“The Caribbean is a melting pot where race doesn’t matter!” Every time I hear that, I grit my teeth and wonder when omitting the history of the Caribbean became a trend to hop on. It’s natural to want to defend the Caribbean against the harsh criticisms first world people heap upon us, but saying that race doesn’t matter in the Caribbean is an ahistorical lie that denies the lived experience of millions of people in the region.
Black people came to the Caribbean on slave ships and from that moment, everything in the Caribbean has been about race. Of course, race and class then became intimately intertwined. Today, having the name of a former slave master (the slave masters were all white) is a point of pride. White people make up the wealthiest populations in our islands. Many of my Caribbean friends from various islands have said, “I don’t know anyone poor and white here.” That coupled with whiteness is known to help in school, with employment and with other situations one may experience throughout your life.
Our countries all have a massive hatred of black features… White hair is seen as clean, tidy, neat and professional whereas black hair is automatically wild/unruly or something that needs to be “fixed”. For those who think it’s about “curls” and not whiteness… White people with curly hair are NOT subjected to the same treatment as black people. Throughout the Caribbean, black hair styles are often seen as “untidy” and “unprofessional”. Another belief about blackness being inherently bad is the idea that if you go into the sun you will get “too black” — the same belief doesn’t apply to getting “too white” however. People are applauded for their physical proximity to whiteness and punished for being black. Darker skinned people experience worse treatment and excessive teasing for their skin color. These damaging beliefs about their physical appearance and identity have long lasting effects in people’s life, causing them to perpetuate race based abuse on others as well as themselves. Any woman who has transitioned from relaxed to natural hair in the Caribbean can tell you that they faced significant pushback, indicating that the issue is widespread.
Some of the more subtle cultural preferences towards white people is the tendency for black people to refer to any white man as “boss”. I’ve seen this with my father as well as my boyfriend (who is biracial but that often gets coded as white down here) where people who have no reason to, refer to them as “boss”. It’s a subtle, yet powerful way of indicating status and frankly, black people often believe themselves to be lower status than white people. There is no reason for black people to speak to white people differently from how they speak to black people, yet in the Caribbean this is all too common.
Another common experience of black people in the Caribbean is poor treatment by customer service staff. White people (thought to be tourists especially) are treated with politeness, respect and the gamut of perfect customer service. Black locals on the other hand are often treated poorly by those serving them for no reason other than their skin color. This poor treatment could be slowness, blatant rudeness or asking black people to leave certain areas for “being loud” even if they were not in fact being loud. (Yes! All of these experiences are real and have happened to various WI people I have spoken to on these issues.)
We pretend that whiteness is non-existent here, yet it is clear that being white in the Caribbean leads to better treatment overall. The occasional instance of bullying or someone charging you a higher price is NOT indicative of the larger experience of racism which occurs at an institutional level. Receiving less respect just because you’re black can have a big impact. This can impact your job search for example or can have even more dire results when you’re dealing with medical professionals who judge you simply based on your appearance. (Example: Do you look poor? Do you look rich? Guess which people look rich and which look poor. If you can guess, congrats, you just identified white supremacy in action.)
Wealth being concentrated in the same white population that owned our ancestors is also a clear cut case of institutionalized white supremacy. We make the mistake of thinking you need a white cloak to be a white supremacist, but really white supremacy is a system that ensures white people have total dominance over every aspect of our society from economics to social interactions. It is something that clearly exists and affects the Caribbean today and something that we cannot ignore if we ever want equality of any kind whether it is for women, for the poor or any other marginalized group. If white people always have it better, we will never have liberation from oppression.