As Hurricane Irma swept into Florida last weekend, all eyes were on Miami and Tampa and other well-populated cities in the state where yet another natural disaster threatened immense destruction mere weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. Behind Irma, however, the damage was already done: on the U.S. Virgin Islands, and several other Caribbean nations that battled the hurricane when it was still considered a Category 5. And despite the devastation incurred there, the Virgin Islands and its neighboring islands received muted attention from the news and social media, despite their popularity as tourist destinations.
It’s worth comparing to an incident that surrounded another U.S. territory earlier last month, when North Korea toyed with the possibility of a missile test directed at Guam: a small island between Hawaii and the Philippines. Guam is very much a part of the United States — but that didn’t stop President Donald Trump from flippantly discussing the region like it was far detached from anything that matters to Americans. True, Trump made a bevy of concerning statements regarding the possibility of nuclear war with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime. But one of the most disturbing was his flippant response: “Let’s see what he does with Guam” — as if the island were only a piece of bait, as if Guam were not populated with members of the American public, as if the people who live on the island are not people at all.
The immeasurable gap that exists between the presidential administration and the marginalized people it governs is a profound lack of empathy, one that unfortunately draws its power from the same roots shared by the media’s practice of focusing on the stories and humanity of white people above that of everyone else. The U.S. territories have never received their fair share of attention from both the politicians and citizens who live in the continental United States, but it is unimaginable that one island (among a series of Caribbean islands) may be devastated by a Category 5 hurricane and still not make a dent in the American conscience.
With regard to Hurricane Irma, it is understandable that a massive share of the media’s attention was turned toward Florida, where plenty live and were at risk. But it is by and large no coincidence that the people who live in Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands are majority people of color (in Guam, Chamorro followed by Filipino; and in the Virgin Islands, majority black) who regardless of geographic location do not fall into a long-held notion of victims who deserve attention and empathy.
Forgetting or ignoring the devastation (potential or realized) on these islands parallels the shameful trend of recognizing terror and tragedy only when they hit European or majority-white countries. And, besides being shameful in the current climate of national politics, this practice plays into a myopic perception of what it means to be and count as an American, where both being a citizen in a U.S. territory and being a non-citizen within the continental border gets one nowhere.
That is not to say, necessarily, that the U.S. Virgin Islands (as well as Puerto Rico, which narrowly escaped the full impact of Irma’s blow), were totally forgotten: Trump did assign funds for the U.S. Virgin Islands after Irma’s destruction there. Still, continuous aid and relief is an imperative maintained through widespread attention, and it is precisely that in which the U.S. territories are lacking.
It is becoming devastatingly clear that what it means to be American is no longer enough even when one is a citizen, living on American soil. Instead, what the response to Irma has made clear is that the definition still firmly rests on the old and ugly historical status quo that worth is defined by how long one’s race has been in charge. It is a thinking that influences policies and media practices, in which vulnerable and marginalized communities have less power and little say, and that cuts down on the potential for empathy precisely when these communities need it the most.
Zoe Cheng is a junior majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs Tuesdays.