Matthew Reilly


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My name is Matt Reilly and I’m an archaeologist from the United States. Since 2011 I’ve conducted research on the “poor whites” or “Redlegs” of Barbados. Since that time, I’ve developed relationships with a number of Barbadians who would be labeled “white” or self-identify as such in various respects. As an outsider, the ideas about race that I brought to Barbados based on my own experiences growing up in the United States didn’t neatly coincide with how race was discussed, understood, or lived in Barbados.

The most glaring distinction would be arriving on an island where people overwhelmingly identity as black, after spending my entire life in a country where white people are the majority. Raised in an Irish-Catholic household in a predominantly Irish, Italian, and Jewish American town, my whiteness was never called into question nor discussed. Racial identity was seldom a topic of conversation in my house, in school, or any other social/professional space. Whiteness was a taken for granted notion in a place where nearly everybody shared a phenotype. Growing up close to New York City allowed me to recognize human diversity, but living in a relatively small suburban town created a racial bubble in which whiteness was the seldom-discussed norm. In school, race was not a topic of regular conversation. We were taught about slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement, but issues of racial tension felt distant – temporally and spatially.

In this kind of environment, it was as if race had never mattered for those living in a small Long Island suburb. Growing up, I would have seldom identified myself as white. If the “what are you” question was posed, the assumption would be that it referred to some form of ethnicity. My instinctual answer to such a question would have been (and still sometimes is) Irish or Irish-American. My understanding of identity would change and the reality/significance of my racial identity became more pronounced when I left my hometown for college. Since that time, I’ve come to recognize how whiteness is felt and lived in different contexts.

This was especially true when I began working, and then living, in Barbados. For the first time, I lived in a small community (Heywoods) in which I was the minority. Despite the fact that nearby Speightstown attracts thousands of white tourists, my prolonged presence in the area raised some questions and suspicions. On one occasion as I passed a rum shop, I was stopped and asked, “you’re still here?” The question made me realize that my whiteness made me an outsider and that once I had stayed longer than a typical tourist, my presence in the town became odd.

My experiences with those living in and around the community never made me feel unwelcome. In fact, my status as a white outsider made me a popular dinner guest! The fact that I am white, but also an outsider, is important. Despite the fact that I wasn’t a typical tourist, I was still treated to the hospitality that many tourists would receive. The divide between Bajan and tourist seemed to outweigh that of black and white. Furthermore, it seemed to me that, from the point of view of many Bajans, any racial tensions between black and white on the island were internal, not to be of concern for outsiders.

Away from the tourist districts of the west coast, however, my experiences changed dramatically. I spent several months excavating an abandoned “poor white” or “Redleg” tenantry under Hackleton’s Cliff in St. John. In this region, my whiteness wasn’t seen as abnormal or suspicious. In a place where many “Redlegs” still reside, I was often mistaken for a local community member. I would regularly pick up people looking for rides on my way to and from work in my car that had a Bajan license plate (the “H” that indicates a rental car was absent). Many people I picked up assumed I was a local resident and became surprised when they heard my accent. As soon as I would speak, they would quickly ask, “oh, are you Canadian or American?” Here, it wasn’t my whiteness that was out of place, but my accent.

My understanding of my own racial identity transformed based on my experiences in Barbados. In the context of the United States, at least in the places where I’ve lived, whiteness was seldom a topic of conversation or an identity that was cause for suspicion. Whiteness was and is normalized in the United States. In Barbados, my whiteness was understood in different ways depending on the context, but it always carried a significance.




The subject of my research in Barbados combined with my own racial identity is still an ongoing issue with which I struggle. A white American interested in studying the “poor whites” could certainly be viewed negatively by non-white individuals and raise serious questions about the political or racial motivations of such research. Despite my interest in understanding how the “poor whites” were integrated into Barbadian society and interacted with Afro-Barbadians during and after slavery, my project was misconstrued by some and came to heighten racial divisiveness.

The last few decades have witnessed an explosion in historical studies of slavery and cultural studies of the tremendous impact that African culture has had on Barbados society. An outgrowth of Pan-Africanism, these developments are an essential component of the decolonization process and their continued growth should be encouraged. Especially for young students, it is vital that Barbadians understand the history of the plantation complex and race-based slavery. Unfortunately, I witnessed a reactionary outgrowth of this phenomenon during the course of my research.

Even before my arrival, there was a growing narrative surrounding the idea that 17th-century indentured servants in Barbados were actually “white slaves.” Despite no historical evidence indicating their status as slaves and an abundance of evidence demonstrating the legal and social distinctions between servitude and slavery, select members of the Barbadian population used the “white slavery” narrative to make political points about 21st-century race relations. With many white Bajans able to trace partial ancestry to indentured servants, the history of “white slavery” becomes evidence for shared victimization in the horrors of enslavement.

The more sinister dimensions of this narrative deal with how it becomes mobilized in the present. For instance, a disproportionate amount of economic wealth on the island still rests in the hands of white Barbadians despite their significantly smaller numbers, demographically. For wealthy white Bajans who adhere to the narrative of “white slavery,” the shared history of enslavement serves to deny racial inequality in the present. If everyone started at the level of slavery, this narrative supports their current economic status as being the result of hard work and ingenuity rather than a colonial system that privileged those classified as white.

Throughout my stay on the island, I regularly encountered white Bajans that were supportive of my research on the “white slaves.” I felt as if my research was at times being co-opted by those in positions of economic power with unsavory positions on racial history and economic inequality. More to the point of this discussion of whiteness, it was often assumed that I shared the same positions given shared racial identity. In this context, the fact that I was an American was irrelevant to the “fact” of whiteness. Regardless of what my research questions were or what interpretations the archaeological evidence supported, the fact that I was white and studying the “poor whites” led many to believe that I was looking into the history of the “white slaves.”

In Barbados I find that there is an active community that engages with the island’s history. Public lectures attract a wide audience and people have taken an interest in local history, family genealogy, and culture. In many ways, however, there are still persist divisions that plague these discussions. This is visible in the audiences that lectures or events attract. For instance, the National Trust Open House program attracts hundreds of visitors to view the inside of island plantation houses. Experts like Karl Watson and Henry Fraser provide rich detail about the ownership of the property, its architectural history, and, occasionally, the history of slavery on the plantation. These events attract a predominantly white crowd.

On the other hand, events associated with the history of slavery attract a predominantly black crowd. For instance, Hilary Beckles gave a public lecture in March of 2013 to celebrate the release of his book Britain’s Black Debt, which deals with the issue of reparations. The venue was full and the crowd was overwhelmingly black. It was truly one of the best lectures I’ve ever heard and one that raised a lot of emotions. For me, as a white American, I felt the passion, sadness, and anger of Beckles and members of the audience as they discussed a history that has palpable legacies on the island.

During this talk, I felt white guilt. I’m not a Barbadian nor do I have history associated with slavery. At that moment, however, I felt the realities of white privilege. The horrors and legacies of slavery were and are real. In Barbados, events like this can help the public cope with this history in understanding the present and future. I don’t think that events and education surrounding slavery are condemnations of the white population. Unfortunately, the division persists where the history of slavery is associated with black Bajans and planter history (and even that of the “poor whites”) is associated with white Bajans. For example, at a dinner party (attended by white Bajans), I was once told by one attendee that he was “sick of having slavery shoved down my throat.”  

Even if open dialogue is facilitating progressive discussions about race, these divisions are still troubling. There are reasons behind 21st-century correlations between whiteness and planters and blackness and slavery. Dealing with these correlations in the present is a challenge that can be mediated by dialogue about what these histories mean in the present and how we can take them forward into the future. Acknowledging one’s whiteness doesn’t need to mean shouldering the blame for histories of slavery and legacies of inequality, but it can mean recognizing how that identity affects circumstances and privilege in the present and what can be done to remedy societal problems. I think that this is one of the most challenging aspects of discussing race. These persistent divisions carry historical weight, making color-blindness impossible and undesirable.

My ancestry and phenotype mark my status as white in the contexts of the United States and Barbados. Despite this shared status in each country, it means something different in these places. A lot of the differences stem from the fact that the plantation landscape is all around us in Barbados. I find it to be the most visible and physically dominating reminder of histories of colonialism and slavery. The decline of the sugar industry, however, has not signaled a decline in the significance of race and racial history. To me, that only emphasizes the need for more conversations about race and what whiteness can mean in the future, without dismissing its past.




I think that I’ve always experienced the benefits of white privilege, but that it took me a long time to recognize that it was happening. I grew up in a middle to upper-middle class household in an overwhelmingly white town where privilege was all around me and, therefore, unacknowledged. I think that’s one of the privileges of whiteness in this kind of context – not even having to recognize that bubble.

In Barbados, my whiteness was experienced a bit differently, which was also heavily associated with my status as an outsider/non-Barbadian. In many cases, I think it was my identity as an American rather than white that warranted me the “tourist smile” and hospitality I received so often in Barbados. Whiteness and foreigner worked in tandem in some cases. I’m still met with shock on the part of many black Bajans when I know of small villages, particular foods, certain people, or small rum shops. For instance, ordering cou-cou or a bread-and-two regularly raises eyebrows. Whiteness may have something to do with the curiosity, but my accent also plays a role.

There are a few instances I can recall when my racial identity placed me under scrutiny. When I attend lectures or public events associated with slavery, I often feel that my whiteness is a subject of judgement. Glances from black Bajans result in a feeling that I may not belong or that I have no right to comment on or speak to the history of slavery or racial injustice. In general, this is only a slight discomfort and I usually feel comfortable in conversations when those participating are on the same page and interested in the same topics.

Throughout my adult life I have dated women that also identity as white, with one exception. When I briefly dated a black Bajan woman, there were occasions when I felt judged for the interracial nature of the relationship. During Foreday Morning, I recall receiving frequent glances from spectators as we passed while holding hands. Glances regularly shifted from myself to my partner and then extended downward, as if shocked or disapproving of our enjoined hands. Given the nature of my research, I understand that such relationships have long been controversial. It is a topic that many families choose not to talk about and one that infrequently gets recorded in official historical documents. Yet, as I’ve come to understand from family genealogies and living in Barbados, these relationships have been common for centuries. It seems to me that disapproval is waning, and that more open conversation about how frequent such relationships were and are will be helpful in remedying judgmental attitudes. Additionally, given this long history of intermixing, questions about the purity of the concept of whiteness are necessary and should be encouraged.

My whiteness has also resulted in some comical exchanges. On multiple occasions at a big lime or at Kadooment, I have been selected by black Bajan women as the target for wukking up. Part of the selection process is no doubt related to the stereotype that white men can’t dance. In many cases, these women have been rather large, and in dancing with a lanky white guy, the result can be very amusing. The dancing is always in good fun and receives laughs from the crowd. I am certainly NOT a gifted dancer, but I always join in on the fun with a smile.

After a few months spent in Barbados, I was in desperate need of a haircut. I decided to make the walk from my house in Heywoods to Speightstown where I had seen a few barber shops. I thoughtlessly entered one of the shops and was immediately met by confused stares. The barber and clientele were all black Bajans and we all realized that I may not have been in the best place to get my hair cut. I waited for the barber to finish with a customer and he then asked if I wanted a cut, as if he were hoping I was there for some other reason. Before I even sat down, he admitted that he had never cut a white person’s hair before. We both laughed and discussed how he might proceed. I told him that I typically don’t have barbers use electric trimmers and this made him quite nervous. Unsure if he was up to the challenge, we both decided that it would be best for me to go elsewhere. We again laughed and I said my goodbyes.

In these situations, racial difference was openly acknowledged and unabashedly confronted. Our racial identities come with complex histories and inequities in how we live our daily lives. In these personal encounters, however, our humanity celebrates these differences. Far from a naïve or romanticized notion of racial utopia or some semblance of a “can’t we all just get along” attitude, I think these bonds of common humanity demand that we confront the good and bad of racial difference. Whiteness comes with heavy baggage in the Caribbean. The history of race-based slavery, colonialism, oppression, and inequality leaves little to celebrate. These histories, however, don’t neatly encapsulate the experience of whiteness in Barbados or elsewhere. My own whiteness in Barbados has led to positive and negative experiences. These experiences, for good or for bad, point to the need for more discussion about how we can mediate complex histories into more inclusive futures.





Matthew Reilly is a postdoctoral Fellow at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University in the USA. Matthew is an archaeologist who has been conducting research in Barbados since 2011. His research focuses on issues of race and class on the plantation landscape. He has excavated on many sites around the island including plantation villages for the enslaved and poor white tenantries. He is interested in how non-elite members of Barbadian society interacted across racial lines and how they challenged the rigidity of those lines in the past and in the present.





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