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.