Racism is Defined by Experience: Chapter Six

The following stories are part of a series highlighting primarily but not exclusively the experiences with systemic racism on the American mainland of Black men and women who grew up in predominantly Black communities in the Caribbean.

Cletis Clendinen (Submitted photo)

Cletis Clendinen was born on St. Thomas. He says he has not experienced racism in any dramatic way, even during his time living stateside in New Jersey.

He speaks of racism mostly from an intellectual perspective; waking up over time to what Black Americans have been through.

Like so many Caribbean people, his self-confidence from always being in a Black community run by Black people is simply part of his essence.

There may have been things that happened that could have been categorized as racist … “I might have missed it.”

He says he was asked in his office recently about any racist experiences he might have had. “That’s tough to answer,” he says. “You don’t know what somebody else is thinking.”

“But there was an incident in a department store in New York when I was about 6-years-old.” Clendinen is and was then a big baseball fan. “I loved everything baseball. My dad [who worked for American Airlines] would take me to Yankees games.”

So, when he was attracted to a Yankees jacket in this store, he wrangled it off the rack to get a better look.

Suddenly, he heard someone yell at him to put the jacket down. He became frightened and ran – jacket still in hand – to find his parents in another aisle.

“Hey, come back here,” the store clerk yelled and began to chase after him. By the time he found his parents he was crying.

It is an old memory, and it would be years before he asked his father why the clerk had yelled and chased him.

“He thought you were stealing the jacket,” his father told him. Clendinen says that even though he had no cognitive understanding of the implications of the incident before asking his dad about it years later, “There are things ingrained in us that we might not notice.”

The only other incident he remembers, which involved the police, occurred in New Jersey, where he went to college. He was involved with a public interest research group working on a campaign for clean drinking water.

“We were trying to raise money.” The campaigners would be dropped off and then go door-to-door.

He recalls knocking on one particular door where a man answered who didn’t seem interested in what Clendinen was promoting and stood with the door barely open. Suddenly, the guy opened the door all the way revealing he was barely clothed in only his underwear.

Clendinen, who was freaked out, did his best to politely back away and head as fast as he could for the car. The next thing he knew, “a squad car pulls up.” The officer asked for his driver’s license.

“Oh, Virgin Islands,” the cop noted.

Clendinen does not recall being concerned at the time; being afraid as a Black man of the police just wasn’t “a thing,” for him then. He wonders about that now, about all the things “we did not see.”

The recent protests arising from blatant police killings in the states have been a wake-up call for Clendinen.

“For the longest while, I thought the race issue has been better – was going away, in fact.” Talk of reparations didn’t make real sense to him. He thought, “we were past that.” He says, “Now I realize how far behind we as a people have been placed.”

He has started reading more about Black history, and it has made him reflect on Virgin Islands history and how island people – his ancestors – must have experienced things like the end of slavery and the transfer from Denmark to the United States in 1917.

“I put myself in that year [1848] that slavery officially ended. What did the next day look like; where would you go,” he wonders, adding, “People can’t imagine what it meant to have an owner.”

And then the transfer 67 years later. Once again, the islands and its people were owned and sold.

“The Danish left us with a new set of people, a new language.”

That set of people was the United States Navy. Clendinen speculates that people back then had a lot of questions, and he wonders, “How were we getting our news; how did we know what was happening, especially in the United States.”

Furthermore, “We had no vote, no say in the local government.”

He feels like that hasn’t changed all that much. “To date, the USVI and other territories, which in most cases are made up of majorities of people of color, still do not have the right to vote for our president even though we have been first in line to fight for our country,” he says, adding “We are good enough to face the ultimate sacrifice for this country, but yet we are not good enough to have our voices heard via voting rights on the floor of Congress or in a presidential voting booth.” He says, “This to me is the ultimate disrespect.”

At a time when COVID-19 has coupled with Black Lives Matter and unprecedented – at least in his time – civil unrest to force people and communities to reevaluate with more critical eyes and attitudes, Clendinen thinks it’s time to rethink how and where business is done in the islands, especially on St. Thomas where he lives.

If he had his way, the downtown historic buildings lining St. Thomas’ version of Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive would be torn down and replaced. “Those buildings were constructed with the ballast from slave ships. Our main street needs to be healthier.”

He also thinks it is time for Black Virgin Islanders to wake up.

“A lot of us in the Caribbean don’t understand what American Blacks have been through,” he says adding, “white people also need to do this.”

Annalise Setorie, by her own definition, has been a nomad for many years. Born in Baltimore while her St. Thomian mother was in college there, she grew up on St. Thomas, but only recently returned in December after a 15-year odyssey that began after graduating from high school.

Annalise Setorie (Submitted photo)

Her off-island adventures began in Philadelphia where she received her undergraduate degree from Temple University. Temple didn’t seem all that different than Antilles School, where she finished her last three years of high school because of a scholarship, she points out. Her mother was a postal worker.

Having started high school at Charlotte Amalie, being around so many non-Black people at Antilles was initially a culture shock, but Setorie understood the white students were the “outliers.”

“Our leaders were Black,” Setorie says. The Virgin Islands were governed by people who looked like her. It was a Black community.

The culture, which she had become accustomed to at Antilles, wasn’t that different at Temple. “It was about 35 percent minoritized,” she recalls. “It was easy to be there – easy to find Black Caribbean people to be around.”

It was not until she reached Fayetteville, Arkansas, in her continued pursuit of further education that the landscape changed for her. That is when she met systemic racism for the first time. It is also when she realized, “There really are people who truly do hate people who are not white.”

She had no professors of color at the University of Arkansas. “Often,” she says, “I was the only Black person in the room.”

Through her involvement in student affairs, her world got bigger, as did her drive to fight for social justice. Along the way, she had a number of personal epiphanies.

“You start to see the world is more diverse than what you grew up with,” was one awakening on her road. “You come to the intersection of race and other identities and get to see how they play out when you get to college.”

For one thing, she met people who could actually pay for college without accumulating a lifetime of student debt. White students she met couldn’t understand why anyone would take out “predatory” loans for college.

Those white people didn’t know what it meant to not have the means to pay out of pocket.

Setorie also became acutely aware of people who don’t see or don’t choose to see the injustices that she became more and more disturbed by, “The school to prison pipeline, the health disparities for people of color,” and more.

She also became disabused of the notion that all Black people “were on the same page.” She began to see the differences in attitudes and prejudices between Black people. She began to look at her own homegrown attitudes.

“Caribbean Blacks assume Black American people are lazy,” and that when they are harmed by the police “they must have done something.” That their failures were their own fault. “Black Americans just don’t work as hard as Black Caribbean people.”

But as she matriculated into American mainland’s systemic racism, she saw that those attitudes and ideas were merely myths of misunderstanding. She saw the way Black Americans were shackled by the system. She also learned that everyone was not on the same page and became frustrated, even angry.

Eventually, Setorie ended up in Baltimore, where she worked for the NAACP and felt more comfortable.

Now that she is “freshly” home, she sees with new eyes many of the same problems faced by Black Americans also plaguing Virgin Islanders, perhaps for different reasons.

“How does a family, or even an individual, live on $40,000 a year here,” she wonders. Between the cost of food and power, she worries about her community members.

The systemic racism looks economic in the territory, but its roots are the same. The white folks who might have been outliers to her when she was in high school, she thinks of as ex-pats today. Meanwhile, Virgin Islanders who are by far the majority “can’t afford to buy a house here.”

And then there’s the tourism that drives economic life in the islands. She feels there is little opportunity for advancement within the industry for locals, which means no upward mobility.

Meanwhile, as the ex-pats live well, many if not most, people in the community would be considered working poor if you based the metric on the cost of living.

“The people straddle two worlds.”

Three years ago, Setorie gave up on trying to change those who don’t want to understand what racism is.

“I spent a lot of time teaching white people how to be allies, and how to view society, not from a white privilege point of view.”

Eventually, in 2017, she got fed up and decided, “I am not doing this anymore unless I am being paid for it.”

“It is not the responsibility of the oppressed … to teach the oppressor about racism.”