OPINION: Reimagining the Caribbean Diaspora: diversity, equity and inclusion – by Lear Matthews

 by Lear Matthews

 This article focusses on the English speaking Caribbean Diaspora’s experience within the context of diversity, equity and inclusion in the aftermath of recent societal unrest and institutional realignment in the United States. Informed by a concern for social justice and cross-cultural dynamics, this writer unpacks how this population has been affected by the burden of racism and xenophobia. It highlights a continuation of courageous conversations on the topic (See Guyanese Online: February 20-21, 2021).            

Brief overview of labeling and its discontents

Upon entering a new society, the world view and values of immigrants are logically determined by their experience in the home country. However, regardless of self-identification most Caribbean immigrants are ‘placed’ within the stratified sub-culture of the host society as “people of color”, “black” or “brown people”. This designation is aligned with their “proximate group” i.e. the ethnic or racial category in the host society whose phenotype (physical appearance) most closely resembles their own. United States Vice-President Kamala Harris, an American citizen by birth of East Indian and Jamaican parentage is the embodiment of this phenomenon.

Mary Waters (OMR, vol. 28, no. 4,1994) submits that among first and second generation Caribbean immigrants identities are related to different perceptions and understanding of race relations and opportunities .They are generally indistinguishable from so-called minority groups because of their skin pigmentation. This sets the parameters of class/ethnic categories and the way in which these people are perceived and stereotyped – bearing the burden of discrimination such terms carry with it. Labeling and ‘othering’ conjure up stratified designation, but terms used do not fully capture the core of their identity. Jamaican writer Christopher Campbell expressing his experience as an international student states that it is important not to homogenize all people of color which distorts aspects of cultural identity development (Scholarworks.uvm.edu, vol. 38, 2015). Likewise, it is important to acknowledge one’s ancestry, but imprudent to use the term “black” to describe an entire race. The way in which members of the Caribbean Diaspora have had designated labels is informed by a history of global transmigration and geopolitics.

They have been referred to the “new blacks” in America where racial and ethnic identities intersect. Shourga Agarwal shared her conversation with a Nigerian national who argues that “Africans are not black….they are Igbo, Yoruba, Akan. They become black when they land in the Western world that chooses to see them that way.” (J.Medium.com/@SA). Such an assertion deserves attention in any conversation about culture, identity, race and immigration.

It can be challenging for Caribbean immigrants to cope with their racialized identity in a new environment. They come from countries where people of African and East Indian ancestry, struggling to sustain fledgling democracies are in the majority and where access and privilege are familiar attributes. However, the burden of racial labelling in North America is a stark reality they cannot escape. A person from the Caribbean may not wish to be referred to as ‘African American’, but takes pride in the ‘Black’ or ‘Brown’ designation since it aligns him/her with others who advocate for social justice. Others deliberately adjust their speech enunciation to disarm prejudice toward them. The “Black Power” and “Black Lives Matter” movements fostering participation of many from the Caribbean, have been a driving force for racial justice. Remarkably, Caribbean-American citizens increasingly comprise a substantial voting bloc in USA’s General and Statewide elections.

The U.S. Capitol insurrection reportedly fueled by “Trumpism” was not only a challenge to standards of democracy, but the manifestation of a perennial fear – the browning of America, which includes Caribbean and other immigrants of color. In contrast, racial justice, disavowing xenophobia and massive immigration reform tops the Biden administration’s promised policy changes. Caribbean immigrants are continuously asserting their ‘space’ through the merits of human capital contributions to reconcile their identity and desired place in what they expect of a just society. A “dual consciousness” so eloquently discussed by W.E.B. Dubois becomes part of their existential reality as they negotiate an “American, Canadian or British identity”. Once resettled, they form diaspora support networks sustaining their folk culture and transnational connections, while expecting the rights and privileges of naturalized, birthright citizenship or permanent residency in their adopted home. Caribbean immigrants must acknowledge the value of their cultural heritage and history, articulate their rights and collaborate with progressive efforts to fortify social justice. The responsibility for healing a nation transcends community, race, ethnicity, citizenship or immigration status.

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  • Sona Paul  On 02/23/2021 at 3:30 am

    We have a little problem with this article on the experience of English speaking Caribbean diaspora in the United States, whom the author classifies as black people. He seems to have forgotten a large number of the English speaking Caribbean diaspora who are not black people, meaning the Indo Caribbeans who by my estimate number at least half a million in the USA. There are approximately 400,000 Trinidadians and 600,000 Guyanese living in the USA and 1 million Jamaicans. My estimate is that at least half of the Trinis and Guyanese, or 500,000 are Indo Caribbeans and 34,000 of the Jamaicans, giving us 534,000 in the USA. I know they are outnumbered by the black Jamaicans, Trinis, Guyanese and others from the smaller nations, who are probably 1.75 million in the USA.
    So if the total from the English speaking Caribbean in the USA are 2.3 million, then the 534,000 Indo Caribbeans would be 23%, close to a quarter.
    I know some people like to see Indo Caribbeans as blacks, but I am quite certain most Indo Caribbeans in the USA don’t see themselves that way.
    All I am saying is that the comments made here about the experiences of English speaking Caribbean diaspora whom the author classifies as black, may be invalidated if close to a quarter of his group are not black.
    It is also quite disrespectful of him to ignore such a large group as 534,000 in his article. Black people always complain of being ignored and overlooked and it is quite embarrassing to see this black author doing the same to the Indians.

  • LM  On 02/23/2021 at 1:37 pm

    The author referred to the labels “black” and “brown” people, thus indeed includes East Indians from the Caribbean, who are referred to in NA as “brown people”.

  • LM  On 02/23/2021 at 5:37 pm

    The writer also refers to “people of color” which include East Indians. Also note the statement: “They come from countries where people of African and East Indian ancestry……….”
    I suppose that Sona Paul’s comment is viewed as part of the the “courageous conversation” we need to have..

  • Ron Saywack.  On 02/24/2021 at 4:05 am

    Ignorance is a more deadly pandemic than the coronavirus:

    We humans should strive to understand our long, intriguing, and illustrious history on the planet if we are to garner a better, more realistic understanding of the facts and to preserve our collective and mutual survival. There’s an old adage that says ‘when you know the truth, the truth shall set you free.’ It’s a daunting proposition but not impossible. It’s in our best interest to seek the truth!

    The study of humans falls under the broad field of anthropology of which there are four sub-categories: biological, cultural, linguistics, and archaeological. But, for brevity, I shall confine it to the biological (physical).

    Imagine if there were space travelers observing humans on Earth from a distance, say from the Moon, using powerful binoculars. They may not be able to tell if there are differences except that we do the same thing each day: going to work, or to school, taking care of our families, paying the bills and. occasionally, get on an airplane to visit another part of the planet.

    They would also observe us engaging in stupid internecine warfare and think we are just crazy – killing each other on a small piece of rock in a remote part of the Milky Way Galaxy. After all, we are one species though we may appear physically different.

    Cut to the chase:

    Our ancestral homeland is Mother Africa. Fact!

    From Africa, hundreds of thousands of years ago, some members of our community managed to travel on foot, or by dugout canoes, to all parts of the globe to form new homogeneous communities — where everyone shared similar goals and characteristics – skin color, hair color, eye color, etc.

    Those who migrated north to Europe gradually began to turn light-complected because of the reduction of the production of melanin in the dermis — melanin is a compound used by mother nature to protect us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays – in fact, there are three types of melanin. A byproduct of melanin is the darkening of the skin. It is for this reason that Africans who crossed over to the northern latitudes became light-skinned as less melanin was needed. Pure and simple.

    It is therefore not a coincidence that those residing near the Equator are dark and those closer to the poles are light. Nonetheless, we remain one race, the human race. We are also one species: Homo sapiens. Our nearest extant cousins are the chimpanzees – Pan troglodytes. Our other cousins, Homo erectus and Homo neandertalensis are extinct, the former more than a million years ago, and the latter, 40,0000 years ago.

    Due to the fact that our ancestors did not travel far from home the natural corollary is, they shared similar traits and features to form homogeneous (similar) societies, at first from a small number which grew exponentially into millions over time. For example, the Chinese, the Indians (of India), and the Europeans (the former Africans). all began as small groups.

    With the advent of steamships, homogeneous societies began to migrate to distant lands to form heterogeneous (dissimilar) communities far from home. For example, those who sailed from Europe, Asia, and Africa to the Americas. Today, air travel has been instrumental in the rapid amalgamation of numerous heterogeneous societies across the globe.

    In the final analysis, we humans are a wandering species. It is in our nature to reach for distant destinations. It is also in our nature to harbor resentment to change. But change is necessary. As the world’s population explodes, our very survival on the planet will be threatened and thus we may be left no choice but to reach for the stars, our final frontier.

    Ron Saywack.

  • LM  On 02/24/2021 at 4:18 pm

    Ron, your points are well taken. However, as I understand it the writer is making an interesting and nuanced argument about identity that seems to me to be important. My understanding of his question: is it possible to continue to identify as a member of a distinct culture (ethnic identity) and at the same time understand oneself as part of a broader coalition of people fighting together for social justice? Or, even while one is being stereotyped and pushed into an identity (such as “Black” or “Brown”) that is based on systems of discrimination (and that is basically inaccurate), can one take up the cause of freedom and social justice (the double consciousness” orientation)?

  • wally n  On 02/24/2021 at 6:25 pm

    Glad you guys cleared that up, things should start running better….now?

  • Aubrey Bonnett  On 02/25/2021 at 4:46 pm

    This is a well written and constructed article Dr Matthews must be commended for demonstrating the inner challenges Caribbean immigrants and even they first and second generation face in a Black America constituency-especially Now

    • Brother Man  On 02/25/2021 at 6:24 pm

      Crazy stuff.

      All things are relative! Someone probably has too much time on hand!

      Brother Man

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