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Are Black Americans More Aware of Race Than Black Caribbeans?

A Jamaican and an American flag on display at the 2008 West Indian-American Carnival in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by David Berkowitz, used under an CC license.

A Jamaican and an American flag on display at the 2008 West Indian-American Carnival in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Flickr user David Berkowitz. CC BY 2.0

Are Caribbean people over race? One Jamaican-American blogger, Aidan Neal, says they are, at least in comparison with their American neighbors.

In a provocative piece titled “Racism In America: Caribbeans Just Don't Get It“, she argued that because of their historical experiences, native-born African-Americans have an ”often unwarranted sense of racial awareness” and so experience racism differently than Caribbean immigrants to the United States do:

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.

She said that Caribbean people, by comparison, were more easygoing when it comes to issues of race: 

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-request from an old classmate, I was a tad 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. 

 Neal concluded that taking a more positive attitude and not seeking out grievances would be a better approach: 

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.

Her perspective echoes American actor Morgan Freeman's solution to racism: In a 2005 interview with 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace, he advised, “Stop talking about it.” Still, Neal's blog post was the latest contribution to an ongoing discussion about the different ways African-Americans and their counterparts from the Caribbean react to racism. Even author Malcolm Gladwell, whose mother is Jamaican, explored the issue in a 1996 essay for The New Yorker.  

While both groups experienced the injustice of slavery, it has been argued that blacks in the Caribbean, just by virtue of their numbers (blacks still comprise either the majority or a significant minority in all the Caribbean territories), were able to play a more active role in their societies and were therefore shielded from the harsh racism which continues to affect African-Americans.

Is it possible that because most black people from the Caribbean were accustomed to assuming positions of responsibility in their communities – largely denied to blacks in America – they are, today, either less aware of racism or less inclined to give it power in their lives? On Facebook, Marva Linsday Reid thought so

We saw ourselves reflected in each other in our villages and saw that we were capable, strong and smart. That gave us a strong sense of self confidence…

Other responses to Neal's post have been passionate. Corey Gks said that while the apparent differences could be explained by history, this simple conclusion downplays Caribbean radicalism:

For the most part yes…but I don’t know why one could expect otherwise. Racism was more overt and direct in the US which party explains why [African-Americans] would be more attuned to it. In the Caribbean it was much more subtle; in most of the islands whites were in the minority.

Because of this numerical imbalance there was a certain degree of confidence among young Caribbean people, especially when they settled in the US. It is no coincidence, and I find the writer displays a marked ignorance of this historical fact, that most of the radicalism of the US Civil Rights, Black Power and other anti-exploitation movements were influenced either by Caribbean people or African-Americans who lived among them.  

Gks argued that Caribbean people were not as indifferent to racism as Neal implied and named several activists and leaders of the Pan-Africanism movement who were of Caribbean descent:

Where do African Americans think Edward Wilmot Blyden, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael, Claudia Jones or CLR James came from? Who do they think help radicalise Malcolm X? Caribbean people are not as innocent of racism some may want to think.

However, novelist Marlon James was critical of Neal's post, maintaining that Jamaicans were not as close to being over racism as she implied. “A country where people bleach skin is not over slavery. A country where men still marry lighter to white up the family line is not over slavery. A country where people still talk about ‘good hair’ is not over slavery. A country where many of its major industries were set up during the slave trade and still profits people who benefited from it for hundreds of years (hello Tate Gallery) is not over slavery,” James wrote.

While the debate will continue, it has already served to show the different ways that race and culture intersect – and perhaps to prove that racism, to quote Jamaica's Bob Marley, continues to impose a type of “mental slavery” on black people nearly 150 years after the slave trade was abolished in the United States.

  • orianeg

    Yes, black american more aware of race. Look at Obama, aware of race even as a president of USA.
    His erratic wrkng bahaviour as head of state explains all !

    • Harry Underwood

      Wow, way to bring party politics into an unrelated discussion. Stay on the damn topic.

  • Enzo

    Of course they are since blacks in America have turned their race card into a BUSINESS.

    • magic3400

      Why shouldn’t they, whites have profited for 400 years off the race card. Funny how people like you blame the victim.

      No wonder rape victims get such little justice in this country, blame the victim seems to be instinctive with people like you.

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