Image courtesy of Jerry “Woody.” Shared via a Creative Commons license.
I often find myself having incredibly difficult conversations about the nature and impact of racism on St. John, United States Virgin Islands. Several people have informed me that there is no racism on island. As far as they are concerned, “it’s all in my head,” “racism is a vestige of the past,” “I’m just looking for something to be angry about,” or “St. John is an incredibly diverse place where all people get along.” I will also occasionally hear, “as a white person, I experience a lot of reverse racism on St. John because the U.S.V.I is a predominately Black territory.” I often disagree and someone will usually get mad at me for making them uncomfortable with all of my talk about race.
These discussions have taught me that some members of our community lack the training and awareness needed to identify and fight structural racism. Others are clinging to what George Lipsitz (2006) calls their possessive investment in whiteness. And those who display some form of critical race consciousness are invested in the notion that racism is a problem in the United States of America that does not affect its territory.
Yet, I insist on being the demonic radical Black feminist killjoy, to use Sylvia Wynter (2000) and Sara Ahmed’s (2010) theorizations respectively, because I believe that discussions about racism in the U.S.V.I. are crucial if we are to create a better world and a more loving future.
Colonialism orders categories of thought to construct a subhuman “other.” These schemas of racial, gendered, sexual, and economic difference solidified the invention of “Man” and simultaneously worked to institute “Demonic Grounds”, the absented presence of (Black, Native, lgbtq, poor) others who do not possess the characteristics of the overrepresented prototype of the human that pretends to be the very human itself: “Man.” Sylvia Wynter argues that “Man” is a specific mode of being human, one rooted in political subjectivity, biology, and economics. The “Demonic Ground” is the unknowable, the unrepresented, the irrational and chaotic figure in the prevailing schema in the Western world (Wynter 2000; McKittrick 2006).
“I am not using the demonic to reference evil paranormal entities. In mathematics, physics, and computer science, “the demonic” connotes a working system that cannot have a determined or knowable outcome. The demonic, then, is a non-deterministic schema; it is a process that is hinged on uncertainty and non-linearity because the organizing principle cannot predict the future. This schema, this way of producing or desiring an outcome, calls into question ‘the always non-arbitrary, pre-prescribed’ parameters of sequential and classificatory linearity (McKittrick 2006: xxiv).”
“Demonic grounds” is a very different sort of geography; one which is genealogically wrapped up in the historical, spatial unrepresentability of black femininity and, to return to the demonic model above, one that points to ways in which black women necessarily contribute to a re-presentation of human geography (McKittrick xxvi).”
“Killjoys” embrace literal and figurative disruptions of hegemonic worldviews. On feministkilljoys.com, Ahmed notes that the killjoy is often called angry, ruins atmospheres, creates political disturbances, and will notice and name whiteness. I notice and name whiteness on St. John because I’m attempting to contribute to a re-presentation of American and Caribbean human geography by challenging the idea that our present moment is “post” or “neo” colonial, and locate the U.S.A in colonial legacies and practices. Below, I identify three sets of questions and lessons about St. John, racism, and American colonialism that I gather from being a demonic killjoy.
1) If colonialism is a specter of the past that only haunts the contemporary moment through neocolonialism, how does the U.S.A account for the marginal position of America’s Virgin Islands?
“For the American creed, the democratic dogma cannot be reconciled with colonialism. As the Governor of Puerto Rico remarked in the Congressional hearings on Public Law 600, no Americans can be possessions of other Americans. The effort to reconcile possession with American-ness has, accordingly, been a failure in both logic and life; and, in Puerto Rico, it has produced the phenomenon of what has been aptly termed American anti-colonial imperialism (Lewis 1953: 42).”
Residents of American territories—the U.S.V.I, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas—are an embodiment of this American paradox. If Americans cannot be possessions of other Americans, how can we define residents of American territories? I cannot vote for the President of the U.S. while residing at home. However, the American president has the right to send members of the territory to fight for the nation, as Gerard Luz James (2010) aptly pointed out in a United Nations Special Subcommittee on Decolonization Hearing. When I look to my quotidian experiences with telephone companies, bar tenders, and divisions of motor vehicles, I find similar questions. Passport aside, am I foreign or not? Should calling the United States Virgin Islands from the United States incur international rates? Should my territorial driver’s license be recognized or revoked in the United States? I get the feeling that we are not supposed to exist. America’s narrative attempts to erase the possibility of the Black, Brown, and White Creole American colonial subject. We are living and breathing contradictions, a challenge to a neatly structured ruling apparatus.
The increasing state militarization and violation of our civil liberties already pose a challenge to America’s democratic dogma. This inconsistency is explained away as being a part of the post 9/11 U.S.A. As Anthony Bogues (2010) points out, one can only make this argument if one is ignoring the experiences of Blacks, Native Americans, and other dispossessed people within the American state. An inclusion of our experiences shows that the American democratic dogma has always been inconsistent with the nation’s treatment of the marginalized. Therefore, the U.S.V.I’s colonial positioning highlights the ways in which America’s anti-colonial rhetoric is grounded in white normativity and erasure.
2) A look at the experiences of marginalized people in the U.S.V.I reveals that American forms of white supremacy and erasure did not die in the post Civil Rights era or with the inauguration of the nation’s first Black president. Instead, this moment in American history is characterized by colorblindness and the myth of US post-racialism (Bonilla Silva 2009). Ahistorical American narratives that overemphasize the ruptures in white supremacy and minimize the continuities of structural racism are prevailing rhetoric. Structural racism remains a significant thread in the socio-political and economic fabric of the country. However, few openly acknowledge that racism exists and many more deny their discursive location in the present schema that continues to privilege whiteness at the expense of non-whiteness, namely blackness.
In my conversations, I’m finding that American colorblindness and post racialism is also a major component of St. John’s narrative. To many, “there is no racism,” even though de Albuquerque and McElroy note that the U.S.V.I is a society marked by racial disparities that are acutely felt on St. John.
“Compared to whites, blacks and Hispanics have lower income, educational and occupational status, less home ownership but larger families, and higher unemployment and poverty rates” (De Albuquerque and McElroy 1999: 1).”
Colorblindness, or the refusal to see race on St. John makes it impossible to identify and remedy systemic racism on island. Therefore, it becomes difficult to ask and address a host of questions about racism and colonialism in the Virgin Islands:
How does tourism perpetuate racial injustice? Why is gentrification, in its displacement of Black, Brown, and poor bodies, happening on St. John? What is the V.I. National Park’s role in race-based land dispossession? What derogatory stereotypes do people hold about Black, Brown, and White Creole West Indians and how does that set the stage for a continental “White savior?” How does racism and colonialism in the present day function to destroy V.I. culture?
The list of questions could go on and on, however, attempts to dismantle racism are often thwarted by the possessive investment in whiteness before they begin.
It’s also important to note that the disavowal of racism is not solely an American problem. Latin America and the Caribbean often promotes myths of racial democracy by arguing that our history with miscegenation has created a love for all people despite their race. Carole Boyce Davies (2013) points out that, perhaps, we should focus on learning about all of the ways in which racism functions in our Caribbean spaces instead of arguing that it does not exist simply because we do not have America’s binary, white vs. black racial classification system. The myth of racial democracy is a remnant of European colonialism in Latin America and the Caribbean. We need to understand the continuities and ruptures found in American and European colonial practices so that we can then understand why American colonialism is often viewed as separate from European colonial history.
3) The question, “why would U.S. Virgin Islanders choose continuous colonial subjection?” asks us to consider what type of imperial and colonial power the U.S. wields and how it causes people to choose colonialism in an allegedly “post” or “neo” colonial moment. At one point during the U.S. Federal Government Shutdown of 2013, I used a Facebook status as a platform for venting about the insidious nature of continuous colonial subjection in the U.S.V.I. Two thirds of St. John belongs to the V.I. National Park. The federal shut down led to the National Park’s attempt to close off access to the island’s public beaches. I took the moment to reflect on the role that the National Park plays in inscribing race on the landscape during this period of American occupation.
St. John is marketed as a picturesque and serene escape from the Western world. Consequently, the vastness of the National Park on St. John leaves very little room for development. The presence of the Park drives the demand for, and price of, land on the island. This increase in price prevents many local West Indians from being able to maintain their properties because land taxes are too costly. Consequently, the presence of the park has fueled the gentrification of the island. St. John’s demographics have shifted rapidly in recent years as the white continental population rises steadily (de Albuquerque and McElroy 1999). The Park dictates locals’ engagement with the land since National Park regulations restrict hunting, agricultural practices, foraging, and the presence of loose pets. Like many other colonies and “post/neo” colonies, the preservation of the Virgin Islands’ cultural practices are being guided towards commodification and consumption by tourists.
Many individuals responded to my Facebook post. Two seconded the critique of the manifestation of empire. Several others were offended. These individuals felt as though the Park was great for the island. My criticisms aside, the Park maintained the “beauty” of St. John and, therefore, boosted tourism by preventing St. John from being as unsightly as “other impoverished and over developed Caribbean nations.” Others felt as though the benefits of empire outweighed the costs. “I had to take the good with the bad,” they said. I have American citizenship and, therefore, should not interrogate the conditions of my marginalization. However, a group of protestors was responding to the impact of the federal shutdown on the territory as well at the time. I found their critique disturbing, for they too were unwilling to engage in critiques of empire.
A Facebook protest page entitled, “You Nah Gone Shut Down Deh Beach, Meh Boy” was also created around that time. Posters were planning a beach party in the form of a sit-in to contest the Park’s closing of the beaches. The page featured pictures of local Virgin Islands park rangers, and commenters insisted that they shouldn’t even be working if the Park was shut down. Others thought the rangers would be more useful picking up trash than telling them to get off of the beach. Several posts on the page inquired about the impact that the shutdown would have on tourism. They believed that tourists would be disgruntled if they were denied access to the landscape they paid for. So, posters enacted emergency plans to help visitors have destination weddings and vacation stays at discounted prices.
Comments on both the “You Nah Gone Shut Down Deh Beach, Meh Boy” page and on my Facebook post indicated a particular descriptive statement of the human in operation. Both exemplified a neoliberal and capitalist framework for relating to the island and a Black “other.” The best interest of the island were to be determined by economic models that privileged white access to the space. There was no interrogation of the uses of Blackness (via the adoption of Creole language) in the page’s name as a “signifier of resistance” as Zine Magubane (2003) points out in Bringing the Empire Home. Furthermore, no one paused to wonder whether the outcry about the park rangers’ audacity in asking them to leave the beach, or the mere notion that he was better suited to collect trash, had anything to do with conceptions of the Black body and the “crisis of recognition that colonialism produces” (Fanon 1967).
Neoliberalism and capitalism produce notions of individualism, meritocracy, and elitism. In the dialogue mentioned above, no one appeared to want to locate our bodies in the structural racism that I was attempting to highlight. Instead, in the true operation of “racism without racists,” (Bonilla Silva 2009) people circumvented the reality of structural equality, and I became the racist for mentioning the links between race and power. The protest was supposed to be about liberal and capitalist access to Caribbean space; it was not intended to be an interrogation of American imperialism. A close friend of mine, an Afro-Trinidadian resident of the Virgin Islands, called me to discuss how eerie it was that she passed by the protest on the beach and she was the only face of color. Her comments made me think about the various methods of protest that emerge in the subaltern.
Perhaps few locals cared to engage in a protest that privileged whiteness’ stake in colonial domination. What descriptive statements of the human frame how Virgin Islanders of color relate to humanity, freedom, and resistance? More specifically, how does American domination shape their codes? Do the origin narratives of America’s neoliberal capitalist project frame their subjectivity and resistance in a particular way?
“But if, following Foucault, we understand power as forming the subject as well, as providing the very condition of its existence and the trajectory of its desire, then power is not simply what we oppose, but also, in a strong sense, what we depend on for our very existence and what we harbor and preserve in the beings that we are (Butler 1997: 2).”
“In each case, power that at first appears as external, pressed upon the subject, pressing the subject into subordination, assumes a psychic form that constitutes the subject’s self-identity (Butler 1997: 3).”
If power is indeed shaping the subject, then American liberalism and capitalist frameworks have a specific impact on the development of the Black Caribbean colonial subject. A reading of Bogues (2010) suggests that the United States’ democratic dogma of liberal freedom as the only legitimate form of security promotes, “the deployment of a form of power by which self-regulated, individual subjectivity meshes with the drives of the imperium (Bogues 2010 location 250)”.
Perhaps many Virgin Islanders have an increasing investment in “Man” since the possibility of surviving and gaining access to the fruits of the empire are made possible by citizenry and wealth. If this is true, then it is imperative that we understand how these investments are being made. Additionally, what alternative categories of the human are being created to challenge Man’s overrepresentations?
“The theory of interpellation appears to stage a social scene in which a subject is hailed, the subject turns around, and the subject then accepts the terms by which he or she has been hailed.” (Butler 1997: 106)
Is Butler’s reading of Althusser’s interpellation always accurate? I acknowledge that I am turning around and accepting the terms to some degree when I call myself a “demonic killjoy.” However, does the need for survival allow the marginalized subject to turn around and mock the terms by which he or she has been hailed? There appear to be so many examples of American Virgin Islanders being hailed and turning around to negate the terms. Rastafarianism is a prime example of this. Furthermore, there are moments when the Black colonial subject is hailed and they engage in subtle forms of resistance that undermine the racial schema. I think of all of the elderly women I’ve watched smash, or threaten to smash, the cameras of tourists who take their picture without permission. There is a shock and humiliation on the tourists’ face that makes me wonder what facial expression Derrida (2008) made when his cat gazed upon him naked. The figure of the dehumanized Black is an overrepresentation of a subaltern “other.” An actual person of African descent spoke and in doing so deconstructed the white privilege of setting the terms of visibility; they forced the recognition of humanity that may not have been acknowledged otherwise. We are often told of what the colonizer says of the colonized. However, it is also important to ask what the colonized say about the colonizer.
I pen all of these notes on being a demonic radical Black Feminist killjoy because I want to know how Black subjects are formed, conversely self-fashioned and shaped by imperial domination as a result of America’s imperial presence, and the liberal “capturing of desire” (Bogues 2010). Furthermore, if we are to think of how to usher in the break that will erase the face of “Man” and move us towards a decolonized world and an autonomous U.S. Virgin Islands, then the conceptions of the human that emerge in the demonic subaltern must be centered in our episteme. This centering only occurs when we kill hegemonic joy and attempt to reorder the categories of thought even when it makes the privileged uncomfortable. There is so much that small spaces like St. John can teach us about being human and the American empire.
View works cited here.
Hadiya Sewer is a third year PhD student in the Africana Studies Department at Brown University. She earned her B.A. in Sociology from Spelman College where she was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow. Hadiya’s many research interests include Africana feminism, Western empires and Caribbean subject formation, Caribbean philosophy, and radical political thought. She is one of the co organizers of the “Decolonizing the Racialized Female Subject: Black and Indigenous Women’s Self Making Under Empire” symposium. Her prospective dissertation examines the impact of American colonial rule on sovereignty, and questions of “the human” in the United States Virgin Islands. The project asks, “what does the continuous colonial subjection of the United States Virgin Islands tell us about blackness in the margins of the American empire?”