Posted by: Reginald Cyntje | December 6, 2014

Culture Shock: from the Caribbean to the mainland

I grew up on a small island. I didn’t feel it was small. I enjoyed the warmth and comfort of family. Most of my family and friends were nearby. I grew up in a neighborhood and knew my neighbors.

I felt loved and supported. There was evidence of corruption but I never feared being targeted solely based on race because most everyone was black.

My mom worked in the service industry. As a teenager, I remember having an argument about the local tourism channel. I found it strange that many black people were serving white people during daily advertisements. I asked “Why is there no racial diversity? Only white people travel to the Virgin Islands?” There were issues of colorism and remnants from colonialism.

While in high school, I had the honor of learning about VI, US and World History from teachers who refused to give me the watered down version.

Caucasians I encountered were usually kind. As I got older, I heard about a few that were racists who reserved their thoughts for small circles of like minds. Most of them were from the “mainland.”

“Frenchies” (Caucasian immigrants from France who first settled in the VI in the 1600s) were entrenched in the VI culture. Many frenchies did not like to be called white. We used the same dialect and celebrated VI cultural heritage.

The VI population (Black, White, Indian, Native American, Asian, etc) did not escape forms of racism. Institutional racism was far reaching and there were ways in which large corporations on the island implemented the system. But as a child, I was insulated. I knew of the injustice but did not experience any teachers or mentors who tried to limit my growth based on racial bias.

Crime was simply crime. I wasn’t predetermined to be a criminal simply based on my skin color… There were positive individuals in the VI. There were also people who were criminals.

Culture shock first took place when I attended Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. I was 15 years old and I noticed a huge difference in how people interacted with each other. Many of the students of African descent gravitated to each other. I met some cool white people at Interlochen who shared my love for music. I also met others who felt comfortable making derogatory statements about black people from the “mainland.” I guess some felt since I was from the “islands” I was different and they could make derogatory statements about my newly acquired black friends. But I was armed with history, love and self-respect.

My next culture shock was moving to Boston in 1993. When I arrived in Boston, I was older, taller and did not have on cultural identifiers to separate me from “mainland” black people. I was viewed as a young black male. Fortunately for me, the black student union armed me with information to survive the Boston scene.

I made some white friends in Boston. But in Boston, I first experienced the fake smile accompanied by the energy that reeked of hate. Then I went on to have many experiences associated with being black in America.

Unfortunately, some white people were not taught the true history of racism in America. They were just taught what not to say when in the company of a black person.

I walked in on a few white people making racial jokes while in Boston. Their response “oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were there.”

I have many stories that explore the tense black-white relationship in the US. I experienced racism in classrooms, on jobs, in the military, as a musician and now as a parent.

We have schools and parents teaching white kids diluted US history. These kids grow up to be adults making the following statements: “why are they mad?” “I don’t see color” “post racial” “black on black crime” and the list goes on.

But the biggest culture shock for me is having to have a conversation with my children that my father did not have (nor needed to have) with me.

My nephew is 13. A kid his age was shot by the police. That boy died for carrying a toy gun. My boys are getting taller and some will look at them as a menace to society.

I constantly try to find language that will not rob them of their childhood but that will hopefully save their life. I don’t have any childhood experiences to use as a frame of reference. So I’m experiencing culture shock on many levels…


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