‛Until you’ve walked a day in my shoes’ is so right
A good friend encouraged me to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation Course, which I had been putting off for too long.
My motivating factor for attending was that I wanted Black people to know that I care about them and that I wanted to learn more about their experience. I went to listen and to learn, but it turned into one of the most meaningful experiences of my adult life.
The connection between everyone in the room happened quickly, as we shared our stories, and in my group there was no hostility. My fears of feeling uncomfortable were completely unfounded.
In one exercise we broke into smaller groups to discuss why there may be intergenerational, emotional trauma passed down here in Bermuda. Of course, we discussed the legacy of 218 years of enslavement and how terribly Black people were treated then and in the following 137 years of legalised segregation in Bermuda.
We are talking about schools, cinemas, restaurants, social clubs and churches. I grew up here and was unaware, despite the declaration of desegregation by Sir Henry Tucker after the 1959 Theatre Boycott, that separation by race continued until 1971. At that time, because of a reluctance by Whites to integrate, a law was passed to desegregate the primary schools. Unfortunately, this was followed by a White flight to private schools.
I expressed outrage and regret about what happened. After joining the main group — there are usually about ten to 12 participants — a Black man in my smaller group leant over and said: “Claire, I have never talked to a White person about this; it has touched me deeply.”
That really meant something to me.
At the end of this session, we heard a story of a Bermudian couple who went to a local hotel for a staycation. After dinner, they ventured out to sit around the jacuzzi at seats the hotel had spaced out for social distancing. A Black female tourist asked if she could sit next to them, to which they said "no". She then became very upset and said they were racist and reported them to management.
I noticed myself becoming really annoyed with this tourist and her reaction, and thought I really dislike when people play the race card when it is not substantiated. But the group discussed this situation in depth and we acknowledged something triggered this woman, and we have no idea what kind of trauma she has endured from previous aggressions. It was her reality and experience, no matter the intent of the Bermudian couple.
I reflected a lot over the next few days and came to realise that I shouldn’t judge people so harshly, as I have no idea what is going on in their lives to make them behave a certain way. I committed then to become more empathetic and understanding.
The course is very structured and fact-based, so we learnt a lot — but it was the personal stories that impacted me most.
Our facilitator, Hashim Estwick, was excellent, with a kind and soft approach. This created a safe space and brought a warmth to the room. He told a story about how he flew to Finland for a conference, and when he got on the plane he turned left into first class but the stewardess looked at him and told him he probably made a mistake and should have turned right.
She was terribly embarrassed when he produced his ticket. On arrival in Helsinki, immigration took away his passport and told him to wait over there next to an official with a gun. After 20 minutes, they reappeared.
Everyone off his flight had already gone through. “Why are you bothering me,” Hashim asked. They answered: “Your passport was quite faded, so we had to take a good look.”
It was a brand-new passport. Then when he got in the taxi and gave the directions to one of the top hotels in the city, the taxi driver thought he had made a mistake. The next day in the corridor of his hotel, another guest asked him for new towels.
This type of racial profiling and resulting indignity is what most Black people have had to endure over and over, and in our group we discussed what could have happened if Hashim had become angry and raised his voice.
Growing up White, I just don’t think we realise the types of experiences that our Black population have had to go through.
Another story that made a big impression on me was from a West Indian policeman who had to question a White woman at her house about a crime. She unleashed a torrent of verbal abuse at him, calling him a “jump-up” and telling him he should go back to where he came from; also that she knew a White politician who would pull his work permit. And although this story happened a long time ago, this gentleman was almost in tears recounting it. He spoke about how he was an orphan and had worked so hard to get to Bermuda in the first place. I was struck by how this woman's words had hurt him so much, and for so long. I bet she has no idea.
Another Black participant went to university in Southern Carolina in 1993. He was standing with some other Bermudian students when they saw the Ku Klux Klan parade past them. He said the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. And that weekend at the shopping mall, he recognised the same pick-up truck from the parade and thought: “My goodness, they are all around me.” The result of this was that he and his mates decided to put their heads down, and most of them got straight A’s. That much they could control.
At the end of each of the seven sessions, we would go around in a circle and say how we were feeling. I was happy to hear the following words come out of Black members of our group: “Encouraged”. “Inspired”. “Hopeful”. This made the course worth it for me. Now I just wish more people who have enjoyed the privilege and power of growing up White in Bermuda would take the course to expand their awareness of racial bias because they are the ones who can bring influence and can effect change within themselves and among their family and peer groups.
I realise now I am only at the beginning of this journey of growth and understanding, and have a great deal more to learn, but I am hopeful and excited about what lies ahead.
More than 400 people have completed the Truth and Reconciliation Community Conversations and the antiracism group Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda is aiming for 1,000. Imagine if 10,000 people would show up! We might be able to shift some of the mistrust that exists in our society and achieve deeper understanding of one another's points of view.
• Claire Smith is a social activist and business entrepreneur