Caribbean immigrants who arrive to the United States are often shell-shocked by the palpable presence of racism. What is all the more surprising is that these tensions are more so perpetuated by African-Americans. Before an immigrant can experience the strife and joys of the States, they are frequently discouraged, or should I say, warned. Warned that success will most certainly be harder for them. Warned that things are different ‘here’ and that the color of your skin has in more ways that one already set them up for failure.
Living in the United States as a person of color immediately affiliates you as African-American. You’re on the black team now, and as such, may find yourself in situations where you are scrutinized by other black Americans for your racial ignorance. The whole world has been touched by the angst of inequality and prejudice (including the Caribbean) but African-Americans appear to have the hardest time moving forward. Other nationalities, while heavily conscious of their ugly pasts are not nearly as tainted. It appears that Black Americans have been so grossly affected by racism that they almost lay-wait offensive behavior.
Those of us who were raised in the West Indies did not grow up in homes where race was a common topic of discussion. I never heard anyone call another person the N-word, and I never once distinguished my friends by their race. Some time ago, when I received a friend-requests from an old classmate, I was a tad bit surprised that she was Caucasian. When I reminisced on our time together I couldn’t recall her race. I always thought of her as having a lighter complexion than I, but I never thought of her as white. Growing up, we didn’t place each other in different racial categories. She was just on the lighter end of what I then considered the same color spectrum. I guess that ‘out of many one people,’ stuff does ring true. Our forms don’t request racial demographics. There are no “white” neighborhoods and our third world problems consume any possible room one could have for crimes driven wholly by hate. At best, socioeconomic class is all that truly separates (not segregates) a Caribbean nation.
While at a dinner function, I needed to reconnect with a member of the staff whom I met briefly. The hostess came by and asked me to describe the person with which I spoke. I said “he’s a short black guy with large framed glasses.” I got quite a few snarls and my companion leaned in and pinched me, as if to say, I can’t believe you just did that. When I asked “what?” She replied, “you just said the black guy.” Apparently it came off as offensive. Why? I don’t know. The gentleman is after all black. How is it more appropriate to say African-American, we don’t say African Caucasian or Anglo Caucasian. What’s so wrong with saying someone is black or white?
Another thing out of character for the Caribbean American is the assumption that race is the most likely rationale for a qualified African-American not getting a job. While I will not dispute that prejudices- whether they be racial, socioeconomic or sexual orientation- do influence the decisions of stakeholders, I’m not so quick to gesture toward the color of my skin. Too often, I see persons point to their inner arms, implying to fellow African-Americans “you know it’s cause she’s black.” Maybe she didn’t get the job because the other person is more qualified, more personable, or gels in more with the team. Maybe it was her race, but why jump to that conclusion first?
African Americans also have a keen and often unwarranted sense of racial awareness. You see, I can be at a restaurant and never once notice that my table has the only number of black people in the establishment. I would have enjoyed my meal, engaged in great conversation, and left a healthy tip, without having noticed that “we didn’t get straws with our water,” or that “the other table didn’t have to ask for their bread.” I’m not looking for racial discrepancies and as such, I don’t find any. Perhaps I am naive but what good is it to have this kind of heightened awareness? I never realized SNL didn’t have a female black comedian until the show’s scrutiny received media attention. I never noticed because I don’t need the cast to be dark-skinned to feel connected. I don’t find the situations any less relatable because a traditionally black person (I guess Maya Rudolph isn’t black enough) wasn’t on screen. I just don’t pay as much attention to these things because it first requires that I acknowledge myself as different from those on screen.
You don’t have to live in your past to ensure you’ll never forget it. Choosing to err on the side of pleasantry doesn’t make you any less prepared for the worst. It does however, in its own self-proclamation make the unpleasant more likely. The psychological technique of autosuggestion can be described as the manifestation of persistent thoughts into tangible outcomes. It more or less dictates that if you think on any one thing often enough, it will come to fruition.
If you go into any setting with preconceived ideas of how it will be, chances are your expectations will be met. Don’t consume yourself with negative thoughts, even when hateful persons prove them warranted. You’re adding fuel to a fire that should have long been extinguished. We simply cannot move on from a past that we ourselves continue to perpetuate.
By no means am I suggesting that one ignore racist acts or persons. I am suggesting that instead of looking for racism in every act, slur or interpretation, that perhaps your outlook would be a bit brighter if you instead let it find you. We can change the course of our future if we desist from breathing life into acts of discrimination. It is not, nor will it ever be acceptable. However, we can remain conscious of the reality and fight to bring backward ideologies to an end without continuously perpetuating it in our own lives.
We don’t have to go looking for racism to know that it exists. Let’s not take the burden of that expectation into every room, setting or conversation with us. Hopefully, one day my children will live a life as blurred of race as mine was. Until then, I pray that the disparities that still separate us today will continue to dissolve.