When I was in my early thirties, I got to spend a year on Curacao, an island in the Caribbean Sea, to work at a huge refinery there. I loved it (the island I mean ; the refinery… not so much) !
It’s where I got infected with a love for bright colors, that pop up in my paintings still today.
The place was full of vibrancy. The sky was a deep endless blue (except in hurricane season). The water of the sea where I went scuba diving was an incredible transparent green. The parrot fish had all the colors of the rainbow.
The beaches were blindingly white. The women showed off their generous curves with pride, dressed in tight, bright clothes. The flamingoes at the salt flats were a lollipop pink that would make Barbie jealous.
On weekends, I would explore the dusty backroads of the wild western region with my rental Toyota (that’s where I learned to change flat tires). The hills there were covered in dark green shrubs and giant cactuses with vivid red flowers. Scattered across the landscape were the so-called “landhuizen”, the main buildings on the former plantations, painted a sunny yellow or deep tomato red.
Landhuis Papaya, small but beautiful, was my favorite.
But it’s hard to admire these houses, and not be reminded of the atrocities of slavery and the suffering inflicted at these plantations.
Most of the 160 thousand people living on Curacao today are descending from slaves.
Their skintone ranges from the blackest black to almost white. Or, as they told me jokingly, start with black coffee and add more and more milk. They speak Dutch, the language of the past colonizer, but also Papiamento – a mix of Spanish and Portuguese with some Dutch and even English thrown in.
With a few exceptions, my friends and colleagues were all locals. Many were educated in the Netherlands. They spoke just like Kees from Amsterdam or Aagje from Den Haag. But their hair was curly and their skin was brown-black.
And here’s where it gets interesting…
After working with them for a while, having dinner with them, being at their houses and hearing their stories, I stopped noticing the color of their skin. They became characters to me. Playful or serious, ambitious or laid back, talkers or listeners, family people or singles… with joys and worries just like mine.
That’s what I saw ; that’s what mattered.
I realize that I was only a temporary guest there, relying on their kindness. I was a humble minority. I don’t know if my local friends and colleagues ever stopped seeing the color of my skin. It might not have been as easy for them to forget the privileges and dark history of oppression associated with my whiteness.
I don’t know ; we never really talked about it.
But all the same, it was eye opening for me to experience first hand that it’s possible to look beyond color. For real, without thinking, automatically, and from deep within me. Not because of diversity laws, or because it’s the morally right thing to do. But because I felt and saw and understood that we truly are alike in what makes us human.
Some stereotypes might seem correct, but they are very superficial. Society is full of artificial constructions and hierarchies, that have been around for so long that we forget they are not innate. But I had the time to share the daily lives of people that I had been (unconsciously) taught were different somehow, and I could see that they’re not.
I had the time to watch the colors fade, and what appeared instead was more beautiful than the most fantastic colors I could ever paint – universal, fundamental humanness !
Some of my colleagues and I in a very good mood after a copious dinner…
Of course I didn’t get rid of my fears and false beliefs forever. I’m not immune to the stories our society keeps telling us. But I’m so glad I gained this little grain of authentic understanding, from what I experienced on that small colorful island in the Caribbean.
And I hope I can carry it with me for the rest of my life.
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