I think that for the first time since doing this column, I have met my match and guess what…I love it.
Dee Lundy-Charles is a 51 year old tell it like it is writer/editor who has agreed to speak candidly about life as a white woman in a predominantly black island.
My FITC held nothing back in this interview and gave as good as she got as she shed some light from “the other side” about the prejudices, confusion and ignorance that continues to plague the topic of race in St. Lucia. There were hard hitting moments where I was even schooled and I gladly decided to share those moments to show that I am open minded and am willing to accept correction where needed.
I’m not going to say anymore as this interview is jam-packed and I don’t want to take any attention away from this raw and eye-opening piece. So with that said, enjoy!
The VOICE: How long have you been living in St. Lucia and why did you choose this tiny island?
Dee: It will be twenty-three years in February 2016. I originally came on vacation in 1989 to visit a friend who was working here for two years as a Physio with VSO (UK’s version of Peace Corps). I hadn’t heard of St. Lucia until she was planning to come. I loved it so much I came back on vacation in 1990 and 1992. I was working at British Telecom in IT back then, and there was a massive downsizing exercise planned for 1993. I accepted voluntary redundancy and decided to come to St. Lucia for six months to see how I liked it, but didn’t really have it in mind as a permanent move. But within six months I was in a very happy relationship, and a year later we were married and had our first child.
The VOICE: In the 23 years that you’ve been here, what has life been like for you in a predominantly black populated island as a Caucasian?
Dee: Well, for a start I hate that word “Caucasian” and associate it with police-speak, but as a white woman in a black country, the tables were certainly turned for me in ways I didn’t anticipate. I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland and grew up in a working class Catholic area on the Falls Road during “The Troubles” so the only black people I saw as a child were British soldiers. I first met a black person when I was 12 and my family moved to England for a couple of years – she was a classmate and we were friends from day one. When I went to University of Reading in 1982 I began to realise the hard fact that racism in England was as destructive as the civil war I was born into, and during the eighties race riots in London, Liverpool etc, I found myself outraged and motivated to support the black factions who were protesting against racism, police brutality, unemployment and all the other problems Mrs. Thatcher created back then. Given my background, coming from a place where people from two Christian religions killed each other in the name of politics, it’s hardly surprising that I have always despised bigotry of any type. Certainly it was a huge change when I first moved here and my white face was now the exception instead of the norm, but in those days I quickly got used to the curiosity and enjoyed making friends with all and sundry. My husband was born in Castries, raised in Wilton’s Yard and Georgeville, so my early life in Saint Lucia was as “non-white” as it could have been. I felt welcomed and accepted, even if I came as a bit of a surprise to many of my husband’s family. As an “immigrant,” I have always had a deep level of respect and gratitude to the island, the people and the culture, and over the years I’ve usually felt comfortable in my adopted home.
The VOICE: Many locals have the preconception that being White in St. Lucia automatically means that you will have a better and more privileged life. Is that the truth and please explain why?
Dee: I can’t speak to the “truth” or otherwise of that statement. Of course there are a lot of rich white people on the island, whose economic status offers them a “better and more privileged life” but that’s true everywhere in the world. I don’t know many of them, but I have many, many white friends on the island who live in humble circumstances, working hard to keep their family’s economic head above water. What I have noticed is a different sort of attitude towards white people at every level from government down to the man in the street. Often Saint Lucians are simply more respectful and deferential to white people than they are to their own people, which is perhaps connected with that preconception.
The VOICE: It is a sad reality that race is still a huge issue as the inequality factor reigns supreme. This is even evident in St. Lucia where foreigners namely Whites are treated better than the locals themselves. In your 23 years of living here, what would you say were the perks that you’ve enjoyed in that sense?
Dee: This question really offends me, Rochelle, and it’s a very superficial take on a deeply damaging social issue. Is the perceived difference in treatment for “Caucasians” only? What about foreigners who have other colours of skin: Indians, Chinese, Syrians, black English and Americans? Are you sure that the “inequality factor” is about skin colour alone? After all, who treats all these foreigners “better?” Saint Lucians in general? Rich Saint Lucians? The government? In fact OUR government are about to sell economic citizenship which in my humble opinion is an impending disaster, and in essence will virtually the legitimise “treating white people better.”
In terms of perks, they are few in my mind. As a white lady I get more polite service at restaurants than my black peers. It’s assumed I am a tourist, even after 23 years, so I tend to either get the “customer service” niceness in lots of situations. I’m also fair game for every scrunter on the island, every taxi driver, every beach vendor. At hotel security I sweep through while my black husband practically gets body-searched. At the airport I get shunted into the visitors lanes if I don’t shake my citizenship paper (1996 btw) and every time I have cleared immigration I’ve been asked how long I am staying and at which hotel. As a manager who interviewed maybe a couple of hundred candidates over the years, it didn’t matter to me what colour the successful applicants were if they could do the job, but I was at times accused of being racist when there were issues of discipline, as if the errant behaviour was not the problem. I found it deeply insulting every time, and it made me very, very sensitive to all aspects of HR in my career here. Have I ever been given preferential treatment in Saint Lucia on account of my skin colour? Maybe, but since I’ve never looked for it I can’t really confirm because it hasn’t felt “preferential.”
The VOICE: What are your thoughts on the level of inequality between blacks and whites especially here in St. Lucia?
Dee: I believe that all the laws are in place for treating everyone equally, apart from homosexuals whose illegal status is a throwback to a centuries old British anachronism, removed in fact from the statute books in the UK fifty years ago. The laws of this land say that everyone should be treated equal, and as a Caucasian, Irish, middle-aged, peace-loving, no-nukes baby-boomer I agree wholeheartedly with that. But the laws are neither known nor enforced and in the past five years I have noticed a growing wave of xenophobia, most particularly among young people. I believe the inequality young Saint Lucians are feeling is the result of a socio-economic structure that has seen the island get progressively “richer” through tourism, but with no wealth trickling down to the people who need it most. We have inordinate numbers of young people who are badly educated and unemployed, and they need to ask their government why that continues to be the case? If universal secondary education is so wonderful, why is the average reading age on the island around Grade 8? Why is it still impossible to find a candidate with a decent grade in CXC Maths and English? That’s been the same for 20 years in my experience, no improvement at all. The education system is a shambles, kids who need vocational and skills training are treated like they are second class. Forget agriculture as a career, people will laugh at you…yet government want to introduce more “elite” schools to produce what? More lawyers, more doctors, more accountants? If Sandals and other international companies are bringing a bunch of foreign managers to run and interns to train in their hotels, government has approved those work permits. If white people have come into the island and “stolen our patrimony,” it was with the full knowledge, agreement and in some cases complicit manoeuvering of government after government. “White people” can’t just come into Saint Lucia and run amok as is often characterized. I seem to remember you being horrified in a piece about a fat guy walking around town with no shirt, but my girl, that’s a joke compared to the sights I saw at carnival this year that would make my Lucian granny turn in her grave. He isn’t disrespecting your island, he’s just an ignorant tourist who should know better. At least he’s not pissing in the street like the Lucian fellas. To be perfectly honest, I have met a handful of white racists on this island over the years who had no business being here if they felt that way, but they were not people I chose to mix with. The majority of the white people I know and count as friends are just as disgusted by what they see happening to Saint Lucians at the hands of their government, police, unethical business-owners etc. They do not consider themselves as superior, they are not racist and in many cases they do a lot for the people of the island in terms of charity, activism and volunteering.
The VOICE: In all the years that you’ve lived here, how has life changed for you for better and for worse?
Dee: I love living in Saint Lucia, even on the days when I get verbally attacked on the bus or harassed in town. I have had the privilege of being welcomed into an extended family, worked in great companies with great people, raised two wonderful kids who are now grown up, helped start a secondary school, volunteered with youth programmes and LGBTI causes and feel like I have made a contribution. It’s been very hard at times. Living outside your comfort zone can be like that at first, and there were periods in the first ten years when I wanted to run away because island life was difficult. Now I love Saint Lucia warts and all, and doing what I do for Tropical Traveller just reinforces the feeling that I am an eternal tourist. It makes me sad to see the problems our young people are facing, but I’m also an eternal optimist and I believe if people really want to see change, they can make it happen. They must have the will to use their voice and their vote and really challenge the system, but I don’t really see very much movement in that direction. More talk than walk.
The VOICE: Would you encourage your fellow Irishmen to migrate to this island?
Dee: I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do anything that significant but when asked I always say the same thing; “It’s tough living on an island for lots of reasons, and it’s not always the tropical paradise you read about, but if you have an open mind and want to give Saint Lucia a try, there’s no better place to live.”
The VOICE: Would you ever consider moving back to Ireland?
Dee: My parents are getting on and I’m the eldest, so I can imagine going back for a while, but not permanently. I left Ireland when I was 18, have lived here 23 years and been a citizen for 21 of those, so believe it or not, despite my white face, I feel more Lucian than Irish.