Though born in the United States and brought up in a West Indian household, I grew up oblivious to the unspoken tension between black people from the United States and black people born in the West Indies or Africa.
Although I have a West Indian family, I've always identified more with Black American culture. I read books written by black Americans, I listened to black American music, and I didn't speak like my West Indian family. (Although “cheups” was always my staple expression of annoyance.) What's more, I hadn't noticed much of the shade thrown my way when my cousins would say "you're so American!"
Recently a WBLS Facebook post mentioned something about West Indians vs. African Americans. A skim through the antagonizing comments section (“African Americans are lazy” or West Indians “need to go back to their country”) revealed a prejudice between the two groups I only previously noticed between light skinned people of color and dark skinned people of color.
Immediately I thought to condemn the hostility and deem it a reflection of the old "divide and conquer" tactic of separating black people.
Even though I wanted to be dismissive, I turned to Google to see just how widespread these ideas are.
I came across a person, Yashaya, who said on a Topix forum that his wife's cousin was "insulted" when she was referred to as African American. A commenter said that she wouldn't be insulted, but she wouldn't like to be called African American because it forces her to deny her culture as a Caribbean woman.
I hadn’t reflected on it much but Black Americans, Africans, and West Indian people have distinctly different cultures. We have different languages, different dialects, different foods, different religious backgrounds, different politics, and different way of dress. Although we are all members of the black diaspora, we needn’t deny our cultural identities. But affirming our identities doesn’t mean that we need to view ourselves as separate. Just because I’m black and also a woman doesn’t mean that I separate myself from another black person who is also a man. Our identities aren’t exactly the same, but as people of color, we ought to unite under what binds us together.
Typical stereotypes attributed to West Indian or African people are arrogant, “uppity,” and ignoring what native blacks have built and endured in America; stereotypes attributed to black Americans are: lazy and relying on the government too much for assistance.
So what could lead to all the penned up animosity we have towards each other?
According to Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities by Marcy C. Waters, West Indians who come to the U.S are generally more successful than American born black people.
“[West Indians] are more likely to be employed, less likely to be on public assistance, and more likely to have husband-wife two-earner households.”
But there are several theories to explain this outcome—one is institutionalized slavery.
“Authors who stress cultural differences between African Americans and West Indians as explanations for the latter’s success point to a difference in the historical conditions of slavery and freedom in the Caribbean and the United States,” writes Waters.
As Beverly Forde points out in her article at Madame Noire, people of color are their own leaders in the Caribbean, therefore it's easy to think that hard work and education is all a person of color needs to succeed in America. White privilege is dismissed and as a result, black Americans are viewed as lazy and unwilling. “African-American women have a different experience. Many are grappling with classism and racism, a hope-killing combo,” Forde writes.
Forde suggests tips to ease tensions between African American women and West Indian women. Though she focuses on women, her ideas have validity across gender lines. In addition to realizing “the role oppression has played” in the Black American perspective, Forde says that generalizations and jealousy needs to end.
“Our cultural backgrounds do lend themselves to different perks. For example, many countries in the Caribbean don’t offer credit cards or student loans. So Black American women do have the ability to do things that Caribbean women don’t, such as, finance education. Still, hustling does evoke a sense of pride. That said some West Indian women who have worked their tails off to make through school or to start a business might carry themselves with a sense of accomplishment.”
So what’s the solution? To quote Jay-Z here, let’s not make “snap judgments” about each other.
Race is part of the American experience, and constantly putting each other down for cultural identities in addition to lighter or darker complexions do nothing to progress the social, economic, and political stance of black people in America.
Has your identity as an African American, West Indian, or African person in America ever brought on negative comments or stereotypes?