Could the structure of our country’s education system be fostering racial divisions in younger generations that have not previously been a hallmark of Cayman Islands society?
Usually when we talk about segregation in local schools, we refer to government’s admissions policies that have led to 90% of public school students being Caymanian, whereas 50% of students in private school are Caymanian.
However, at events at different schools, or in photos posted on schools’ social media pages, it is nearly impossible not to notice significant contrasts in student populations — with those differences not being ones of immigration status, but of skin colour.
Put plainly, some private schools in Cayman appear to be overwhelmingly white, while some public schools (and some private schools) appear to be overwhelmingly black.
“Racial polarization in Caymanian society is most obvious in the education system. Those who remain to be convinced of this fact need look no further than the Cayman International School … where the absence of ‘Caymanians of colour’ speaks with an obscene eloquence,” said local historian and former University College of the Cayman Islands President Roy Bodden.
(Read Bodden’s commentary on this topic in the form of a submitted Viewpoint.)
“Are we the whitest school on-island? You’d have to be parsing hairs for it not to be considered as such,” CIS Director Jim Urquhart said.
“Obviously we are, and we are working to change this” he said.
Urquhart cited a number of potential reasons for racial divisions in Cayman’s schools generally and CIS specifically. He said CIS is actively seeking to address world and local issues of segregation, racism and access to education, including through an expanded scholarships programme, curriculum, staff training and hiring practices.
Concerns from parents
A point of pride in Cayman has been the racial cohesion — or even practical immateriality of race — in local society, particularly compared to neighbours and peers such as Bermuda, Jamaica and the United States, where historically slavery was seen as being far more brutal than in Cayman.
“Race was an irrelevance in my childhood. I was blessed to be growing up at a time when perhaps because we were so removed from the complications of the outside world, Cayman existed as an island in the truest sense,” a Caymanian parent told the Current in an interview, speaking on condition of anonymity.
This parent attended local schools and did undergraduate studies in the US, and now works in Cayman as a professional and has children in the local school system.
In their childhood, whenever the question of race in Cayman was brought up by a tourist or other ‘outsider’, the parent recalled the response of community elders: “20% are white. 20% are black. The rest didn’t know and didn’t care.”
The parent said, “The modern perception is that the dynamics of integration are no longer as visibly apparent. There are now entire schools that appear … I reluctantly describe it in these terms: They appear racially segregated.”
Originally from Canada, Urquhart arrived in Cayman in July 2020 after spending three decades teaching in international schools across the globe.
He said he’s only been here for a year, but he sees clear divisions in local society — whether it’s student populations in different schools, or customer bases in different grocery stores — based along a number of lines, including racial, social, economic, cultural, geographic and religious.
CIS is one of the most expensive schools in Cayman, with fees ranging from $14,260 per year for a full-time nursery student to $23,540 per year for a senior high school student.
(Read our story from January analysing the approximate per-student cost to attend each public and private school in Cayman.)
But apart from economics, Urquhart noted that CIS’s location in Camana Bay makes it more attractive to families living in the pricey Seven Mile Beach corridor. And vice versa: Without a reliable public transportation system, it is logistically difficult for a student (even if they are on scholarship) to physically get to CIS if their parents don’t have a car and they live in a more modest neighbourhood, for example, on the other side of George Town or on the eastern half of Grand Cayman.
He also said that CIS is the only large secular private school in Cayman, so for many parents who prefer not to send their children to a religious-affiliated school, CIS is the only option.
For the record, Urqhuart said, CIS’s student enrolment is about 25% Caymanian and represents more than 35 different countries of origin.
The Current has requested comment on the topic of racial divisions in the education system from lawmakers in the ruling Government and the Opposition, and also from other school principals in the public and private sector. We are awaiting responses.
In addition to the parent we quote in this story, we have fielded concerns and comments from a number of Caymanian parents on racial divisions in schools, but no one else agreed to be quoted, even anonymously. We remain open to receiving comments on this issue from anyone who would like to share their perspective.
The more things change …
For the purposes of this story, we differentiate between the idea of ‘ethnicity’ (i.e. multigenerational Caymanian vs. more recent immigrants) and ‘race’ (in its simplest form, skin pigmentation).
Bodden said, “The Cayman Islands is a colonial society, and like all colonial societies, social stratification is firstly and foremostly based on that most potent symbol of colonialism: the white or near-white skin.”
Racial divisions in Cayman’s education system have existed as long as there has been an education system, he said.
Urquhart said it makes sense that, as a British Overseas Territory, Cayman would choose to adopt a UK-style school system, with one of the characteristics being a wide variance between free government schools and expensive private schools.
He said, like in other school systems around the world, the UK system “already had some natural institutional components of segregation, racism, access and inclusion issues. The UK system, like many, happens to be rife with classism.”
Urquhart said, “We use that system and of course as our population grows, we are going to experience [those issues].”
Bodden said, “As far as education is concerned, racism has, from the inception of formal education in these islands, been a determining criterion on ‘where one goes to school’.”
Bodden said the first public schools in Grand Cayman were established by the Mico Charity (in the early 19th century).
“The Charity provided a teacher, Malcolm, and at the time of its existence catered to a significant number of students, both white and black. These students were educated together but the white parents soon objected to their children being educated alongside the children of slaves. Malcolm did not entertain their demands for segregation and the result was that the bigoted white parents removed their children from the system,” he said.
The schools would close shortly thereafter due to financial and environmental hardships.
The interrelatedness of wealth and skin pigmentation have contributed to the racial divide apparent in education today.
Bodden said that in more modern times, the government took responsibility for primary education, with two churches — Presbyterian, now United Church, and the Church of God Chapel — running private secondary schools.
“These schools, the Cayman Prep School and Triple C School respectively, catered for the predominantly white or near-white children of their respected members. This attendance was bolstered by the token wealthy Caymanians of colour who could afford to pay the required school fees,” Bodden said.
Urquhart said, “If indeed in the ‘good old days’ there was a harmonious mixing of different people, and it was clear the island was neither black nor white, but now we have an influx of predominantly ‘white’ wealth coming in.”
Generally speaking, expatriates from wealthier (and whiter) countries such as the US, UK and Canada tend to take up high-income occupations in financial services and can afford to send their children to private schools. Meanwhile, expatriates from poorer (and less-white) countries such as Jamaica, the Philippines and Honduras tend to work in lower-income jobs, and many do not earn the minimum $42,000 per year required to bring a dependant child with them to Cayman (plus $6,000 per year for each additional dependant).
If Cayman guaranteed that all children, regardless of their immigration status, could attend government schools, that would probably increase the diversity of both public and private schools, Urquhart said.
“It’s one of those unintended consequences. There would be no way to predict it without a crystal ball,” he said.
Bodden said, “Access to wealth and improved economic conditions have meant that more Caymanians can now afford to send their children to these private church schools. Economic development however has also meant that the Cayman International School now has the reputation of being that school which now caters to the students of the wealthiest families on island.”
Urquhart said, “With our facilities and our diverse staff, albeit a whiter staff, and a whiter student body, I can see that raising eyebrows around the island. That’s why we’re doing our work in diversity and inclusion, and with our hiring practices.”
He said the school has undertaken staff sessions to address possible issues such as micro-aggressions and lack of inclusion. On the hiring side, he said they are actively trying to enhance the diversity of staff, including race, countries of origin, and other factors.
Saying that CIS staff come from more than 20 different countries, Urquhart said, “Our staffing is more diverse than ‘local lore’, but it’s not as diverse as we would want to be.”
Urquhart also said CIS is expanding its scholarship programmes to draw in students who would not otherwise be able to afford tuition.
He said the scholarship programme is based on good intentions, and it will have an immediate positive effect on improving access to CIS. However, he raised questions about some of the broader consequences and implications, for example: What are the benefits and drawbacks of removing from the public school system high-achieving and very engaged students? Will it further compound the public perception of a divide between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’?
Urquhart said, “So, yeah the private school increased their scholarship programme. It’s going to make a world of difference … But will it? It’s not as simple as that.”
Causes and consequences
The Caymanian parent said, “There are of course a small number of persons of other races evident in photographs [of certain private school student populations], but there is nothing like the pervasive smattering of people of different races and different ethnicities that were so normal in the Cayman of the 1970s.”
They said, “I cannot be helped but to come to the conclusion that many of the issues are socioeconomic and extend far beyond the classroom, and that actually the schools are reflective of racial disparities throughout the economy, with different sectors of industry and commerce being dominated by persons of origin often outside of the Cayman Islands.”
UCCI associate professor Christopher Williams described racism in Cayman’s education system, as in larger society, as being ‘subtle’ rather than codified.
In a draft version of his upcoming book titled, ‘Religion, Race, and Multiculturalism in Everyday Life: A Gadfly’s Philosophical Guide’, Williams said, “The visible self-segregation that occurs in Cayman on the basis of race and ethnicity is telling enough … but no black child, for instance, will likely be barred entry from what many native Caymanians would consider a ‘white’ private school solely on the basis of his or her skin color.”
Williams’s book includes accounts of racial harassment experienced by students of colour while in private schools.
He said, “This leads to my follow on conclusion that racism in multicultural Cayman is itself situationally institutional – an outworking of the natural, dare I say prejudicial tendencies along the spectrum and institutions of humanity, at times intersecting and interacting with the forces of coexistence in such a way that invariably leads to the disfranchisement and/or disparagement of certain ethnic and/or racial groups. What I like to call subtle race-think and its harrowing consequences is very much alive and well in Cayman.”
(Read from the draft of Williams’s book in the form of a submitted Viewpoint.)
With apparent distinctions on the island based on race, nationality, religion and economics, Urquhart wondered whether Cayman was reaching a point of growth and maturity where it’s possible to re-examine history and ask difficult questions about divisions and discrimination.
“Are we at that stage where now there’s ‘Aha!’ moments where you go, ‘Maybe in the ‘good old days’ we weren’t as harmonious as we thought we were, because we weren’t large enough or diverse enough to experience those true challenges?” he said.
As an example, Urquhart referred to the first Cayman Pride Parade that took place on 31 July, saying LGBT people had always existed in Cayman but it took 500 years for this event to be able to take place.
On subjects of diversity and equality, including race, Urquhart said, “It’s going to continue to be messy. It’s not going to be sorted out what’s best for our island for a long time. These issues have been around for years and years. The comfort level will grow as we talk more and more about it.”
The Caymanian parent said Cayman cannot compete globally while fostering divisions at home. “If we are not united in our approach to things, we will never be able to put our best foot forward and achieve our potential,” they said.
The parent said, “The segregation of society continues to accelerate. It is happening in workplaces, without any racial motivation. But racial distinction is an unhappy consequence of an entity recruiting from North America, or from the Caribbean, or from Europe, or from Latin America, or from China.”
Segregation among young people builds and perpetuates barriers among adults, the parent said.
“Provided that all the children can go to school together, there is still a mechanism for intergroup camaraderie and assimilation because of the beautiful innocence of children who do not carry any of the prejudices of their parents throughout their early years, and it provides opportunities on the ‘birthday party circuit’ for all people of all backgrounds to be brought together,” the parent said.
“But if the schools themselves segregate, then society loses that critical tool in building bridges across divisions that might otherwise arise,” they said.