There’s no easy way for me to speak of race. Let’s just say, my world wasn’t always black and white.
When I migrated to Brooklyn, New York from Dominica at the age of ten, I never anticipated that America would be so fragmented along the lines of race and class. Unlike America, my Dominica was a small island that Jamaicans referred to as that “iddy biddy island pon de map”. It was not the Dominican Republic. It was a proud homeland with little talk about race in terms of black versus white. You were Dominican. Of course, there was some talk of “oppression” in the context of colonization and imperialism, but our living there was not racialized, per se. My initial introduction to race came primarily from the Bob Marley songs that my uncle would blare about “Africa Unite!“, Paul Bogle, revolution, colonization, and liberation. From these songs, I quickly gathered that colonized people all over the African Diaspora were marginalized at the hands of a larger oppressor and made to believe themselves as inferior based on their skin color alone.
Moving to New York, I was catapulted into a racially charged environment. Some of the fiercest criticism came from people who looked like me in skin tone, but took every opportunity to remind me of my difference. At school, my accent sounded “funny”, my clothes were not in season, and getting free lunch was laughed at. I felt like I had been thrown to the wolves and had to fend for myself. Though I was clearly part of this race by all appearances, I did not feel the “Black Power”. For whatever reason, it seemed that my black American community looked down on my immigrant experience and cared little about my American dream. I also had to deal with a complex set of new problems including white on black race relations, black on black relations, and the “immigrant versus American” debate.
Clearly, being a black immigrant from the Caribbean in a predominantly black American community coupled with a backdrop of an already painful race relations in America did not seem to give me an advantage. I also gained new labels and none of them reflected Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger. Instead, they bore names like “Inner City”, “Minority”, “At Risk”, “Other”, “Disadvantaged”, and even “Haitian”, though I wasn’t. Nonetheless, to black Americans, skin color and common class experiences were not enough to establish new bonds.
Beyond my social context, there also seemed to be a much more concerted effort to institutionalize Caribbean blacks as African-Americans. Although we did not consider ourselves African-Americans, the powers that be conveniently grouped us as just Black. Although I did not feel a sense of belonging among blacks, I also knew that I did not wish to belong to any of the other available groups. Hence began my relationship with race. Welcome to America!
If you missed the PBS documentary Race 2012: A Conversation About Race & Politics this week, you are in luck. You can now watch it online by clicking here. You will be glad you did. This documentary was break-through, well-informed, and unlike anything else in the current media on race. In the meantime, meet the bloggers and check out some great content on RACE 2012 at Monica’s Tangled Web.