On Carnival

As a young man of Dominican descent, Carnival is incredibly important to me. With my two remaining grandparents enjoying their twilight years, each passing year highlights the importance of keeping our traditions alive. Playing Mas (dressing up in costume as a Masquerader) not only connects West Indians (specifically those from Eastern Caribbean islands where pre-Lenten Carnival traditions which we see in the U.K. have their roots) to our island heritage and our West African roots, but is a visible demonstration of how we are descended from a people who were able to transform the bleak, brutal reality of enslavement and colonialism into a new, vibrant, influential and powerful culture.

Various carnival processions over the years have completely revolutionised the August bank holiday weekend in Britain. Just like when the Windrush Generation arrived in Britain in the late 1940s, the landscape is once again awash with bright colours, soca, calypso and Black joy in all its manifestations. Having celebrated Carnival festivities annually in the north of the U.K. since I was a child, I attended Notting Hill Carnival for the first time last year and played Mas for the first time this year. The difference between both experiences was profound.

As someone who openly identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA community, I attend Carnival feeling conflicted. Enjoying and participating in the historical, revolutionary and transformative rites of my culture is important to how I engage my identity as being rooted within both my Caribbean heritage and within the context of diasporic Black Britishness. Yet, as I have become immersed within the 2-day celebration, I have likewise become acutely aware of how Carnival is a microcosm of cisheteronormativity, patriarchy and predatory voyeurism woven into a rich and diverse celebration of West Indian cultural pride. In the aftermath of another year of feting, pelting waist and whining ’til kingdom come, I feel we need to talk about it. I want to talk about consent, cisheteropatriarchy and the future of what Carnival will become. It’s up to our generation to define what Mas will be in years to come, and how we can best honour its historical legacy, borne out of West Indian struggle in the U.K.

Consent: “There’s nuttin’ wrong with takin’ control ah she bumper

The personal is political and it always will be. I vividly remember thinking this last year on Carnival Monday, as I wandered down Kensington Park Road, accompanied by my cousin and her partner. Whilst I was taking in the festivities, I also had the various tweets of women commenting on their experiences of Carnival at the forefront of my mind. I was doing t-shirt Mas and I found our band, which coincidentally had a motto of #NotAskingForIt due to the killing of Asami Nagakiya at Trinidad Carnival earlier in the year. There was a suspicion that she was a victim of rejecting a man’s advances and had been raped. She was found strangulated in her full Mas costume and in the aftermath of her brutal murder, she was victim-blamed by Raymond Tim Kee, ex-mayor of Port of Spain.

The parade then began, as music started to blare and hips started rotating. A smile grew across my face because bacchanal was in full swing and people drew closer. However, I quickly felt uncomfortable. Whining is part and parcel of West Indian culture and is a staple style of dance. Yet, I noticed that women would be whining alone and men would approach them from behind, regardless of whether they wanted to dance with them or not. I frequently listen to women’s experiences regarding consent, bodily autonomy and toxic masculinity and that was all I could think of. Several women would stop dead to make a man leave them be, others would manoeuvre themselves around a man to escape and some would grab a friend’s hand and quite literally run away. We have all seen videos of men fiercely pelting waist and then another seamlessly taking his place with the woman in the middle unable to escape. I say “escape” because in such a threatening scenario, a woman is literally trying to free herself from a form of temporary confinement.

This happens due patriarchy. This enables us men to feel entitled to enjoy, touch and control women’s bodies, regardless of a woman’s consent (or lack of). There is a strongly held patriarchal belief that during Mas, consent is not required to dance with a woman or to touch her body in any way a man pleases. It is interesting to note that most men rarely consider consent save for certain circumstances, in particular where their patriarchal and bacchanalist fantasy has been interrupted, which I will discuss in the next section.

We men need to process and deal with our patriarchal and toxic masculinist approach to consent. If a woman does not want to whine with you, it’s simple. There is no need to get angry or react violently to rejection. We need to teach those who attend Carnival that you can be rejected for a whine and that is it. No reaction is required besides a nod of acknowledgment; no anger, no disgust, no misogynistic rant required.

My cousin’s partner noticed that I wasn’t whining on women in a near compulsive manner and proceeded to push me into whines. Now, some may find this amusing, but I found it very jarring. I was more than happy just simply taking in my first Carnival experience as an adult but he didn’t seem content with that. I was frequently pushed into the back of women in a sandwich fashion, which was neither consensual, nor enjoyable for either of us. Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t whine at all, I am a Dominican after all! I did, but consensually. I remember actively asking one woman if she wanted to whine. She confirmed she did and we had a time! I asked another and she openly refused with a “Nope”. I then realised that in a Carnival context, consent is extremely important. If I hadn’t asked, I would have objectified both women for my own pleasure, despite their discomfort and that is not my portion in 2017, or ever. Consent balances the sexist power dynamic (albeit temporarily) within the reality of our society. Women have choices and it’s important we remember this, even when participating in centuries’ old traditions. Carnival is such a body positive and joyous space, but it is not a liberating space for all. I cannot help but think about what would happen if I, a queer man, fiercely whined on another man. I suspect I would suffer injury and/or violent scorn to say the least.

Cisheteronormativity: “Whine on a gyal or doh whine at all

We are all created equal, but we are not all the same. Despite this, you would think all men were heterosexual at Mas. I think I have only ever seen two men whine in my life and in getting to know them at a later date, it came to light they both identified as gay. I often find it very jarring when spaces, especially those grounded in historic struggles for liberation, replicate heteronormativity, because it is not reflective of reality. Moreover, in the context of Carnival, it feels rather imprisoning. I say “imprisoning” because I know violently homophobic reactions often flow when the dominant codes of heteronormativity that mandate such spaces are perceived to be “transgressed”.

At Carnival this year, I read about how various LGBTQIA masqueraders heard or directly received homophobic abuse when enjoying themselves. I recall hearing someone scream out “BATTYBWOY!” in the middle of the fete and it filled me with a terrifying sense of dread and fear. Language matters, in particular because homophobic language often escalates into physical violence. How can we call Carnival a liberating space when we have members of our community using queerantagonistic phrases freely and specifically directing them at West Indians representing their islands, their culture and their most authentic selves?

In this space, cisheteropatriarchy demands that you only whine with a woman because that is what men do and in Mas, there is only one way to be a man. God forbid a man whines with another lest there be “fire fi dem”, even though whining is not inherently sexual and many West Indians have explained this at length. Whining originates from our West African ancestry and hip movements when dancing are not seen as sexual in various West African ethnic groups. Moreover, there is never an issue with two women whining with each other or with two men whining with a woman in a sandwich fashion with her in the middle, but there would be a “problem” if that woman slipped out of the centre and those two remaining men came in for a close whine.

This presents an incredibly tense situation for Masqueraders and other Carnival attendees who identify as LGBTQIA as unlike cisgender heterosexual men, we are unable to whine freely with whoever we please (in particular with people of the same gender and/or gender presentation) as we may face violence, which may not only ruin our Carnival experience but could potentially end our lives. This becomes more irritating because a whine is a whine. It does not indicate sexual attraction or sexual interest in another human being, yet two men whining would draw glances and in some circles, extreme anger. Whining is a mere dance move that accompanies soca beats in the context of Carnival. Cisheteropatriarchy subtly tells black LGBTQIA people that our sexualities and gender identities cannot co-exist alongside our blackness and cultural identities and that the former is not something as West Indian as whining itself. It is crucial to remember that the attitudes to identities that exist outside of cisgender heterosexuality are rooted in our ancestors’ oppression at the hands of Europeans and should have no place in our modern celebrations of our culture.

Carnival needs to be reflective of the people that it is for. There are non-heterosexual West Indians and we must make space for them. Mas is for us all. I need those who yell homophobic slurs to look deeply at why they feel violent rage to those of us who exist outside of and openly reject the rigid binary of cisheteropatriarchy, because it literally is a matter of life and death.

A popular Twitter post about Notting Hill Carnival 2017 is representative of how oppressive power constructs continue function, even within such an outwardly joyous and resplendent cultural celebration. The tweet in question features a man who wore a wig, makeup, a bra under his clothes to pose as a woman in order to secure whines from men, with a further tweet emphasising that through this act, “niggas have been deceived”. Comments below ranged from talking about how a man’s state of mind could be messed with and how the presumed victim in the situation needs to press charges, to transantagonistic nonsense.

Seeing this tweet circulating and having just come from Carnival, at first glance, I just put this down to things you see at Carnival, until I was made aware that what was fuelling this joke/situation is transantagonism. It is transantagonistic because of how many cisgender, heterosexual men react after discovering they have been intimate or have interacted with a transwoman. This reaction is always violent and these men stress they have been “deceived” as if a transwoman’s existence and transness were crimes. In this case, the men were livid that they had found a man attractive enough to dance with, had actually whined with a man and had “been deceived” and would have to either “break his jaw” or “kill him” as a result, despite the fact these men had each chosen to whine on this individual. They were not forced or coerced to do so in any shape or form.

I feel this situation was wrong due to the fact this was done for banter and jokes rather than this man proudly displaying his gender presentation (as his gender presentation is his business). This same attitude results in the killings of transgender women, especially black trans women who are killed at a rate of 1 in every 2,600. There were many justifications given on Twitter for the killing of a person who dressed in an impermissible manner according to cisnormativity. Many men insist that transwomen should declare their transness upon an initial interaction with cisgender men. However, when transwomen describe their identity to cisgender men, they face extreme violence and are killed. This happened to Dee Whigham who was stabbed 119 times to death in early 2017 by Dwanya Hickerson after she revealed she had been assigned male at birth after they had sex.

This is why this incident at Carnival is not remotely amusing. The man who whined with men as well as his friend who dressed him are both to blame for this situation. They knew what they were doing, regardless of whether they believed they were contributing to transmisogyny and in particular, transmisogynoir. This situation would be very traumatic and triggering for a West Indian (or a black transwoman at large) transwoman to witness and read about as it serves as proof that Mas is not safe for openly transwomen to enjoy.

The future of Mas — where do we go from here?

As Black Britain continues to evolve and grow, so will Carnival and it is imperative we are at the centre of that change. At present, Masqueraders tend to be West Indian, however in the future, it is quite possible Carnival will become a display of Black Britishness, given that West Indian population growth heavily came from migration from the Caribbean from 1948 to 1968.

We need to keep the spirit of why Carnival exists in the first place at its core and to reinvigorate the culture as we do so. This includes accepting and fully embracing our LGBTQIA family within the African diaspora and respecting women as human beings with bodily autonomy and agency. We should not forget that Carnival is also for children and that they look to us for guidance as to what Mas is. We want them to be proud of an event that fills them with pride in their heritage and lets them feel pure, unadulterated Black euphoria in a world that seeks to snatch away every aspect of their blackness from them, sanitise it and repackage it as it sees fit. We do not just owe it to our descendants, but also to our forbearers, for our Black joy, cultural pride and complete liberation are their wildest dreams.