Heritage alone doesn’t unite a divided people

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “All of your skinfolk are not your kinfolk.”

Nothing has made this saying truer than the divide among black Americans, Africans and Caribbean immigrants. Economic, social and cultural differences have resulted in tensions that involve all three groups. To outsiders, it might seem ridiculous for these three groups not to get along since their common ancestry can be traced to Africa – but something like lineage is not enough to unite a divided people.

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, there has been a 67 percent increase in citizens who identify themselves as Caribbean-born and a 167 percent increase in those who say they are “African-born.” Most Caribbean and African immigrants settle in urban areas already occupied by black Americans. Because of rising conflicts, sociologists want to understand the three groups’ relationship.

Economics is a significant problem affecting these groups. Black Americans already have to compete for jobs with the growing Hispanic population, so black Americans view African and Caribbean immigrants as an added economic threat. It is a belief among a number of black Americans that Caribbean and African immigrants will be favored when it comes to getting better jobs and educations because of their immigrant status.

Cultural differences are also a barrier. For instance, Africans who come to America don’t have the same concept of “black” that black Americans do. In Africa, there are so many ethnic groups that there is no one word they are grouped under. When most Caribbean and African immigrants come to America, they tend to distance themselves from the idea of being “black.” Both my grandfather and my father refuse to refer to themselves as black or African-American – both call themselves Jamaican. I have seen that when my father tells people he is Jamaican, he is treated differently than if he doesn’t mention it at all.

From the black American/African-/Caribbean-born estrangement have arisen some awful stereotypes and derogatory names. The media has been very instrumental when it comes to molding each group’s view of the other.

The movie Tarzan negatively portrayed Africans to be primitive, while people in Trinidad and Nigeria watch TV channels such as BET that show rap videos where black Americans glorify violence. Black Americans created the disparaging name “African booty scratcher” as a part of the stereotype that Africans have bad hygiene.

In the ’90s, the black sketch comedy show In Living Color had the “Hey Mon” skit that implied people from the Caribbean always had “tree jobs.” In the African Yoruba language, the word “Ikata” – which loosely translates to “cotton picker” – is an offensive name used for black Americans by some Africans. Then there is the belief by both African and Caribbean immigrants that black Americans are lazy, uneducated, irresponsible and violent.

Though the strength of these stereotypes has lessened, it is still a struggle to get all the groups to come together. I have experienced discrimination from Caribbean immigrants. I embrace my Jamaican heritage, but I never picked up my father’s accent and I don’t speak Patois. A few Jamaicans I have met would say that I wasn’t really Jamaican because I didn’t speak the language. They would also treat me differently from their other Jamaican friends because I was not “fully” Jamaican since my mother is from Georgia.

Growing up in a household that was bicultural allowed me to compare and contrast the two cultures. In many ways, black Americans and Caribbean-born people are similar. There was very little difference between my Jamaican aunt’s basement parties in D.C. and my mother’s southern family reunions in Georgia.

There are differences, however: My father is very traditional when it comes to the roles of men and women in a marriage. My mother is more of a product of American feminism, and believes a woman can work and a man can help take care of the household. These differences have caused conflict, but differing cultural backgrounds are not always the cause. The same conflicts could happen to a black American couple who had different upbringings.

At the end of the day, when it comes down to the larger American society that identifies and labels people, no one cares if your mother is from Haiti, your father is from St. Thomas or that you grew up in Namibia. In the eyes of many, you are black and nothing else matters. It is time to place differences aside, because there are more pressing issues affecting the black community. Picking at ethnic and cultural distinctions should be the last thing on a very long list of problems.

Shemir Wiles is a senior majoring in mass communications.