Updated: Mar 2, 2022
I recently spent a week sipping pina coladas, floating in the Caribbean and swaying my body to the sexy roll of a reggae beat. Jamaica - land of jerk spice, soursop juice, chill vibe, gold rum, turquoise water, Rastafari and ya, mon.
Jamaica – formerly Xaymaca – wasn’t always a paradise of genial, relaxed people. In the 1400s it was colonized by the Spanish who enslaved and killed the native Arawak people in story not unlike America’s origins. In 1670, the Spaniards were defeated by the British who imported enslaved Africans as the primary labor for their sugarcane plantations, a brutal practice that was maintained until the abolishment of slavery in 1838. But it wasn’t until 1962 that Jamaica was freed from British rule and drafted their own constitution, securing freedom and equality for all its citizens. (This is a massively oversimplified history.)
Jamaica’s population is over 90% black (76.3% African descent, 15.1% Afro-European) and only 3.2% Caucasian. And though classism is much more an issue for the small nation than racism, the roots of colonization and white power persisted in the historical persecution of Rastafari, the counterculture social and political movement which went from repression to being co-opted by the government as a global brand. Modern day Jamaica upholds the centuries old favoring of lighter skin through the trend of skin bleaching.
“Many people in positions of power in Jamaica have lighter skin and straight hair, as do most the country’s beauty queens. ‘In Jamaica, because of the historical baggage around ideals of beauty prescribed from the European perspective, shades of brown and shades of black are not seen as beautiful as lighter shades,’ said Sonjah Stanley Niaah, a senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies. ‘It goes back to the days when slaves were sold on the auction block’ she said. ‘The color of the skin was important.’” (Washington Post , 2018.)
As white supremacy begins its slow topple, I become more aware of its fallacy every day, sometimes in big ways sometimes in small, almost humorous ways.
This is where I wish I had a photo of the charred red skin of countless white tourists peppering the seaside pool, us included. No one could have claimed superiority of our white, epicene skin scorched by the beast that is the Caribbean sun.
Yet, the dark side remains, even outside the U.S.
I was hanging at the swim-up bar with my youngest, chatting with a young Black woman from New York City. Let’s call her Kaisha. Kaisha immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria as a child, and we hit it off discussing the book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, causing my daughter to swim away in disinterest bordering on disgust. Kaisha told me about her experience of her first two days at the resort, about the unwanted advances of a male lifeguard who kept inserting himself into her photo shoot on the beach and then approached her twice more asking for her Instagram, ignoring her rebuffs and her assertions of having a boyfriend.
Later that day she was in the women’s bathroom adjusting her bikini top and a different man kept walking by and peeking in, eventually popping his head in to ask if she needed help. Peeking in the women’s bathroom.
“He wouldn’t do that to any of the white woman here,” Kaisha said. I tried to picture it. She was right. Though we piqued the unwanted interest and a lascivious look from a security guard, simply turning away from him and disengaging was enough to make him stop.
“I try to send them away nicely,” Kaisha said, less angry than weary. “But all the while, as I want him to leave me alone so I can relax, I’m asking myself, ‘Am I being rude? Am I being kind enough? Am I being too angry?’”
Many women can relate to this line of internal inquiry, of questioning our politeness over the invasion, but there is no doubt about the racial overlay to her experience. Especially noting that she did not see, and could not imagine, it happening to any of the white guests.
Let's recall that Kaisha is on vacation.
The single most difficult thing for me on my anti-racist journey is the challenging practice of presence over action. I’ve learned that the impulse to act rather than feel, to rescue, to try to manage or contain someone’s pain is very much a part of my own white supremacy conditioning, a system built on control, certainty, competition and superiority. I understand now that responding in those unconscious, programmed ways not only makes me part of the problem, it causes actual harm to the people I seek to help by dismissing or discounting their experience. The anti-racist leaders and writers I am learning from, especially Resmaa Menakem, teach that if we want to be part of dismantling racism, the most effective and powerful path is to heal our own selves.
From his book My Grandmother’s Hands: “We’ve tried to teach our brains to think better about race. But white-body supremacy doesn’t live in our thinking brains. It lives and breathes in our bodies….This means that no matter what we look like, if we were born and raised in America, white-body supremacy and our adaptations to it, lives in our blood. Our very bodies house the unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors.”
Menakem argues that historical trauma (including the brutality of centuries old white-on-white violence) is encoded into our DNA, becoming the “unconscious lens” through which we filter all our experiences.
As the survivor of childhood trauma, this rings 100% true to me. An unhealed traumatized body has little choice than to color the world with fear and brokenness and perceive most of life as a threat.
So rather than just writing out checks to a non-profit, expanding our cultural influences or marching in a BLM parade (all good things), if we want to build a new societal paradigm, the journey is an inward one. It’s painful and liberating, slow and invaluable. It's ours to do. And it's time now.
I picture myself talking to Kaisha a year ago. I would have gone into rescue mode, trying to cheer her up, dissected the injustice or insisted on filing a complaint her behalf. I might have even gotten so upset hearing her story that she was suddenly in the position of comforting me. As I sat there with her, the sweet taste of coconut on my lips and the smart of sunscreen in my eye, I asked myself if I could just be there, consciously listening to her and simultaneously noting what was happening inside me without launching into action or a reaction.
No doubt, this is a big ask – to lean into the discomfort, to literally breathe into the pain of hearing her experience, one among many, and not soothe myself with action or retract into guilt. But the gifts that came with this were many: I was able to hear and honor her, able to practice a new way of being in myself, and most importantly, I got to experience a true and honest human connection that would have been impossible had I been in fix-it mode. I cannot know her experience, but I’d like to think that she felt heard.
The challenge? The need for change is urgent. Lives are being taken. The health, wealth and basic well-being of Black people is jeopardized every day as we remain blind to the underpinnings of our society that perpetuate it. How do we do as the old adage says – go slow to go fast – with so much as stake?
I think we do both. We work toward practical, institutional change but not let that fight distract us from our own individual work to decondition ourselves from this faulty system. Because what is a system without its members?
Haven’t we shown that you can’t legislate inclusion and unity? The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 ended slavery but did not extend equality or equity. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation but not racism. The Federal Hate Crime act of 1968 made hate crimes illegal, but it did not end hate. Behind every piece of new legislation, the power of white supremacy stands firm in its unyielding power, coded into the minds – and bodies – of Americans, both the woke liberals and White Nationalists alike.
Without true, internal change, white supremacy will just get more wily and dangerous. And so we must reinvent our nation’s structure as well as the hearts and bodies of its citizens.
Social systems exist to fulfill the functional, and often the emotional and psychological needs, of its members. It’s helpful to me to understand why this system is so pervasive and hard to dissolve. Again, from Menakem: “Here is what makes white-body supremacy so pervasive and so intractable: Beneath all the exclusion and constriction and trauma, white-body supremacy offers the white body a sense of belonging. We will not end white-body supremacy – or any form of human evil- by trying to tear it to pieces. Instead, we can offer people better ways to belong, and better things to belong to. Instead of belonging to a race, we can belong to a culture. Each of us can also build our own capacity for genuine belonging.”
I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty damn good to me.