PEOPLE & THINGS: ‘Egyptian-Jew’, Sir Roy?
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
It is ironic that only last week a group of religious black leaders in the United States issued a statement which started with the quotation presented above, which originated with Dr Martin Luther King.
The intent of King’s statement and its relevance to the now infamous comment by Sir Roy Trotman should be obvious and it should perhaps be equally obvious why people who are concerned with the pursuit of justice would have difficulties with Sir Roy’s statements.
These comments were not only unnecessary and offensive, but highly prejudicial to the interests of the same workers that Sir Roy represents. In an effort to highlight injustice (which I am inclined to think was genuine), he has effectively succeeded in offending a section of the Barbadian community and shifting focus away from the plight of workers, which is prejudicial to their interest.
At the core of this issue should be a commitment to equality and an opposition to discriminatory treatment, regardless of whether it arises from a person’s race, class, colour, creed or sexual orientation.
Consistent with this position, I am challenged to understand why the racial or national origin of a person who heads an organization is relevant to any alleged unsavoury employment practices adhered to by such a person.
Ironically, one never hears such reference when positive behaviour is commended, such as the all too infrequently mentioned Arab-Trinidadian origins of a fast-food restaurant proprietor whose employees are said to be among the most loyal and satisfied in the country.
Presumably, one is to construe that this gentleman’s origins are not material to his outstanding employment practices, but another’s origins are material to a discussion on the alleged mistreatment of workers.
Similarly, there have been several instances in which Afro-Barbadians have ill-treated workers and the Barbados Workers’ Union has taken a justifiable position against them without the assumption that their “blackness” or “Barbadianness” was the basis of the proclivity to treat people badly.
Although the issue is a delicate one, we appreciate that often innocent remarks can give rise to offence on account of generalized traits or attributes ascribed to nationalities, races and culture groups. This is true of all races and likewise “Jews” have more recently been the subject of notorious assumptions, many of which are related to their (presumed) business practices.
Generalizations are often dangerous since they tend to embrace both the guilty and innocent when we assume that someone who is unknown to us will behave in a particular way. Enlightened people have come to realize that “conditions” such as the “Napoleon syndrome” are unscientific, unfair and insulting generalizations that have no place in contemporary discourse.
In this specific instance, Sir Roy’s defenders have argued that there is nothing wrong with stating the truth and my investigations have revealed that the individual in question was born in Egypt of Israeli ancestry. The fact that this was known to Sir Roy is a fascinating issue in and of itself. However, there are other attendant observations that are important.
The first of these is the fact that regardless of his “origin”, the individual in question is Barbadian and as Barbadian as any other naturalized citizen. In our legal tradition there is only one designation since there are no first- or second-class Barbadians. However, one often gets the impression that “we” prefer to think of Barbadians as people who fit the racial profile of the majority of people here. As such we refer to Barbadians on the one hand and “Indians” on the other, as though an Indo-Barbadian is in need of a further classification.
More recently, we have become familiar with Barbadians of Syrian and Lebanese origin who join with “Indo-Barbadians” as a sub-group that apparently requires further definition. As such, their children are often referred to as Syrian or Lebanese although they were born here and carry the same Barbadian passport as I do.
Many years ago I read a book entitled Bring Home The Revolution: The Case For A British Republic and it made a point that one of the superior attributes of the American republic is the fact that it is inclusive. Any person can be naturalized and develop emotional ties to that country relatively quickly to the point where they instinctively refer to themselves as American, while second-generation British children of Caribbean origin still adhere to the identify of their parents.
Although this is largely voluntary, the fact that it is instinctive speaks volumes about the extent to which Britain is not an inclusive society and it is disturbing to discover that we in Barbados are in many ways similar.
As we become a more cosmopolitan society, we need to become accustomed to the fact that Barbadians will take many shapes, sizes and “forms” but are all equally Barbadian and entitled to fair and equitable treatment.
No citizens of our society should be made to feel “less Barbadian” on account of their ethnic profile. As an Afro-Barbadian who frequently speaks on behalf of marginalized groups, I feel it is important that we become more like Americans and less like the British in this regard.
Here in Barbados we enjoy the relative safety of an Afro majority and one often gets the impression that this safety encourages us to take aim at the minorities among us. We cannot argue that we should not be discriminated against, while turning the cudgel of discrimination on others since that weakens the entire fabric of our society.
Like others who have criticized Sir Roy’s position, I would prefer if employers were attacked on the basis that they violated a principle and not on account of a racial or culture group to which the “offender” involuntarily belongs.
Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).