There is a slyness with which white Americans find retreat in the Caribbean. Many of them are fascinated by spaces that seem so perfectly nestled between both the worlds of modernity and primitivism. Structures of class, race and politics seem to be not so overwhelming or too difficult to navigate as there appears to be an infantile nature about the way islanders conduct most of their local affairs. The stakes never seem too high in the isles.
The circumstances under which locals must cater to white Americans for a living falsely convinces many white visitors that the islands are meant for them—to be their safe havens and places of escape. They seem so persuaded that it is out in the wilder bushes and hilltop sides and backyard beaches that they can truly free themselves of much of the pressure of living while white. Tucked away in the serenity of the island madness is supposed to be a room filled with peace and quiet from the ghosts of American racism. From within what already is marketed as an accommodating tourist destination, white visitors mean to find refuge from a past and place that ties to them to the bloodied hands of their forefathers. The Caribbean Sea becomes their channel of forgetfulness. Behind the coral reefs and beneath the crystal blue waters they believe lie a place where whiteness can be buried.
To white Americans, many island people purportedly committed to a lifestyle of simple, grassroots living appear unbothered, if not altogether ignorant, about complexly intersectional social issues. Often read as performing their living, island people are consistently misperceived as quaint, nonthreatening coloured folks. Convinced that locals are little more than one dimensional props of paradise, many white Americans become confused by the dynamism that may follow a people enraged by the political status quo. It is one thing for the people to be slightly frustrated by what is understood to be mostly-self-inflicted political and social inefficiencies. It is another to be vexed with the unjust nature of an entire political economy—to be livid with the apparatuses of neocolonialism; upset with still having to reside at the margins of global political consciousness. There is no room for a white saviour in coloured rage.
It is then no wonder that when confronted with the trials and errors of covetous capitalism as well as its confluence with ethnicity and nationality (as opposed to just race), many whites-gone-native struggle with determining their responsibility. They become stuck in what is a self-constructed liminality, knowing neither to go nor to stay. They become delusional in the understanding of self and space, truly thinking that they may have conquered the nuisance, dissolved it even, only to abruptly be reminded that they can never really escape their whiteness; they can never really abandon the responsibilities of accountability. They learn the uneasy way that paradise does not belong to them. And this truth turns them mad.
In an often-jerky fashion, they are faced with the historicity of the island spaces they had so readily believed were ahistorical, or at the very least devoid of a history that implicated them in any notable and memorable and relevant and alarming way. Sadly, this is not the case, nor has it ever been. There is a peacefulness about island life that can and evidently has fooled people into believing life could be carried out totally carefree. But, space never forgets time. And many island spaces are tied up in a time capsule that is in due season to be released. The furthest thing from a disconnected, unaffected or ignorantly blissful people, island folks are entangled in the histories of this entire world.
And so, no, these bushes and these beaches could never free you, white man and woman, from the destructiveness inherent in your white privilege. In these islands, you may not flee your very white self. Rather, you are bound to confront it in ways unimagined.
Jessica S. Samuel is an activist-scholar who hails from the U.S. Virgin Islands. She has a passion for justice, food, and laughter. Wherever these things collide she is in utter bliss.