In a rush they shove us into containers,And some of us rattle in the containers,
Anything they have that will hold us,
They like or hate what fits,
They hate or disregard what doesn’t.
If there is space around us in that shape,
They say it is our fault for not filling.
We are… deficient. Wanting.
Their expectation magically
Becomes our… abnormality.
Some fill the hollow and pass on the containers
Some do not and pretend, and pass on the containers.
Today, Vladimir Putin made quite the statemet regarding sovereignty and colonies. The truth of the statement is without question. There is no in intermediate state: either a country is sovereign or it is a colony. He went on in a video to say (translated):
“During the war with Sweden, Peter the Great didn’t conquer anything, he took back what had always belonged to us, even though all of Europe recognised it as Sweden’s. It seems now it’s our turn to get our lands back [smiling]“
The world might view that differently if it was Boris Johnson or the Queen saying the same about the former English colonies, or Macron speaking of the former French colonies.
The difference, as more than one person of pigment has told me in so many words, is that Ukrainians are not people of pigment. They’re white. And, as has shown up more than once, while bad things are happening in other parts of the world, Ukraine seems to be sucking the air out of the room. “What about Syria? Palestine?” I heard more than once. Some were clear trolls on twitter, some not, but when it gets left hanging, it reinforces the view that the only difference between Ukraine and these other places, from the Congo to Palestine, are a matter of color.
To an extent that might be true. There’s also the issue of land mass, proximity to EU nations and the UK, it’s supply chain of wheat and lithium, and, an interesting thing that almost no one pays attention to: language. In Ukraine, while Russian and Ukrainian are spoken, the major cities have are able to speak the languages of people outside of Ukraine – like English, which we who read this have some grasp of. Nevermind the religious aspects, such as Christianity. In many ways, what isn’t a part of the EU looks a lot like a member of the EU.
Then, there are the nuclear power plants where a nuclear power that threatens using nuclear devices gets more nuclear plants.
The spokespeople from the start have been, aside from President Zelensky, well articulated Ukrainian women. That may have had an effect too; I don’t know, but it was markedly different.
Democracy, sovereignty… a nuclear power not just being dishonest from the start, but being dishonest throughout. Yes, we have seen that before, and we didn’t like it. The New York Times even apologized. Military members were prosecuted for abusing positional authority, which in some instances is a kind way of putting it. Too kind, in my opinion, but the point was that it was bad, and we know that.
What’s not talked about is the past of Ukraine beyond ‘it was once a part of the USSR’. An entire generation, has been born since the fall of the USSR, but the veil of colonialism persists beyond it’s fall, just as the colonial past haunts former colonies made independent just in the last century; 2 or 3 generations.
I’ve been biting back a post on colonialism for some time as I listened to Ukrainians speak in the Ukrainian Spaces on Twitter. It brought up some old conversations had at the first CARDICIS in St. Lucia, in 2004, where I found myself sitting beside a Carib chief at times, where the melting pot of the Caribbean met to talk about culture and ICT. I’d thought I was invited by mistake, but intrigued I went anyway and the experience changed the way I viewed the world. What I heard in the Ukrainian spaces was almost exactly what I heard at CARDICIS, only with a different accent.
CARDICIS had commonalities, and the point of the exercise was to transcend differences in whose colony left what language where, and to recognize the deep diversity of the Caribbean and what separations there were – and building bridges across them. It worked to a degree, but there’s only so much one can do against the inertia of various cultures.
Thus, it was peculiar after 18 years to sit, listening in spaces on Twitter, about the Ukrainians talk about the Russian imperialism while in the same breath wondering why there wasn’t more support for Ukraine in Africa, India, Latin America and the Caribbean. And I cannot help but wonder how the insulation may have worked both ways. In trying to communicate with some speaking out about how colonialism impacts Ukraine, I was met with silence. They are a bit busy making their case to the world, and I think the case would be made better if they made it to a broader audience who could sympathize and not just empathize. Still, it’s not my case to make.
There’s a plurality in Ukraine of people who, over hundreds of years, have not had a great relationship with the former Russian empires. Crimean Tartars, Roma, Cossacks… the list goes on. The people of Eastern Europe, it ends up, surprised the world with ‘revelations’ that they knew all too well and which we didn’t. It’s plausible that it works both ways.
There’s the recent reaffirmation of ‘regrets’ by Belgium’s King regarding the colonial past in the Congo. There’s the issues being discussed about the United States territories in the context of colonialism. Egypt had the Cairo Punch, started in 1908, had it’s satirical illustrations of nationalism and colonialism. There’s Britain’s Windrush Scandal, among many other things related to colonialism brought to the fore on the Queen’s Jubilee (Happy birthday, by the way, I forgot to send a card). The University of Texas at Austin even has a recent article about how the Legacy of Colonialism Influences Science in the Caribbean. and while I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of India and it’s complexities, this line by Amit Shah, Union Home Minister, is a powerful line to write 75 years after India’s independence:
“No one can stop us from writing the truth. We are now independent. We can write our own history,” he said.
75 years after independence from Britain, in a large nation, a nation with nuclear weapons but not falling under the definition of ‘nuclear power’ (an interesting read), has someone being quoted as saying that.
Colonialism and it’s effects are everywhere, and it’s generally omitted in it’s effects across media. What’s the cure? Well, developmental aid doesn’t seem to be working, according to this this article about development aid:
“…We should not be surprised that the aid industry keeps itself busy, year after year, without ever getting closer to what should be its goal – a world without aid. Industries and institutions seek not merely to perpetuate themselves, but to grow. The aid industry has no intention of ever packing up and going home. On the contrary: the UN announced eight development goals and 18 targets in 2000. In 2015, that grew to 17 goals and 169 targets….”
So, what is the answer?
The first step, I think, to move beyond colonialism is to find others with common issues, and one of the more common issues is the isolation from others, such as in the Caribbean even the next island over, by language, by culture, and by economic connection.
Colonialism is more of a common issue than most people think- with only a few articles linked here from the plethora on the Internet, which of course leads us to the Digital Divide, technocolonialism – other things I’ll be writing about soon.
For now, as the world becomes more aware of the voices in Ukraine speaking of the Russian empire, there are those speaking of the European Empires even as 2-3 generations later, former colonies are still recovering… maybe the best answer is to find the commonalities and build from there. As the narrative was at CARDICIS, we all cook, we all eat – but everyone’s food tastes different because of the different ingredients and balances of the ingredients.
There is much to learn from those different balances and different ingredients.
It wasn’t too long ago that I was in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, sitting in the local steakhouse at the bar next to a then friend who kept introducing me as being from Trinidad, a prop of the exotic in retrospect, but a burden. So I spoke to him about it, because it’s factually incorrect.
I’m not from Trinidad, I grew up in Trinidad and am a naturalized citizen. I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but I left there when I was 3, left Ohio when I was 9, and so on, and so on.
I left, a bit aggravated, and when he and I spoke next he said the bartender – who had a PhD in sociology – pointed out that he was encroaching on an identity that I had built over the years, which I knew but didn’t know about why I was upset. There were other things about it. Being from outside the U.S. comes with a stigma when within the U.S., just as being from the U.S. comes with a stigma when outside the U.S.
What makes it more complicated is how I came about my identity. The picture on the right includes a toothy version of me at bottom, 2nd from left. These were my friends in Milwaukee. Notice anything? I didn’t. These were just my friends. I was the baby of the group, and while I do not remember them, and they likely don’t remember me, I viewed this as normal. This was, after all, my life, and I was about 3. We got into trouble together, though I suspect I got into trouble more. We were all judged about the same with the only distinction age, the tyranny of time.
For reasons I didn’t quite comprehend, we whisked off to Dayton Ohio, where I traded a rich life of friends for a suburban backyard with a dog, not by choice, but by circumstance. My parents had the votes, I had… the results. I grew to like that life, running around, peddling a bicycle around, and then one day, I found out something.
I was brown.
Now, of course I knew I was brown. My father was browner. His parents were also browner. But up until a magical day when some kid broke an antenna off my father’s project car, an old Duster, and he lodged a complaint with the kid’s father, who happened to be a cop, I heard the term ‘Spic’. Understand, my father’s side of the family is predominantly East Indian by way of Trinidad, so that particular slur doesn’t make sense to me, and when I asked my mother about the term – my father was not in the mood to be asked, I remember that – I was told simply that it was, “a word we didn’t use.” It was 1978, I was 8, and it made no sense to me as many things didn’t, so I was quickly distracted by peanut butter cookies.
Not too long after, I was kissed by a lovely girl named Jenny in her treehouse nearby, and was informed that I was her boyfriend. She even dedicated a song to me in Music Class as she played the drums. “Don’t Bring Me Down” by Electric Light Orchestra. We went skating to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, singing at the top of our lungs in true 1970s fashion. Fun goofy kid stuff.
Until one day, the kid who broke my father’s antenna caught me on the way home from school with a baseball bat and told me to leave her alone before knocking me out with it. I wasn’t a tough kid then. I was a kid who laughed, who smiled, who was polite… not perfect in school. My friends got me home where I lay on the plush ‘baby turd brown’ couch (it was the 1970s) with my mother worrying over me, telling me not to go to sleep.
I felt anger. Rage. Frustration. And so I did find that kid after school one day and I lost that fight, so the next day I fought him again. I lost that one too. And the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Every busted lip and bruise was answered at home with, “fell off my bike”. My father worked nights, my mother was easy to convince. One day, though, I won. During all of this, I don’t remember Jenny at all. It’s as if she disappeared.
This was my introduction to racism, and this was my response to it. Decades later I would note that even though I had encountered it, all but a few times they hated me for being a race that I wasn’t.
Soon after, I was sent down to Trinidad by my parents, where everything was inverted as far as the color of people. People of European descent were the minority – still are – and everyone else is a shade of brown, or of Asian descent. It meant going from being hated for one reason to another, as I still had the American accent and was not considered Indian enough by some, White enough by others, and not black enough by still others. Add to that going from a Jehovah’s Witness to my father’s side of the family practicing Hinduism, and things got really hairy about who I was, on top of everything else. My mother didn’t come down, my parents divorced, and life was at best a turmoil before and during adolescence as I constructed from the bits and pieces of everything… who I was.
It was my own gauntlet. My own forge, surrounded by tribes, alone, trying to fit in while remaining an individual with those awkward hormones not helping matters at all. I worked in the family businesses not because I was industrious – I was – but because my social life simply didn’t exist. I didn’t belong anywhere, so I occupied myself in ways that would at least gain some form of respect from my elders. Rewinding motors, offset printing, and early failures at sales for both. Give me a computer, though, and I could change the world – that’s what I thought, anyway.
I couldn’t afford weights, so I lifted bricks. I never backed down from a fight and sometimes, if I’m honest, went looking for fights because things at home were less than stellar. The kid who laughed and smiled was pretty much a facade. I had forged myself into someone tough. Into someone that people didn’t mess with. I leveraged printing from the family business into a free gym membership. I leveraged every moment with a computer to become a computer programmer. When the business was bad, I subsisted on what was available. I went one two week period rationing a jar of peanut butter that I had bought on my own.
This, you see, is a lot of identity to build. Leaving Trinidad at 16, I got my father to sign my emancipated minor status when I went to college in Irving, Texas, and from there I worked, I went to school, then I worked and didn’t go to school when I got programming gigs. Student Aid was a joke. I wasn’t black enough for this, hispanic enough for that. I fell through the cracks of the late 1980s of equal opportunity, but what I could count on was… myself.
Strangely, I only encountered a small amount of racism in Texas at the time, surrounded by friends of all shades. I melted into this world, and lost what I was trying to do somewhere along the line. I drove to Oklahoma, to New Mexico, to Louisiana, to Arkansas, to Mexico. I did what I had to do to make ends meet, and I saw an America that was not the America I thought it was when I was abroad – as happens.
And then I ended up in New York City repairing commercial dishwashers before I joined the Navy. When I signed my contract, a friend of mine who was, and I imagine still is, of African descent decided to go out drinking (underage). We hung out in CBGBs, had all sorts of fun, and the week before he headed off to bootcamp, we were out in the village when some angry biker chick shouted across the street that, “N****** and Spics ain’t allowed ’round here”. So, we got our asses kicked by bikers and rode the subway to sobriety. I mean, in retrospect, why didn’t we see bracing the biker gang was a bad idea?
And why is it that I don’t use the word in Tom Sawyer, but calling people of latin descent ‘spics’ is allowed? Why is that permitted?
My recruiter, by the way, noted that I was hispanic so I could get more points for him. ‘Equal Opportunity’ my ass.
Now, all of that said, those account for my first 20 years. The Navy wasn’t bad. In fact, once I got out of the nuclear pipeline, it was pretty good. People liked or hated me for the right reasons, which was a nice recalibration. Upon getting out, I taught medical technicians in Harlem. I had a lot of explaining to do one night with a non-stock 1985 Chrysler Laser with a hatchback, where IV needles and my Florida plates took some explaining to a white cop in Harlem, but I got through that unscathed.
I returned to Florida, where I had been stationed, and ended up being a team leader at a blood bank where I was respected and liked, then dove into programming again for Honeywell where I encountered racism only once where I was referred to by a Sand-N****r by someone who I simply ignored and outperformed and outlasted.
Now, all this time, I never lied about who I was. I refused to do that, I still do, because if a person – or as I was taught growing up, a man – betrays his word, he is nothing. And of all the things I could be, I knew I was not nothing.
I became an individual, a tribe of one, not because of some innate need to be an individual but as a survival trait. When I had forms to fill out and they asked about the artificial construct of race, I wrote ‘Other’. When asked to explain, I wrote, “None of the above.”. This may have even cost me jobs where, had I lied, I might have gotten an equal opportunity hire.
As I grew into that career, that path of software and consultation, my only enemy was bullshit, regardless of how I was seen and I developed a reputation for that. I grew as far as I could by merit, not by handouts, not by stepping stones of equal opportunity and ‘diversity’ – diversity in practice being a way to simply re-emphasize divisions to give the illusion of progress. I worked on my communications skills, and was suddenly gifted by a man from Puerto Rico, a Scottish Jew and a guy from deep Florida with the humanities, something I had lacked in my formative years. And I grew, and I liked who I became despite not liking some of the things I had been to get to where I was.
Because of this, and more, when someone tries to pin me to being a Democrat or a Republican, UNC or PNM (Trinidad politics), Indian or white, or even says if I choose otherwise that I’m only ‘helping the other side win’, there’s a 50 year old ass ready for their lips.
I don’t care about your tribes. I care about the issues.
My tribes are about issues, and I do not join easily. Where you see me is because of who I am, not because of who I’m surrounded by, not because of some accident of geography, not because of some accident of parentage.
I am a tribe of one. I know others like me. We exist. Some call us Third Culture Kids, but we’re all different, different parents, different cultures, different circumstances. We are whole, and we can think and speak for ourselves because we did not have a choice.
We simply exist.