I listened with fascination as my Jamaican immigrant student enumerated the ways West Indians were superior to African Americans.
Children from the Caribbean went to better primary schools, didn't skip classes, had parents who taught them manners, and had more respect for authority and their elders. West Indians, she said, were willing to work hard and African Americans were lazy; more than anything, she couldn't stand being mistaken for a black American.
I let her have her litany, a part of me horrified to realize that at an earlier point in my immigrant journey I had shared some of her frustrations of belonging to an invisible minority. This was over a decade ago not long after I'd begun teaching at LaGuardia Community College, a CUNY campus nicknamed "The World's Community College" for its hyper-diverse student population.
Curious, I asked what else about dark skin might suggest someone was African American? Responses ranged from wearing low-slung jeans and baseball caps, to dropping out of high school, and hanging out on the corner.
While the majority of my immigrant students could weigh in on why they considered African Americans less successful, Caribbean immigrants in particular were at pains to define themselves as separate from native born African Americans. Most discouraging was their de facto confidence that American blacks made poor decisions, and their lack of criticism of undeserved racist stereotyping.
I taught writing but felt my students needed an historical context to understand how black struggle and resistance had made so many of their immigrant aspirations, including a post-secondary education, possible. Indeed, how they came to have a black, immigrant woman as their professor.
Our text, Elizabeth Nunez's "Beyond the Limbo Silence," was set during the height of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. In the book, a Trinidadian student is one of only three black women at an all-girls college and she gradually awakens to the reality of American race relations and her place in the struggle.
We also watched several episodes of the PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize" with its unflinching images of Southern terror and racism against African Americans. While almost all the students knew of Dr. Martin Luther King and most of Rosa Parks, not many knew the West Indian backgrounds of civil-rights era activists like Stokely Carmichael and Malcom X.
I hoped to show an unbroken history of cooperation between Caribbean immigrants and African Americans reaching back to Marcus Garvey, examples of leaders who used their pre-immigrant background in black dominated societies as a strength to demand racial equality rather than as social advantage over African Americans. Especially because any immigrant advantage quickly fades.
In "Black Identities: West Indian Dreams and American Realities," sociologist Mary C. Waters describes the surprisingly swift transition (within one generation) from West Indian identification to Black American acceptance. By the second generation many black immigrants find they have become black Americans. The clipped cadences and other linguistic markers that once identified their parents as foreign have faded. Tight-knit enclaves have dispersed. The lack of taboo against intermarriage widens kinship beyond a single, home island identity.
Any edifice of difference continues to crumble in the face of undiscriminating racism. Caribbean immigrants fought for civil-rights, and they have also been victims in high-profile civil rights violations. A white mob chased Trinidadian born Michael Griffith to his death in the eighties. Police tortured Haitian Abner Louima at a precinct and shot another Haitian, Patrick Dorismond, both in the nineties.
More recently, unarmed Jamaican-American teenager Ramarley Graham was shot and killed in his own apartment. Law enforcement policies like racial profiling and broken windows arrests made clear how externally undifferentiated one black face was from another; no one asked from which island a black male hailed before a random stop and frisk.
Additionally, working and middle-class second generation West Indians find themselves victim to the same social problems plaguing African Americans. While some have reaped the benefits of diversity policies in higher education and employment, more find themselves priced out of Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn neighborhoods where their upwardly mobile parents and grandparents once aspired to home ownership. Frequently their zoned public schools are underfunded and lack arts and science programs.
More than ever, Caribbean immigrants recognize that solidarity with black Americans does not require rejection of their own culture and that sadly, the mantle of oppression spreads to accommodate ever more. The proudest immigrant identity can acknowledge the need for change in an American system that is racially biased—if not against you today, then against your children tomorrow. The immediacy of social media helps coalesce long existing racial strife into epic proportions impossible to ignore.
The space between "us" as West Indians and "them" as African Americans has collapsed.