When you travel to the Caribbean from a global minority (white majority) country - I imagine it must be similar when going to an African country, though I haven’t yet had the chance to find out - there’s a certain mental exhalation that happens the minute you get off the plane.
In truth, your shoulders start to drop a little once you’re on the plane, though there’s still a strong chance that there are more people who don’t look like you than those who do, and there’s still a chance that the color of your skin will affect the treatment you get. I’ve often seen Black passengers treated as nuisances by the same cabin crew who are smiling at the white passengers in the next seat.
Still, when you step outside at the other end, you are warmed by more than just the air. You are warmed by the cloak of invisibility your black skin suddenly gives you. This, you think, must be how white people move through the world every day.
The first time I was aware of this was on a trip to visit my mother in the early 1990s. I was living in the UK, and I’d been pretty homesick, after a couple of years of navigating white majority spaces without respite.
One day my sister-friend had surprised me with a plane ticket. (Side note: those are the kind of friends you need in your life.) I was grateful, and eager to get on the plane and travel to some Caribbean sunshine.
I got more than that.
When I arrived, I had the luxury of just being me. I looked like almost everyone I saw around me, and I was sure if I got picked out for anything, it wouldn’t be for the color of my skin.
In my case, the illusion of being a local lasts only until I open my mouth. Having grown up in Trinidad and lived in England, my accent can best be described as a mélange. Still, even when I opened my mouth I was recognizable as being from the region. Exhale.
Imagine the freedom of walking down the street with nobody making assumptions about my potential criminality.
Imagine the delight of walking into a room and people assuming I was intelligent.
Imagine the total liberty of being free to be without worrying about how it would be perceived.
It’s not something Black people in predominantly white spaces enjoy very often. Only in the privacy of our homes, or in areas where most people look like us, do we get a taste of what it’s like.
I keep returning to something I read ages ago by someone from an African country who said he had to leave his homeland to be Black, as that wasn’t how he identified at home.
While it’s not quite as simple as that in the Caribbean, thanks to the complexities of the post-enslavement period, it’s still the case that when I am in the Caribbean, I am blessedly unremarkable. When I still lived in England, trips to Barbados gave me the chance to stockpile that feeling so I could remember it on those mentally cold days when racism was making me shiver.
That anonymity is one of the things I love most about living in the Caribbean because the weight of white strangers’ judgements can be heavy indeed. Even while you struggle to hold on to your sense of self, you can feel subtly diminished. Right now, I’m glad I don’t have to do that any more.
I don’t know what the takeaway from all this is, other than for white anti-racists to realize that for many Black people just getting through the day can be stressful. If you want to help minimize that stress, when you see us, shed the weight of the stereotypes you grew up with, so that just for a second, we can be seen as our whole selves, and we can be free.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.