Thursday, March 09, 2006

turning the tables

Last night in conversation I was recalling a Bermudan guy I had met on an Outward Bound Course some years ago. He was a descendant of plantation workers - no idea quite what his ethnicity was, it wasn't the kind of question I ever asked and still find hard to ask. All my conditioning tells me it is rude to ask such questions - yet slowly the message is sinking in that for many people of colour who are minorities within the society they live in it is important to them and they want to be asked, to have that element of who they are acknowledged. This is still very difficult for me to get my head around and goes counter to the 'it doesn't matter what colour we are we're all the same' kind of doctrine I'd grown up with. But it does matter and as someone who constantly corrects people when they say England and mean Britain, or even worse Scotland/Wales/N.Ireland you'd think I'd be able to get my head around it more quickly.

But what I was sharing about Laurion was how he had turned the tables of language use on us. He called everyone Mr...., Miss or Missy.... We were all around 18-22yrs old. He was deliberately choosing to use this form of address - and boy did it sound weird half way up a mountain in Wales! It made many of us uncomfortable - it was language which implied subservience, colonialism and oppression... things which we neither approved of having happened in the past nor had any intention of being part of.

Several of us tried to get him to stop, saying please you don't need to, it's not like that here. I pointed out that as Quakers we didn't use titles and that no-one calls me Miss Anna, let alone Missy Anna if I can help it. But he quietly and seriously (which was a far cry from his usual loud and comical manner) explained that it was his way of turning the tables. By choosing to use these terms he was making a point. The fact that we were uncomfortable with it was proof that it worked. He didn't see himself as inferior in status to us, he wasn't using these words in deference but out of defiance.

He was proud of his heritage and understandably was far from impressed with the way in which plantation workers on Bermuda had been treated and the whole issue of slavery. Rather than being angry about it and carrying a chip on his shoulder (as I've seen happen against 'the English' in Scotland let alone further afield) he had opted for one of the cleverest forms of awareness raising I've ever come across.

There were three Bermudans in our group - one obviously white, one very black and Laurion who was, I would guess, of mixed descent. We asked the girls what they thought of Laurion's way and did it sound as out of place to them as it did us? Their response was that some people in Bermuda would take it as we did, yet some sadly probably wouldn't even notice or consider it anything other than what they were due. But Julita added that some people of colour, especially those darker than him like herself, would actually find it offensive if they didn't stop to find out why. At first when she met him she had found it embarrassing, that she felt like she was being sent up - especially as he was one to clown around a lot. But once she had heard him explain she was impressed, recognised that he was setting himself up for ridicule and admired him for sticking to it.

That was all 15 yrs ago. It has stayed with me and made the stories I had heard about the slave trade feel a lot more real, a lot more personal. It suddenly wasn't just something that happened in history, that just affected the countries of origin and destination of these people. Looking back it also makes me realise the power we all have to change people's attitudes, understanding and behaviour, even if it is just one person at a time.

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