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School fights, moral judgments and racial commentary

JolynnaSinanan22 April 2014

front page headline from Trinidad and Tobago's 'Newsday', 19.03.2014

front page headline from Trinidad and Tobago’s ‘Newsday’, 19.03.2014

(note: this blog post contains language around racial categorisation that may be offensive when taken out of context)

In the last month, the circulation of two videos of school yard fights on social media have become the subject of attention by the national news media. The first video, captured on a phone outside a prestigious school in the capital city, Port of Spain, shows a group of girls outside the school yard in a confrontation, which escalates into a fight between two girls, kicking, pulling hair and shoving each other to the ground. The crowd of girls cheers them on, and a passing off-duty policeman tries to break up the fight. Some of the crowd turn on him and yell at him for trying to break up the fight. The second is another group of girls in a high school in the rural town of Toco inside a classroom, one springs off a table onto a girl who has been swearing at her and they struggle on the ground.

Fights between school children are nothing new. They occur in all sectors of society, between boys or girls, between private and public school students alike. The reaction to the fights across the country reflected normative concerns around good versus bad parenting and the decline in morals for kids today. Yet, the stakes are much higher for what these judgement calls imply in Trinidadian society.

The legacy of colonialism is not far away in the consciousness of Trinidadians. From the formation of the society of indentured East Indians and ex-enslaved Africans, there has always been benign (and in periods such as the Black Power movement) overt antagonism between Indo- and Afro-Trinidadians. Yet, the country has also been an exemplary one for the potential of a pluralistic, genuinely cosmopolitan and ethnically mixed society to exist cohesively and peacefully. It is quite common for families to be made up of Afro- and Indo- Trinidadians of Hindu, Muslim and various Christian beliefs. Race and class in Trinidad is an extremely complex topic, way beyond the scope of a brief blog post. There is a well-established argument that despite the appearance of antagonism based on race, the real conflict in Trinidad is based on class (Yelvington, 2010, Meighoo, 2003, Singh, 1994,  )

The concern that arises from the circulation of videos such as these resonates with an argument that Daniel Miller and myself raised in Webcam. To summarise, video footage as evidence has a fruitful contradiction. On the one hand, the visible evidence that we see as real-time captured footage on a phone attests to the truth of the event and on the other hand, the truth that appears on film has more potential to be fabricated and false- especially when taken out of context. The hazard of the rapid circulation of such videos is the moral discourse that is generated by the ‘truth’ of what appears in the videos. If taken as evidence, comments such as these, which appeared on Facebook confirm that girls who are in school yard fights are undisputedly certain sorts of girls.

“These little black children!”

“I don’t apologise for my words, but damn shameful disgraceful old n***a behaviour”

“typical poor black ppl children … not an indian child there … child mudda (mother) with bout 6 chilren for bout 5 different man and one child she eh (isn’t) sure who is d fadda (the father) is … black people need to wake d f*** up before its too late”

And the comments go on, each with at least three ‘likes’. But this is Facebook and the people who leave comments have their names (or pseudonyms) and profile picture clearly visible. A quick scan through the commentators’ profiles where few have tight security settings shows that all of the commentators who comment on race are themselves Afro-Trinidadians.

This brief observation speaks to a well-discussed themes in critical race studies, of internalised racism and institutionalised racism. Face-to-face, when racial observations are brought up in everyday conversations, they are more peppered with humour and are generally good-natured, even if they reflect more harmful racial stereotyping. Yet, comments on Facebook redrew the boundaries of what is said and accepted in public. Offline, none of the conversations around the incidents contained the severity of condemnation of the online comments. Symbolic interactionalism based on racial categorisation has a long history in Trinidad and the visibility provided by the affordances of Facebook adds another dimension to deeply messy areas of race and class.

Bibliography:

Yelvington, K. (2010). Producing power: Ethnicity, gender, and class in a Caribbean workplace. Temple University Press.

Meighoo, K. P. (2003). Politics in a’half made society’: Trinidad and Tobago, 1925-2001. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

Singh, K. (1994). Race and class struggles in a colonial state: Trinidad 1917-1945 (p. 226). Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Extending empathy

DanielMiller1 July 2013

Photo by Pierre Phaneuf (Creative Commons)

Photo by Pierre Phaneuf (Creative Commons)

The core to an anthropological approach is the extension of empathy. We sort of know what it is like to be us, we conduct ethnography to understand what it is like to be ‘them’. In most disciplines it is assumed it is better for say a female who has given birth to study females giving birth. But my other project is on miscarriage amongst women in Qatar, where for me the whole point is that I am neither female nor Qatari. Similarly in this project we have an Italian anthropologist, but she is doing her fieldwork in Turkey, while it is our Romanian anthropologist who is working in Italy. Because being the ‘other’ helps to extend empathy, that is understand the people we are not.

A good example of this in the study of social media is our attitude to children. The overwhelming stance from journalism and indeed most adult conversation tends to denigrate the child as basically ‘childish’ and the adults as obviously more mature. It is hard not to start from such assumptions. So, for example, it’s bad enough that people go on Facebook, but at least there is some serious conversation and text there. But young people migrate to Instagram which just seems a whole load of photos and filters and comments often by random strangers. Worse still the fastest growing platform in the world right now and the one that appeals to the youngest is Snapchat, which is where you send a photo or video that lasts a few seconds before it disappears from the screen. This certainly seems childish and superficial. Meanwhile in the village where I work, these young people are leaving Facebook which is being colonised by ever older populations.

But then when talking to the schools you find that one of the reasons for these changes is that it is the adults who seem to be behaving like children. Again and again children have little quarrels and say awful things to each other. But they soon make up on the playground and are best friends again. The trouble for the schools is that their parents now see these comments on Facebook and start getting involved and saying their children are being cyber-bullied and going around to the other child’s parents and making a fuss and then complaining to the school, and the whole thing gets exacerbated and becomes a serious problem. Maybe it’s not surprising that the children leave Facebook and play instead with things like Snapchat. As they point out Snapchat is something almost always done between very close friends since it bonds and builds trust that they won’t overshare photos in which you look at your silliest. While Instagram is quite a serious concern to share images and imaginations and crafting one’s view of the world.

Well I have just overgeneralised and perhaps even romanticised the kids. The investigations need to go much deeper over the next two years. But the point is that I need to try and work out why these 16 year olds behave the way they do, and appreciate that there are reasons out there which may sometimes be rather more adult, than the adults. I do this because the basic challenge is always to extend empathy.