quick to clarify that Barbados generally accepts and hold no malice towards the Blue Box Cart institution, and that the institution itself does not restrict entry of masqueraders based on race, her statements are no less taboo in an island where such comments are particularly uncommon.
We interviewed Carlie to get her take on the culture of race in Barbados, and the aftermath of her comments.
[tw-divider]Interview with Carlie Ester[/tw-divider] Q: Did you expect any fallout when you remarked about the racial disparities in Kadooment masquerade bands?
Not at all, I didn’t think anyone would even notice. I never intended nor anticipated there would be any fallout, maybe that was naive on my part! I just look at it as a statement that is neither pro nor con Blue Box Cart, it’s simply a statement of what is.
Q: What was the main push-back to your statements?
I was completely surprised! The greatest push-back, as far as I can see, came from some of the people who join the band and I daresay live within that pocket of society.
Of those who disagree, I think some misunderstood what was actually reported. There’s always the “bandwagon” effect where what is said is translated incorrectly from ear to ear and begins to take on a sentiment of its own.
With others though, I think the parallels drawn touched a raw nerve, maybe it’s a statement that they just don’t want to hear. It’s something that they either don’t see at all, or see but wish not to. I don’t know which, truthfully.
Q: Has anybody defended the Blue Box Cart institution?
I don’t think anyone needs to defend Blue Box Cart, as they were not attacked. But I think a few people have voiced opinions supportive of the band, loosely saying it’s a great time, you see all colours and creeds in the band – all of which are true, but unfortunately besides the point. Of course Blue Box Cart is [fun]! Of course there’s a mix of white, black, brown and purple! But that doesn’t change the fact that its demographics do not accurately represent that of the nation: that it is a cultural phenomenon.
Q: Blue Box Cart & Kadooment Day show up one day in the year. Do you think that this exclusivity and segregation mirrors everyday race-relations in Barbados society?
Yes, I do, to an extent. There isn’t a complete divide, but there are still pockets that have been preserved. Every generation works harder than the last to pop those pockets. I think we present a more classist society than a racist society since we have such a racially homogeneous breakdown. But if there’s one thing we are – it’s cliquey. We have come a long, long way in two hundred years, but we still have a bit of a way to go.
Q: Would you say there’s a race problem in Barbados?
I might be naive again but I think we all get along quite well actually. I think the homogeneity prevents problems from breaking out. If there were a more dramatic ethnic breakdown, maybe we would be more racially tense. But we’re lucky, we don’t have a minority government, we have a great education system that caters to everyone.
Sometimes I walk into one of those “little pockets” and the air is heavy with colonialism and the chains of history pushing back against change. It’s all I can see but, I don’t think those who are immersed in their pockets can see it as I do.
I have been blessed with a mixed family, both with non Bajan and non ‘white’ members, I have been blessed with the ability to form relationships with people from all walks of life – so I don’t feel as though I’ve been raised with ‘blinkers’ on. There are few, black and white alike, that have, unfortunately. That’s the problem.
Q: Would you say that the racial segregation in Barbados is more of a passive inheritance from the colonial past, or are there elements of active encouragement?
I think “active encouragement” indicates some level of malice, and I don’t think there’s much – some, but not much. I guess by default we are passively rolling downhill.
To be specific to whites, I believe a sizeable statistic are not totally integrated into society. They have their safety nets, their little pockets, and they stick to those without venturing too far out. It’s just a comfort zone, staying close to friends, family, the “known” vs. the “unknown”. No blame thrown.
Why would a white person want to jump with a “black people band”? Why would black people want to jump with Blue Box Cart, a “white people band”? It goes both ways but we aren’t doing it maliciously, we’re just doing it because that’s what we do. We passively continue the cycle.
I think those who tend to disagree with me, especially in this report, don’t realize it’s happening. There is no law enforcing that we live this way – we just do. But I think it changes more and more with each generation.
Q: Do you have any regrets about going public with what you said?
No, because I was simply making a statement on race relations during Kadooment in modern day Barbados, and I don’t believe I said anything that was wrong or unjust.
My regret is that no one has paid any attention to the other two-thirds of the report, the real meat of the matter! The Blue Box Cart bit was a scrap at the end but the dinner table was set with lamentations on the fact that Emancipation Day, which in my opinion is far more historically and culturally significant, is totally ignored for a made up carnival. Also that people have been losing their jobs and the economy is in the toilet, what are we going to do about that?
There are always regrets of course, when people dislike what you have to say, but I welcome disagreement – it’s food for debate.
Q: What would an ideal Barbados look like in terms of race relations? Both on Kadooment Day and in general?
In an ideal Barbados all those little pockets in which there is a strong concentration of one race, one group or one clique will be popped.
On an ideal Kadooment we would get two days to jump up and costumes would be cheaper! But in terms of race relations, that we would have been socialized in a more integrated fashion from birth, throughout childhood, into adolescence, so that one colour pattern won’t be so highly saturated in one place.
Q: Any final parting shots?
I want to clarify that in many ways I am a part of the system .Blue Box Cart has always been the band that I’ve jumped and partied with whenever I participate in Crop Over celebrations.
Blue Box Cart is not inherently a racist institution. It’s an institution that manifests itself in 2014 as an evolution from racist institutions from yesteryear. It is a system that has enormous historical significance to we who exist in Barbadian society.
The difference between me and select others is that I am aware of this system. I can see it happen. I watch it happen, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to speak up about it!
It’s usually a good idea to pay attention to what is actually being said first before picking up a pitchfork. You see how sacred Blue Box Cart is? People get vehement when they feel it’s under attack. Well I hope somebody gets vehement on my behalf when I’m under fire too.