Mismanaging Culture & The Management of White Fragility
There’s a distinct trauma that comes with acknowledging tourism as our number one industry. It’s rooted deeply within us and it’s difficult to face. Like most trauma, it’s difficult to acknowledge.
In second grade I learnt that the number one industry in The Bahamas was tourism. Myself and my classmates were taught that we must be nice to all tourists so they’d want to come back and bring a friend. We were taught to greet our foreign visitors with a smile and to always go above and beyond the call of duty, because in a warped neocolonial version of Highschool Musical, we were “all in this together.” This was the lesson plan that accompanied the mandatory chapters in my official Social Studies -Tourism Education textbook.
Every photo that I saw of a tourist was white. So, whenever I saw a white person, I smiled. I tried to make myself as helpful as possible and I learnt the art of anticipating the needs of strangers. This was the formal pressure that we put on a generation of 6-7 year olds. I was actually 11 when I learnt that all tourists were not white and all white people were not tourists.
I remember being rounded up during school hours with other students that showed great creative promise and being taught to sing about how “watermelon is spoiling on the vine.” The boys were fitted with goat skin drums and cowbells, and most times they stood there barefoot in frayed jeans and strawhats. While the girls wore long skirts and hair cloths. As we sang at the harbour or airport, our songs and our presence created the backdrop and soundtrack to every tourist’s perfect vacation.
The reality is, our country is geared heavily towards the tourism industry to an extent that in many cases ignores the very true stories of its citizens.
When Benjamin Ferguson’s now-viral mural “Mismanaging Culture” was taken down from Taino Beach, the painting was called racist and inappropriate for a public setting. The same people that failed to view the painting before it was erected were now removing the painting shortly after receiving a few complaints and anticipating the way the piece would make visiting white people feel. Uncomfortable. The painting was being removed from a beach that was named after the people that first occupied this land and killed off in mass genocide for white comfort. The council admitted that they trusted Ferguson to create a piece that was “beautiful” and that would depict the beach it was placed on. In other words, they expected a painting of a beach…on a beach. Motel art.
A nation that formally taught their children that our subservience must replicate itself in the form of tourism seems to be confused by the contempt within the adults the system raised.
Our culture, though passed down by a proud people and created out of the lost tongues and practices of our ancestors from the African continent, has been repackaged and repurposed to make space for the consumption and comfort of the white tourists and expats that occupy this land. And for fear of being seen as ungrateful for these foreign dollars, we hold on to the very tangible pain that comes along with service with a smile. Our true thoughts must remain hidden away, whispered only among ourselves in the privacy of our own homes.
Art helps us to process this trauma. Art creates a conversation that allows us to stare deeply into the realities of our own representation and existence. One of those realities is the fact that our country was not created for the majority black and brown bodies that abide here. By depending so heavily on tourism we have created a system that places our people at a disadvantage, struggling to gain power in a game that is extraordinarily rigged. The power imbalance that comes along with our dependence on tourism showcases itself in situations like the removal of this painting where the reality of many is offensive to the few. Protecting the feelings of visitors and those that may benefit from the colonial structures of our land are more important than facing the harsh realities of those that have been bred to serve.
I love my country and I partake wholeheartedly in all that I can. That does not take away from the fact that there are many Grand Bahamians that remember that there was a time when very few black people were allowed beyond the Eight Mile Rock gates after dark or that there’s an actual review on Tripadvisor pointing out race relations in Spanish Wells. Our country was built in the bright shining light of colonialism, and it is in this shadow of colonialism that we still operate.
For fear of ruffling a few feathers with the word “Caucasian” the painting of “Mismanaging Culture” was removed. Many people made the argument that if the shoe was on the other foot, with a white person creating a painting similar to Benjamin Ferguson’s with the word “black juice” there would be an uproar. They would be correct. There would be an uproar and rightfully so. By making this devil’s advocate argument we fail to recognize that there is context and history behind the hurt that black Bahamians would feel were the roles reversed. What historical context does the word “Caucasian” arouse? What system was created to denigrate, belittle and subclass the community that seems to be hurt by this word placement and those seeking to protect them?
The placement of Benjamin Ferguson’s painting on Taino Beach allows not just white tourists but white Bahamians to see the context in which they occupy this space. If there is offense there. If there is hurt there. If there is a seed of immediate anger there. You now have the opportunity to dig really deep and find out why you may feel this way.
Last year during the height of the global Black Lives Matter protests, some Bahamians began to create petitions in reference to the removal of our own pieces of outdated and harmful colonial past. The thing that was missing however, was a conversation.
Years from now when we’re able to fully comprehend the reason statues of Columbus and Queen Victoria need to be removed, we will honestly be able to say that the real conversation that ushered their removal along was the artwork of a little girl drinking a juice pouch in a tropical sphere surrounded truthfully by Caucasian joy on banana boats.
We will be able to say that this piece did its part to spark some semblance of a movement.