There are three main islands- St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix- in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a small predominantly Black unincorporated American territory in the Caribbean. St. John is the smallest. The approximately 20 square mile island has a population of 4,170 (US 2010 Census) and it is often described as a serene, picturesque, and unspoiled haven. Like many other small Caribbean islands, we have a tourist based economy. Since there are plenty of islands nearby that tourists can just as easily visit, our financial security has depended upon our ability to market St. John as a unique vacation spot. Since two thirds of the island belongs to the V.I. National Park, our marketing strategies have highlighted St. John’s natural landscapes and systems of eco preservation. In an island that doesn’t even have a single traffic light, this is an easy sell. There is something romantic, if not seductive, about the idea of abandoning the stress of one’s day to day activities for a reprieve in a quaint, exotic, small space (See Jamaica Kincaid’s text, A Small Place). Unfortunately, this is a precarious position to be in. “Quaint” is diametrically opposed to “modern”. In an island area so small, how can we pursue economic development without jeopardizing our environment and, by extension, our economy? It is difficult and we find ourselves grappling with a perpetual fear of over development. When the Summers End Group proposed the construction of a massive marina in Coral Bay’s whimsical harbor, a grass roots movement formed to oppose the endeavor.
While I am definitively against SEG’s proposed Marina for Coral Bay, St. John, I am also deeply troubled by the narratives that circulate amongst neoliberal organizers on island and abroad. In a valiant effort to stop the Marina, activists have resorted to idealizations of colonial landscapes and exclusionary politics. More specifically, the effort to resist the Marina relies heavily on colonial fantasies of unspoiled spaces for White consumption, leisure, adventure, paternalistic ideologies, capital, schemas of racial difference, disproportionate Black and Brown servitude, and gentrification. Grant Cornwell and Eve Studdard’s Reading Sugar Mills: ‘The Island Nobody Spoiled’ and Other Fantasies of Colonial Desire provides greater details on how this process takes place on the island of St. John.
While some invoke a desire for diverse activism against the Marina, many more police the boundaries of inclusion with colorblind ideologies and single issue approaches to organizing. I’ve heard variations of the following: It’s not about race it’s about stopping the Marina and Saving Coral Bay. Ok. Maybe critiques of racism are necessary. However, we have to prioritize the most pressing concern, which is stopping the Marina. Where are all of the local people of color? (This has been asked by locals and non locals alike.) If locals aren’t a part of the group, it is their own fault. Why can’t we all just get a long and organize around the issue that the dominant group deems important. We have to save the island from being overdeveloped by “greedy non local capitalists”. What I find most striking about these discourses is this: we are witnessing two contrasting forms of white normative models of development. In this worldview,the only conceivable futures for St. John are 1) overdevelopment and disenfranchisement at the hands of non local capitalists and 2) dispossession at the hands of sentimental neoliberals. Neither allow for an adequate situation of local people, namely those of color, as knowing subjects whose visions for the future of the island ought to be centered. Instead, our concerns are often regarded as pesky and tangential at best.
The Save Coral Bay (SCB) movement and its organizers do a phenomenal job at mobilizing sympathizers, gathering information on the negative impact that the Marina could have on local ecology, providing the public with the latest news on the proposed marine development, and offering timely critiques of local and federal statements on the matter. Head on over to their website if you would like to sort through the resources that they have kindly collected and provided. As I mentioned earlier, I am staunchly against the Marina as I firmly believe that we have to protect our environment. We cannot allow predatory capitalism and corruption to erode our homes on this Earth. Nevertheless, environmental discourses do not emerge in a vacuum devoid of power. Structural racism, continuous colonial subjection, and American hegemony are critical parts of this discussion as well and they need to be centered in our efforts to stop the SEG Marina.
On St. John, people of color experience higher rates of unemployment and poverty (See De Albuquerque and McElroy’s Correlates of Race Ethnicity and National Origin in the United States Virgin Islands). Consequently, we have to ask whether or not the SEG Marina is poised to offer a solution to these problems. Supporters of the Marina have suggested that this is an opportunity for development that could offer countless jobs to young people of color. Yet, I am a skeptic for several reasons.
The tourism industry often conjures a racial imaginary predicated on White leisure and Black and Brown servitude. Black and Brown people may be hired for their labor. However, this rarely provides enough access to economic resources to create more equitable power relations. Often, business owners prefer to hire white non local residents. We can already see this in many of the restaurants, bars, and shops in Cruz Bay. Racial stereotypes often lead to racist hiring practices in the U.S. and we don’t have enough evidence to suggest that this is not and will not continue to be the case in St. John.
Additionally, SEG’s proposal appeals to the aesthetic of the colonial plantations of old. (Go look at the brochure on SCB’s site) If their marina is also rooted in these fantasies of colonial domination that I described earlier, it does not seem likely that the Marina will help us bridge the gap of wealth inequality. It is, however, possible that the Marina will become a new part of St. John where locals, namely those of color, are made to feel unwelcome. Local bodies are often policed to make “tourists” feel safe. I discussed this in a previous post. Often, we are presumed to be too loud, too local, too unruly, or too Black. Other times, the problem is simply the commodification of our island spaces; only paying customers are allowed to be present. As young people growing up on an island that has few recreational activities to keep us occupied with constructive activities, it is pretty sad that we often get kicked out of spaces staked for predominantly White and wealthy visitors. The SEG Marina has proceeded without any true concern for the negative impact that the development could have on marine life. If the bottom line is prioritized over non human life, how can we trust that marginalized humans will be treated any better?
I’d also like to highlight some of the arguments that the SCB community, namely David Silverman and other organizers, have highlighted about classism and the proposed Marina. If the project proceeds, it is also likely that the environmental degradation will cost us over time. It is possible that we will see less visitors as some might see St. John as another over developed island space. It is also probable that the development could negatively impact land taxes. If the marina is successful, more St. Johnians might be priced out of their homes. If it is abandoned after the project is started, land value could decline. This is important because people of color on St. John are disproportionately impacted by land dispossession. Recent shifts in racial demographics on island suggests that St. John is undergoing a rapid gentrification process.
While the white savior complex might help save the environment, it might do many of us more harm than good. In an Open Letter to White Neo Liberal Saviors, I briefly talked about what neoliberalism is, why it’s harmful, and why we need allies and not saviors. We can stop the Marina but we have to think critically about how can we do this without further marginalizing local Virgin Islanders. There is a long history detailing the relationship between eco preservation and racism. At a recent panel discussion on Rastafari Women’s Environmental Activism at Brown University, I detailed my aforementioned critiques of our situation in St. John and asked the panelists what they thought. Dr. Vanessa Fabien, a Cogut Center for the Humanities Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow who works on race and the environment, offered a salient analysis. She noted that models of eco preservation are often rooted in Western logics of domination that need to “remove” local bodies to create pristine landscapes. We’ve seen this on St. John. In the 50s, there were plans to condemn the entire island for the National Park and relocate the island’s local people. Theovald Moorehead spearheaded a campaign to challenge this project. Though the entire island was not condemned, a great portion of St. John still belongs to the National Park.
All of these factors (our identities, relative privilege or marginalization, and historical legacies) shape how each of us relate to the land, to preservationist projects, and to each other. If we (local West Indians) aren’t highly visible in the movement, it is not because we are lazy or apathetic. We are relatively invisible because there is an underlying problem that needs addressing. We need an intersectional movement. See this awesome piece if you want to know more about what an intersectional movement is. Our organizing against the SEG Marina can’t center privileged bodies and vilify marginalized people for not feeling welcome or safe. That is the discursive formation and maintenance of white supremacy. We want decolonization. There’s nothing like being colonized by neoliberal discourses. You often feel as though you are fighting against a specter that others refuse to name and recognize.
I am a firm believer, however, in radical intersectional optimism. It’s obvious that some SCB organizers are committed to a more loving and inclusive political praxis. I just hope that this piece provides a little bit of insight on why it’s necessary.