And Other Observations on Caucasians in the Caribbean.
I’ve taken a West Indian lover.
Magnum, as I will henceforth refer to him, wooed me for almost two years before I felt certain that he didn’t have a wife and children at home or in Florida or on a different island. I repeatedly used the excuse that I don’t date Caribbean men because they’re accustomed to having more than one woman.
His pointed response, “So do white men,” could not have been more poignant, considering my most recent long-term and very white boyfriend, did, technically fit the description of what I was trying to avoid. I finally realized that this island black man has his shit together far more than most of the white statesider guys with whom I’ve wasted my time since living here. It also dawned on me that this man is exponentially sexier than pretty much all of my former flames. (Apologies to my rather large cache of ex’s.)
One of the most stimulating (ahem, intellectually-speaking) aspects of dating a West Indian man is in the mutual acknowledgement of our cultural juxtaposition. Especially since we’re both students of human behavior with a predilection for frank conversations about diversity in the real world. (As opposed to the wholly theoretical and abstruse racial dialog among privileged white people in grad school that helped me realize I didn’t need a Ph.D. after all.) The most obvious contrast in the Virgin Islands is between white statesiders and black Caribbeans. And while I don’t always agree with him, I find Magnum’s observations on us white people to be fascinating.
Like many Caribbeans, when Magnum talks passionately, the lovely lilt of his accent becomes more preacherly. Each word weighed with distinction, his index finger pointed skyward to accent important points.
“Ashley, tell me sometin’, why do white women date these ugly white men?” The last three words, ugly…white…men, pronounced slowly, a look of pure disgust on his chiseled face.
“I’m not sure what you mean…”
“Wha you mean you don’ know what I talkin’ bout? I seen you wit dese ugly old white men on dah boat all da dahmn time. I tink, what is dis sexy white woman doing wit dis man look like a Neanderthal? The nex white man I see you wit look like Christopher Robin. Girl, dah man dem have money or wha?”
This was funny. And sort of hurtful. Because when he put it like that, well, it was kind of true. Except the part about the money.
“Oh come on, they weren’t so ugly.”
“You is blind or wha? I tinkin’ dis white woman say she don’ date Caribbean man, even a nice-looking man take care a’ heself like me, an’ I see you wit dese men look like dey ain’t bathe in a month.”
Which leads to another burning question.
“How comes white women don’ bathe all dah time like Caribbean women? Every white gual I been wit like dat. How you can go wuk without bathing first? How you can go bed without bathing first?”
Um…because I’m a Norwegian girl from the North country and I’m…gross? It saves soap and cistern water to only shower every other day. Plus, when you start sweating immediately after drying off, and you know you’re just going to do more things to make you sweaty, showering daily gets to seem like a futile waste of time and energy. I know there are many who say that’s exactly why twice daily showers are necessary in the tropics. I guess I’m just lazier and more comfortable with my body odor than those people.
“Back when I live wit Catherine (previous white statesider girlfriend), I tell her when my mudda come stay, woman you bedda bathe before you go wuk or my mom she tink you crazy and dirty. Did that woman listen to me? No, she jus get up in da mahnin’, get dress, brush her teeth dem, and leave fah wuk. Of course my mom notice and ask me why she don’ clean herself before she leave dah house.”
Those racist white people who say that black people are dirty and smell bad clearly have no idea what they’re talking about. I have not met a more personally-hygienic group of people than West Indians. Their bathing rituals and penchant for, “smelling sweet,” certainly put my self-care habits to shame.
And even though he actually likes dogs, Magnum cannot understand why I (along with mostly other white people) allow mine to sleep in bed with me. This is something I grew up doing. In fact, the habit runs through my entire white family. And we certainly aren’t the strange ones. Most Midwesterners I know, with the exception of farmers, let their dogs on the bed. And everyone seems happier for it.
“Dat dog go outside and roll in dead ting. He step in he own piss and you let him get in your sheets that be touching you body all night? Girl, you crazy? Wha wrong wit you?”
I totally get his very valid point. But that doesn’t change the fact that I feel more cozy when Hershey sleeps with me. Having not yet caught anything nasty from this practice, the dog will continue to be welcome in my bed.
By far Magnum’s biggest complaint, having worked on the car barge between St. Thomas and St. John for a couple years, is: “Why white people can’t drive?”
“What do you mean? We can drive.”
“No, I mean, why white people can’t back up on dah barge? Why dey have to make it so dahmn hard?”
“Because we’re not used to driving in reverse!” I’ve told him several times. “Caribbean people are accustomed to driving in reverse because you have to do it all the time. You’ve got these one-lane, curvy roads and teeny tiny parking spots, so driving in reverse is second nature to you. Stateside people are used to these wide, straight roads with tons of space, even for U-turns. We never have to back uphill around a corner and into someone’s driveway in order to let an approaching car pass without falling off a cliff.”
Magnum, in fact, sometimes chooses to maneuver in reverse when, from my perspective, it would be much easier to turn around and simply drive forward.
“Plus,” as my spiel usually continues, “these people have been travelling all day. If it’s their first time in the VI, they’ve never driven on the left before. Plus, they have to navigate their way across an unfamiliar island with switchback roads to get to the barge. By the time they arrive, they’re tired and frazzled, and then they have to back up onto the barge and into a precise space among four lanes. And you guys on the barge need to improve your communication skills. You just point and grunt and tell them, ‘in front a’ dah white jeep,’ when three out of the four vehicles meet that description.”
“Nah, I still don’ get it. When I went Florida, I drive perfect from dah start, even though I never drive on dah right side before. No problem at all.”
While (to Magnum’s deep chagrin), I’m skeptical regarding the veracity of his self-described mainland driving skills, I do empathize with his annoyance at the constant fretting of (mostly) white tourists about backing onto the barge. Their hesitant, wiggly attempts at doing what comes naturally to Caribbean drivers are quite sad. I have no doubt that repeatedly directing tourists through this new-to-them, yet still rather routine experience, would get old quickly.
I’m generally asked two questions when white people find out I’m involved with a West Indian. The first one I needn’t spell out, you can probably guess. The second is, “What’s it like?”
I presume my response of, “illuminating,” is not quite what they expect.