West Indian Masculinity in Crisis

West Indian masculinity is in crisis. I’m not referring longingly to a deviation from patriarchy and I’m not advocating for a return to patriarchal masculinity. What I am referring to is a changing gender dynamic and men’s perception of their own powerlessness in the face of this shifting dynamic. Faced with this perceived loss of their patriarchal birthright to a dominant expression of masculinity, young men feel the need to take this “birthright” by force, relying on violence to do so.

This idea came to me while I was performing a “social breaching” experiment in Saint Lucia a few weeks ago (more on that later!). While out on dates, my romantic interest and I would ask the wait staff whether they thought it was “right” for the woman to pay for the date. We figured we could get some pretty fascinating responses by asking the question every time we went out; being young, light skinned and conventionally attractive probably gave us a good likelihood of getting responses. Every response to this question (which we posed in different ways) was interesting but one in particular stuck out to me.

 

intersectional feminism
Me when I hear “the man is in charge”

The waiter was a young, upbeat black male around 20-25 years old. He seemed nervous as he waited on us, nearly completely lacking in confidence.When we posed the question to him, this demeanor s changed. His desperation for approval was replaced with underlying aggression. He responded that he thought it was wrong for the woman to pay because “the man is in charge” and he should “be in control”. Of course, we got this response on one of the days where I had agreed to pay for dinner before hand.

After dinner, the two of us began a conversation on gender roles, specifically the male role of the “provider” that this young waiter had likely internalized. How can a man like that live up to his own ideation of masculinity, when at his prime, he’s working a low paying job that doesn’t have great opportunity for growth? Who can he provide for? How can he even rightfully see himself as a provider in a country where women’s economic power is growing much faster than men’s?

This isn’t me bashing waiters or even this waiter in particular. I’m trying to understand the mindset of a man with a patriarchal mindset who cannot live up to his own ideas of what a man should be. Where does he turn? Where should he turn? Deconstructing rigid notions of masculinity that dictate a man must pay and a man must provide would probably be the most positive solution. However, as a cynic/realist, I think it’s pretty unlikely that would happen. What most likely will happen is that he will fall back on other aspects of “ideal” masculinity to prove to himself that he is a man.

This can be negative like relying on violence to dominate others, especially women in romantic relationships for example. We already know that one of the risk factors for men committing domestic violence is strict belief in patriarchy and patriarchal gender roles. Now, I know nothing of this man personally, and perhaps he has never committed violent acts against anyone. But it is a possibility, and it’s a great possibility considering the general hopelessness men in Saint Lucia obviously feel if we look at the fairly large suicide rate amongst Saint Lucian men.

Yes, masculinity is in crisis, but the way to fix it is not a return to traditional masculinity which cannot possibly survive in a world moving closer to equality. All men, especially those who consider themselves allies to women should take time to consider how they define their own masculinity and what it means in this changing world. What makes you a man? Does your definition rely on something outdated, harmful and/or oppressive? That’s not something that I can answer for you, but it’s something that I urge you to consider or to ask the men in your lives to consider for themselves.

Black Feminism: Acknowledging Colorism

As my exploration of black feminism continues, I am interested in discussing how colorism impacts our ability to analyze and critique different situations. A popular subject I’ve seen on various forms of social media is the subject of ending “girl hate”. While the subject is discussed within American feminist contexts in different ways, I think as young Caribbean women we have a responsibility to ourselves to find a way to end girl hate within our own social sphere. This means not speaking about girl hate in a way that circumvents the issues of race and class that are so entrenched in women hating other women. We have such specific and subtle ways we interact down here and there are racial hierarchies at work that influence “girl hate” and how much power it holds on an individual level.

In St. Lucia we have a racial hierarchy that determines the value of women within our society. This racial hierarchy is a leftover of colonialism, and yes, the legacy of colonialism is still alive today. Within our society, and ultimately within our culture, women with greater proximity to whiteness are valued more than those who are darker, with greater proximity to blackness. Keep in mind, this isn’t unique to Saint Lucia or to the Caribbean. Outside of the black-white dichotomy, women of Indian or East Asian descent fall along a median spectrum, where women who are darker are devalued similarly to darker skinned black women.

This means that some forms of “girl hate” while possibly still harmful on a personal level do not carry the weight of other forms of girl hate which are backed by generations of damaging racist hierarchies. Insults or hatred towards women who are lighter skinned or have features that are closer to the European standard might be hurtful but they do not have the power that insults towards darker skinned women have. I think in considering our own actions, this is crucial to acknowledge and understand. For example, if you as a lighter skinned woman are finding that a large number of your negative attitudes towards women are towards darker skinned women, perhaps you need to deconstruct the implicit colorism or racism embedded in your “girl hate”.

In our quest to end our hatred of each other, we need to take race into account, even in a multiethnic heterogenous society like the West Indies. Keeping this in mind, along with my suggestions for how we can work to end damaging social practices, I think we all can make significant headway in stopping this hatred for each other, and this toxic negativity within the public sphere. When women are pitted versus women, no one ever wins.

Migrating Home: Reflections on Privilege in the Caribbean

As I enter the second half of my last semester at Middlebury College, I’ve started to reflect on my life in the United States, and how quickly it’s coming to an end. I wish I could say that I was sad, or had any sense of nostalgia about my undergraduate experiences. I already experienced my saddest graduation goodbye when I graduated from Groton, my high school alma mater. I feel nothing but absolute bliss when I think about a life after Middlebury. Of course, I have personal reasons for this but what else is at play here? Why do some people relish the idea of never returning to the Caribbean, and why are some unable to truly imagine a life outside here?

I’ll go into my personal reasons first in an attempt to give you a little more insight into the woman behind the words.

  • I love warm weather. This is a more shallow reason but I’ve spent ~ 9 years in New England and I’m absolutely sick of the annual influenza guarantee and having to go out in layers and layers of clothing.
  • I find it easier to mind my health (exercise and eating) when I’m in a place with little access to processed food and junk food. Also, it’s much easier to exercise when it’s 80 degrees out compared to when it’s below 0.
  • Being black is much easier here. Although my body is marked for being a woman, I find it a lot safer to navigate spaces here as a black woman. Yes, despite the catcalls, leers and manner of other experiences I have.
  • I just love being around Saint Lucians, despite some of the more ‘ignorant’ behaviors. I love the humor, the food, the culture and the generosity of people down here.

These are just a few of the reasons that I feel more excited about moving down here than I’ve felt about anything in a while. It’s worth examining why I feel this way. This involves deconstructing the notion of “privilege”. Here are some of the privileges that permit me to feel a greater degree of comfort in Saint Lucia.

  • Racial privilege for being a light skinned biracial (black/white) woman.
  • Gender privilege for being a gender conforming cisgender woman.
  • Class privilege for having the ability to afford returning home and having the ability to use my skills to live a comfortable life.
  • Heterosexual privilege. While it is still a risk to be a heterosexual woman in Saint Lucia, it is far more dangerous to exist outside of the spectrum of heterosexuality.
  • Privilege because of my physical and mental ability. My physical and mental health permit me to feel mobile, comfortable and sane in Saint Lucia. This aspect of privilege often goes unexamined but can be very important.

Society here affords me the safety to exist as I want to, mostly without fear. Structurally, a part of this is because of the dominant positions that I occupy that place me out of harm’s way. It’s important to examine what it means to occupy a position insulated from oppression. Do we feel safe here because we have created an unwelcome environment for non-conformers?

This problem of exclusion is not unique to the Caribbean, but it’s one that we can find the capacity to solve. Some of these solutions may need to occur on the structural level, such as elimination of anti-buggery laws. Yet some changes can be made on an individual level; a series of individual changes must occur for us to see structural change.

The majority of the people in this region practice Christianity, a major tenet of which is “Love thy neighbor, as thyselves”. Perhaps we find this so difficult to practice because of the ways we don’t love ourselves. Whatever the reason, I would compel everyone to work individually towards making home safe for everyone and consider the ways in which we contribute to a society that endangers those who don’t fit in. What kind of changes can you make?

Black Feminism In The Caribbean: Examining The Mulatto Effect

One of my favorite mythologies about the Caribbean that seems to be perpetuated amongst emigrant communities and foreigners alike is that we have transcended race due to our highly multiracial and integrated society. Due to my interst in black feminism, this lie has been exposed as entirely false. Even without the academic language of feminism, I knew this intuitively. While there is indeed a high degree of multiracialism, the notion of transcending race is mythical because the Caribbean still suffers from crippling anti-blackness. Nearly every person, regardless of race, is complicit in this anti-blackness on some level or another.

At this point, some of you may already think I’m crazy. How can there be anti-blackness in a place where the population is mostly black? How can I, a black person, uphold anti-blackness? In the Caribbean, despite the lack of a large class of wealthy whites, we still have racial stratification; everyone in our society is complicit in upholding it. Parents of all shades of black wish for their children to come out lighter skinned. Women are pressured to destroy their natural hair textures to conform to what is “proper” (as dictated by European standards). History is taught in school in such a way that we are ashamed of slavery but proud of the accomplishments of the British/French.

The experience of “whiteness” can be approximated by being biracial which I’ll use interchangeably with “half-white” for clarification of which biracial identity I’m referring to. I call this the mulatto effect, putting a name to the nuanced Caribbean experience of “white privilege” that creates an insulated world where lighter skinned black people do not experience the full extent of anti-blackness.

In the Caribbean, blackness is the dominating framework through which race should be discussed, but blackness in the Caribbean is heavily influenced by East Asian (mainly Chinese) and South Asian (mainly Indian) cultures and racial mixing with white people both local and foreign. Different islands have different racial compositions that add additional nuance to a discussion. While Trinidad and Guyana are known for their large populations of Indians for example, similar proportions of Indian populations do not exist in Saint Lucia.

The mulatto effect is how we can perceive the organization of the Caribbean’s racial hierarchy. The top is not necessarily white, due to an excessively small population of  white people with NO black relatives. White adjacent people who come from either historically white families or who have visible proximity to whiteness occupy the highest racial class. We may not have a significant white ruling class, but a biracial/multiracial class that receives distinctly better treatment than the majority of the “100% black” population.

Without a distinct and large white upper class we see anti-black dynamics play out in a way that misleads people to believe we have transcended race. We’ve merely transplanted a racial hierarchy in a way that suits our population. The closest to white occupy the top, whereas the furthest away from whiteness occupy the bottom of the hierarchy. Every aspect of this hierarchy was constructed during colonialism and has not disappeared, even today.

Racial hierarchies aren’t just theories. Reflecting on my time in primary school for example, there were a number of occasions where half-white students — myself included— were spared punishment because they came from “good” families. While many black students in the class came from similar or higher economic classes, they were not spared punishment. They lacked the visible “goodness”, that was in this case, applied to visible whiteness. In customer service, visibly half-white people, especially those who don’t look local, receive better treatment than dark skinned locals. There are a number of other ways in which half-whiteness/whiteness is privileged with regards to beauty standards, assumptions of intelligence and more. I could go on forever pointing out the ways in which half-whiteness is privileged.

So what is the point of all of this? Why draw your attention to a racial hierarchy that I myself benefit from due to my white father, and my specific biracial phenotype (light skinned, loose curls, thin, able-bodied)? As a feminist and an anti-racist, with a commitment to social justice and equality, I recognize that this hierarchy is oppressive to everyone. Racial hierarchies like this one uphold destructive colonial mindsets that were created with the goal of maintaining black subjugation. The first step we can take in decolonizing (in this regard) is by recognizing where we see “the mulatto effect”. Where do we see our privilege or our oppression?

Most non-white people in the West Indies can intuit that they are treated differently for being darker, for having “bad” hair etc. These feelings and notions are patently invalidated as bitterness or jealousy. There is no vocabulary to speak about the injustice of having half-white citizens prioritized and treated significantly better than non-white citizens. The vocabulary doesn’t matter as much as our ability to recognize the injustice. I invite you to consider moments when you felt like your blackness was a mark, when you were dehumanized or privileged because of your skin tone. Both reflections are important since without biracial recognition of our privilege, we cannot possibly hope to remove the colonial stain on our region. Through recognition and self-reflection, you will have taken the first individual steps towards radical politics and regional black liberation. Of course, as activists and as individuals, we still have a lot of work to do.

Why Do We Prevent Social Change?

Author’s Note:

This longer post is a more serious and rigorous analysis around 3,000 words in length. As it is longer than the usual blog post, it will take considerable time to read. Approach with caution! 

Change, activism and social justice are important buzzwords for the twenty-something feminist blogger. These words take on an emptiness when talking about the Caribbean. We have few popular civil rights movements and little culture of social unrest based on political dissatisfaction. In St. Lucia, our independence was gained rather than fought for. A huge part of our culture relies on the notion that there is little need for change. Bad political or economic situations exist. Although many can identify these problems, there is no continuation of this thought to include further action. The skill of identifying a problem, while a useful first step is meaningless if it is not backed up with a solution. We have a commitment to mediocrity and stagnation in St. Lucia that prevents us from actualizing change, activism or social justice.

Mediocrity will permit poverty, racism, classism, sexism and homophobia to thrive in St. Lucia long after I am gone. We destroy our society from within by our own blasé attitudes towards these issues. While we remain passive, we ignore our potential to change and the importance of change as a way in which we can heal individually and as a society from the damages of social injustice that continue to harm us.

Colonization, enslavement and genocide birthed our country. Forget the sugar-coated tales of benevolent mother country and a legacy of prior economic prowess due to our cash crops — cane or bananas. England and France were rapists and murderers who left gaping sociological, psychological and economic wounds in St. Lucia. Independence wrapped these wounds in gauze but we still bleed, marring the white bandage with the memory that we were birthed in blood. Most people in St. Lucia descended from blacks, Indians, and indigenous people. The white people in St. Lucia consist of expatriates and locals whose family tree is blacker than they would like to acknowledge. We are all a part of an oppressed demographic. Without the colonial master’s watchful eye we have continued to uphold an oppressive status quo. Everything about our current demographic — racial and economic — results from our colonial beginnings. This shapes our attitudes towards our country and society.

We behave like the historic victims of abuse. Victims possess a complex psychology; ours is marked by shame. St. Lucians are afraid and ashamed of acknowledging the truth of our colonial history. This is why schools teach the watered down version of our origin story. The truth of the indigenous genocide is obfuscated and you would swear slavery were a minor blip with no cultural aftershocks. I am met with hesitation and visible discomfort when I proclaim that we are a nation born out of slavery and genocide. Speaking the truth about our past is viewed as complaining because slavery is over. We feel guilty if we haven’t “moved on”.

I’m not sure when moving on from slavery meant doing nothing about the legacy left behind while pretending we aren’t affected by it, but this is the lie St. Lucians have bought into. We are ashamed that we are descended from slaves. We deny that we could have indigenous heritage. We are ashamed of our blackness and what it means in the aftermath of colonization. Like abuse victims we project blame inward and continue to self-abuse by ignoring our history. We blame ourselves for not healing when we do not even know where healing begins.

This denial, self-harm and self-blame causes us to remain stagnant. An incapacitating mental illness afflicts everyone in our country. Individual and societal work will free us from the hold of our abuser in a way independence has yet to do. These faces of healing complicate our task because they require everyone to be complicit in our progress.

The victim psychology of our country forces us into stagnation. To move away from mediocrity and achieve at our full potential we need to begin the work of healing. This starts with acknowledging our history and decoupling it from feelings of humiliation and shame. In order to acknowledge and understand our history, we need to first look at our current context and understand that. This is the world in which we currently live and we are better equipped to understand it first.

Mediocrity is beneath our potential; it is a contentedness with existing beneath our best. It is a self-harming notion that keeps us stagnant in a world where change defines you. The mindset we have will lead to a wider gap between our country and developed ones. St. Lucia will plummet further to the bottom despite our capacity to do better. Everyone in our country and everyone who emigrates, including myself, is complicit in our nation’s mediocrity which is a generous term to describe our failure to compete on a global market.

Accusing everyone in the nation of buying into a culture of mediocrity is bold, but true. St. Lucians react to problems by assuming there is no practical solution. We are characters in a novel praying for a Deus Ex Machina that will never be written into the plot. Some people believe we must look to God for solutions. If we pray, God will solve our problems. Some people say, “There’s simply nothing that can be done.” Others believe that solutions could be found, if only their political party were in power. They say this even if the last time their party was in power, everything remained the same. Everyone in St. Lucia has heard some variation of these responses to “our nation’s ills”. In speaking these dismissive words or hearing them without objection, we become complicit in mediocrity. We become members of the complacent populace. We accept and agree that things shouldn’t change.

St. Lucians choose to thrive in mediocrity though repelling and rejecting anyone who has the intellectual capability and motivation to enact change. There isn’t the money to keep forward thinkers in St. Lucia. We give our brightest citizens no incentives otherwise to return. Our sociologists, historians, writers, many of our doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs are all sent to the US/UK/Canada to study with the hope they will give back to St. Lucia. Hope is not tangible. Why would they give back? Motivated people are rejected by the St. Lucian population. Bullies mocked their motivation in primary school. In Secondary School peers tortured intellectuals for their differences, for receiving good grades and for being favored by teachers. Some teachers even discourage achievement, only encouraging their students to do “enough” as opposed to challenging them to expand their horizons.

When students leave St. Lucia for tertiary education, it is difficult to encourage them to return. Those who do return possess traits which may mark them — to themselves and to others — as failures. People return because they are homesick for food, company and family. People return because they have no money. At home, the jobs might pay less but they won’t have to starve the way they would overseas. Not acclimating to the foreign environment and failing to escape poverty through leaving places citizens who return to work and live in a damaged psychological headspace.

They feel incompetent and useless because they didn’t hack it abroad. Seeing themselves as failures maims them and allows them to accept being average due to discouragement. These people should have the tools to change St. Lucia but they don’t because negative self-perception leads them to believe they are not capable. They failed to prove they could exceed expectations and in their mind, their chance to make a difference for themselves or for their families has ended.

If you return to St. Lucia to avoid the stigma of being “the one who couldn’t make it” you had damn well make a name for yourself on the island. This alternative to returning in shame neglects society. Making a name for yourself becomes a hedonistic process. People who leave the Caribbean for tertiary education and later return are tools of stagnation and mediocrity. They view themselves as failures and play into a culture that encourages viewing life overseas as the ultimate marker of St. Lucian success.

St. Lucians who see other Caribbean islands as the furthest acceptable places to travel also add to our nation’s stagnation. St. Lucians who believe UWI is enough, regional medical schools are “just as good” as American ones, and the furthest we should aspire to is Cuba limit our country’s students. Their intent is not illogical. Regional schools are less expensive and more practical if students wish to return to work in St. Lucia. This should be a way to prevent our nation’s motivated students from leaving without return while saving them money and the psychological duress of adjusting to the harsh racial and financial climates of the US/UK/Canada.

Yes, we may see a few competent persons from these schools return, but a startling number of graduates are not competent. Many students would be able to reach their full potential at foreign schools, but regional schools are enough unless they plan never to return. This well meaning attempt to plug the outward flow of our potential intellectuals sells us short.

People who have never left St. Lucia are bound to mediocrity more than anyone else. I’m not referring to people who simply grew up too poor to leave, but to a subset of St. Lucians who have never left but envy those who have and are bitter about the opportunities they never had. They project envy and self-loathing outward in a destructive way. They down foreign educations of all kinds. They prevent students from wanting more for themselves. They seek problems in every movement towards change. They cling to ignorance as a comfort. They hold grudges against those with a foreign education. At work or otherwise they find a way to undermine these people. They are the last bastion of colonialism, foot-soldiers of an imperialist agenda to keep us standing still as the world develops around us. They may not be conscious of what they are doing but this does not undo the ramifications.

Three layers of our demographic work to maintain our status quo; although I wasn’t explicit, these groups are loosely interconnected to each other through socioeconomic class. The status quo is all we know. We believe that the status quo and its further preservation is the key to our success. This is why we have a trend of St. Lucians believing foreign investment is the key to solving our country’s ills. We look outward to imperial powers to invest and this maintains the status quo by keeping Western powers in control and St. Lucians at the bottom as laborers or workers. By calling for greater foreign involvement in our economy we contract ourselves as modern slaves to the same powers that controlled us before. How is this progress?

Part of our mediocrity results from religious dogma. This too is a legacy of colonialism. Europeans introduced Christianity to the Caribbean; it did not originate with the Africans or indigenous peoples. St. Lucian culture encompasses Christianity. This culture incorporates the ideal that prayer is the answer to everything. I protest the notion that answers and solutions are the same. While “I can’t help you” may be an answer to someone seeking assistance, a solution would be helping them. St. Lucians treat prayer as a solution to poverty, sexual depravity and more. Prayer is a method of escapism. Prayer is a tool of social stagnation. St. Lucians have bought into prayer as a solution for our nation’s ills, with not enough prayer being the primary reason these ills have not been solved. But answers are not solutions and prayers without actions are whispers into the wind. Prayer is a cop out disguised as spiritual consciousness. The inherent inaction involved in prayer is a tool in preserving a status quo that keeps us subservient and keeps us in the same place.

We keep up the status quo by inactivity and searching outward for answers rather than solutions. St. Lucians need to begin crafting a culture of social change that incorporates values different from those left behind by colonialism and imperialism. We need to look at what colonizing countries wanted for St. Lucia and pursue the opposite; they did not have our best interests at heart and they never will. St. Lucian social change should prioritize the needs of the most marginalized first. Abolishing poverty, homophobia and child abuse along with seeking women’s equality socially and economically should be at the forefront of social change.

Economic change and social change are inextricable. The bare minimum amount of economic change we should work towards would be socialization of health care and education. We need social services that permit the nation’s poorest access to food, shelter, water and access to health and education.

We can begin to break out of mediocrity by developing cultural values that reflect pride in our heritage rather than shame. We need to develop a self-perception where we are survivors rather than victims. Exploitation birthed St. Lucia. Colonial motherlands raped, pillaged and poisoned our national self-perception. They made us slaves, servants and damned us to poverty. To them, our value was what we contributed to imperial wealth. We were bodies, not valuable human beings. Our task cannot be as simple as “putting this all behind us.” We need to confront this history and admit that colonial perceptions do not define us. Are we weak because we were enslaved and abused or are we strong because we still stand? Are we victims or survivors?

Coming to terms with history means telling the truth about our experiences, not sugar coating it with lies. Our history is painful; England and France damaged us. But we stand today and in telling the stories of our ancestors we take a major step towards healing. After speaking our truth and acknowledging the depth of our hurt, we need to determine what it means and how to honor this history. Colonizers said we were lazy, but we built their fortunes on plantations. Can we really be that lazy if their pockets got fat off of our labor? Why then should we believe ourselves to be lazy and worthless and act in accordance with what oppressors have told us is true? We can apply action to “speaking our truth” here by behaving in accordance with what we know to be true of ourselves. We know we are not lazy, so we will not act as if we are. If our truth is that we are not victims but survivors of oppressive circumstances, our outlook on the world and our nation will take on a different character.

These changes occur on a personal level and I’m only scratching the surface of what it really takes to develop deep pride for your heritage. On a community level, the population needs to stop accepting and trusting politicians who stopped learning when they received PhDs. We can argue whether ten years of regurgitating academia even counts as learning. The same ideas are not working. We are a poor country. We need people who can impose forethought onto the vague concepts of “progress” and “economic reform”. St. Lucia needs competent community organizers who have not been made so arrogant by their degrees that they cannot listen to the needs of her people.

Listening to the needs of the people sometimes does not involve asking directly. Look at crime statistics, CSEC scores or common causes of death. Take data as sociological markers representing symptoms of what is making our nation sick. Don’t let politicians discuss solutions, let civil servants and medical professionals who have embodied pride in their heritage and eagerness for change explore new solutions. Looking at sociological markers are only the beginning of what we need to do to rid ourselves of complacency and move toward social change. We need to give a voice to people who want more so they can speak their truth regarding St. Lucia’s future and the steps we need to take to acquiesce to the needs of the marginalized.

Recognize that the impetus for change does not lie in the hearts or minds of politicians or priests. Change can come from a group of average individuals who desire better and can organize themselves effectively. You have the power to change the culture if you desire change and have ideas that will benefit the community. Abandoning mediocrity means internalizing this belief in personal power. Believe that you and your country are important. Don’t seek answers from priests and politicians who are invested in things staying the same.

Only those who do not benefit from the status quo have the real power to change it because they are faced with the reality of their marginalization daily and in greater touch with their needs. They know what should be changed and how it should be changed in a way that others don’t.

Every problem we have as a nation can be solved by St. Lucians. Why should nations that once colonized us have our best interests at heart? Why should other nations? Even in animals genuine altruism is rare. I doubt altruism can be found in capitalism’s biggest junkies. (Profit over human life!) In order to create social change or in order to be activists we need to renounce our faith in inferiority. We have no Malcolm X or Angela Davis to look to for guidance on how this works in a Caribbean context. We must create our own leaders, but we cannot cultivate powerful leadership if those with leading potential, education and desire are chased to the UK/US/Canada.

We can’t do this if our UWI graduates are encouraged in mediocrity. We can’t do this if the people who remain in St. Lucia for life are disempowered because they lack access to degree programs. The inferiority complex is what keeps them from promoting change; we must not treat these people as inferiors. Everyone on our island is important. For change, everyone is necessary. Let’s work on changing ourselves and then changing our country. It is easiest to change our individual mindsets towards our self-worth. After, we must change the community mindset and finally, destroy every structure that keeps anyone on our nation marginalized.

Intersectional Feminism: Women’s Health

Until my summer class is over, I have neglected to really discuss it in great depth on this blog or in any kind of formal writing. This is a very intentional omission as I’m keeping my head down this summer I feel more comfortable speaking more generally of women’s health and what I’ve learned of its condition on St. Lucia so far. Everything written here merely mirrors my experience in St. Lucia and I welcome commentary that differs from what I’ve learned. As of right now, my experience with women’s health here has reflected a dangerous level of misinformation and ignorance with no interest in learning otherwise. The deep roots of colonial Catholicism are entrenched beyond belief in every aspect of interpreting women’s health and conceptualizing female sexuality.

The culture regarding women’s health straddles and occasionally crosses the line from ignorant to downright dangerous. Women possess just as much, if not less information regarding their bodies and sexualities as men do here which exacerbates the patriarchal power dynamic where men become sole proprietors (for this is how they are viewed) of women’s bodies and sexuality. The problem with comprehending female sexuality is so deep that I cannot even begin to touch upon the politics and problems regarding LGBTQ members of St. Lucian society (who are largely undercover or extremely private anyways). Most women here aren’t totally aware of the most important part of women’s health, the vagina. The anatomy of the pubic area is taboo and unfamiliar and there is widespread misinformation regarding virginity and what that means.

The act of sex itself is largely seen as taboo between unmarried couples despite the fact that St. Lucia has one of the world’s lowest marriage rates and a birth rate that does not reflect a large number of births occurring within wedlock. I wonder how much women are in control during the act of sex here. In speaking with acquaintances here, I’ve largely gotten the perception that the act of sex is seen as something that is not expected to be pleasurable for women. It’s seen as something that men are owed for either being good people or paying for dates or for dishing out the right number of compliments. Penetrative sexual intercourse seems to have nothing to do with women who are objectified to an advanced degree here with many men colloquially referring to women as “tings”. I can’t even begin to think of a way in which the act of intercourse is seen as being for women because such an idea is unheard of down here.

I don’t know if I observed a single positive thing that would give me a hopeful outlook regarding women and their awareness of their sexual health. There is even a great deal of stigma regarding basic facets of sexual health like pap-smears which I’ve heard “make you not a virgin anymore” and STD testing. Women protecting themselves against STDs by carrying condoms or using birth control is also heavily stigmatized.

I could go on and on providing numerous examples of all the things I’ve listed above; I could even continue to list the ways in which the perception of female sexual health is warped. Is Catholicism or a conservative culture an excuse? It may provide an explanation but in my opinion it is not an excuse. Cultural differences are irrelevant at the point where they intentionally oppress one group (women) over another. The staunchly patriarchal view of women’s health and women’s bodies is harmful because it leads to increased cases of domestic abuse, sexual violence and other forms of violent crimes against women. I’m not advocating a total destruction of St. Lucia’s culture regarding women’s health, merely greater access to correct education that is free from religious and patriarchal bias against women.

Is Criticism an Act of Love?

Positioning myself as a critic of West Indian culture may frame me in such a way that my words seem poison, as if they are complaints launched by a foreign but professional whiner. When did critique and love become mutually exclusive? Does somehow being critical of something suddenly mean you don’t see its value? This view is patently wrong. Critique in itself can be a demonstration of love, and with regards to Saint Lucia and the West Indies this is most certainly where my need to critique stems from. I have a vision of what our country could be like given the intelligence,  survivorship and drive our people possess. While some of our more positive traits may seem to be dwindling fast, I still believe we can do the work of healing.

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Simply Beautiful // Cas En Bas (Photograph is my own)

Without critique, there can be no cultural growth. If we accept every piece of our culture as it comes, how can we hope to adapt and survive in a changing world? We will need to change and we will need to adapt and as we change, our culture need not disappear, but should change with us. A part of humanity is always striving for better, and working towards improvement. For some, this need to “strive” can be capitalist and self-interested. They will strive to accumulate as much wealth as possible at the expense of those around them. For others, an effort towards improvement may be moving towards the deconstruction of oppressive power structures towards a more egalitarian world. Arguably, a push towards an egalitarian society is a part of Christian duty.

I love Saint Lucia. I love the West Indies. I love our culture. Yes, I mean that I love more than carnival, our food and our music. I even love some of the “bad” things about our culture like the tradition of poor customer service and the rambunctious attitudes of our people. But if I loved Saint Lucia and didn’t point out  the areas we need to work on, that love would be hollow and disingenuous. It’s like being in a relationship. You may accept the good and the bad, but this doesn’t mean you suddenly begin to see the “bad” as something good.

While there is a lot to appreciate about our country and region, there is also a lot to work on. Pretending we don’t have problems will not make the problems go away. Relying on external forces will not solve anything either. Every country, especially countries ravaged by hundreds of years of colonialism, has a lot to fix. Critique moves us forward; it helps us to heal and to grow. If that isn’t an act of love, I’m not sure what is.

Black Feminism And How Women Interact

I’m going to be 2015’s biggest cheese ball and start this post off with a quote from Chimamanda Adichie. This quotation explains one of the challenges you may experience when learning about black feminism and trying to live more positively.

“We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.”

You may recognize it from the popular Beyonce song we’ve all had on repeat since December 13th 2013. This quote has been in the forefront of my mind since I’ve come down here and as I’ve started to notice interactions and body language between women in public spaces. I can’t help but have this quote at the forefront of my mind as I listen and observe the women around me. Maybe it’s strange, but whenever I’m out, I feel highly in tune to the people around me. I notice body language, the way they say certain things, the way their eyes move and pretty much everything else. My intuition and my sensitivity to body language are heightened when I’m not alone.

The insights I’ve gained through observation have led me to believe that there is a crisis in women’s interactions here. There is nearly tangible tension amongst women who are not close friends. It feels hostile and unwelcoming. This tension creates a social environment where instead of helping, loving and supporting each other, women are constantly in competition. And for what? I haven’t been able to pinpoint that quite yet, but I think Ms Adichie might be onto something. When women are constantly challenging each other in the social realm instead of being supportive and loving, we cannot be liberated from a dominant male culture.

Challenge: Trying not to side eye negative people.

In public, women try to test you. They may size you up, looking you from head to toe with a judgmental face. Occasionally, some may flirt with your romantic partner in front of you. A lot of times, there is just a general sense in casual conversation that your weaknesses are being assessed and judged, that you are being categorized. The categories that exist here are unfriendly. There is a strong perception that you can only be two things: the “good girl” or the “bad girl”. (Think Madonna vs. Jezebel and the connotations of both of those things.) The thing is, we are all guilty of judging and trying to compete with other women, women who we may not even know. It doesn’t have to be this way.

In situations like this, where making external changes is nearly impossible without changing your own attitude, I prefer tactics of passive resistance, or resistance through changing my own behavior. When someone is sizing me up, a bright smile throws them off and surprises them. When someone is flirting with someone who I’m on a date with or sizing me up in that situation, I show how little I am bothered by it instead of making a face or any other response. Acting jealous and competitive shows an insecurity that I do not have (or perhaps a confidence that I DO have!). When people try to categorize me, I let them try, but I happen live in such a way that makes putting me in a box difficult. I’m smart and soft-spoken enough that I could easily be a “good girl” but I know my “wild” hair and “too short” dresses could easily catapult me into the category of a “bad girl”. It makes life difficult for the average judgmental person. Yet, not everyone lives like I do, and they don’t deserve to be subjected to judgment for their choices either.

Where I live in the United States, the cult of womanhood amongst black women is different. We do have a culture of supporting each other, regardless of how close we are. There is a positive environment amongst women of color that I would love to see replicated here. Living in a nearly homogenous white student population, we only have each other. This has forced us to stick together for survival purposes; so I don’t think this difference is a cultural difference between the U.S. and St. Lucia entirely. The difference still exists however, and it has opened my eyes as to ways that you can change your own behavior and dismantle this unspoken hatred between women.

1. Try to compliment at least one female friend a day. Tell her you like her hair-do, her nails, something. Make it genuine. Don’t just compliment for the sake of it. Training yourself to see things that you actually like about the women around you will get you started eliminating a lot of implicit negativity you may have towards other women. This is the easiest one, so if you find the others more difficult, try to do only this for at least a week before moving on to the others. The results will be worth it.

Challenge: Keep being a carefree black girl!

2. Catch your negative thoughts about other women. It’s hard to police your own thoughts, but the positive feelings you get from doing this far outweigh the inconvenience of having to self-monitor. When you see a woman and feel the need to judge her clothes, hair, body or man, take note of the negative thought you had. Don’t eliminate it! Form the thought in your head, go so far as to say “Wow, I thought she was wearing really terrible clothing.” Acknowledge the negative thought and then assess.

Where did this judgment come from? It may come from jealousy or anger or it may come from nowhere at all. It doesn’t matter if there is a rational reason. Once you have understood the source of your thought or comment, force yourself to find one nice thing to say about the woman you have just judged. It doesn’t even have to be something real! You can think to yourself, “But I bet she is a really good cook.” You just need something to replace the negativity in your mind and practice mindfully choosing positivity.

3. Do not engage with negative looks, comments or behaviors. We are tempted to respond when we feel threatened. If another woman gives you a dirty look, sizes you up or flirts with your partner, her behavior does not reflect on you, it reflects on her. She may have her own insecurities or other factors that lead to that behavior. While you aren’t in control of her actions, you are in control of how you respond to her actions.

I do not advocate accepting abuse lying down, but if a situation is not dangerous, there is no need to engage with negativity, for your own sake. Respond with a smile, or neutrality if you can’t manage that. This tends to jar people, and while it may not change their minds, it will give you some peace and perhaps an upper hand. Responding to hate with love is not always the solution, but in this case it can serve as an effective way to break down barriers between women.

Black Feminism & Sexist Dating Expectations

Although the subject can become repetitive, one of the ways I try to practice black feminism in my life is in my romantic life. I’ve been in St. Lucia for my ten day vacation between J-term and spring semester. During that time I’ve been going out to eat with a male friend of mine nearly every night. I’ve started to really notice a quirk in St. Lucian culture with regards to customer service. We all know about the stereotype of the West Indian shop owner or restaurant owner with a bad attitude. I’m a bit too comfortable here to be surprised or bothered by the abrasive attitudes of workers. I’ve grown to love having to work to give up my own money. What has bothered me is the way financial transactions are handled by people who work in customer service.

Now, I’m not a big believer in either the man or the woman paying every single time. Sometimes the bill is split, sometimes he pays, sometimes I pay. It may not be split evenly, I’m certainly not keeping tabs, but it’s split in a way that both of us are comfortable and satisfied with the occasional free meal and the occasional expense. Servers, waitresses and bartenders seem to have a more sexist idea about these financial transactions. Workers have a clear expectation that paying for meals is the responsibility of the man. I am not necessarily offended to the point of reaction, but it is tangibly sexist. Here are a few different situations this has happened in that I can recall, just from the past four to five days:

1. Ordering drinks and the bill is placed in front of my friend immediately.

2. I handed a fifty dollar bill to a server and she returned the change to my friend. (This has happened twice.)

3. I took my credit card out of my wallet and handed it to a server and she returned it to my male friend for a signature, despite the fact that I took the card out of my wallet in front of her.

These experiences have only occurred with female servers. This shows that sexism is not exclusively practiced by men. Women can play an equal role in enforcing patriarchal expectations. These experiences are negative for a few reasons:

1. (This is the obvious reason!) It’s offensive for people to assume that I cannot or should not pay my way. Why not place the bill in the center of the table? Or return my change and credit card to me?

2. It places external pressure on men to fulfill specific gender roles. This is not a gender role expectation that I placed on him; it’s an external pressure on our dynamic that neither of us agreed to, and as a result, I view it as an inappropriate invasion.

3. It makes it acceptable for women to enforce patriarchal ideas about gender roles. The cult of womanhood in St. Lucia is very powerful. Women here are very susceptible to the example and societal demands of women around us.

I don’t expect this to change when I go out in the future. I do have my own ideas about passively resisting this sexist intrusion. While most people may just “avoid the trouble” and give the man the money to pay at every occasion, I refuse to do so. I don’t make a lot of money — I’m still a student — but I’m proud of the fact that I am relatively independent. Instead of submitting to these expectations, I will force those working in customer service to acknowledge the fact that women can and do pay their way in this world. I will continue to hand money to waitresses as they look expectantly towards the man to pay. I will continue to use my own credit card, and proudly print my John Hancock on the line as they look shocked that a man would dare let me pay for dinner.

Until this becomes normalized, there can be no change. There’s nothing unfeminine about paying for a date. There’s nothing unfeminine about a woman handling her own money. Of course, undoing a sexist culture is not this simple. So, I’m not claiming to be some sort of hero or massive activist, but individual changes and convictions are important. When it comes to dining out, this is my contribution.

Musical Women: How Women in Dancehall, Soca and Calypso Embody Black Feminism

Author’s Note:

This post is a bit longer than the usual blog, so I politely request your patience as you read through!

Music is one of the most important aspects of Caribbean culture and probably even more important than I perceive it if it were to be viewed from an objective stand point. Besides dancing, food and beaches, it’s what the Caribbean is most known for abroad. American artists themselves have tried to capitalize on the popularity of Caribbean music (whether they are West Indian American or not). West Indian music as an art form and as a platform for social change therefore is valid and can have as many positive effects as negative effects. Women in Calypso, Soca and Dancehall practically apply different aspects of theoretical feminism in a way that has the potential to be a powerful tool against patriarchy by disseminating feminist ideals and thoughts as popular and culturally relevant through artistic expression.

Whether or not the idea of feminism is seen as “anti-Caribbean” is unknown to me. Most people don’t have the time or luxury to sit around theorizing about whether or not they are feminists and if discussions and meetings about such things occur at home, I am totally unaware of them. I perceive survival in a patriarchal environment as being paramount for the majority of St. Lucian women as opposed to coming to terms with the politics of their existence. I believe however, based on my cultural upbringing and what I think is culturally valuable to St. Lucian people, that the ideals of feminism have a place in Caribbean society. The undercurrents of feminist theory are present and bringing those feminist ideals to the forefront in conjunction with supporting, uplifting and empowering women within their communities can change our currently patriarchal society for the better.

Women involved in soca, calypso and dancehall tend to embody many feminist ideals through their lyricism, self presentation and their attitude with going into a male dominated genre of music. The most famous female artists have music that centers around having a good self-worth, pride in their identity, recognizing abusive cycles and other similar thematic elements. Their music is made for women and can have a positive impact if their messages are taken to heart. Their ability to become popular in a field that is dominated with messages from other artists that are either subtly or outrightly sexist in their hypersexualization of women, fetishization of different types of Caribbean women, and obsession with male sexual prowess (hinged upon female submission) shows that their words and music do have a place in Caribbean society. Their power to enact social change should not be taken lightly.

Music has an impact. We can say this because many of the homophobic messages from male dancehall artists have become wildly popular. Phrases like “bun b*tty man” and “kill b*tty man” that glorify homophobic violence have been popularized in nations where those phrases did not previously exist (note: this doesn’t mean the sentiment didn’t exist but the popularity and virulence of the message was likely expressed differently). If negative messages can have an impact, why can’t positive messages have an impact as well? Female artists have been changing the culture surrounding calypso, soca and dancehall and hopefully they will continue to do so.

Calypso Rose (Source: Wikipedia)

One of the most famous female Calypsonians, Calypso Rose, through her musical talent helped change the title of the regional calypso competition to “Calypso Monarch” as opposed to the exclusive term, “Calypso King”. The significance of a gender neutral term may not be initially recognized but it was certainly an important advancement. Women were present on the calypso scene and they demanded recognition for their talents.

The song “Manager” by  Sass! ft. Nadia Baston highlights some of the signs of what a modern day abusive relationship might look like. The tempo of the song is upbeat and quite fun, but the lyrics have a much deeper meaning. I honestly believe a song like this has the potential to allow a younger person to see something damaging in their relationship that they may not have previously seen. Sass! highlights things like: a man telling you what clothes to wear, controlling your whereabouts, isolating you from your friends and constantly checking your phone for “evidence” as negative things. Sass! doesn’t merely suggest leaving such a relationship but demands leaving it. And she does all of this without shaming people who do end up remaining in abusive relationships.

This song was a part of the Soca Gold 2013 album, showing that this message is relevant and being widely circulated. This shows that ideas of women’s empowerment can be spread through music and can be exceedingly popular. It isn’t quite progress, but it is perhaps an important step in giving women more of a voice about their experiences which is a first step in a sense. Knowledge that your voice and your experiences are valid and that you are not alone is the beginning of getting a generation of young people who can speak out.

We have a multitude of songs by other artists like Destra, Alison Hinds and Saucy (Denise Belfon) that speak about women’s agency and empowerment through dance. The idea of really owning your body and being beautiful, sexy and confident in the body that you have is important. This idea of our bodies being beautiful has been expressed in calypso, soca and dancehall and has been expressed physically through popular dances like wining, kotch, bubbling, wuk up etc. During Carnival season especially we can see this message being taken to heart. Old, young, fat, thin, shabine and dark skinned girls are ALL in costume, and proud of what they’ve got.

Lady Saw, 2013 (Source: GalleryHip)

I realize that I haven’t drawn much attention to dancehall artists which has in part been intentional because I think soca and calypso don’t get the recognition and attention they deserve as genres of music. However, women in dancehall have been important as well in challenging common patriarchal views of the world. Lady Saw, one of my personal favorite dancehall artists, takes many famous dancehall songs and flips the lyrics around to center on women’s sexual empowerment, and women’s independence from men. Her remix to the popular Gyptian song, “Hold Yuh” takes an unexpected turn. Lady Saw turns over the assumption that men are the ones who want to use women for sex and women are the ones who desperately want more. She talks about using her pussy to control men and explicitly describes her sexual wants.

This may not seem important from an American perspective, but in the Caribbean where sex, sexuality and sensuality are all around you yet strictly taboo, especially for women, it’s a powerful message. Lady Saw may not have the cult popularity of Alison Hinds (in the smaller islands at least) but her message and her music help shape the conceptualization of women in Caribbean music as independent, fearless and inspirational.

Our musical tradition is one of the most important aspects of our culture and I would be interested in seeing even more women who represent these same ideas and perhaps even stronger feminist ideals rise to regional fame. We need our women visible, we need them wining, screaming, wukking up, writing, singing and jumping for our freedom from society’s problems. We need the passion we have for music and movement to be a part of our activism and if we can use music to move us forward into a headspace where we are passionate for women’s equality,  I believe that should be explored.