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Of race and identity in America

 

By an Undocumented Alien

 

Ever since I moved to Miami I sensed the tension between people of different races but could never put my finger on it.

 

Reading Jet magazine in Jamaica was part of what of instilled some of my perception of race. The magazine was filed with incidents of racism and I initially thought that was the way things were in America.

 

My visits to America did not seem to prove my hypothesis based on Jet. I would learn that visiting and living in a place is two different things.

 

Miami had all different types of people from all over the world. My first experience was with a Puerto Rican gentleman who sat beside me on the bus one afternoon. He was upset because another gentleman called him Cuban. What was even more surprising is when he said he was black. Based on the way he looked he seem like a white person.

 

There were some culture clashes between countries but the tension between black people and white Americans was more defined.

 

As with many Jamaican immigrants I knew I had developed a stereotype of African Americans on moving to America: they did not like to work, wore plenty of gold on their bodies including their teeth and that they never take advantage of great opportunities they have living in America.

This stereotype was galvanized somewhat by the men in the neighborhood including my pal Tim.

 

I also had a stereotype for white Americans, which came from experiences including watching MTV during the day and also from some of the things you would hear from the black Americans in the neighborhood: they love rock music; they drove big trucks and have no dancing rhythm.

 

My new job would become my school on race relations. My friend Damien was white but it was never really an issue for me.

 

There was also a cashier, named Maryann, on my first shift who I had developed a friendship with and liked.

 

If I were the "real me" I would probably try to "check her". I was there an hour before my shift started and she was there waiting on a ride so we would talk. In fact she was the only girl there who really talked like a mature person. She was white.

 

   

 

The fact is I had white, Chinese, and Indian classmates at high school in Jamaica. I grew up around different shades of relatives.

 

Damian and I were very playful. He loved physical horse play like throwing stuff or "high fiving". He even took me home a few times on his bike, even though I never told Aunt Fern .

 

I noticed that the black and white workers barely horse-played amongst themselves. They kept to their own group. I soon learned that my friendship with Damian was somewhat of a taboo.

 

It all came out one day when Damien and one the drive-through cashiers, Shauntell, had a dispute where I tried to be peacemaker. The drive-through was 'backed up' and she blamed Damien for being slow in making her customer sandwiches.

 

Then she said something that caught me off guard and changed my view on race relations forever:

 

"That cracker only looks out for that cracker cashier up front and all them other cracker that work here. He does give a d… about my black a...(butt) or any other black up in here.”

 

I knew she was wrong. The grill was not working well and that was why there was a back up. I tried to explain this to her. That’s when she got mad.

 

She was using swear words that even men in Jamaica would not dare use. She accused me of sucking up to white people like a house-slave because I was a 'redbone'.

 

"I heard about you and that white girl," she said.

 

She went on to say why we Jamaicans think we are not black and that we steal jobs from black Americans: "I heard that all you Jamaican men want is long hair girlfriends’, that's why you're into them crackers."

 

There is no way I could match her in “tracing”. All I said was “You are wrong”.

 

I walked "her out" but my mind was racing a mile a minute. That day I woke up to race relation in America.

 

  

   Miami minus the picturesque seafront and bikini babes

 

I was shocked and angered at her accusations. I just never understood how black Americans call each other 'niggers' but scream racism if a white person says it even in a similar manner. A word I thought should never be used.

 

My anger had me questioning myself. Do I think that Jamaicans were better than African Americans?

 

I started to reflect on what was racism. That day took me on a journey to learn more about America. I joined the library that was close by Aunt Fern’s house and borrowed books on black American history.

 

I would read the books on the way to work. One day, while I was on the bus reading, an older black man sat beside me and started to peer over at my book. He noticed book I was reading and soon started talking about racism and black history. It would be a conversation I would never forget and I learned a great deal.

 

He realized that I was not American and said it was commendable that I was learning black history. He also said something that was surprising.

 

Black history is not well taught in schools and young African Americans growing up today show no interest in learning about the struggle against rabid racism by the older generation.

 

He explained to me what it was like living in the American South back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

 

The stories were gut wrenching but the one that touched me was the one about his sister. She had fallen in a lake but still had a pulse. They had rushed her to the closest hospital but were turned back because it was "whites only". His parents then rushed her to the “colored" hospital which was 10 miles away. They made it and the doctors were able to save her, however, she suffered irreversible brain damages.

 

The painful look in his eyes was something that I will never forget and every time I hear of racism it is the story that comes to mind.

 

Learning about black history and racism in America was enlightening but nothing compares to the real life experiences. The one thing that was obvious to me as I learned more was the distrust between black and white Americans that probably could be solved with some frank "no nonsense" honesty.

 

Even though the comments by Shauntell hurt it did not deter me from the friendship I had with Damien and Maryann or other white people. It did however prompt me to learn and gain a better understanding of being black in America.

 

I also learned how untrue many of the stereotypes I had about African Americans were.

 

With thanks to Jamaicans.com where this piece was initially posted.

 

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