<drafted in Nov. 2000>
When I was 14 years old, my mother took me on what proved to be a very memorable trip to the Caribbean island of Barbados. All my adult life, I’ve been convinced this trip changed my worldview for good – awakening in me a social conscience that has, ever since, made me very uncomfortable with privilege…& with everything we refer to as “the system,” pretty much.
But I guess I should explain how I wound up in Barbados in the first place…
My father was a pilot for Air Canada, so the members of our family had free “passes” on the airline (i.e., each one of us could travel free, 4 times a year, to anywhere the airline flew). We lived in a white bread, middle-class small town some distance west of Montreal – a community pretty nearly entirely free of racial, cultural or linguistic diversity. Virtually everyone was white, spoke English (‘though this was in Quebec), was either Protestant or Catholic (but certainly not Jewish), & there were many families, mine included, in which membership in both the local Yacht & Golf & Country Clubs was considered “de rigueur.” One big difference between most of these families & my own was that most of my father’s income never quite managed to make the trip home – mysteriously evaporating instead somewhere between the Dorval airport & the family coffers. This forced my mother to go out & get a paying job – very likely shocking the extremely comfortably-off friends & members of our family’s social circle at the time (none of my Mom's friends worked outside the home).
So the trip to Barbados – an unusual sort of excursion for me (though we had thefree flights, we’d never had the cash for accommodation & meals at the other end, & we also weren’t the sort of family that took family vacations) – was thanks to both Air Canada & the salary my mother had begun to earn at her new job.
The scene that greeted me when I arrived in Barbados – having spent 14 years naively supposing that everyone on the planet lived in a big house &, presumably, belonged to both yacht & golf & country clubs – gave me a profound shock. On the lengthy drive between the airport & our comfortable lodgings (which came complete with the services of a part-time maid) we saw hundreds of shacks – miserable shacks the likes of which I had never before seen in my life. These houses were obviously considered, if not exactly high class, not in the slightest out-of-the-ordinary for island residents.
The trip was a severe reality check for me. An eye-opener, big-time! All the Walt Disney-inspired illusions I’d held about the world were shattered. I was not only exposed to poverty the likes of which I’d never before either witnessed nor even been aware existed, while I was there I also had the surprisingly uncomfortable experience of being the only white person in a grocery store – giving me a small taste of what it must feel like inside, to feel like…& be…a very visible “outsider.”
Ever since that trip I’ve felt very uncomfortable with the whole idea of privilege. My parents’ marriage ended less than 6 months later, so that was the end of the “country club” lifestyle for me. Frankly, I’ve neither ever missed it nor aspired to return to it. Certainly the events of my childhood – the things that took place within my immediate family – provided ample proof that money, social status & membership in expensive clubs offer not the slightest guarantee of happiness, stability or family cohesion…
I suppose it’s possible I was somehow genetically disposed toward a dislike of glaringly wide income disparities, racial discrimination, inequality & injustice – but I firmly believe that trip to Barbados – at such an impressionable age & stage in my life – changed me forever.
For 30 years now, I’ve held political views so far to the left I’m guessing they would shock the average socialist. I suppose most folks I know have a pretty good idea I’m what you would call “left-leaning,” but I suspect some would be surprised to find out how I really feel about the whole notion of privilege… Even the very notion of "private property."
Nor that it was, ironically, a trip to Barbados – as a child of privilege myself – that turned me off the country club mentality for good.
p.s. & as I like to joke, I've been "downwardly socially mobile" ever since!