Whenever there’s something vaguely progressive (and even then, it’s barely so) about Caribbean culture or interactions, people tend to latch onto it and then use that to mask or minimize the current evils that occur. For example, when (black and white) American media criticized “Work”, there was a popular quote that was passed around social media from Director X’s comments to FADER.
The quote began:
“ In West Indian culture, a dance is a dance. You can have that dance. There could be a girl jumping on top of you and you’re wining up on one another. In the wrong state, you’d get arrested and charged for lewd conduct or something. But you can end that dance and her boyfriend can be beside her, and you’re like, “Hi,” or you just walk away. Dancing and sex are tied together in America—if you’re dancing with somebody that means you’re sleeping with somebody. But that doesn’t mean that in our culture it’s the same. In West Indian culture, you’re dancing with someone because you’re dancing with someone. You’re having fun. There’s a beauty to the dance and there’s a beauty to the battle. That’s something they’re not understanding. Within a dance, there is a competition going on. There is a battle of the sexes.”
Of course every single West Indian online was in a state of celebration about this quote…
I was unimpressed. (At this point, being unimpressed is my permanent state of being.) This quote makes many indirect assumptions about Caribbean culture that simply are not true…
The first troubling claim that highlights erroneous thinking is: “A dance is a dance”. While there can be casual dancing and wining to a far greater degree than I’ve experienced abroad, this quote paints a picture of a place where women and men are actually more liberated to express themselves via dancing… But does this really capture the full picture? There’s massive social pressure in the Caribbean for women to not reject men on any level. Is a dance really something casual when there is no real freedom for you to reject said dance? Is a dance really just a dance when you risk being called a “skettel” if your mother’s friend happens to catch you bussing a mad wine at Carnival? Just as there is an aspect of freedom that comes with Caribbean dancing, there is an aspect of ongoing female oppression as well as male entitlement that’s enforced by the culture surrounding dancing. And yes, the two can exist at the same time.
The second damn near laughable idea is that you can just wine all over a Caribbean woman while her boyfriend is standing right beside her. Honestly, I dare you to try. In the Caribbean where I live, this is just flat out false. This quote presumes that Caribbean men are rational, un-jealous beings who are capable of not feeling entitled to every aspect of their girlfriend’s bodies. Like everywhere else in the world, men in the Caribbean believe that dating (checking, courting whatever you want to call it) a woman gives them permission to control every aspect of her being. Yes, this includes dancing at fêtes, at the club, whatever. The stories I hear from Caribbean women about their partners are not this soft, watered down acceptance of female autonomy. Rather, these stories include jealous rages, violence, victim-blaming for sexual assault and worse.
Now, I’ve expounded upon this one example because it’s recent, however this sort of thing occurs all the time. Some culture or country is critiqued and we latch onto something small (the fact that we can wine) and attempt to portray ourselves as progressive. This is damaging to all movements for social equality and it is inherently emotionally violent towards Caribbean women because it denies their very real experiences of constant and perpetual abuse at the hands of men by claiming that we have it better somehow.
Another example of this is when a study emerged claiming that Jamaica and Saint Lucia were one of the top three countries where you are most likely to have a female boss. While this statistic might be nice to brag to fellow Brooklynites about, it bears no weight on the state of women in the Caribbean whatsoever. The mere existence of vaginas in an office does not inform you of how much misogyny is carried out and it doesn’t indicate an overall improvement in women’s social status. A good example of this is the marked silence and lack of meaningful action powerful women in Saint Lucia have (or more likely, have not) taken in the face of our country’s “rape crisis”. Women in power do not necessarily care about all women; just as it is true abroad, it is true at home.
I encourage people to make no careless mistakes in naming the various depths of misogyny and oppression that exist in the Caribbean. Do not be fooled by our brief instances of apparent progressiveness. These studies and quotations will paint a picture of a utopian place for women or women’s rights. Yet this is a place where women feel unsafe until their dying day. In Saint Lucia for example, I have spoken to women who are older who still fear daily that they will be raped and they are resigned to the idea that at some point before they die, even in their old age, they will be subjected to sexual violence without legal recourse. There are many other ways in which women experience daily oppression here and none of this is eliminated by our ability to shake our backsides or our ability to find employment.