Writer, Editor, Parent...

Nizam had a point

Posted: April 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

The past couple of weeks have seen the pillorying of Nizam Mohammed, erstwhile chair of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service Commission, culminating in the revocation of his appointment by our nation’s President George Maxwell Richards. Mr Mohammed was effectively fired for saying there were too many black people in the high echelons of the Police Service; he made the statement before a parliamentary Joint Select Committee on March 25, 2011 (this Trinidad Express editorial nicely sums up the whole case and its upshot).

The outcry following Mohammed’s statement about the imbalance was loud and ugly. He was called a racist, even though as he himself reminded the public he had been on the side of Black Power insurgents and long supported racial equality. Now the hue and cry has drowned out his protestations of unbiasedness. There are many factors at play–Mohammed made an ill-advised move earlier in his appointment in a confrontation with two police officers and lost a lot of credibility thereafter, and there was subsequently a national petition to have him removed from office–but surely the bigger picture is that he is right about the imbalance in the Police Service and that it ought to be addressed.

“The relationship between group composition and performance in general is clearly complicated, but from a strictly decision-making perspective, both sides of the debate regarding diversity effects are compatible with the hypothesis that groups often benefit from racial heterogeneity. The extent to which racial diversity facilitates information exchange and problem solving certainly indicates advantages for heterogeneous groups, especially for complex decisions. But even interpersonal conflict— often mentioned as the principal negative result of diversity—may be useful when a group’s primary goal is not boosting morale but rather good and thorough decision making.

[…]

Although equal access and the attempt to remedy historical injustices are important, and many would say noble considerations, the present findings provide evidence for another, often overlooked justification for promoting diversity: In many circumstances, racially diverse groups may be more thorough and competent than homogeneous ones.”

—”On Racial Diversity and Group Decision Making: Identifying Multiple Effects of Racial Composition on Jury Deliberations”

Samuel R Sommers, Tufts University, 2005, Journal of Sociology and Psychology. Source: http://ase.tufts.edu/psychology/documents/pubssommersonracialdiversity.pdf

Anybody who has ever had to manage a group of any size would tell you a diverse group brings different things to the table than a homogenous group.

Members of a homogenous group, such as the upper ranks of the Police Service largely is, think similarly on problems in many cases. Shared ethnicity in Trinidad and Tobago means that, class notwithstanding, the roots and leaves will be similar among the officers. One cannot effectively police a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious society with only black police when more than half the society is not black. (Although, as one Facebook denizen recently implied, voicing an opinion shared by many, if you got rid of all the black people in Trinidad and Tobago crime would vanish, so, by that logic, if all the criminals are black then maybe all the police should be black, too.)

Whether or not we would admit it, racialism is strong and vibrant in our country. Pretending that “all ah we is one famalayyyy”, in the immortal words of Lord Nelson, will not make the problem go away. We all know the stereotypes:- White people are rich and snobbish; Syrian and Lebanese people are corrupt and incestuous; Indians are stingy and racist; black people are lazy and criminals; Chinese are cheap and have small penises/sideways vaginas. All ah we might be one famalayyyy but I wouldn’t want to be there when the gloves come off after that reunion dinner.

Policing is not merely solving crime. It is preventing criminal activity and relating to a community. How can the police do that when they, at the very least, can’t well understand more than half the society? When they fear, despise or resent the “other”?

Making the Police Service more racially balanced, at all levels, is not the job of the Parliament, it is true. But whoever has responsibility for it now is not doing his job. Perhaps we ought to mandate quotas to ensure more equitable representation of all races in the public service–and put measures in place to protect civil servants from the racial purging that takes place every time a different government comes into power.


Because I want to, because I can

Posted: March 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

I had a tempestuous relationship with my mother for most of my life, possibly because I didn’t understand anything but my own needs and desires and had no patience with anyone else’s, but when that was over we were great friends up until she got senile dementia. I lost her in 2004. I remember her as a flirt, a practical woman who knew how to cook and how to beat children, a voracious reader, a loving mother who did the best she could. She always said she preferred boys to books and that is how she came out with three A’s and six O’s (one son named Abraham, a son and daughter named Allen, and six children named Ollivierre); she had no passes and no qualifications of any kind but managed to find ways to feed and clothe us all, even if it meant leaving some of us for her own mother to mind.

Barbara Jenkins has written a wonderful story about her own mother’s struggles to make ends meet and what she learned from her mother; I don’t mean to repeat that in this post. The reason I’m writing this is because Miss Thing, my eldest, said to me today that she is slightly afraid that once she turns 18 in two months I will stop doing all the things I do for her. Miss Thing is spoiled, to some extent. I drive her around, buy her the things she needs and some of the things she wants, listen to her, talk to her, do her hair, give her tips on makeup and clothes, and generally make myself available to her as much as she needs (even if it’s not necessarily as much as she wants all the time). Parenting like I do it can be exhausting, physically and emotionally, and I think she now recognises that. Turning 18 might mean, she thought, that I wouldn’t have to do any of those things for her anymore.

Well, the truth is that I’m not legally obliged to do most of those things for her even now. I do them because I want to, and because I can. My own mother stopped taking me shopping when I was barely a teen; I was given money and sent on my way to do what I wanted or had to with it. Our contentious relationship meant we were not confidants–far from it. My mother was the last person I would talk to about anything, small or large. All my big decisions–what to study, whether to marry, what to do with my life–I made on my own or with the input of my siblings, boyfriend or friends. In fact, my mother actively resisted being drawn into my life: when I was a teen and downed a bottle of Tylenol in a melodramatic attempt to end it all, it was my boyfriend who held my hand while I was wracked with stomach pains and despair. My mother refused to take me to the hospital and we never discussed it again.

While I’m not blind to her faults, neither am I consumed with bitterness over my childhood with her. She did the best she could with the resources she had and so do I; but what I do for Miss Thing and her sister The Lady is a direct consequence of the childhood I had. For every taxi I had to take alone at any hour of the day or night, I drive the girls to their destinations and pick them back up or arrange for them to be picked up. For every pair of shoes or panties I had to pick out myself, I go with them to buy theirs. For each decision I had to puzzle through on my own, I give them the tools and advice to make the best choices they can. For each dodgy character I befriended and *shudder* dated, I vet their choices of friends in subtle and sometimes obvious ways. I want them to be independent and powerful women, but I don’t think they need to learn those skills the hard way, as I did.

I loved my mother and cherish her memory, but I am not my mother. I hope my daughters one day look back at their childhood and say, “She did the best she could with the resources she had and she did a damn good job.”


Gay marriage and the law in Trinidad and Tobago

Posted: February 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

This morning I read a story in the T&T Guardian about a discussion in the Senate regarding same-sex marriage. The story says, in part, “Finance Minister Winston Dookeran said the issue of  same-sex marriages was something Parliament would have to adjudicate upon at some time. He said there were laws on the books concerning co-habitation and ‘we don’t want to contradict one piece of legislation with another.'”

Discussion on Facebook this morning after I posted the link naturally turned to the archaic laws regarding buggery: how could we think about same-sex marriage when it is still illegal for men to have sex with men? What is a marriage for?

As the Finance Minister alluded, one must wonder whether existing laws on marriage or common law relationships–including the disposal of property and estates in inheritance law–would need to be amended before same-sex marriage could be legally countenanced in Trinidad and Tobago.

I looked it up. While the Marriage Act 1996, which you can find here on a list of our laws, does not seem to explicitly define the genders of the “parties” it mentions, the Cohabitational Relationships Act of 1998 does. That Act defines “cohabitant” as:

(a) in relation to a man, a woman who is living or has lived with a man as his wife in a cohabitational relationship; and

(b) in relation to a woman, a man who is living with or has lived with a woman as her husband in a cohabitational relationship;

‘cohabitational relationship’ means the relationship between cohabitants, who not being married to each other are living or
have lived together as husband and wife on a bona fide domestic basis”.

It also occurred to me that the Domestic Violence Act of 1999 also would need to be changed because it, too, defines a cohabitant as ” a person who has lived with or is living with a person of the opposite sex as a husband or wife although not legally married to that person”.

So it’s great that we have begun to think about the question of same-sex marriage in Trinidad and Tobago. However, we have a long way to go–legally as well as socially–before we can make it an option for our people.

(After this first was posted I got a couple of questions asking me which side I was on. This column I wrote in the T&T Guardian two years ago is pretty clear on that issue.)


What you don’t read in the baby books

Posted: October 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Editorial | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Two women I know are embarking on first-time motherhood and it got me thinking: what are some of the things I wish I knew when I was about to have a child?

Maybe the number one thing was that some of those old wives’ tales are true. Every time I look at my very round belly I think, “Why didn’t I band my belly like my big sister told me to?” The short answer, of course, is that I thought that idea was rubbish. Muscle springs back once the baby’s out, doesn’t it? (Uh, no, it don’t.) The truth is unless you’re into some kind of regular exercise with an intense ab workout component, you’re going to end up with at the very least a pooch, or in the worst case, a pot belly. Band it. It won’t kill you.

Breast feeding is not over rated. Do it for as long as you can. It’s the best thing for the baby, it’s cheaper than formula, it’s less work and more sanitary and it’s definitely better for the environment. Breast feeding also helps with your post-partum tummy. (See above.)

Relax. Motherhood is hard, hard, hard. Make sure you take time for yourself and get some sleep. Don’t make your job or husband a priority right now. They’ll keep. The baby needs a lot of attention and he or she will get it, but you won’t unless you make yourself a priority.

You’ll miss stuff in The World while you’re getting used to being a mother. Even when the kids get big, it might happen. Don’t worry about it too much; The World will still be there when you are able to and interested in going to see what it’s up to.

Love your baby. Trust me, this is harder than it sounds sometimes….

Get support. Your mom, in-laws, friends etc will all be lining up to help you. Don’t be proud, and don’t let their alternate ideas on parenting put you off accepting their help. Gently but firmly let them know what you prefer, but by all means let them come and help. It makes life a million times easier.

Babies are expensive. But the money always comes.

What are some of the things you experienced parents out there learned about that you wish you’d known when you were a first-timer?


Connecting the dots

Posted: September 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Steve Jobs, the guy who gave Apple its shine, gave this amazing speech that I happened upon some time ago.

The whole speech is really moving and inspiring, but this is the part that hits me every time:

“[M]uch of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Although in my life I have never wanted to be anything but a writer (well, there was that time I wanted to be a nurse, but… does five minutes count?) I have somehow ended up doing a lot of different things. I’ve been an administrative assistant, sending faxes and doing filing. I’ve been an actor. I’ve been an administrator, co-ordinating an NGO and an educational tour at two different points in my life. I’ve  produced shows and done stage management. I tried catering. I’ve been a housewife and full-time mom. Now I’m teaching part time.

All of these things gave me different skills and ways of thinking about the world. I wonder about people who have only ever done one job, and what it’s like to know what you’re going to do every single day. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the life I’ve chosen, but you can’t ever say it’s boring or predictable. And all the skills I learned along the way somehow come in very handy in my new incarnation as the administrator of The Allen Prize, and even in my teaching. Yesterday I shocked my students by doing a very convincing portrayal of “anger” in a lesson on nonverbal communication. It was fun, taking me right back to the days of working under Charles Applewhite at Trinidad Theatre Workshop.

No matter how far I go, my past comes with me, for good or bad. What do you take with you on your journey?


Colour conscious

Posted: July 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Editorial | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

One of Miss Thing’s friends is a willowy beauty. She’s caramel coloured, with exotically slanting eyes and neat features. She’s a natural model, if I ever saw one. It’s not that she’s prettier than any other girl, but she seems to have that fortunate coincidence of height, slender build, perfect skin and good deportment that makes a good runway or photo model.

She went to a casting call the other day and came away feeling like, for the first time since she started this nascent career, she might not have nailed the job. Why? She wasn’t dark enough.

Yup. The casting call asked for a model who was “dark”. My girl went anyway and her caramel colour was too light for what they were looking for.

This particular call drew the annoyance of at least one person, who wrote in response to the call on FB: “Perhaps you didn’t realize publicizing skin preference in a model search … would register as discrimination…it does. And now you know. It’s not like you’re casting an actress to portray Rita Marley or Heather Headley…naturally she would need to fit unique and narrow aesthetic parameters. Caribbean Beauty in 2010 is defined by a melange of aesthetics, not just ‘dark’ complexions.”

I thought about the post, the comment and my own outrage (particularly on behalf of my daughter’s friend) that the call was so restrictive. But was it racist? That’s another question. In 2010 are we doing the opposite of what our grandparents did 50 years ago? Are we turning the “brown paper bag” code on its head with reverse discrimination? Is it now, “Black, step up, brown, get down”?

I subscribe to a Yahoo group called TT Arts, which is used as a message board of sorts for all kinds of things. Publicising shows, advertising services, and yes, even casting calls. It was my friend Aaron’s misfortune to post a casting call for models for a commercial with the following requirements:

LIST OF MODELS NEEDED

GENDER               COMPLEXION                         AGE

1)                 FEMALE               BROWN                                  approximetely 8 – 10

2)                 FEMALE               BROWN                                  30

3)                 MALE                    BLACK                                     55

4)                 FEMALE               BROWN                                  50

5)                 MALE                    INDIAN                                   30s

6)                 MALE                    BROWN                                  30s

7)                 FEMALE               BLACK                                     25

8)                 MALE                    INDIAN                                   45

9)                 MALE                    BROWN                                  30s

10)            FEMALE               LIGHT BROWN                      28

11)            MALE                    CHINESE                                 30

12)            MALE                    LIGHT BROWN                      40

13)            MALE                    BLACK                                      36        )

14)            FEMALE               BROWN                                  35        )

15)            MALE                    BROWN                                  15        )  ALL ONE FAMILY

16)            FEMALE               BROWN                                  13        )

17)            FEMALE               BROWN                                  10        )

18)            FEMALE               LIGHT BROWN                      35

19)            MALE                    BROWN                                  50s

20)            FEMALE               BROWN                                  30s

I first wondered what the ad was for, because that is a huge cast. I next considered how far we’ve come in just 20 years; back when my ex- worked in advertising in T&T, the complexion he called “Cannings Brown” (a light, honey colour, not quite “red” but not as dark as sapodilla) was de rigueur in locally produced advertisements, whatever the product being advertised. Seeing actual dark skinned black people, not to mention dark skinned Indians, on TV in local ads was pretty rare.

I dismissed the casting call (I wasn’t interested in applying), but many others didn’t. A sudden and angry wave of emails followed:

“The true issue is that the terms such as ‘darkie’ have been used in the States and abroad to insult people with darker skin. Let us not forget the slave trade as well. People of all colours must be aware of the history of darker skinned people and understand why casting in such a light is frightening and disturbing to not only them but others who are aware of the racial ills in this world. Therefore, I suggest that next time you are casting do not make a list of different races. Simply state that you are a looking for various races to fill roles, ranging from men to women, young to old etc.”

“thanks man, every time i think i’m in the 21st century, you people are here to remind me the Caribbean is as racist as ever…what could you possibly need all those ‘brown’ ppl for…oh lemme guess, its a high class/colour commodity?”

“Only 1 ‘black’ female required for an advertisement in which several ‘brown’ or ‘light brown’ females are (with a similar ratio applying for the men). We are still heavily mired in an unhealthy colonial legacy.”

There was one voice in poor Aaron’s defense:

“If art imitates society then there has to be room for selective casting when aiming to depict life with true accuracy.

“Where is the line drawn between indiscriminate casting and casting for an accurate depiction of our society without being criticized for stereotyping and/or for contributing to racial divides?”

I don’t know if Aaron got his models. I can say for sure he got at least one response (from an actual model) from the call on TT Arts, from someone who wrote:

“I am available as a female brown 28/35.  What’s your phone no?”

I wrote a manuscript some years ago and gave it around for some friends to read. One responded that one striking thing about it was how everyone’s colour was painstakingly described. He got tired of it, he said. I hadn’t before really considered how much I think about skin colour in my characters. But I didn’t change it, and continue to write characters’ descriptions that include their skin colours. I’m not colour blind, and I don’t want to be. The rich and various colours of our people are one of the things I like about this place. We are not homogenous.

Back to the model casting call. Were they right to call for a “dark” girl? Who defined “dark”? If they were white, my daughter’s friend would be considered pretty dark—but they’re not. They’re black, just like me, just like her. I wonder what will happen in the end with all of us colour conscious folk—conscious of colour but not necessarily restricted by it—when all the world is one uniform colour as Wayne Browne predicted?