COLUMN – In the castle of my skin
I had the pleasure of reading that seminal work by George Lamming at The Alexandra School. I did not just have the luxury of reading it, but I studied it with an English literature teacher who was able to connect the contents of the book with my reality as a black Caribbean woman.
Sherla Collymore was able to make me care about that book. She was able to keep me checked into a system which I had no real uses for, to be quite honest, and I think teachers today have lost the knack of keeping children checked in.
Ms Collymore somehow convinced me I could feel that George Lamming’s frustrations were my own, and that once I read them and understood them, I did not have to “act out” my own scenes of frustration. It worked somewhat to keep me “in line” at school.
I have always had the tendency to “register my discontent” in specific circumstances, and when you are prone
to that expression in Barbados, you quickly get labelled as “unmannerly”, “troublesome”, “rude”. That label gets several more colourful adjectives if the person registering discontent happens to be in a female body.
Barbadian society has become very good at vilifying individuals who can stand for principle. Since there are very few safe spaces to dissent, or even just disagree, we have cultivated quite a passive aggressive society.
Nobody trusts anybody and there seems to be constant emphasis on “shutting down negative emotions” and fostering conformity instead of providing mechanisms to genuinely solve conflict. There is another worrying layer added to this interesting aversion to conflict in our society.
Issues are not judged based on the premise and values involved. Rather everything is reduced to personality and “who know who”. So individuals who are embroiled in what seems to be fraud to the average person are not held up to public sanction, as long as they have the right friends in the right places.
Men who molest their children or abuse their office to gain favours (in whatever form) are not reprimanded once they are in the right social groups and circles.
All of these features of Barbadian society must concern us as we try to figure out exactly where this country is and where we want to take it. Until we realize that people who choose to register discontent are a healthy part
of a democratic process, the transparency and changes we so badly want to see in our governance will not be possible.
As I started putting thoughts together for this week’s instalment, I heard a young commentator complain about the perception that he was “rude” for standing up for good service; and as I listened, I smiled. His discussion helped to cement this offering today.
I refuse to use this space simply to write about me, and I was hesitant about the topic –– but since his experience with being tagged as “rude” or “unmannerly” bore similarity to my getting the same label, I thought I would explore the notion of “unmannerliness” as a synonym for registering discontent, in the Barbadian context.
There is a vast difference between universal ill manners and “unmannerliness” in the Barbadian context as a synonynm for registering discontent. Two of the central differences are context and privilege.
I am usually accused of being unmannerly in the context of registering discontent against sexual harassment, standing up for good service, or defending the vulnerable.
There are some men in Barbados who continue to believe that women are objects to be used. This occurs rampantly in several businesses across the island without any regulation or address from management. In the discussion about sexual harassment, we usually cover sexual advances, but we forget the more complex expressions also covered in international definitions such as the creation of environments that lead to emotional turmoil, intimidation, or ridicule based on gender.
Like perpetrators of domestic violence, sexual harassment offenders are always quick to try to make everyone looking on at a situation believe the recipient is to blame for their actions. I have and will always register my discontent with that type of gender-based assault.
If I am “unmannerly” for that, then all is well in the deep recesses of the castle of my skin.
I seem to get labelled as “unmannerly” quite easily in my pursuit of good service on this island. I work long hard hours for my money and I am not prone to spend it just because I can’t eat it!!! I always look for value for money in my transactions. I also expect a staff that can deliver service.
The staff at the Barbados Light & Power Co. is awesome. I had a loose cable at my house and I called them at 5:30 on Wednesday evening. A crew had the wire fixed by 6:45 p.m.
Two handsome professional gentlemen. Well mannered. No unnecessary overtures; just efficiency.
I drive from anywhere to Spooner’s Hill to interact with Popular Discounts staff. I bought a cream there the other day and I stood up rambling on to the cashier about how impressed I was with the product for the cost. She listened and gave her own experience of having tried it. I’m not sure if it is because of hiring practice or training, but I have never had to be “unmannerly” at Popular Discounts.
Some other companies have me rated as an all-out this, that, and third. Service is important to me, and I am comfortable to admit that that is a part of the anatomy of the castle in my skin.
Anybody who tries to disadvantage children or other vulnerable groups will have reason to think I am “unmannerly”. I have a giant social conscience and, trust me, it is not because I wanted one.
I blame my mother, partly because I grew up seeing her always giving things away: vegetables, a meal, clothes to the Salvation Army, anything she had –– whether in excess, or whether offering and doing without, she gave. I have inherited that.
I always have a cause, and I am relentless in defending those I perceive to be in need of having their rights protected.
Privilege fits into all of this because “certain” people in Barbados are never classified as “unmannerly”. As long as you have a “big-up” title, then, even if you are universally ill-mannered, you are never classified as Bajan “unmannerly”. People who have the privilege of race are also seldom labelled as Bajan “unmannerly”.
It took me a while to decipher the things I needed to hold onto as I constructed the castle of my skin. I had to think long and hard, in a society such as ours, if I wanted to keep fighting sexual harassment or cower to it, whether I would start spending my money because I could not eat it, or whether I should continue to care for the less fortunate or the vulnerable.
Praise Jah for Sherla Collymore, who introduced me to George Lamming. Like him, I can call the foolishness in the national psyche of my island foolishness and still love my heritage fiercely. Like his character, I am simply me and very comfortable in my skin –– even within the limitations of my small island.
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and a part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)