The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my abandoned dissertation. Yep, I'm one of those statistics :).
As a boy on a little island in the Caribbean, I sang songs: “eenie meenie minie mo, catch a nigger by the toe...” or “Coolie coolie come for roti all de roti done; when de nigger crack de gun, all the coolie run.” Playfully, in fun, without a trace of malice, shame, or consciousness, I sang these songs. While singing these songs, I knew in some vague way, on some barely conscious level, that I and others of African descent (not that I could articulate that then) belonged to the group “Nigger” and that those of East Indian descent belonged to the group “Coolie.”
Interestingly, even then, I was profoundly interested in “Coolies,” their customs, their foods, their appearance, etc., and couldn’t understand why my cousins would want to throw rocks at Indian kids, or fight them without any provocation. I also found the distant “White” kids, the rich American “Black” kids, the quiet Chinese kids, and kids from anywhere else much more interesting than others who were not much different from me. I didn’t question that interest when I was a boy growing up on that little island. I didn’t wonder how those interests made me different, and I didn’t know that much later those interests could be perceived as a reflection of my self, my identity. My life in various domains in the United States has taught me even more about difference and identity.
To The Promised Land
In 1971, at age eleven, my family immigrated to Brooklyn, New York. Puerto Ricans, Jews, Jamaicans, Italians, African Americans, Africans...A virtual smorgasbord of humanity co-existed in the several blocks that comprised my neighborhood. During my two-plus years in Brooklyn, I realized just how important and dangerous difference could be. “He ain’t Black; he’s Jamaican” I heard African American children sneer. “That White Jew-boy can’t play no ball” I would hear the kids on the play ground say. Most of the playground battles I had were because I was perceived as different by kids who valued sameness.
I learned to speak a little Spanish, I learned to speak a little Jamaican, and to name the various cities where I might be from in these different places. I had no problem being a member of any of these groups because it meant that there were kids with whom I could play. It meant less fights that I would have to have. Funny, although there were many more “White” kids in close proximity than there ever was on my little island, I had much less contact, actually no contact with “White” kids while in Brooklyn. That’s just the way it was there. Although there was some antipathy among all the various groups, there was absolutely no interaction (unless it were violent) between the various groups of color, regardless of their origins, and White groups. It was there and then that I began to learn the importance of the distinctions between “Black” and “White”, between light and dark , and the difference between “American” and foreigner.
Learning From Serving
As a young man I joined the United States Marine Corps. There, I was told that the only color that was important was the color green. Yet, there was an obvious difference in the way “Dark Green” and “Light Green” Marines were treated. It was then, when I asserted to a commanding officer that “Dark Green” Marines had the right to shake hands however they pleased without having to be mocked by “Light Green Marines”, and ended up in correctional custody a short while thereafter, that I truly came to experience the significance of skin color, and to internalize the racialization that characterizes social relations in the united States. I became “anti-White” despite the fact that my best friend in Boot Camp happened to be of European descent.
While on tour in Okinawa and Korea, it became clear to me that the system of racialization and the identities that stem from such a system were as far flung as were human societies. In both countries, the “Black-White” dichotomy was evident as it was apparent that some citizens of those countries would not associate with “Whites” while others would not associate with “Blacks.” Through interactions with individuals from various parts of the world, I learned that “Black” and “White”, light and dark, impacted the identities of individuals all over the world.
I believe that it was during my years of undergraduate study at a small, private New England university that I began to relate questions of difference, color, culture, and behavior, directly to notions of identity. On one occasion, a European American woman whom I had befriended remarked that I “wasn’t really Black.” When pressed for her rationale for the comment, she had a hard time explaining. Essentially, my friend had decided that because I didn’t fit the identity criteria she had set for members of the group “Black” that I was not a member. Although I met the skin color criterion, apparently, I didn’t behave as “Blacks” behaved. At the time, I, maintaining a “Black” identity, was somewhat offended by her assertion.
As the only “Black” member of the tennis team at my alma mater, an institution sparsely populated by people of African descent, I had to share living quarters with individuals of European descent. I also was the only person of African descent at most of our dual meets and tournaments. I was never certain whether the attention I drew was primarily because of my ability or my difference. Yes, I was different from them, and I felt as though my teammates, my coach and my opponents attributed my different ways of being to my skin color. But then, very seldom were those feelings verbally confirmed. As suggested in the opening piece, one is usually left to wonder.
As a youth, and as I have pursued my lot as an adult, my facility with languages and accents has allowed me to maintain relatively flexible identities. This has both minimized and maximized interaction difficulties which frequently stem from identity perceptions. It has minimized difficulties in that others within particular communities have often assumed that I am a member of their group, and thus have accepted me, interacting with me as though I were one of their own. And in a sense, they have not been inaccurate, for I have been as much a member of their group as of any other.
Conversely, one difficulty brought on by this “passing” is that from time to time, and in specific contexts I have been compelled to acknowledge that I was not a member of the group in quite the way others had assumed I belonged. At times others have found this acknowledgment problematic. My ability to maintain a fluid identity status also has been problematic because others assume that I maintain attitudes, values, and ways of being which they ascribe to the group in which they have placed me. Often, I do not maintain those attitudes, values, and ways of being that have been attributed to me.
It has been quite fascinating to observe the changes in those others who had assumed I belonged to a particular group, when they were appraised of the fact that I was not in fact a member of the group in which they had placed me. Being of African descent primarily (I must acknowledge that due to my skin color, light skinned, I obviously am also of European descent), and quite comfortable speaking in vernacular most closely associated with African Americans, I am usually identified as an African American. Asserting that I am not African American when labeled as such by European Americans often results in the labeler apologizing and expressing embarrassment at the misnomer. To make the same assertion to an African American who has mislabeled me often fosters a response that indicates a modicum of resentment, along with accusations that I (representing all those of African descent from the Caribbean) think I am better than African Americans. At the very least, I get, “So you’re one of those.”
In the case of European Americans, I wonder if they are apologizing simply for the mistake, or for including me in what they may consider a low status group. I wonder if they are embarrassed because they fear that I might think that they lump all people of African descent together. In the case of African Americans, I wonder if they feel tricked, as though I were impersonating an ingroup member, when in fact I am a member of an outgroup in their eyes? In any event, my identity is caught in a crucible of skin color, language and other cultural markers, and place of origin.
Different as a child, different as an adult, I am still different. Alike in some ways to members of various groups, yet different enough to create doubt in the minds of those attempting to categorize me. I think differently, feel differently, act differently from most others. I ask different questions, propose different ways of viewing things, choose different modes of being from most in my environment. And, it doesn’t matter what their skin color, what their place of origin, what their gender, etc. As a matter fact, I find that I have as many things in common with people of disparate colors and ethnicities as with any single racialized or ethnic group. I have as much in common with women as I do with men, as much in common with children as adults, as much with rich as I do poor.