Barbados Impressions I: Whiteness Concealed
By Rachel Hastings

When we land on the island of Barbados there is no tumultuous culture shock. We exit the back of the plane right onto the landing strip and it reminds me of the airports in Long Beach or San Jose, CA. It’s my first time through customs. I’m clueless as to what to expect and so I follow the lead of those around me. Before I know it, I’m rubbing elbows at a round countertop designed for incoming international travelers and scribbling the appropriate answers onto some form. No, I do not have any food in my possession. No, I’m not carrying illicit drugs. Yes, I am here on business. Yes, I will be staying at the University of West Indies. I slide my paperwork over to our director who shoves it in the pages of my passport, along with my international identification card. We then enter a maze of ropes that lead to a series of booths manned by Bajan workers ready to welcome you to their country. I offer a cheesy smile and genuine hello to the guy behind the window. He doesn’t care. And neither do I. I’m in Barbados. Can’t nobody knock my swag, right now.

We breeze through as a group, which is a pleasant surprise. ALL of our luggage is waiting for us in front of the baggage carousel. Secretly, I breathe a sigh of relief considering that we are arriving a day late. After a quick discussion with some airport workers about helping us with our things, we head through the final stage of customs where our bags are supposed to be inspected. I’m waiting for the women running customs to holler “put it on the table!” But they take one look at all 14 of our bags and wave us through after a couple of questions.

We hop into a couple of taxis driven by a husband and wife duo. Together, they own and operate a local cab company and are incredibly nice. The first thing that trips me out is that the steering wheel is on the right hand side. I shake my American head as we race down the “wrong” side of the street. I inhale a deep breathe of the fresh air. Palm trees and exhaust fumes from afternoon traffic fill my lungs. I feel very much at home. Visions of San Francisco’s rolling hills laced with houses flash to my mind as I take in the architecture of the homes. Other than the fact that everyone who works at the airport is Black and all of the European or white-appearing people seem to be on vacation, nothing seems out of place. Things are not that different here, I think.

Sarah, our taxi cab driver, is having a battle of wits with Segun, our director. I find their conversation to be amusing and informative. Somehow they managed to get on the topic of gender norms pertaining to women and marriage. As usual, Segun is wonderfully assertive and humorous with his explanation of how though it is not customary for modern-day Nigerian men to have more than one wife, traditionally it has not been frowned upon nor is it deemed as a negative thing. Sarah chimes in and suggests, perhaps some men take on more than one wife because they have large sexual appetites. Segun argues that there is no need to have more than one wife because then you would have to feed them. Basha and I laugh. I like Sarah. She is full youth in her wisdom and offers informative details about her homeplace, like the island being 166 square miles in size; Like the Bajan gaining their independence in 1966. Segun mentions the color-coded social norms at the airport. All the white folk look like tourists. All the black folk are employees. Sarah explains that you have to go to certain businesses to interact with the Europeans in the country. I nod my head, thinking about the (in)visibility of whiteness. On the surface, this is a black society. But whiteness bubbles at its center.

I’m thinking about the invisibility of whiteness a lot as we pull into the University of West Indies and get settled in. Everyone we have seen has been of African descent. The customs officers. The taxi cab drivers. The University security guards. The students in the dormitories. The drivers speeding past us. The people riding the local bus. Ninety-nine percent of the people we come across look like me. Or at least like Basha and Racquel.  Just like in the States, the people in Barbados come in with all different types of skin tones, complexions, hairstyles and textures, dialects, and personalities. I can feel that race is still a present issue on this island, but also that it has been suppressed as an important social theory structuring the behaviors and beliefs of the people.

Professor Philip Nanton joins us on our way down to one of the local eateries. I am excited that he is joining us because he not only teaches at UWI, but is also an active Caribbean poet and performer on the island and abroad. As we walk, I get so giddy about eating rice and peas, plantain and other local cuisine that I overlook the lack of variation at the small eatery. I’m too busy trying to mentally filter Barbadian currency through my American conversion system so that I can know how much I spent on my meal. I like the fact that my dollar is worth twice as much here. But in reality, prices are somewhat inflated to match the same capitalist prices in the States. Professor Nanton shows us where the local beach is just down the road before we walk back up the steep hill. He tells us he’s prepared a seminar for us on the history of Barbados so that we will know where we are visiting and some of the social norms of the island. Philip is a tall, lanky man with butter cream skin and hair the color of salt. He is easy to like, as his conversation is warm and invitational. I don’t want to assume his ethnic origin, as I know that many people come to Barbados from other lands. The question I used to loathe when posed to me lingers on the tip of my tongue: “Where are you from?” It’s a question about place, yet is also designated to mark ethnic origins and in some cases racial identification. I prefer the question, “what is your ethnicity?” when people want to know about my own diverse cultural background. But in this case, I’m less interested in racial or color-coded identities as a means of learning more. Given that he’s already revealed that Philip has lived in London and is now residing in Barbados, I am aware that he is a product of an amalgamation of places and spaces. What I really want to know is where does he call home? And so I ask, “Where is home for you? Where are you from originally?”

As it turns out, Philip is an eye-landah from the Caribbean as well. St. Vincent is his homeland. It makes me wonder who St. Vincent was and why the colonizers used the religious names of saints to organize the islands. The Philippines were named after King Philip of Spain. Before that, the islands were populated by Aeta’s. You can google it.  I did. And I always found it ironic that the Spanish called my Filipino ancestors and an-sisters Negroes.  As in Black. The original people of the Philippine islands were black people. For me, this became a powerful semantic connection between my Black American identity and my Black Filipino heritage. 

During Philip’s seminar on the history and background of Barbados, I am pleasantly surprised that he begins with what Wole Soyinka might refer to as “the origin of severance.” He tells us that before the colonizers came, the islands were populated by Carib’s and Arawaks who were most likely nomadic travelers from North or South America. There were people living on these islands before the European intervention. Nomadic people, who respected the geography of land and followed its pattern so that the environment would regenerate itself naturally. But then,

African sons were snatched like black gold. From mountaintops. Like gold mines. In the soil of mountaintops. Like diamonds in the rough. Like blue black oil reserves. Reserving currency for the soldiers and sailors. And then merchants. Then colonists. And now Presidents.  We used to be presidents. We used to be traded like dead presidents.

Now Barbados is rich with the black bodies imported from the West Coast of Africa. Some of the original enslaved Africans only passed through the island before being shipped to the Carolina’s in the New World. But those who remained in Barbados were forced to rearrange the landscape. Other goods were imported. Sugar cane. Breadfruit. Cotton. Bananas. Tourists. All of these were imported like slaves. And the hands of the enslaved were used to help alter the natural order. The nomadic Arawaks respected so much of the world they existed in. Until that world became full of a greedy dis-ease that spread throughout the chain of islands. And now the deforestation of Barbados in order to make room for sugar cane plantations has fundamentally changed the landscape.
“The island is eroding and losing sand,” Philip explains during his seminar.

My eyes fill with tears. Over 500 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the impact of colonial greed is beginning to manifest in the erosion of God’s original plan. And the result is the Bajan peoples ever-burning desire to know: What does it mean to be Bajan? What does it mean to be Caribbean? This echoes the continuity of self-unknowing among the people of the African Diaspora. What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be a black islander? What does it mean to be the descendent of an enslaved African? It means that the ever present white light, shining on your black skin, will continue to influence how you define your identity.
Unless you allow the black w/hole to speak back to the white.

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