Last week a heated argument broke out on one of the many Facebook pages set up for island students (there are two medical schools here in addition to RUSVM). The young woman who started the debate posted about her interaction with a St. Kitts post office employee who charged her an unusual fee for her package and then refused to accept her check in payment. The student pointed out a sign that hangs on the post office desk that clearly states that they do accept checks. The employee said that they only accept local checks and not US checks, clearly assuming the young lady would not have a local form of payment. But we, as students, do have island checking accounts and are issued local checks, which the girl explained. The employee then restated her objection, saying that the post office does not accept checks from STUDENTS.
A Ross employee spoke up in the online debate and insisted that students are not targeted or excluded from doing business with locals and that there is no difference in treatment between students and local customers. That may be the official line, but I am here to tell you that this is not true.
Now, the real issue here is not about whether or not the local post office should charge for shipped packages or what forms of payment businesses should or should not accept. It is about mass judgments and assumptions based on nationality – i.e. racial discrimination.
The three island schools represent a wide variety of countries and ethnic backgrounds. Windsor, a medical school, seems to be largely composed of Indian students and native islanders, from what I have been told by others. The student bodies of the University of Medical and Health Sciences (UMHS) and Ross Veterinary School, however, are predominately white. The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis is predominately black (albeit, black of various origins; suffice it to say, “not Caucasian”). There is nothing wrong with this. However, there is something wrong when a white student is made to stand in line until all locals have been served first, has honest payment refused, is detained at police checkpoints purposefully set up on exam mornings, or is required to pay a ticket fine for an unenforced offense that locals are seen driving around with every day (like chipped license plates or nonfunctioning headlights or blinkers).
The issues of racism and discrimination have been on my mind a lot since we moved here, and when you spend some time on this island you understand why. I, and I would say probably the majority of Ross students, have never been in the racial minority before. We complain about it, we cry “discrimination!” and argue with officials about the injustice of their accusations . . . but what can we really say? Are these not things all too often experienced by racial minorities in our own country? We just don’t complain as loudly there, because they don’t happen to us.
Yet it’s an odd thing – racism. I want to say that I do not make split-second judgments about those around me based on the color of their skin. I want to say that I do not apply American racial concepts to the black islanders around me because they are an entirely different people with a different history. But I do. And I do not know why I do.
I truly believe that all people have beautiful souls, valued by God, and are deserving of the same courtesies, respects and opportunities. I also believe that any person can be malicious, dangerous and cruel. Yet how many times have I been out shopping alone and felt that prickle of fear go up my spine when a black man approaches? How many times have I had to fight the urge to roll up my car windows as I pass a group of black men on a street corner? I do not automatically have those feelings about white men. I used to tell myself that it was because the men in question fit a certain stereotype – the saggy pants, the backwards hats, the gangster jewelry . . . but that’s not true either. The locals here do not conform to those stereotypes – they are American-made and American-bred ideas – yet I still fight those same feelings here. Obviously the connecting element is the color of their skin. I do not know when or where I learned this, exactly; I only know that it is something I cannot claim to have avoided.
I would like to say that I will lay aside these judgments and assumptions after having experienced discrimination from the other side. I would like to say I will return to the U.S. with a new respect for racial relationships. But I find myself resenting the locals for their treatment of students. I resent being on the bottom and treated like I am untrustworthy, unreliable and inferior. This in turn cycles back, causing the locals to resent me and my fellow white students for our intrusion into their country and our insistence that we be treated well. We are visitors here, and yet we all too often act like the color of our skin entitles us to something . . . even though it is their country. (Isn’t it ironic that this perceived sense of entitlement is also what irks so many white Americans about black Americans?)
Somewhere, the cycle must stop. Somewhere, there has to be someone who refuses to be treated differently; but in the exact same place and time, there also has to be someone who refuses to treat people differently. Sadly, it probably will never end. There will probably always be people who hate other people because they are different and there will always be those who lash out. (However, it would help immensely if the media would simply refuse to reward racial acts with extensive coverage, but that is another debate entirely.) But that does not mean nobody should try.
Why shouldn’t it start with us? Why not me? Why not you? Why not start today and see if your attitude toward another person can influence their attitude toward the next? See people as other souls moving through this world in search of an ultimate purpose. See others as Jesus sees you. Love God, so love people – all people – starting now.