Thursday, January 8, 2009

St. Kitts and Tipping

My wife, daughter and I were in St. Kitts for the holidays visiting our family. One of our oldest and dearest family friends is a combination English (white) and Zambian (black) couple. One evening we were all eating dinner on the beach at one of St. Kitts’ new found beach bars and restaurants on the southern bridge of the island between Frigate Bay and the peninsula.

St. Kitts was one of the Caribbean’s 6 remaining sugar producers until very recently. They have since unfortunately substituted tourism for energy and sugar production as the primary fuel for their economy. Partly as a result, “the strip” is full of beach bars patronized mostly by tourists during the high season. At this particular spot, “Shiggity Shack”, nearly all of the patrons were white, and the vast majority were tourists. The dinner entertainment consisted of a black one man band, “de ban’man”, wearing the classic colorful island shirt and white pants singing reggae songs and encouraging the audience to sing along or dance. After our clawless, delicious, cut in half, delicious, grilled, delicious, Caribbean, delicious lobster arrived, “de fireman” came out. At first he was eating sticks of fire and resting them on his tongue like they do in the circus. Then they brought out the limbo stick while de ban’man encouraged the audience to yell out “yeah mon,” every time de fireman successfully went under. In the end as you might imagine, they lit the limbo stick on fire and de fireman made it under a seemingly impossibly small space while the array of sun-reddened, temporarily Carib drinking Americans enthusiastically yelled “YEAH MON!!” Then de fireman came around for tips. Apparently at our table, only English tipped him.

Later we were talking about the distinction between service and servitude in the Caribbean context and the deference that is generally paid to white people in the region. English said that it is a generally accepted social truth that black people don’t tip well. As a result, in these sorts of tip-based economies black tourists and for sure black locals are overlooked in favor of more generous tipping whites. His conclusion was that the tipping disparity is probably a cause of the deference and the deference probably contributes to the disparity. A vicious cycle to be broken, if logic serves, by black people tipping more generously. He then cited the example of de fireman.

Surely there is an array of legitimate points to argue on this unfortunate reality, but the point that I don’t think hit home deeply enough with English was how the whole staging at Shiggity Shack represents a power disparity that is repugnant. Of course I recognize the entrepreneurship, hard work and success of the restaurant’s owner, who is a black Kittician (married to a white woman). I am glad at least that he is not a white retired ex-pat from New Jersey. That said, I was almost angry with de fireman an’ de ban’man. Their brand of entertainment, so stereotypical in its modern tourist roots, is like minstrelsy to me. It offers nearly nothing of our ornate Caribbean cultural tapestry. In addition, their performance capped off a day where I saw grown 30 and 40 something year old Kittician men and women trolling the blazing hot beaches with pieces of aloe offering to massage the sun burned tourists with “de magic plant.” Some of the women’s children were just hanging around under trees kicking dust waiting for them. I watched one Kittician man who must have been about my age negotiate to rub de magic plant on a white man’s feet who also must have been about our age. Once the Kittician man started the massage the white man just put his book back up and continued reading.

My anger at de fireman is also in the context of learning that the extraordinarily beautiful peninsula of St. Kitts will soon be the exclusive jaunt of mostly white, rich foreigners. There are already gated communities under construction, many of which will likely have no Kitticians living within the gates or even nearby and will allow only those access who come in some domestic capacity – reminiscent of sections of St. Peter and St. James in Barbados. Public access to the beaches will likely be restricted, access to some of the most scenic natural vistas on the island will be restricted. Most painfully, not only Kittician, but Caribbean identity is being impaired. We are being reduced to some smiling limboing “mon” who passes a hat while the sand that we press against to get under the stick is being snatched.

I just couldn’t bring myself to tip that.



tdm said...

Usually, these scenes disturb me as well. But, we went to French Polynesia for our honeymoon and we saw the same thing happening. In Thailand, you can see the same thing. I'm sure if we went to an uber-tourist place in Ireland, we would see the non-beach version of it. It's upsetting because it conjures up so many images for us, yet the tourism industry is all about being subservient and accomodating.

tdm said...

The comment above is from Tjada by the way, I hate the google password functions.

luvlife0702 said...

you see, it leaves the locals (and the chic tourist) to avoid the 'popular' and the 'middle class' places to find 'real' local culture. when it comes to tipping, you tip because you know there are kids depending on that $1 but as a girl from tourist land i avoid the white people if i can (but they will not chase me from Negril) no matter if i'm in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Jamaica or Uganda. it also means that i avoid the ubersounds of Marley which i cannot avoid if i'm on a beach anywhere. In the meantime, my little island plans to have the first 6 diamond resort in the Caribbean which always means higher and higher levels of service AND servitude. Lucky for me the island is big enough that i can still find deserted beaches and 'local' spots where i don't have to deal with that bullshit aka 'i as a white man can still have the colored people clean my barf wherever i may be overcome with rum'. at least you weren't watching the 13 year old negotiate with her body with some wrinkly dude from some armpit of Europe.

azaro said...

Man, you are in de wrong job…there is enough spin here to qualify you for the ‘No Spin Zone’! I think it is you missing my point. I am fully aware of the power disparity of which you speak and share your dislike of it. I also share your view and concerns on the development agenda for the island and its long term effects.

But…the piece of the conversation in which de fire man was brought up as an example was specifically focused on the complaint that our local service personnel seemed to be swifter in serving white people. It was to this observation that I relayed the general comment, from service providers, that tips were more bountiful from white tourists and hence an economic decision on their behalf to go where the money is. The deference is actually to the colour green not white in this instance.

De fire man at Shiggedy Shack did his regular act which is arguably reminiscent of “minstrelsy.” He has a talent from which he makes a small, I suspect supplemental, income every week. If we do not like it we should be providing other ways for him to earn a living. If we go and watch – and encourage our children to go to the front to gain a better view – we should at least, in this case, not tip but pay for his efforts. Oh and, also for the record, in the end my wife was not the only person at our table to contribute to his evening’s earnings!

Standing on the sidelines and criticising every little effort Kittitians do to put food on their tables in a competitive tourist environment may be intellectually satisfying but unproductive too. The bigger issue of deference driven by less obvious ways than economics and the struggle that Kittitians have in defining the difference between service and servitude is more complex and fraught with unpleasant history for them. However, if St Kitts wishes to become a major player in the tourist market place it is an issue that must be resolved for success to follow. Mexico is the 600 lb gorilla in the Caribbean tourist market and they are very clear - tipping or no tipping.

PS Is it relevant to your argument that Mr X's wife is white and mine is black?

Hill Rat said...

As always, interesting stuff from our man in the field.

While I agree with Azaro that the real color that matters is green, Whiteness is often assumed to represent green by local service providers in tourist settings. So to simply dismiss the role that race played in this whole interaction is mistaken at best, disingenuous at worst.


PS - When are you going to be in DC again? We're back and would love to see you . . . if you bring the whole fam one of these days.

kamau said...

azaro... neither do i think that i misunderstood your point, nor do i think that you don't understand the power imbalance. your restatement here is the same, that if black people want to erase the deference, then they ought to tip better because green is the color that gets better treatment. i understand that. i think you underestimate in my argument, the strength of the unpleasant history that you mentioned for kitticians and guyanese and bajans and black caribbean people in general.

i am also not criticizing every little thing a kittician does to put money on his or her table just for the fun of it. i'm criticizing this particular brand of what i see as degrading accommodation of tourists because i find it personally offensive. that offense is derived from the same sordid history that you mention. moreover, from a tourism policy standpoint it may put a dollar or two in the fireman's pocket, but what does it do to cultural continuity and social dignity? those larger parts of the dynamic are the long term considerations that can be easily overlooked when thinking that green is most important or in the near term, that it is each man for himself and god for us all.

the deference to white people is a product of our sordid past that, as you point out, is nuanced complicated and painful. while it may be explained away in a specific example here and there by money or circumstance, it is a product of history that is inescapable. i've written before about the very specific efforts my own parents took to ensure that i don't simply defer to white people just because they're white. that deference can be all encompassing. it includes having high expecations about white people regarding tips, intellect, beauty, certainly authority and the capacity to discipline, impart knowledge, accuracy and a host of other things. it also includes a range of things from selling off a peninsula to offering beach tourism at the expense of cultural dignity.

to that end, it is not relevant to my argument that your wife is black - i just find it interesting that our dearest friends happen to be a white english and black zambian couple living in st. kitts. it is relevant to my argument that the shiggidy shack's owner's wife is white. there is too much of a pattern for it to be denied that a lot of black men, upon becoming successful choose white women. again, in my estimation, another example of deference. deferring with the idea that having a white woman is a measure of success - that white women are simply better than black women.

anyhow, having said all that, i think we are on the same side of the argument, but i think my emphasis on the difficult history and complicated cultural context as a result of that history was overlooked in your response.

and by the way... i was loathe to have my daughter go up and watch the fireman because i am hypersensitive to that whole imagery, but it seemed inappropriate to tell a four year old under those circumstances that what she was watching was chipping away at her cultural identity and go play in the sand.

cassandra said...

i just found this blog and i agree , i don't like the way all the people of color are waiting on all the white people, but i know they prefer this to having no income, i like to try and get away from here are the tourist are and find where the local people go to hang out,
but even finding information about the history of the islands is hard , they all seem to begin when the white man got there, i am not buying it , i want to know about the life before then and the life of the people now
but this is not a white thing cause i was on cruise to Bermuda and the black woman had the same Audie to trait the people as servants and have no concern for there well being

cassandra said...

i just found this blog and i agree , i don't like the way all the people of color are waiting on all the white people, but i know they prefer this to having no income, i like to try and get away from here are the tourist are and find where the local people go to hang out,
but even finding information about the history of the islands is hard , they all seem to begin when the white man got there, i am not buying it , i want to know about the life before then and the life of the people now
but this is not a white thing cause i was on cruise to Bermuda and the black woman had the same Audie to trait the people as servants and have no concern for there well being

lex said...

I found this blog when I was looking for a guide to tipping in St. Kitts.

I'm right now looking at Mr. X's restaurant on the Strip.

I understand the apprehension that one has when looking at a man who risks burning himself for the amusement of others, who are a different color than him.

While it is an act , it's service, not necessarily servitude. I grew up in a beach resort in the U.S and if dancing with fire would have paid more than waiting tables or tending bar, I'd have considered it.

I do see the danger when the culture changes in the hopes of maximizing revenue. I get the sense that the local restaurants cook primarily what the locals expect. If tourists find they enjoy it as well, perfect.

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