Students study race, culture in Barbados

Barbados study-abroad students pause for a photo at Animal Flower Cave on the north coast of Barbados, where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.

Barbados study-abroad students pause for a photo at Animal Flower Cave on the north coast of Barbados, where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.

During summer quarter, 19 students spent more than three weeks studying abroad in Barbados. Led by Ralina Joseph, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication, Andrea Griggs of the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, and Susan Harewood of UW Bothell’s Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, they examined how Blackness is represented in U.S. and Caribbean media. Students in the program experienced what it’s like to live in a place that is generally known as a tourist destination, but has a deep history rooted in African and British culture.

“Our goal was to study the communication of culture, tourism, power and race in Barbados,” Joseph said. According to the study abroad website, Barbados is a majority-Black country with approximately 90 percent of the population of African descent. Coming from the United States, a minority-Black country, the students gained perspective on how these different attributes play out in a country different from their own.

Erica Crittendon focused her final project on the Crop Over celebration, a traditional harvest festival which began on the sugar cane plantations during the colonial period in Barbados. The celebration signals the end of the annual sugar cane harvest, a time when workers can finally rest.

Crittendon described how media coverage of today’s celebration of Crop Over often gives outsiders a false understanding of what the festival really signifies. In her final presentation, Crittendon showed a YouTube video of R&B recording artist Rihanna, sparsely dressed, drinking and dancing provocatively at the Kadooment Day Parade. “I think it’s kind of ignorant,” she said. “It gives another limited view of Barbados, and now people are thinking that’s what Crop Over is.”

Pauloes Berhe’s final presentation concerned pop culture’s influence on drug and alcohol abuse in Barbados, and the differences in usage between Barbados and the U.S. Having spent some time with the locals, he found it interesting how much artists like Eminem, and Bob Marley and the Rastafarian Movement seem to influence usage.

“My moment of rupture came when I found out Eminem is a huge icon in their society. When they played old-school Eminem songs, everyone was going nuts,” Berhe said. He identified that artists like Eminem often refer to drugs in their music, and in Barbados it seems the culture is much more tolerant of it than the U.S. “Musicians push for alcohol and drug abuse through their music. It’s so rich and deep in their culture.”

Joseph said she has seen her students grow many ways during this short study abroad trip, but what stands out is how they developed their understandings of themselves as racialized subjects. “In a majority-Black country we got a chance to experience what it means for ‘minorities’ to become the ‘majority’ and vice versa,” she said. “This switch in race-frame really lays the groundwork to reconceptualize the way in which we see our own race-based positions functioning in the U.S. — and to conceptualize ourselves as part of larger diasporas.”

Looking back at the trip, Joseph said that while they did do a lot of work, they still managed to have a lot of fun. “My favorite memory with the students was our last excursion together.  Instead of having our last day of class, we took the students out swimming with the turtles,” she said. “It was a blast.”