Wanderlust: It’s Good To Be Home
When I stepped out of the airport in Trinidad and Tobago, the first thing I noticed was the beautiful, sprawling green mountains that have welcomed me back “home” every time I return to my island of birth. Also familiar? There were Black and Brown people everywhere! That acknowledgement forced a tiny grin to form on my face and I could feel the tension release from my body as my mind relaxed into cruise control mode. Finally, I was no longer a minority. And that meant that I was free to move about the world unnoticed; to blend in, to just be. To shake the uncomfortable feeling of “otherness” that I had long internalized and come to accept as normal.
I have grown exceedingly tired of White people telling me that I should feel comfortable in spaces where I am the only non-White person. I don’t. And I am not afraid or ashamed to admit to that in the least, nor do I think anyone should be. This is not a matter of some form of tribalism, or close-mindedness. I have spent my life surrounded by people of all races and cultures. I know how to dance Merengue, Salsa and Bachata after years of lessons during family holiday parties at my best friend’s house, where his blended Colombian/Dominican family get together to eat empanadas, pernil, rice and beans and dance into the wee hours of the night. I worked with mostly East Asian clients for years and was often invited to dinners to share tasty curry dishes spiced with Indian flavors or Korean barbecued meats. I have spent my life accepting white-dominated classrooms, environments and Hollywood culture. Without shame of disclosure, I have been on dates with or dated men of just about every ethnic background — from all walks of life and all around the world. I have had the luxury of encountering so many people and cultures and I remain open to just about everyone and anything.
However, in truth, I have never felt more uncomfortable than when drowning in a sea of White faces. And oddly enough no group of people other than Whites have ever shamed me for that discomfort, despite their participation in creating those feelings.
“It shouldn’t matter what race people are,” they often state when I speak of such uneasiness.
I do not disagree with that statement. It really should not matter what race people are. Yet, sadly, it does. And not because there is some inherent biological differences between people of other races. In fact, many Black and White people in the Western hemisphere share genes after centuries of mixing and blending. However, it is not the people and cultures of “the other” that create divisive, socio-political lines or maintain racial divisions. It is Whiteness. There is an insidious cultural narrative, spawned by White rule and dominance and supported by White American ethnocentricity that has “normalized” Whiteness to the degree that White people cannot even fathom why people of color prefer to be around people who look like them, in a culture of their own. That narrative also creates an unwelcoming, judgmental environment that is closed to the differences and cultural expressions of non-white people, while maintaining the guise and pretense of “diversity” and “multiculturalism.”
That was a lesson that I have learned (and continue to learn) time and time again while amongst White people, and even more frequently while confined to mostly White environments during my trip to Hawaii. A few mornings before I boarded the plane to begin my trek back “home,” a young White man with long, blond tresses and an air of absolute stupidity came to visit my place of residence at a diving school/small pepper farm on the Big Island.
“Have you ever straightened your hair?” he inquired as I sat near him with a plate of pancakes and a fresh cup of Kona coffee. It was early in the morning, though I would not claim that had any influence on the state of my bushy hair that must always look unkempt to the White gaze.
“I don’t ever straighten my hair,” I responded monotonously, returning my attention to the warm, fresh pancake.
“Straight hair is the hair of the gods,” he stated authoritatively. I kept my eyes lowered and focused on my plate with the hopes that the morning nuisance would simply disappear; get struck by rogue lightening, or knocked out by a coconut from a nearby tree that somehow, with the aid of the wind, would manage to by pass the other trees and roof above to land square on his head. The universe was not so kind. Matter of fact, it was wicked. That morning, I found out that gentleman would by my escort for the day; my ride into town to run errands with a girlfriend.
For the 45-minute ride into town and the return trip, he spent the majority of his time lecturing me and attempting to educate me about reggae music, despite my Caribbean island origins. He also attempted political discussion about Obama and tried to convince me that Russian girls were the best twerkers. By the end of the trip, it felt as if my palm would perpetually remain glued to my face.
Without a doubt, that young man was the most offensively ignorant human being I have probably encountered in the duration of my 25 years on this planet. I am not trying to paint that interaction as a norm, as the average experience. He most certainly was an outlier in his displays of ignorance and insensitivity. However, his overall condescension and cultural self-absorption was not unique — it was pretty typical behavior of White people.
I have always been very proud of my Blackness and island roots. For that reason, I was always happy to share my culture with others. I am very familiar with the way White people respond to it; sometimes with disgust, other times fetishization, but infrequently with genuine interest or intrigue. Just sit amongst a group of White people and play a Dancehall reggae or Soca music video to catch my drift. At the glimpse of a moving waistline, shaking booty or gyrating crotch, White people often cringe and flinch as if they are witnessing an exorcism.
“Do people really dance like that?” they often inquire with a hint of disgust or piqued sexual interest, as their eyes remain glued to the screen.
“Yes. We wine, wuk, kotch, jook, bruk it down,” I respond with the high strung tone of a college professor giving a lecture on introductory island culture.
“This form of cultural expression is rooted in African tradition that dates back to the beginnings of human civilization,” I continue to lecture to my captivated, wide-eyed White audience. They often shift uncomfortably in their seats until the educational moment has ended.
I broached such conversations in this manner not in an attempt to legitimize my culture or African culture or make it more acceptable to White people, but because it adds the dimension of comedy. It allows me to entertain myself, chuckle a bit, instead of confronting White diminishment with anger or disappointment. Afterwards, I relay such stories to my Black friends and we all laugh at the expense of White ignorance. That is my way of maintaining my sanity.
As I stood alongside the curb, waiting for a taxi in front of the airport and a car drove by blasting Machel Montano’s track “Gyal Wuk,” I thought about all of those uncomfortable conversations I had been forced into over the course of my life and travels. I could also feel my waistline begin to roll to the bass, as if my mind had no control over my body’s desire to express itself freely, something it couldn’t do over the course of my three months in Hawaii, constrained by the White gaze that would view such movements as overtly sexual or shameful. I dropped my huge backpack, tent and bag of Hawaiian goodies and busted out a wine for everyone to see.
“But gyal, dis is an international airport not Aripita Avenue!” a taxi driver said — referring to the famous Avenue where masqueraders parade during Carnival — with a grin as he picked up my bag to throw it into his trunk.
“Listen, I reach home,” I responded, “And if it is wine, I want wine, then just let me be, nah.”
“Well, ya get through,” he said jokingly. “Nobody c’yah tell ya nothing.”
I laughed and did my two step “chip” to the car, my waist rolling freely. I’m home, in my country, Trinidad and Tobago. And nobody c’yah tell me nothing.