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Mixed crew. Getting along with crew from all races is essential for a good contract.
I never realized how much racism on board ships could affect people until I heard about a cadet my friend sailed with. This cadet was of another nationality and part of the minority on board.
As they were sailing in the North Pacific Ocean, the cadet began to behave quite unusually. One morning, they woke up with peanut shells scattered on the floor. The only person they saw eating peanuts the night before was this cadet. When he was asked why he was littering, his answer was just as disturbing:
“I am scared someone would hurt me.”
In his anxiety, he did not even notice what he was doing with the peanuts.
His anxiety did not develop overnight. Over the previous weeks, he was constantly singled out from among his round-eyed peers to be scolded. He knew he was different; and he felt like he didn’t belong. He developed paranoia, and it affected his performance—leading to more reprimands. He felt alone. When he went home, he went home with the additional baggage of anxiety and stress that was never in his contract.
Racism affects seafarers’ happiness
The recent report on the Seafarers’ Happiness Index (SHI) revealed a drop in happiness, with one factor being the existence of racism on board. In an industry that often requires diverse nationalities working together, racial discrimination could easily exist in the workplace.
Racism played a historical part in pushing maritime workers to revolt and earn their place in a bias-free industry. Maritime labor unions were started in the 1800s. Despite the nature of the association, which is to protect the workers, majority of the organizations established racial criteria that excluded African and Asian cooks and stewards.
George Robertson, in his essay “Desegregating a Maritime Union: The Marine Cooks and Stewards,” mentioned that part of the constitution of the National Union of the Marine Cooks and Stewards (NUMCS) stated that it was formed ‘to relieve them of the degrading necessity of competing with an alien or inferior race’. They also had the intention of replacing Chinese and Japanese cooks with American citizens. It was only in the 1930s that Asians and Africans successfully fought their way into the NUMCS.
Last 2019, the issues resurfaced in the maritime field as the respondents of SHI mentioned that it was racism that hindered their happiness onboard. But why does racial discrimination still persist in a generation of liberalism and progress?
Racism can be subtle
First, we need to understand that racism does not necessarily have to be in the form of violence and slavery of a certain color against the other. It takes different forms, and the danger is that we could be ignorant it.
“I can smell you, but I can’t see you”
If you have been on a vessel, you’d hear a bunch of these words in your contract – so often that it gets normalized and becomes ‘good humor’.
Stereotyping our crewmates onboard based on their nationality or even the region they come from is also a form of racial discrimination.
They told me that I do not need to hear a Chinese person say a word to conclude that he does not speak good English. I also generalized Russians drink excessively. Whenever we receive an email that Indian inspectors would be coming, we always go by the books. They said Indians are smart at that – only that. And when a commotion happened at one of my previous contracts, I heard a remark that was racist in terms of his region of origin: “Kaya ka mayabang kasi Batanggenyo ka”. Clearly, we unconsciously carry our biases.
Racism gets in the way of climbing our career ladders, too. In some shipping companies, for example, non-whites can only reach a certain level. Some companies accept Filipino officers but only until a certain operational level. Chief engineers and Captains must always be white. Regardless of your competence and experience, if your nationality or ethnicity does not fit the mold, you are never going to get the four yellow bars on your shoulders.
Racism affects mental well-being
We must also not forget how all these factors could affect one’s mental health and well-being; how it can foster negative emotion or mental issues such as anxiety, depression and panic attacks. It can also greatly affect the productivity and efficiency of a worker. We will never know how our acts of racism and stereotyping may bring out the worst in people.
There are regulations from seafaring pillars such as the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 that states that remuneration and access to accommodation and welfare facilities among seafarers must be equal regardless of race. Yet we are still waiting for that day when seafaring is free of the biases; when it is an industry with a standard for recruitment and hiring that does not create glass ceilings for other nationalities; an industry which strongly monitors occupational health and safety in focus of race.
The sea is wide, and you never get to choose who you will be sailing with. But we are designed to work and function interdependently. So, as we sail and circumnavigate the world, let us not forget to look beyond the shades of our skin and to listen for the true message beneath the accents of our speech. May we foster a culture in which no race is above the other and color does not define how far a seafarer can go.
At the end of the day, the sea is for all of us to conquer and for all of us to share.
Sail beyond skin colors.
Elijah Jose Barrios
Elijah Jose Barrios is a 24-year old Third Officer, Teacher, and Course Developer. He advocates for child literacy and youth empowerment through his involvement in different organizations. He considers himself an appreciator of any form of art and usually puts all his realizations into writing.