Identity and bewilderment
This is the first of a three-part essay describing Bermuda’s cultural crisis as it moves towards becoming a dysfunctional society
Over the course of our short history, Bermudians have adopted ideas and values from a variety of sources. What we view as Bermudian culture is an amalgamation of many ideas and values developed, borrowed, assimilated or foisted upon us.
Our cultural change is a result of our collective shifts away from traditional values towards those which manifest as dysfunction. In fact, in the past 40 or so years, the manifestation of dysfunction has escalated largely because of our intentional and unintentional adoption of values that are intimately connected to our search for identity.
Western “black folk” have an identity crisis and we have been searching for “identity” in the wrong places. That most of us cannot specify where we came from highlights our historical and ancestral “bewilderment”. Although we can point to an obvious African genetic heritage, or we can pinpoint minor cultural influences, we are not culturally African.
Africa is a vast continent comprising numerous ethnic groups, many different languages and a diverse array of cultures. If given a choice, which ones would we culturally subscribe to?
We are culturally Western and our search for identity has become ethnic-groping. Put another way, collectively we are ethnically “lost”. Since we are largely ignorant of the ethnic group to which we belong, our cultural knowledge is limited to those traditions that survived the historical effects of slavery, racism and racist ideology, and are now being further shaped by an all-inclusive capitalist culture.
Our identity revolves around our “black” skin in the guise of an ethnic group. While black skin is easily identifiable, it obscures other important characteristics such as class and religious or other ethnic association. We have been labelled as “black”, internalise how we are perceived as black and try to define what it means to be black. Unfortunately, many influences on Western “black” identity debilitate rather than elevate it.
For generations, the United States of America has been successfully exporting its values to the world. The American Dream is one that has been inviting immigrants to come and take part in their society. This message states that anyone can go from rags to riches under democracy where the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is upheld.
If you put in the hard work and sacrifice, there is opportunity for upward mobility and success. But while America has been exporting this dream, its domestic reality regarding race was in sharp contradiction to it. In fact, what has largely influenced us culturally is the fallout from the conflicts between minority “black” America and dominant “white” America regarding racism and inclusion.
While our approach to dealing with racism has an indigenous Bermudian character, significant cultural influence has come from America because when we aligned ourselves with America’s “victimised” black minority, we became its pillion passenger.
“Black” America’s demographic is huge by comparison with ours and other black populations of the Caribbean islands. But, in comparison with the total American population, blacks have historically held a minority status of about 12 per cent to 13 per cent. In spite of this, they have been very influential in shaping the larger American culture and influencing Western black cultures elsewhere, too.
But there were other cultural influences on us from the Caribbean islands whose black demographic, like ours, contrasted with that of America’s, with “black” majorities. But a “victim’s” perspective was a common feature of their search for identity as well.
Hundreds of years of racism and racist ideology have consolidated their traumatic effects by being embedded in our cultural psyche. It has helped to shape our identity by facilitating the adoption and promotion of a victim’s mindset. This mindset is particularly salient for Western black folk because it is a specific cultural element that seeks to debilitate us — along with other influences.
Although created by and perpetuated through mainstream racist culture, it is also socialised, reinforced and perpetuated willingly and unwittingly by black folk on black folk from generation to generation in varying degrees of intensity based on an internalised level of subscription to it.
The level to which one subscribes to this mindset determines how much it impedes personal progress. In this way, too, it helps to thwart collective progress. The subscription level ranges from low to high regarding racial matter, but is not confined to it. Your world view and analysis of events is determined by it.
In any case, if you’re a victim, then it’s not your fault. The blame goes outward to an external scapegoat. But blaming others for the situation you’re in means you’re absolved of responsibility for things you have done or haven’t done that have hindered your progress.
At the lowest subscription level, there is “victim” awareness but a rejection of the label and/or a reluctance to lay blame. At the highest level, the victim’s mindset becomes your identity and may promote hatred of all white people. It rationalises personal failures as subverted conspiracies of the white man.
Now, some conspiracies did have some historical basis of truth. Like, for instance, Hollywood’s early marginalisation of black actors to peripheral or expendable roles, which impacted black self-worth and identity. And there is the popular, present-day assertion of systemic racism. But, while it is true that many of our present-day issues stem from historically derived racism, it is far easier to “claim” a link of “systemic” racism than it is to “prove” it exists today. This is because racism and discrimination are now inextricably intertwined. But discrimination does not apply only to black folk; it is an underlying characteristic of modern-day capitalism.
This “victim’s” mindset is promoted through racist ideology, and through capitalism and its modern, cultural forms of expression. These have all helped to shape black culture and identity here and elsewhere.
During the late 1950s through to the 1960s, there was a rise of black consciousness in the US with ripples throughout the black Western diaspora. It was, in part, a rejection of the white dominant cultural values, but also an awareness of black identity and our contributions beyond that of slavery.
This had cultural ramifications. A positive Pan-African movement emerged, which sought to help give blacks identity. The American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, which addressed racial equality and sought to end segregation, had profound cultural importance. From that movement came an awareness of blacks’ potential economic and political power.
Its effect in Bermuda was to set in motion the challenge to end segregation and push for civil rights here. But integration meant that hundreds of years of racist ideology would have to be confronted each time blacks sought inclusion. So “black” identity began to be shaped by integration and integration firsts — the first person to do this or that.
Other events elsewhere had cultural importance, too. Jamaica exported reggae music to us in the 1970s, which contributed to our search for identity. This new revolutionary music attached to the Rastafarian religion sought to teach “up-lift-ment” by way of African-culture identity, black pride and awareness of the exploitation of black people.
The elevation of the “victim” was a feature used to expose the Babylon system. But the victim’s mindset began to be an increasing characteristic of a wide range of “black” culture. Even the rise of black consciousness could not stem this tide. In fact, as a movement, it became thwarted by the extremely complex exercise of unravelling the diverse historical links before slavery. ?
Unfortunately, this resulted in two important victim’s mindset messages that continue to shape our predicament. The first is: since our history is largely “unknown” and we don’t have direct links to it, we cannot replicate it and so we define ourselves from the present. Our “identity” is therefore overwhelmingly shaped by present-day influences on us such as materialism, for example.
The second message was that our search for identity should not come from mainstream “white” culture. It has been our oppressor and we its victims. This means that there is enormous conflict with following the “white man’s way”. And so, there is a constant search for the “new aesthetic” to identity, which is, ironically, also encouraged by the modern capitalist “liberal” consumer impulse of acquiring the “new” product or service with materialism being the legitimised “proof” of success.
It also means that the adoption of fringe culture, or that which was considered “off-limits”, becomes an option in our groping for identity. So we elevate and emulate the rebel, for example, because he is “off limits”. He symbolises resistance to the dominant white culture’s power and control over us and appeals to our need for “black” historical justice. But the rebel doesn’t care about norms, values or civility, which is why broad acceptance moves us towards dysfunction and chaos.
Our society’s displays of dysfunction are becoming macroscopic precisely because of the adoption of the “vulgar, rougher, baser or deviant” elements of our culture — those of America’s and Jamaica’s, in particular, but also other Caribbean countries.
The impact of the negative aspects of our adoption of “black” American and Jamaican culture in music, for example, are significant because the level of intoxication is highest from these in our community. From these sources and from numerous others, dysfunctional values are disseminated through media. Their constant bombardment has been so pervasive that many adults and parents, in particular, have failed to recognise and negate those elements for their young. Our collective silence has meant that we sanction them.
Today, for example, we are bombarded by a powerful, sinister version of reggae, in particular “dancehall”. It largely conveys a message of selfishness, intolerance and instant gratification. Sometimes it does speak to the oppressive nature of “the Babylon system” of capitalism and our place in it as victims.
This genre of music is appealing for its grittiness, the beat and how the lyrics flow with it. But this music is often characterised by its crude harshness, offensive language, self-gratification, shallow self-promotion and, at times, a base sanctioning of misogyny where women are reduced to mere sexual beings to make up a tally for young men’s appetites, and men are placed into groups of either “my side or the opposing side” where brutal, violent confrontation is promoted when solving disputes.
From “informer” killings to homosexual attacks, music of this sort has a pervasively destructive influence. Although most thoughtful adults have the necessary skill set to shield them, this indoctrination is not lost on the young. For them, it is not just music. This phenomenon comes complete with dress codes, behaviour, language and a world view that fits neatly into their victim-mindset subscription level and becomes a lifestyle choice to emulate. This same situation occurs with American rap, gangsta rap and hip-hop music, etc.
In fact, the increasing levels of violence in our society is a manifestation of the adoption of culturally dysfunctional values. If we are constantly subjected to programming where violence is accepted and glorified, and there are no counter measures to dispel it as morally repugnant, then at some point we succumb to its corruption.
It is precisely this form of cultural misdirection that is happening here and elsewhere. It is clear that our youth are not able to identify those values that represent dysfunction. They regard it as normal and acceptable. These youth will have a gross insensitivity towards each other. When there is intolerance, there is an increase in displays of antisocial behaviour and there is violence when solving disputes.
An awareness of our own subscription to the victim’s mindset is key towards the negation of its harmful effects on us and for our society. We also need to be aware of how dysfunctional or victim-mindset values are disguised as cultural expression in order to counter it.
To resist the barrage of dysfunction we import 24-7 via all forms of media, there needs to be a consistent, homogeneous programme implemented in schools to inculcate culturally positive values to all our children.
From the early 2000s, we have had a rather laissez-faire approach. In terms of values lessons, teachers teach whatever interests them and, sadly, this results in inconsistencies. More than 25 years ago, we had a programme called Lions Quest Skills for Growing, which sought to reach youngsters in the lower primary grades, and Skills for Adolescents, which sought to reach the upper grades up to P7.
The programme sought to impart a homogeneous set of civic values devoid of religious indoctrination. Teachers were rigorously trained with professional development. Now, more than ever, we need to impart a positive and civic mindset to all students. But we also need to help develop “identity” by teaching African history and contributions, placing our history of slavery in its broader context; that it was practised by nearly all nations for a huge amount of time before our enslavement.
We must teach youth that racism was established as a justification for our subjugation, but we must not perpetuate a victim’s mindset. We must not settle for the creation of myths or historical embellishment. We must strive for truth.
If you go back, you may not find — like in Alex Haley’s Roots — a princely ancestor. You will not find a utopian paradise, no matter how far you go back. But you will find in the historical record groups of people who co-operated and depended on each other for their very survival, and this is the larger goal for which we must strive.
• Anthony Crichlow has been an educator for 30 years and is keenly interested in the cultural transformations taking place in Bermuda and globally
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