By Tee White
A new buzz phrase that seems to be in use by members of the current Barbados government is, “This is who we are” as Bajans, or in the negative version – “This is not who we are”. Some version of this phrase was used 17 times in Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s address to the nation on the 54th anniversary of independence and has since been repeated by Minister of Tourism Lisa Cummins. But what are the aims behind the use of this phrase?
The first question that arises is who gave the 24 members of the current government the right to define for the nearly 300, 000 Bajans at home and the many thousands more who have made their lives elsewhere what it means to be a Bajan. Secondly, how did the government arrive at this essence of Bajan-ness? There are Bajans of all outlooks and personal views, some of which are directly contradictory. For example, there are those who cling fast to white supremacist ideas and the whole colonial inheritance from the English slavemasters, while there are others who reject this inheritance with contempt. How is it possible, in this complexity to decide that doing X is being Bajan but doing Y is not? And in any event, who gets to make that judgment?
In reality, however, the government’s new found love of defining Bajan-ness is not because they have suddenly discovered a desire to understand the cultural and psychological essence of what it is to be Bajan. Quite the contrary. The government’s intention is to use its definition as a weapon to stifle the struggle of the workers for their rights. Once the government establishes its monopoly to decide what is part of ‘who we are’ and what is not, it can easily use this power to declare anyone taking actions it disagrees with as being outside of the nation. The idea of using political and ideological differences as a means to exclude people from the nation is not a new one. One Senator Joseph McCarthy in the USA in the 1950’s drew on the work of the US legislature’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to pursue his own vendetta against those US citizens who took a stand for rights and justice because he considered them to be un-American. Towering freedom fighters like Paul Robeson and Claudia Jones were to become the target of McCarthy’s activities. Is this the direction of travel of the government of Barbados?
That the government intends to use its definition to suppress the workers’ struggles is clear from the fact that they have been targeting the fighting hotel workers with it. These workers, abandoned by their unions, faced with employers trying to cheat them out of their redundancy pay and a government that colluded with the employers by amending the Severance Payment Act, took a courageous stand to fight for their rights. The statements from the Prime Minister and from the Minister of Tourism are that the actions of the workers are not part of ‘who we are’. In other words, the workers must give up the struggle for their rights because this type of struggle is not part of being Bajan. These statements come from leaders of a political party which supported the huge protest in Bridgetown in 2017 against the tax policies of the previous DLP government. Was that protest part of ‘who we are’? And what about Nanny Grigg, Bussa and the freedom fighters of 1816 or Clement Payne and the martyrs of 1937? Were their actions part of ‘who we are’? Or are we now to understand from the government that our national heroes are not ‘who we are’?
Far from not being ‘who we are’, the actions of the fighting hotel workers are exactly who we are. From the days of slavery, those who toil in this country have had to fight for every inch of progress we have made. It’s no different today. The just demands of the laid off workers must be met and Bajans must go all out to support them in their struggle. That’s who we are.