Lately, I’ve been thinking about the tension that exists between Black West Indian immigrants and African-Americans. I started thinking about this subject after reading Moving Back to Jamaica’s blog and finding myself in a heated debate with a fellow Jamaican on a message board. As a Jamerican, I feel like I’m the rope in a game of tug-o-war. I’ve always argued that African-Americans and West Indians have far more in common than some people like to acknowledge or admit. Yes, there are differences in culture, language, and sometimes in perspective but in the end we’re both Black people coming from a legacy of slavery. In America we are both affected by the sting of racism.
Caught in the Middle
When I was younger, being Jamaican/West Indian was not considered exotic or beautiful. To be Jamaican invoked images of a very dark-skinned person with dreads who smoked ganja incessantly, listened to nothing but reggae music and spoke with a “funny accent.” People (more pointedly, African-Americans) would ask me if Jamaicans lived in trees and wore grass skirts. I remember being called a “West Indian monkey” or “coconut.” People cracked jokes about my family members having three jobs (courtesy of the ‘In Living Color’ skits.) In fact, I was told that we came over here and took jobs from the African-Americans who needed them. To add insult to the injury, we behaved as if we were better than other Black people. (A friend of my family actually went into a rage when we were discussing the subject. He eventually told me to ‘go back to where I come from.’) I can’t count the amount of times I’ve listened to African-American women characterize Jamaican and other West Indian men as crazy, abusive, possessive and backwards. Similarly, I’ve heard African-American men say that Jamaican and other West Indian women are psycho, lustful, and the type you need to keep your eye on since they (we) practice voodoo.
By the same token, some of the Jamaican/West Indian family and friends I was around had their own thoughts. I was told that African-Americans were criminals. You had to be careful when around “them.” Rather than work hard and invest in their (our) communities, they (we) were content to live on welfare. They (we) blamed racism for their condition when it was clear all they really needed to do was sacrifice and work hard for what they wanted. Pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Some of us had come here with nothing but we were making a living, why couldn’t they? I was warned away from African-American men who would surely impregnate me and run away, leaving me with a baby to care for on my own.
Passing: My Identity Crisis
Despite the negative images of African-Americans I was given by other West Indians, I made a choice about my how I was going to identify. Sadly, as a young person, I didn’t want to associate myself with my Jamaican heritage. I was in the Midwest where there were few Jamaicans or West Indian families. To embrace that identity meant to mark myself as permanently “different.” I wanted to have friends, date boys and be accepted by my peer group. As shameful as it is to admit (even now), I didn’t want to be Jamaican. I didn’t want to be associated with the nappy-headed, ganja smoking representations of Jamaicans in the United States (even if I knew it was untrue.) I shunned any connection to my Jamaican heritage. I didn’t want to speak Pawta or take trips back home. It was hard enough being poor (which meant not having the latest clothes), being accused of “talking White”, and being considered a nerd. Adding another layer of difference to my identity? No thank you.
Once I was in college I began to rethink my choice. I was learning about Marcus Garvey (and other West Indian contributions to the Black American liberation struggle), the history of slavery in the Caribbean and the United States and the Pan-African movement. At the same time I was embarking on a study of my family history (which meant frequent conversations with my grandmother- the unofficial preserver of the family’s Jamaican heritage). Slowly, I was forging the bonds again. I spent hours on the phone and in person speaking with my grandmother about our family. With her encouragement I took trips back home in order to reconnect with my family. By the time she passed away, I had become completely absorbed in my Jamaican culture. Shamefully, I admit to shunning my African-American side just as I had done previously with my Jamaican side. (You’d think I had learned).
Moving to South Florida didn’t help my predicament at all. The tension between West Indian immigrants and African-Americans down there was worse than anything I’d seen in the Midwest. If I ever felt like I had to choose between my two cultures it was then. Since I had reconnected with my Caribbean identity, it was only fitting that I chose to identify myself as Jamaican instead of African-American. (If you had met me during that time, you’d swear I’d just stepped off the plane from Jamaica. You’d never guess I had African-American family or that I’d previously passed as African-American).
Once I was living as a “full Jamaican” I realized how much insensitivity there was towards the plight of African-American people. I remember having lunch with a few of my co-workers who were from Latin America and the Caribbean. Somehow we started discussing race. Pretty much everyone agreed that African-Americans were “too sensitive” when it came to the subject. They wondered why African-Americans couldn’t simply “get over it”. We were in a new age where opportunity was abundant. Instead of complaining, African-Americans needed to apply their energy towards a career or an education and stop using race as a crutch. I quickly figured out the ethnic/racial hierarchy in South Florida. It went like this: White Americans (on top), White Latinos (starting with Cubans) followed next, Black Latinos and other Caribbean Blacks (minus Haitians) were after that, followed by African-Americans and lastly Haitians.
Yes, I was enjoying the status of being a West Indian but my soul was troubled. I was bothered by the way people freely promoted stereotypes about African-American people or spoke about them (us) as if they (we) were the most depraved people on the earth. Close friends of mine made comments about not wanting to be associated with “those people” and said they’d be upset if their children ever brought home someone who is African-American. I saw how some friends of mine did everything they could to distinguish themselves from African-Americans (even if it meant trying to hold on to their Caribbean accent with all their might.) The very same people never seemed to recognize the achievements of African-Americans locally or nationally. Most of the West Indians I was around clung to their view of African-Americans as ghetto, criminal, violent and lazy. West Indians who engaged in drug trafficking or violence were dismissed as exceptions to the rule.
To be fair, I’m sure there are African-Americans in South Florida who also have negative views of West Indian immigrants. Since I was passing I was not privy to those conversations.
Like many bi-cultural and bi-racial people, I eventually came to place where I reconciled my two identities. Passing was not only emotionally taxing but dishonest. In some ways I felt like an ethnic voyeur. I realized I owed it to myself and to my family to proudly represent both cultures. More importantly, I needed to challenge stereotypes and prejudices displayed by both groups. (Otherwise I was complicit in the behavior). In some situations I have been called a traitor for being honest about the prejudice I’ve seen on both sides. In the spirit of political correctness, people don’t want to admit to the horrible things they say or think about each other. They definitely don’t take kindly to interlopers like me revealing their behind-closed-door discussions to the other party or to the public. But I’ve never been a fan of denial and certainly don’t believe in sugar coating things.
As I said in the beginning, I feel that African-Americans and Black West Indians have more in common than not. Both of us suffered the traumatic experience of slavery (slaves were often shipped back and forth between the Caribbean and the United States), were cut off from our African homelands (forcing us to create a new identity in the new world), and both of us have Black skin in a racist society. Jockeying for White attention and acceptance is not going to change the racist power structure in any way. Perpetuating stereotypes about one another won’t help us either. What we need is to build alliances with one another. Though I am prone to skepticism, in this situation I actually believe there’s hope. After all, I’m here aren’t I?
I’m interested in hearing your feedback…