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Monday, August 31, 2009

Happy Independence...?

It was a busy Sunday morning at Pricesmart.  We'd parked closer to the highway than to the entrance and made the walk through the car park to use the ATM and size up what was definitely going to be a massive long-weekend-pre-Independence-two-days-before-school-opens crowd.

We got to the door and I went through my wallet looking for the membership card before my girlfriend beat me to it and flashed hers.  I'd already made up my mind though that we were probably not going to be doing any shopping today having noted that the lines at the register were into the aisles and peoples' carts looked like they'd shopped for the month.

While my lady moved toward the ATM, I stood to size up a Bravia 46-inch flat screen but only wistfully, and pulled myself a little closer to the shelves having been struck pretty hard by the front of a cart.  Getting hit again by the side of the same cart pulled me out of my reverie.  There was nothing for me to mind really though.  Clearly, I was in the way and someone was having some trouble pushing their cart.  On a day like this in a place as busy, I don't even bother to wait to hear the "sorry" anymore.  As a matter of fact, I was setting to extend my own apologies for being an obstruction.

"Are you a supervisor?!  I want to see a supervisor," a middle-aged woman with glasses blustered, continuing to shove the cart roughly.  Her child, a girl of maybe five or six was sitting in the cart, looking a little bit bewildered.
[In my head] Pretty little thing... Father must be Chinese or some extraction... 
"Are you a supervisor?!" she asked loudly again, pushing up her glasses roughly.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her fussing her handbag onto her shoulder and pushing back her brown shoulder length hair.
Talking to me...?  Oh!  Ok... The fella there in the waistcoat...
She asked more roughly again whether he was a supervisor, and he began to blubber something while pointing the clearly flummoxed woman to what I can only guess was someone more senior on the floor.

"I want keep my cart here.  I don't want to lose my cart," she said as she extricated the little one, and gave the cart one more rough shove to the side.

Full blown maccociousness on my part took over.  The Pricesmart staff continued to mutter some, apparently not sure how to deal with this very animated lady, his own seeming pleasant conversation with another young man standing next to him cut short.

"Where is the supervisor?!  A man outside prevented me from parking!  Prevented me from parking!  And then," she turns, glares at me, "let a negro man park in front of me!"  The greater emphasis is not mine.  She then looked back to the beleaguered staffer.
*Chuckle* But she ent know people does stand up in and hold spots for people when the car park busy... Wait nuh!  What she just watch me in mih eye and say?!  Is me she dey wid?!
I was well outside by the time the bile really started to rise though.  She had blustered off dragging her child behind her and with the Pricesmart staffer in tow to make loud somewhere else, and I in the mean time went ahead to take my turn at the machine.

My girlfriend had missed the entire display, and I started recounting what had happened as I was pushing my wallet back into my pocket.  By the time I'd gotten to the "negro" bit, we were back in the car and on our way out.  Hot in my mind were the following questions:
  1. What the France did race have to do with the situation?  Would it have been any different had someone of a "different kind" taken the park that she wanted?
  2. How far was she going to carry her ignorance?  Was she going to repeat what she said so emphatically, possibly emboldened by my own inability to respond?
  3. How many people were going to be silently agreeing with her as she ranted on Pricesmart's floor?
  4. How many people would she have incited to responding to her with equal and greater crudeness?
  5. What in heaven's name was she teaching her little child?
One would hope that this woman would have quickly realised what she said, felt some remorse and would have refrained from repeating it.  One would also hope that if that weren't the case then she was just a vocal minority and a patent embarrassment to everyone around.  On the drive, my girlfriend put forward that the woman was definitely just one person, and that there would be so many more in the country who were not that obtuse.  But the fact that the woman felt comfortable enough to behave thus and that brazenly is not a good sign, that she feels brave enough to say such things loudly without fear of reproach and rebuke.

Forty-seven years on and this shameful, stinking attitude still exists in a society that we have marketed as cosmopolitan and callaloo and beautiful... Forty-seven years after the same race-based nonsense is reputed to have threatened to divide the country, splitting it into two physical territories... Almost thirty years after the same mode of thinking called for a rehash of that separatist cry... Even more recently, we have people shouting loudly "Race!" instead of "Blasted criminal!" and "Incompetent!" and "Yuh wrong and have no foot to stand on!"
Perhaps I did miss my own opportunity to put her in her place, to explain to her that her utterance was more than just contemptible and bordered on obscene.  But why should I have to, in this day and age, upbraid a woman who looked to be a reasonably intelligent and otherwise respectable member of the country's upper middle class?  Certainly that kind of correction isn't necessary today in an enlightened populace where education and opportunity are at least in theory available to all...  One would hope, yes?

A local journalist sadly wrote the following in 2002 though:
I don't think anyone could truthfully describe Trinidad as a successful society. The gung-ho patriots always point to our harmonious race relations as a lesson we have to offer the world. But that success is relative only to worst-case scenarios of official racism (like the Indesh state once recommended by our more bigoted Indo-Trinidadians) or racial killings.
To besides, I'm not sure if we can take any real credit for having avoided these extremes. That would imply a moral and ethical sensibility which Trinidadians do not display in any other facet of national life. Rather, I think it is our small geographical area and oil wealth which account for the relatively peaceful co-existence of the races on this island.
(The small land space ensures that the two racial groups have been unable to retreat into hermetic enclaves where prejudices could harden, while the oil and gas dollars have prevented the economy from becoming so parlous that demagogues could appeal to racial violence as a method of solving social problems.)
But, given the natural resources of this country, and given the intellectual and creative abilities of a significant number of individuals born here, it is fair to say that our society is a definite failure. That is, it is a failure relative to the levels of prosperity and social stability which our wealth and native talent should have created.
Have we grown since those heady days of 1962?  Are we really and truly independent, or does that woman's brand of disappointing narrowness show that we are still not ready for self-determination?

Happy 47th, Trinidad and Tobago.

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