Caribbean Confidence and the Concrete Jungle

Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. These are names that have been thrown around in the news for years. For me, they have always been abstract ideas. The tragic ghosts of black men’s past have never been a part of my reality.
I grew up in the United States Virgin Islands, a place that feels so foreign to the mainland United States. The islands are predominantly black and Hispanic, as a result of slavery and their proximity to the islands around it. My islands were not under United States rule until 1917 and did not undergo racism in the way that American minorities did. Jim Crow laws are not a part of the Virgin Islands history that I grew up with. Neither is lynching or the systematic oppression of black people in modern history.
There are instances of racism and insensitivity that occur, like the time when someone told me that she proudly wears her confederate flag T-shirt and that she wants to have mixed babies (because they would be cute) all in the same breath. Although this event happened to me, it is not indicative if the culture of the Virgin Islands. In fact, this was told to me by a statesider who had only moved to the island a little over a year before that. These momentary acts of insensitivity do not happen in my vicinity often enough to affect me on a larger and more personal scale.
As a result of this, I am not used to my blackness being a factor in every decision that I make. Before I moved to New York for college, I was comfortable in my own skin and happy with my own melanin levels. And, generally, I still am. But there are times when I am so aware of my blackness that it hurts. Growing up in the Virgin Islands has given me a false sense of security. I do not feel like I have to worry about the color of my skin and how it will affect people around me. But I know I should. I am appreciative of the culture that I grew up in, it made it possible for me to focus on other things, like academics and work. The problem with this upbringing is that it gave me a confidence that is not necessarily cut out for the continental United States.
I am now in college, at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and more often than I would like, I am paying for my confidence. Columbia University is definitely a very diverse institution. There are people from many different cultural backgrounds and places in the world. This diversity is such a reassuring aspect of my college experience, but sometimes it just is not enough. I can sit in a class where everyone else is white and hear others discuss social and racial issues that have nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. I have had people tell me that the protests in Missouri over racial inequality were unnecessary and there was no point. I have been told that my precautions against senseless racism were stupid. It is in moments like these where I am instantly aware of the pigment of my skin.
I am brown. I know that. It is a simple little fact that has come to define me in a way that it never has before. Yet, I do not think that I should be defined by my skin, the texture of my hair, or the shape of my nose. It is unfair to me and all that I have worked for. I often struggle against this classification and the discomfort that I face because of it. I can’t seem to find the balance between Caribbean confidence and stateside street smarts, mostly because I feel that I should not have to. The Virgin Islands helped raise me, but they didn’t prepare me for what it means to be black at Columbia and in New York. In many ways, I feel like I was only given the tools to navigate Virgin Islands life. I was not made aware of the reality that I would face during my time in the states. If I had been given a true sense of what was to come, I know that I would have been able to navigate this concrete jungle with more confidence and a lot less culture shock.
Editor’s note: Kari E. Currence is a current freshman at Columbia University in the City of New York. She is interested in studying economics and jazz literature.
 

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