Dahlia Walker-Huntington | A Jamaican in America – race and identity
Growing up in Jamaica, I was politically and culturally savvy for a teenager, but I was woefully ignorant about race. My father and mother were black, and my maternal grandmother lived and died in Cuba. Both my grandmothers could ‘pass’ for white, while both my grandfathers were very dark-skinned. My two brothers are Jamaican-Chinese as their father was from China. I went to high school in the 1970s at Alpha Academy, where maybe one-third of the school was Jamaican-Chinese, and we had students from every colour, ethnicity, and socio-economic background. My multi-ethnic upbringing in Jamaica in the 1970s was not extraordinary because, after all, ‘Out of many, one people’.
It was not until I moved to Miami in 1979 at age 18, and really until the 1990s did I fully appreciate the richness of the racial and ethnic diversity that I grew up with being Jamaican and took for granted. When my father died in 1996 and my African-American friends commented on the diversity of my Jamaican friends and my family at his funeral, I stopped to take in the richness of my heritage.
Walking down the streets in South Florida where I have lived 42 years in America, all anyone sees when I am coming is a Black woman. They do not know if I was born in Atlanta, Georgia; or Kingston, Jamaica. Until I tell someone that I am Jamaican-American (or lose my temper and the Patois start flying) they would not know, and they interact with me as a Black woman.
I have known the pressure, the prejudices and pride of being a black, immigrant woman in America. My Jamaican background makes me experience race in America in a much different way than a Black person whose parents and grandparents were born here. Coming from a country where Black people are in the majority and the various ethnic groups live together under the Jamaican flag, I was not raised under laws designed to keep me segregated and suppressed. I also came to America at a time when overt racial tensions had subsided except for flare-ups after incidents of injustice, but systemic racism always existed. However, in the last 12 years I have seen the resurgence of blatant racism – escalating right around the time Barack Obama became president.
RISE OF WHITE SUPREMACY
The rise of Donald Trump undoubtedly fanned the flame of white supremacy and cut me to my core when I saw Jamaicans of all colours and ethnicities support him. While outright racism surged during the Trump years, institutional racism, unconscious bias, and misogynoir have always existed in America. Trump gave fuel to the fire and allowed it to rage openly. Some immigrants told themselves that when Trump and others of his ilk disparage black, brown or Asian people – they are not talking about us Jamaicans. You deceive yourself if you think that on the street when viewed by a white supremacist – they are somehow going to know or think of you an immigrant of colour as one of ‘them’.
As I watch the increasing explicit hatred towards Asian people since the COVID-19 pandemic, I cringe at the random attacks against young and old simply for being. Tuesday’s massacre at three Asian spas in the Atlanta area brings everything home. The women who were killed were not identified as ‘individuals’ until several days later. However, the insinuations immediately went to sexualise and dehumanise them. They were immigrants like me, like us Jamaicans. Two of them lived in the spas where they worked. We do not know how they came to be in America, but I assure you they were here for the same reasons 99.9 per cent of us came – for the promise of the American dream. That somehow if they worked hard, they could make it in America; they could be safe; that they could ‘send for’ their families; that the next generation could rise above the degradation and humiliation that they were experiencing to have a fulfilled life.
All of us who come to America voluntarily come for the hope of new beginnings. Africans came here forcibly and suffered the scourge of slavery which continues to be one of America’s greatest sins. Laws during and after slavery were designed to suppress the voices and spirits of Black people in America. News flash for some Black immigrants who think they are different – these laws were and are meant for you, too. Just look at the onslaught of proposed laws in state legislatures across this country in 2021 to reduce Black people’s access to voting.
It is necessary that immigrants learn the history of black and immigrant oppression that is part of America’s history if you want yourself and your children to thrive. Living in a bubble or thinking that ‘they’ don’t include ‘me’ in their racist rants will not serve you well. Yes, we come to America and we excel but we need to examine and understand why and prepare for how we and our children are perceived. We come with a different mindset, different history, and determination; but we are often blinded to the realities that African Americans experienced, the vestiges of slavery and the indignities suffered to make the way for us to come here and succeed.
This experiment that is America needs everyone of us and we must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers – the dream of “All men are created equal” remains unfulfilled. Make no mistake, this country offers unparalleled opportunities that draws people from the world over, some of whom risk life and limb to get here. The vice-president of the United States is a first-generation American, the daughter of a South Asian (Indian) mother and a Black Jamaican father. In America, in one generation, that a Black woman rose to the second-highest position in the land is remarkable, and along with all the achievements of Jamaicans in America fills me with unbounded pride.
I see myself in the six Asian women who were massacred in Atlanta this week because I am an immigrant, and I am a woman. I see my Asian friends and family in those women and worry for their safety as they walk the streets of this country because of racist stereotypes over which they have no control – they just are who they are. We all are the colour and race we are born with, those indelible imprints that we should all celebrate in each other.
Dahlia Walker-Huntington is a Jamaican-American attorney who practises Immigration law in the United States; and Family, Criminal & International law in Florida. She is a mediator and former Special Magistrate & Hearing Officer in Broward County, Florida. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org