Race, Class & Caribbean Feminism

Discussing race and class with regards to Caribbean feminism can be tricky. The mythology of our islands being a racial "melting pot" has led to many people wrongly believing that we have no issues of race and class or that these issues are irrelevant to feminism. The fact that there are many wealthy black people in the Caribbean has confused people.

Despite the fact that there are wealthy black people and despite the fact that there are many black women, issues of race and class are still of utmost importance to women's issues. When thinking about race and class, we need to focus on systems of oppression, not our individual, anecdotal beliefs (many of which are informed by misinformation by international mainstream media).

Race and class have an impact on women's lives and I've discussed this before on this blog. When thinking about race and class, we need to avoid the belief that whiteness and multi-racial identities are "neutral" and therefore not worth examining. Blackness isn't the only identity that requires dissection as white people, non-black people and multiracial individuals all have different identities that affect their experience in the Caribbean.I happen to live in Saint Lucia, a country that has never had a social class of poor white people unlike islands like Barbados or Jamaica. This has affected the current socio-economic landscape of Saint Lucia and presents Saint Lucians with differing topics for discussion when it comes to race and class.

However, the existence of poor white people in other islands doesn't negate their racism. When reading the History of St Lucia (Devaux), there was a discussion about the virulent racism amongst poor white populations in other islands. Clearly, a lack of wealth amongst white people in the Caribbean does nothing to negate racism.Of course, there is far more depth to this subject, but this introduction is to highlight some of the complexity behind discussing race and class in the Caribbean. We should approach the subject with caution and we should not assume that the same dynamics of race and class in the United States exist here. However, this doesn't mean that the dynamics of race and class in the U.S. are irrelevant to the Caribbean, merely different. Or expressed in a different way.

A Proper understanding of race and class is especially important for those of us who believe that such matters do not affect our experiences or who do not see how these issues affect the experiences of others. When oppression is allowed to become invisible, it doesn't lose power -- it gains power.

Black Feminism: Menstruation Taboo

I recently felt challenged to condense my thoughts regarding my experiences with menstruation and taboo in Caribbean society. I don't think it's completely necessary to frequent fliers here but I will add the disclaimer that the experience that frames my experiences and observations about menstruation in the Caribbean are the experiences of a cisgender Caribbean woman and I'm applying my knowledge of black feminism and black feminist thought to how I view the subject.

Like most things considered to be "feminine" in the Caribbean, menstruation faces heavy stigma within our culture. There is both shame and pride surrounding the first menstrual cycle. Shame is one of the first lessons that we are taught about menstruation and it's a lesson sowed so deep that the shame becomes instinct -- and therefore, goes unquestioned. This root of this shame is a socially backed feeling that during menstruation, your body is disgusting and repulsive.

There is also shame surrounding your choices for handling menstruation, perpetuated by parents, peers, and educators. For the majority of Caribbean people who menstruate, it's far more common to use menstrual pads than tampons due to this shame. Menstrual pads are considered to be "appropriate" for people who have not had sex whereas tampons are seen as "inappropriate". This has the effect of sexualizing children considering the average age of the onset of menstruation is 12. There is nothing "inappropriate" (in reality) about a 12-year-old using a tampon; their vagina is not a vessel for sexual activity and treating it as such leads to shame surrounding the entire menstrual process.

Even as a child, I was cognizant of this, although my awareness might not have been conscious. I was aware however that tampons were all but forbidden and it would have been deviating from expectations to wear them.This can actually carry damage to a child's psyche as they approach adulthood. For people who menstruate who are nonbinary or transgender, I can image the damage is even deeper due to the unexamined transphobia embedded in our post-colonial society. For cisgender people who menstruate, the damage might include feeling anxiety about deviating from using pads or carrying other beliefs of humiliation surrounding their bodies that are unshakeable despite technical knowledge of the "facts" about menstruation.What informs this seemingly harmless cultural preference of pads vs. tampons is nothing positive and the stigma against tampons is steeped in patriarchal assumptions about virginity and sexuality. To be blunt: people believe that tampons damage your sexual purity. Some people might deny it and claim that it's preposterous but it's the truth of the majority of our society.

Largely, the discomfort around tampons has to do with how "improper" it is to insert anything into your vagina. Now this is ridiculous on a number of levels but namely, there is nothing sexual about menstruation regardless of your age and there is certainly nothing sexual about a two-inch tampon.

A "lack of education" doesn't explain it all away because it isn't simply education. The expected shame surrounded menstruation is rooted in misogyny. And the lack of education simply feeds into this misogyny. However, they are separate entities that feed off of one another to inform our culture's attitudes on the human body.

Shame about menstruation doesn't just apply to your choice between menstrual pads and tampons. (Note: There are other options for menstrual management but I'll get to this at the end.) Through each menstrual cycle, a healthy amount of shame is required to ensure you keep your menstruation a "secret".There is a high value placed on keeping menstruation hidden from people. Just keeping periods from cis-men isn't the limit to the stigma. For the two years I attended secondary school here, teachers and administrators placed great emphasis on being "discreet". Even in an all girls school, there was still supposed to be a significant shame attached to menstruation and it had to be kept a secret. This isn't about menstruation being disgusting in that example... There's nothing disgusting about going to the bathroom with an unused pad to change your own. This is about how our culture perpetuates patriarchal beliefs about our bodies; even educators are in full agreement that patriarchy is correct and doesn't deserve questioning. It is a way of forcing us to stay "in our place". Now, there's an argument (albeit a weak and unnuanced one) to be made about this "shame" surrounding menstruation being related to the fact that menstruation is "dirty" or "private". I do believe that certain amount of privacy makes practical sense when it comes to menstruation but the level of shame expected and propagated goes beyond privacy and protecting young people who are experiencing their first menstrual cycles as well as the uncertainty that goes along with it. Menstrual blood is not actually dirty and much of the stigma surrounding menstruation is not based on scientific fact but patriarchal mythology intended to shroud a body's natural process in humiliation and discomfort.

A big part of the culture surrounding menstruation revolves around keeping menstruation a "secret" from cis men as I mentioned before. Tampons and menstrual pads must be obscured. The realities of menstruation are hidden (and often times, not even really understood) and menstruation becomes something "disgusting" and something deserving of mockery. This comes from the fact that schools and families are both unaware of the scientific truth behind menstruation and our patriarchal culture requires cis men remain protected from the realities of "the feminine" as it is repulsive and to be avoided at best, despised at worst.My first academic encounter with menstruation in primary school in St. Lucia involved the girls in the class being separated from the boys to learn the truth because the boys would laugh? Because they didn't want to make the girls ashamed? But the only reason for either of those things to occur in reality would be because of the teachers.

Teachers and educators set the tone for what is acceptable in a school environment -- not nine-year-olds. Education surrounding menstruation should not be gender specific. For this to be the case is transphobic and it's sexist. Every person alive should know how the human body functions. Othering bodies of those who menstruate serves no practical purpose in our society.Another facet to the poor education surrounding menstruation includes poor education about complications surrounding menstruation which are actually quite common. Conditions like endometriosis (affects in 1 in 10 people who menstruate), Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (affects 1 in 10-15 people who menstruate) as well as PMDD (3-8% of people who menstruate) affect many people yet these common disorders are not included in a comprehensive education regarding menstruation. Combatting stigma comes first with a comprehensive education based in reality, not myth or pseudoscience.

The ways mainstream feminism chooses to combat this stigma is incongruent with Caribbean culture. Largely, the stigma surrounding menstruation is discussed from a first world white American ciswoman's perspective. Combating the stigma doesn't take into account the specific ways misogyny is enacted in the Caribbean. It doesn't take into account the religious fundamentalism that's widespread in the Caribbean and how that might affect attempts to eliminate the stigma surrounding menstruation. It doesn't take into account that the shame surrounding menstruation runs so deep that transitioning to complete comfort with the subject of menstruation will not happen overnight and might make the target audience (people who menstruate) less accommodated by a movement to de-stigmatize.When people are not properly educated about menstruation from an early age, there is room for patriarchal culture's myths and pseudoscience to take the place of scientific facts. Removing stigma is not about shocking the population into blindly accepting "okay periods are fine now, I guess".

We can remove uneducated beliefs with factual evidence and ensure that we talk about menstruation casually (not necessarily crassly) like we do any other facet of life.The Caribbean does have an advantage here where we understand that women should be able to breastfeed publicly (and this has never been up for debate). We do tend to have open conversations amongst our family members regarding the sometimes unpleasant truths surrounding our own menstrual cycles. However, this is not culturally widespread enough for there to be no room for positive change.

Going forward, I think what the average person can do is:

- Educate themselves about menstruation from reliable sources (Google it.)

- Speak candidly to their children or the children they're responsible for regarding menstruation.

- Educators and those involved in education can work towards changing their classroom environments to be more accommodating towards people who are menstruating, setting the example that menstruation is not shameful or disgusting, but a natural process.

- Communities can work together towards providing free tampons, pads or menstrual cups to people in need.My mention of menstrual cups here brings me to my final point.

In a previous post, I wrote about my foray into using menstrual cups and all the benefits associated with them. Now, menstrual cups are not for everybody but they do provide an option for managing menstruation that is simple, sanitary and doesn't require multiple changes throughout the day. A push to increase the usage of menstrual cups in the Caribbean and provide free menstrual cups -- especially in communities where buying tampons and pads might be too costly -- would be positive for the people of our region. You can check out my previous post for a more in-depth explanation why.

We have a lot of work to do with removing the stigma surrounding menstruation. We do not have to do this the way mainstream feminism dictates; rather we can fit our solution to our culture. Honest conversations, practical discussions and individual changes in our mindset are a good place to start followed promptly by organized community action.

Black Feminism: Anti-Blackness And The "Diaspora Wars"

On Twitter on a Saturday morning for five minutes and I’m already rolling my eyes. Here we go again. For those of you who don’t use social media, the “diaspora wars” refers to a regular cycle of social media arguments where West Indians, Africans and Black Americans “war” to claim which one is the best. It’s an argument that I’m not interested in at all so this post is not going to contain any argument “for” or “against” any group of black people. (Reminder, we are all black.) What I’m interested in exploring is the anti-blackness that inevitably crops up amongst ALL groups of social media users.

No matter what region in the world they’re arguing in favor of, black participants in the diaspora wars almost always rely on racial stereotypes created by white people about black people globally. i am 100% uninterested in “calling people out” but I am interested in accusing every single person who has ever engaged in this argument to closely examine what insults they turn to when they feel defensive about their current homeland.

So this is less about the “diaspora wars” and more about what they bring out of us.

Some insults rely on classism:

- Caribbean people are poor

- Black Americans live in ghettos

- Africans live in huts

Some insults rely on general anti-black stereotypes:

- Black Americans have no culture outside of “ebonics”

- Caribbean people only have reggae

- Africans have no culture

- Each group accuses the other of not being as intelligent due to school success, neglecting the different factors that account for the different statistics reported by white media publications.

Some insults rely on homophobia or sexism:

- Slurs are targeted at different groups of people

- Misogynistic comments are made about women from each region

Needless to say, this is wrong. While it is natural to become defensive when someone attacks your homeland, there are other ways to respond to abusive behavior that doesn't involve invoking anti-blackness or homophobia or misogyny. Degrading the traits of other black people that have been used historically by Europeans to justify slavery and colonization is harmful to our entire community.

Personally, I’m a fan of the block button. (Really, a big fan of the block button. We’re getting married in June.) You can also do your own research and figure out more effective strategies that will keep you safe from the effects of these harmful comments without causing you to feel passive. Check out this link for more information on dealing with social media trolls.

Whatever way you decide to handle the diaspora wars, I urge you not to put forth more anti-blackness into the world. When you attack the humanity, culture or the identity of another black person I believe you are doing nothing more than attacking your own identity. This isn’t saying that we should all just “love” each other and hold hands. There are bound to be abusive people everywhere who incite these social media wars for the purpose of boosting their own self-esteem and hurting others.

Find strength in your racial identity somewhere else. I promise you, building up a more positive sense of your own blackness without trashing Africans, Caribbean people or Black Americans will only benefit you in the long run. Let those who want to fight the useless battle do so without ruining your peace of mind or compromising your self-esteem by building it off another person's pain.