For at least three of my six months on Long Island, Bahamas, I have roughed it. I lived without electricity, running water or Internet while the roof over my head underwent renovations. I cooked on a fire outside, proving to be most difficult when the skies poured with rain. I hauled brackish water out of a well every morning and afternoon for cleaning dishes, showering and flushing toilets. At times I even had to do my business outside.
While some days I appreciated the simplicity and other days it bore a sense of frustration, I bear no regrets. In fact, just the other day I made a rather strange statement. I said aloud, “I like living where there are a lot of black people.” I couldn’t quite put into words then the explanation that I can give now; my living situation gave me perspective.
Because I am white and privileged. I grew up in a suburban sprawl where the town joke was, “Where do all the black people live?…On the water tower,” the latter being a reference to the silhouetted individuals adorning one of three water towers in a small Ohio district of 30,000 residents. I was raised in a modest house by entrepreneurial parents who earned a comfortable though not luxurious living. My two sisters and I had our own rooms (after upgrading homes when I was six). The only sense of cultural enlightenment I had was once tagging along with my Muslim-Catholic friend to her every other weekend religious service at the Mosque in our town, which, though its size boasts being the largest Mosque in North America, the statistic drew no influx of worshippers and therefore no spike of diversity to our humble white population. The only other languages I was exposed to growing up were the Hindi dialect of the parents of my Indian friend and the occasional Chinese from a neighboring family that happened to move in a few houses down. The only time I really noticed any difference in skin color was when I would visit my one biracial friend and sit down at the dinner table with her elderly white adoptive parents. And I think these friendships were very unique to an upbringing in white suburbia simply because, in the drawing bowl, they were few and far between.
It was nobody’s fault, no person’s conscious doing that I lived a life that came easily but was so closed off from diversity. Perhaps it was this element of my childhood existence that encouraged me to seek a university with great international intentions and religious tolerance, that continually fuels me to explore beyond the confines of my birth country’s border, to fully commit myself to uncomfortable living situations so that I don’t live blindly. It is my honest experience that despite the privileged folk proclaiming otherwise, racism is still very much alive in today’s society.
It is, unfortunately, still pumping its prejudiced heart on this beautiful, remote island in the Caribbean. The truth became apparent during the devastation following Hurricane Joaquin, when communication with the outside world became nonexistent and who helped who was, at times, a matter of skin color.
Bahamians are a mix of black and white, a sea of glistening ebony and sun-baked tan more akin to the likes of Hispaniola. But in a country whose centuries-old stone walled plantation markers lie in partial ruin, equality, for some, is trapped in a similar state.
In the deep south of the island on top of a steep, rocky hill, a group of 30 beautiful, dark-skinned citizens are still rebuked by whites–and blacks–as descendants of slaves. The families who dwell on the hill squished eleven people into a 200-square foot plywood abode that blew over like paper in a breeze when the raging hurricane winds hovered for days. In an instant, eleven people were homeless and yet not considered a priority for delivery of relief supplies. Not because they were black but because they were those blacks that still remained shackled to the ancestry of their slave brothers and sisters.
After the hurricane, my friends and I made a trip to the hill with care packages of hygiene products, clothes and canned food. Children sprinted down to catch the truck before it made its trek upward. We smiled and laughed and received countless gratitude as we distributed homemade lunches and cold drinks. Then the kids piled into the back of the truck like every hitchhiker on the island as we joined the rest of their families at the top of the hill.
A girl in her mid-20’s asked if I could carry one of the packages to a lady who “don’ walk so well.” As we trod along she asked me my name and I asked hers.
“I’m Elise,” she said.
I carried the box into a small hut and set it on the table, glancing around.
“You have a lovely home,” I told the elderly woman inside, sincerity in my voice.
“Oh dis jus’ da kitchen,” she said. “Ovuh dere is da bedroom.” She pointed to a neighboring small hut where I assumed too many people slept.
Walking back to the truck with Elise, I asked which house was hers.
“Ya see dat one ovuh dere?” She gestured in the direction of a crumpled mess of wood atop a concrete slab the size of our cistern. “Dat is—dat were—my house.”
“I hope you weren’t there in the storm,” I commented.
“Yes ma’am, me an’ ten othuhs. I had ta carry six kids outta dere wid my eyes closed, da sand blowin’ so hard from da wind.”
“That’s terrible… I’m so sorry,” I said for lack of anything better to say. Incredulity tugged at my vocal chords, empathy riding its coattails.
“I got life,” she said. “Dat’s all dat matters.”
Elise’s story is like so many on this island, traumatized by Mother Nature who decided to play dominoes with nearly 500 homes on a narrow 80-mile landmass with 3,000 residents. Her outlook is commendable. Those who lost their homes, whose eyes are stained with the memories, the fear, the terror, they all same the same thing: “I got life.”
Some people on Long Island were living with close to nothing and now they have nothing. If Mother Nature was trying to teach a lesson about material possessions, she taught it to the wrong people.
Here I was surviving—for a few months—back to the basics. There they were living every day in this way. They are unprivileged because of the color of their skin. I spent time incorporating the unprivileged lifestyle into my daily routine, but I can’t hide from the truth; I am privileged because of the color of my skin.
On this island, I am the minority. I may experience prejudice along my global travels for being white, female and American, but I still carry with me my birth-given privilege. I will never know what it’s like to be black in a white world, poor in a rich world, or gay in a straight world. I will never know what it’s like to have to fight for the birthright of equality.