Do All Black Lives Matter in Belize?
Monday, June 29th, 2020
Submitted by Adrian P. Torres
The day after Prime Minister Dean Barrow was elected in February 2008, an American classmate texted me, “Just read that your country elected its first black Prime Minister!” It was a peculiar message for a few reasons. By that point—a mere 27 years since becoming independent—Belize had only been governed by three other Prime Ministers, and so to the extent that Dean Barrow’s election was an accomplishment, we had achieved it in a relatively short period of time, beating the most progressive country in the world by over 200 years. Moreover, Dean Barrow had been involved in electoral politics since the early 1980s and he served as a high-ranking Minister during the UDP administration elected in 1993, making his ascendancy to Prime Minister rather unremarkable. More significantly, what my American friend seemingly failed to consider in that text message was that none of our three previous Prime Ministers were white. (Defining “whiteness” can be tricky in Belize, as it is commonly used as a proxy for elitism as opposed to one’s racial origins. By “white,” I mean Caucasian. To make this point clear, neither George Price, Manuel Esquivel nor Said Musa could identify themselves as “white” on an application form for a job in the United States).
To diminish the significance of that 2008 election is a privilege that many of us, understandably, fail to appreciate—a privilege owed to our multi-ethnic diversity, as any giftshop postcard, street market or primary school classroom can attest. While our history and geography have often been unkind, and while we battle our own share of malignant social tumors like classism and lingering prejudice among some of our ethnic communities, much of our relative harmony (notwithstanding rampant gang violence) is owed to that rich ethnic and cultural diversity. Even if we acknowledge that ethnic diversity cannot inoculate a society against racism, Belize has largely avoided the systemic and institutional racism that exists in the U.S.
Partly for these reasons, the way in which we discuss race and racism in Belize is necessarily nuanced, which makes it tricky when we try to shoehorn that discussion into a global context—especially the American experience. For example, in the wake of ongoing protests in the U.S., ignited by the craven murder of George Floyd, many Belizeans stood in solidarity from abroad with the millions of Americans protesting racism and its connection to law enforcement and police brutality in that country. There are obvious differences to note.
The history of policing in America is intricately tied to its history of racism, as police officers were responsible for enforcing overtly racist policies like school segregation and “Jim Crow” laws enacted to disenfranchise African-Americans. This explains the fraught, and too often lethal, relationship between American police officers and inner-city minority communities. Belize has its own solid track record of police brutality, which is increasingly documented on local news and social media. But unlike many police forces across the U.S. that are predominantly white, the “color” of the men and women comprising our police force largely reflects the diversity of the larger society. Therefore, however insidious these instances of police violence appear, race is hardly, if ever, an underlying factor.
The most striking difference when examining the recent protests in U.S. is their inclusiveness. In Washington, for example, at the newly re-named Black Lives Matter Plaza, rainbow gay pride flags peacefully and seamlessly intermingle among the sea of posters and artwork describing the plight of black Americans. In New York, over 15,000 people marched to protest the violence afflicted against black transgender people, who according to some statistics, are disproportionate targets of police violence. These protests offered a space for not just African-Americans and other persons of color to demonstrate against the U.S.’s longstanding tradition of state-inflicted terror, but to any person who suffers discriminatory treatment on account of their race, gender, gender identity, giving testament to the seemingly unattainable ideal of equality—that “all ah we da one.”
As a Belizean, witnessing this indiscriminate inclusivity that embraces the LGBTQ community into a broader discussion of race is both breathtaking and disheartening, because of how unlikely it is to occur on the streets of Belize. Rigid featly to one’s religious principles is part of the reason. Unapologetic tribalism is another, which causes some to say “nuh bring that ya” as if homosexuality or transgenderism are the sole domain of foreigners. To be clear, this is not an indictment against the moral fabric of Belizean society. But if we believe that our laws and institutions must march lockstep with the progress of human thought and the enlightenment of opinion, then we must acknowledge that we, like many other countries, have fallen short. Under the current state of affairs, “all ah we da nuh one, at all”—and some are fighting to keep it that way.
To those Belizeans that participated in well-meaning social media campaigns to signal their acknowledgment of systemic racism; and the others that wear t-shirts emblazoned with “BLACK LIVES MATTER”; and to all who were swollen with pride when discovering that a Belizean was among a group of artists that painted a now-famous mural in Minneapolis to honor George Floyd and other black Americans killed by police officers: when you say “Black Lives Matter,” do you mean just the straight, heterosexual black lives? Do you mean only those black lives that identify themselves within the rigid gender constructs of “male” and “female?” And if George Floyd was a gay black man—would it matter? If so, then it is precisely that attitude that protestors in America and across the world—from Washington to New York, Paris to Berlin, Nairobi to Sydney—are marching against.
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