Monday, February 7, 2011

Cultural differences.

I'm taking a break from studying to type up something that's been doing laps in the back of my mind since I got here, but I haven't had time to fully hash out and express.

During orientation week, a few things tipped me off that maybe I was a bit more prepared or suited to life on an island where over 90% of the population is black than some of my fellow classmates. One was during a talk by a faculty member who said, "For some of you, this might be your first time speaking with someone who is black." I leaned over to my orientation leader and asked, "Is that even possible?" Her wide-eyed nod conveyed more than words what some of her classmates must have been like when they first got here.

The next was during our walk from the bus stop in downtown Basseterre to the restaurant we would be eating at that night during Carnivale in full swing. As we walked past open-air vendors grilling up barbecue chicken and selling beer out of coolers, my inclination was to stop, grab a chicken leg and a cold one and chat. Our leader, however, seemed harried, almost panicked, and kept instructing us to walk quickly and stay together, don't make eye contact, don't respond when someone tries to talk to you. Now, as someone who was living in Indy during Black Expo 2010 when three people were shot during a gang dispute just blocks from where I live, the danger of the situation failed to impress me. But to some extent, I will own, she was correct. My own naivety and social personality could have landed me in a lot of trouble if I'd acted on my instinct to mingle. Carnivale is not a tourist-participation event and is very near and dear to the locals here as a unique part of their heritage. I likely would not have been welcome.

However, our leader didn't know that at the time, she found out by asking our bus driver the next day. All she knew at the time was that it was a loud, rowdy gathering of people who we didn't color coordinate with. And yeah, that has the potential for bad things to happen, sure. But, and this brings me to my point, I've been the only white person in a crowd of black people frequently in my life, and it just isn't as scary or dangerous as most white people fear.

I grew up in Marion, Indiana which if you ever get the chance to visit, don't do it. It's a boring, sleepy little city with nothing remarkable to claim. But what it does have is a remarkable amount of racial diversity. My graduating class of hundreds of seniors, if I had to guess, was at least 25% black. I'd say that's even a modest estimate. My best friend as a teenager was black and I spent a lot of time in her home, eating meals with her family, and going to clubs that played R&B and rap instead of pop or alternative rock like the rest of my peers. My first roommate in college was black and sitting on my bed watching weave get put into her hair by a girl from down the hall or going to parties with her where I was the only white person there was pretty common. At one such barbecue the host approached me and said, "I like you. Because you just showed up, white girl in a mess of black folks, and grabbed a plate of food and sat down like, 'I'm here.'" It made me realize how we can send messages without even intending to. No one likes to be treated like they're untrustworthy, and if you show up to a party (or in this case, a country) and find that you're in the minority and immediately clam up, you've just insulted everyone around you by implying that they are something to distrust and fear.

Years after that my husband and I moved to downtown Indianapolis, where once again we were a couple of the only white people in a predominantly black neighborhood. My white, suburban family and friends were afraid to come visit for fear of their car being broken into. My mother begged me not to walk from my car to my apartment building after dark. For the record, yes, my neighborhood can be dangerous. There are gang members present occasionally and we have observed some shady activity, but I have never felt unsafe. My neighbors are friendly. We greet one another, talk about the weather and other small talk just like you would in any suburb with homes starting at $120,000 and BMWs parked in the driveway.

I guess my point is, I didn't come down here with the mindset that black people were something "other" than me, so my acclimation as been a lot smoother than some people. This whole thing was tipped off by a friend asking me, "Is the Marriott the place to be?" when I told her of some plans of ours later this week. I thought about it for a second and replied, "It is if you want to be around other white people." As for myself, I'll take Spratnet in the "bad" part of town, some barbecue chicken and a cold Carib with reggae playing in the background just as happily.

(ETA: My mother was apparently upset that I may have inadvertently painted her as prejudiced in this entry. That wasn't my intention. What I wanted to point out is that friends and family members of mine have a heightened perception of the level of danger in my neighborhood that I believe is largely due to the fact that they are unaccustomed to spending time in an inner city, predominantly minority-inhabited area. People in general are discomfited by the unknown and feel safer and more secure in situations that are familiar to them. What I was really trying to convey in this post was basically this: Chill out, white folks. I promise, the locals don't bite.)


  1. I like the way you acclimated. I would've gone for chicken and beer too. If the locals don't like strangers attending their festival, why didn't your chaperone have the sense to keep your group out of their midst?

  2. So much truth here. I was really fascinated on my trip down there by the disparity in attitude between some people. On one hand was K, who kept referring to "those people" like the residents were a problem he constantly had to deal with, despite his clearly being the newcomer. On the other was L, who enthusiastically embraced the culture and did her best to learn how things were done and adapt instead of arrogantly assuming the residents would change to cater to her... I got along a good bit better with L than with K on this!
    (My thoughts a bit closer to the time of my visit are here:

  3. I'm here at Ross for orientation right now and think it was fate that I stumbled upon this post. You took the words right out of my mouth! I feel like I'm not really clicking with a lot of my group because of the same reasons you talked about. Feeling sort of disappointed by the whole thing right now, but reading your post made me feel a little less thanks!

    1. Yeah, some people really hit it off with their orientation groups, but the majority wind up splitting off and finding friends elsewhere. And you will, I promise. It took me the better part of two and half semesters to find "my people".