Someone asked me (for their graduate level assignment) to share my experience as an Jamaican-American (Afro-Caribbean American) growing up in the USA in a predominantly European-American neighborhood and how this effected the development of my cultural identity and interactions with other ethnicities/races from middle school through graduate school. Thought I’d share my answer! Free flowing thoughts!
Well growing up in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood was a difficult task for me until high school. I say until high school because it wasn’t until then that I understood why I had felt so incredibly out of place attending school in my town from Kindergarten through 9th grade. It was hard for me at first to tease out how much of my experience was due to my shy nature and how much was due to my feeling and being different. Nonetheless my experience in high school definitely confirms that much of it had to do with me being different, and my shyness may have in fact been attributed to these differences.
For much of elementary school and middle school, I was incredibly shy. Looking back it kind of felt like I was living in a bubble and I was the only person inside that bubble and I was looking out everyone from the inside. Everyone outside the bubble were like aliens to me. I grew up in a household, which consisted of Jamaican grandparents, Jamaican parents, two older Jamaican siblings, and two other first generation American siblings – this was my world. Patois was spoken in my house, reggae music listened to, we ate Jamaican food, and all that jazz. When I entered the other world, of these “aliens” I felt incredibly out of place. I felt like I stepped into someone else’s world, and nothing there was for me. I was just a visitor, borrowing space. In middle school I (naturally) gravitated towards the girls who were different – an Iranian-American girl and a Puerto Rican. Although they weren’t from Jamaican or West Indian background, our differences somehow pulled us together. When I was growing up in white suburbia the idea of a Caribbean American or Jamaican American was not really understood. If you were black, you were seen as African-American. Whites already had a stereotyped perception of what African-Americans acted like. The “cool” kids who back then we would have said “wanted to be black” (this consisted of white and other ethnicities) expected you to act “cool” and hang out with them. I didn’t fit in with this crowd. I was quiet, spoke proper English – no slang, and didn’t have “cool” clothes. Encounters with blacks/African-Americans outside of my town were usually negative. I “acted white” or “talked like a white girl.” I didn’t fit in with the “typical suburban” kids either. A lot of white girls wanted to be my friend, and I believe most of this came from them believing I was “cool” because I was black. But I never felt comfortable around the white friends I interacted with. I felt uncomfortable, again like I was in another world.
If you said you were Jamaican-American back then you were immediately hit with stereotypes. “Do you parents smoke weed all day?” “Do you listen to Bob Marley?” “I thought all Jamaicans were dark skin and ugly?” It was hard being black in middle school in the 90’s let alone being Jamaican-American. I remember specifically my teacher once, during the times we were talking about slavery in America, referred to the slaves brought to America during the slave trade as my ancestors. Even back then as a child I knew and felt that it was wrong for her to single me out in front of the entire class. Further my ancestral history was much more complex than that. First off my ancestors who were African slaves weren’t brought to America they were brought to Jamaica, and some of my ancestors had also come to Jamaica from other places like Germany, and England, Scotland, and India. I remember my mom calling the teacher and explaining to her that I was not African-American; I was Afro-Caribbean-American. This literally must have meant nothing to my teacher at the time because she called me out again in the same context the next class. I gave up the fight. Back then I knew I was different, but I really wasn’t confident in my differences, and I couldn’t really understand them either.
Going away to private boarding school was probably the best thing that could have happened to me in terms of my identity development. At the all girls school I attended I encountered other black girls who were like me, children of immigrants from places like Jamaica, Grenada, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and so on, and just other black girls in general. This was the most liberating experience for me. For the first time I was able to burst that bubble. I felt at home. It was at boarding school that I really began to understand my differences. How I didn’t quit fit in to African-American culture, whose cultural experience is indeed quite different from the first generation American/Afro-Caribbean American experience (there are similarities as well), and different from the European- American experience. I finally realized what I identified with, and realized how strongly I identified with this group of people. I became extremely proud of my cultural history, and felt like I was finally walking in my own shoes.
There was also a large international population at this school as well with students from Asia and Latin America. Which threw a whole new ground into the mix. The International students for the most part connected with the other American born or raised minority students. I remember the dorm I lived in my senior year being almost completely black, Asian, and Latina. I was able to interact with these students, but not as closely on the level I was with the Caribbean American students, and even African-American students (who were also hip to the differences in American-Americans and Afro-Caribbean American, and I should also say here again, similarities). But even in high school my interaction with European American or white students was incredibly limited. I still did not feel comfortable with them, or feel like I connected with them. I did not feel like they viewed me the same way my minority friends did – unbiased, unprejudiced ect. I played on the varsity field hockey team; I was the only black girl on the team my senior year– and I remember specifically missing a game to go to support fellow Caribbean-American students/friend who had been sent before the disciplinary committee. I remember the coach being incredibly upset with me and taking away my starting position. She ranted to me about unity and team – yet I never felt like a part of that team. The girls on the team were close, hung out together THEY were a team. I loved field hockey and I was a starting player, and I was good, but I never ever felt like part of that team, so I was entirely confused about what “team” she was talking about.
I was always a smart kid and did really well in school, thanks to my parental influence. But it was towards the end of high school beginning of college that I began to realize I was different, but I wasn’t a visitor, everything here for the taking – success etc was for me too. Nonetheless my college experience was not much different from my high school one in terms of interaction with European American/white students. Again I was able to connect with black students whether African American or Afro-Caribbean American, Africn, etc etc as well as Indians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, etc etc, but I hardly had any white friends. I joined the Caribbean Student Organization at my college and ran for the executive board (and won) my second year in college. So again I found a niche. I did really well academically in high school and college. In high school and college and grad school was where I dealt with the most racial tension, stereotypes, and realized that my European American/white peers saw me as different. I quickly learned in high school that even administration held prejudices, and preconceived notions about the black student population. In a way that sort of helped push us closer together but also made us feel like we needed to have a voice to prevent us from being marginalized, or culturally silenced in order to “blend in.”
By college I had the same expectation of my European- American/white peers. I didn’t go out of my way to reach out to this population, nor did they go out of their way to reach out to me. My biggest disappointment came in graduate school. By this time I was incredibly sure of and comfortable in my ethnic, racial, and cultural identity, which I think gave me the confidence to reach out and try to connect with people outside of my race/ethnicity. I went to graduate school expecting to encounter open-minded unprejudiced individuals. I mean this was an institution of “higher” learning right? I’ve come to the conclusion that the higher you go in education the more ignorant people you encounter. European American/white people (for the most part, there were a chunk of exceptions) did not care to be friends with me in graduate school. I remember during the first week of school we were encouraged to create study groups. I guess you needed a special race card to get into those study groups because no one cared to work with me. At one of my clinical placements, which was working in child and adolescent psychiatry a girl said to me “You know I really expected to see more black kids here, rather than white kids.” Naively I said “Oh, how come because we are close to the city (where there is a higher black population.” She looked at me sort of embarrassed, and sort of like I was stupid and replied “Oh no, that not why” and refrained from elaborating. But I knew what she meant at that point. The majority of my friends in graduate school were the ones who looked like me.
Today I am extremely confident and extremely proud of who I am and my history and I think that pride and love continues to grow everyday in the face of adversity. In terms of how I interact with people today? I sort of have a knack (I think its something I’ve developed) for reading people. Usually I can tell if a European-American/ white person sees me as a person first, and then black second, or if they see me and judge me and dismiss me because of my blackness. Today I have friends of all different races, ethnicities, cultures etc, and I am way more comfortable talking to people of different races etc. That little tool I developed is helpful for determining the kind of relationship I will have with the different people I meet.
Today I adamantly identify as either Afro-Caribbean American or Jamaican American. Those best describe what I am, although it’s still difficult at times to be that in the USA and Jamaica. Jamaicans sometimes dismiss me as simply American – which is incredibly unfair, because Jamaican culture was such a heavy part of my upbringing, nonetheless this is not every Jamaican, and usually once they realize you have connection to your roots, it becomes a non-issue. African-Americans I think sometimes think us Afro-Caribbean Americans are trying to be less black or something, but this is really not the case, hence why I am always sure to include the Afro. Others embrace it, and are just as curious as European Americans/whites tend to be about the culture and food etc. I spend a lot of time in Jamaica and I feel very accepted there for the most part, and I think part of that is cultural. One people out of many is Jamaica’s sort of motto. I get less stereotypes or misconceptions these days then I did in my younger years, but they still happen every once in a while. “Is it true that Jamaica is dirt poor?”
In terms of insecurities today, I think my past socialization has had the opposite effect on me. If anything I feel like it has made me more secure and thickened my skin.It has also made me much more outgoing at this point in my life. I love talking to different people from all walks of life, nationalities, ethnicities, races etc.