by Oliver Benoit, PhD, MFA
Professor of Sociology, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, SGU
The recent demonstration against the alleged violent abuse of a “Black Grenadian” by a “white foreigner” as reported in the media, in the vicinity of Fort Jeudy on Saturday, 27 June, should cause all citizens and residents of Grenada to reflect on why it ignited fervent dialogues about racism in Grenada.
As I listened to some of those discussions on the local media, I became convinced that the United States 24 hour TV news channels are having a devastating effect on the population of Grenada; the inability to contextualise events as they unfold in other societies.
The Black Lives Matter-led protest in the United States sparked by the murder of George Floyd, is one of many acts of police brutality of African Americans that has resonated across the world, including here in Grenada. This awareness is welcomed, but it must be understood within the long history of systemic racial discrimination in the United States that serves to disadvantage Black people in all areas of life including healthcare, education, housing, banking, among others. Grenada and the USA share a history of slavery by Europeans. However, the distinctiveness of Grenadian society renders attempts to explain racism in Grenada, through the lens and experiences of racial discrimination in the United States, is somewhat futile.
When Grenadians decided to protest against racism in Fort Jeudy, because (1) a “white” or “Caucasian” person is alleged to have violently abused a “black” Grenadian over the killing of a family dog, and (2) the Grenadian police not detaining the “white man” for the “racist attack,” such an incident has to be a matter of concern and reflection for all Grenadians. The concern and reflection must be about the way we consume news events from the United States or elsewhere, while assuming that a similar version of events is taking place in Grenada. The danger is that we run the risk of importing concepts of racism from the United States into Grenada and applying it to local situations such as this alleged act of violence over the death of the family dog.
While I am in no position to say that the alleged acts of violence on the presumed victim was not racially motivated, my concerns are that the protesters were using slogans that appear to parrot those of the United States protesters who are struggling against entrenched racism in that country. This approach runs the risk of misunderstanding the nature of racism in Grenada and how it affects our society.
For this reason, it is necessary to explain what racism is and how it operates. Racism is socially constructed. The idea of “races” appears to have entered our consciousness at the inception of colonialism and slavery. The concept of racism became useful as a justification for European exploitation and conquest of foreign lands and the subjection of the people. We can define racism as the prejudice of someone based on the colour of one’s skin or “ethnic” origin. Racism may manifest itself in institutional ways where one group exercises power over the other based on those prejudices. Those who hold political and economic power always invent concepts that allow them to maintain a privileged position in society. So, it was still useful to believe that people without power are somewhat inferior — not quite human. In the United States, over time, the discrimination and perceived inferiority of African Americans have become cultural so that people can be racist without recognising it. It is not surprising that many white Americans did not recognise the extent and brutality of racism in their country until they were forced into national pause due to Covid-19 and then consumed the video of the murder of George Floyd.
Historically, the social relations of Grenadian society developed on the basis of slavery founded on the dehumanisation of Blacks. After the abolition of slavery in 1833, race and class became the basis of the stratification system of Grenada. Throughout that history, particularly from the 1950s onwards, class may have become more critical than race. The rise of Eric Gairy and even the 1979 Grenada Revolution alerted the expression and experience of racism in Grenada. What that means is that racism after Gairy was quite different since he made it possible for darker-skinned Grenadians to work in the public service, banks and other businesses that once only employed whites or brown-skinned Grenadians. The point is that race and class as developed through colonialism, was always central to Grenadian social life, so racism has always existed in Grenada. Though some will contend that the Gairy Social Revolution of the 1950s eliminated racism, but this is not the case — racism continued. However, concepts like “Caucasian,” “White,” or “Black Grenadian” are rarely used in the Grenadian context to describe the racism that exists here. Perhaps “white” or “Caucasian,” constitute such a small percentage of the Grenadian population and may not hold political and social power for racism to express itself as a Black/white issue, without broadening the definition to include class and others often referred to as light or brown-skinned. It is well known that those identified as white here — invariably include brown-skinned descendants of slaves and former white plantation owners — will never be considered white in the United States. The racism that exists in Grenada today has to be understood within this context — the historical development of race and class.
Racism in Grenada should not be equated with racism in the United States. If we do, we run the risk of importing racism that does not exist and ignoring the peculiar nature of racism and other prejudices that permeate Grenada social and economic life.
First, there is the problem with internalised racism that has been ignored in Grenada; white and brown-skinned superiority is accepted and that power at times is exercised racially — in restaurants, hotels, and important enterprises in this country. There are many instances where Grenadians are denied opportunities because their nose is too wide or their skin tone is too black. If it were the case that the police should have detained that couple, it might well be that those officers were affected by internal racism.
Second, our reliance on foreign investors may place us in a compromising position, thereby accepting racist behaviour for economic gain. Such behaviour can affect our workers in those enterprises, particularly where local managers can play the role of “house slaves” to the detriment of workers, and workers do not feel that they have a voice because of their underprivileged existence determined by race and class.
Third, we should not forget that we still engage in the use of derogatory name-calling of people with darker skin tones. And other forms of violence that are accepted in our societies such as the legally allowed and explicit prejudices against the LGBTQ2 community in Grenada.
Finally, as Grenada becomes more interdependent on the increasingly globalised world, racism invented as part of the colonised project will not go away unless we confront it with strong institutions where the population becomes more critical and reflective of media that is produced and consumed. As a nation, we must become aware of all forms of discrimination in our society.