Who Are We, to Us? Disparaging Views of Blackness Through Black Lenses

Recently, my older sister and I went to a casual dinner party my father was hosting in our home. As usual, everyone at the party was of Jamaican heritage and Black. After dinner, many of us gathered around the table to select our choice of dessert or wine. It was around this moment when a gentleman at the table pridefully stated that his son, who recently moved to America from Jamaica (he was also at the table), had started college in Boston and within the first month got himself “yet another White girlfriend.” At that moment my sister and I gazed at each other, acknowledging the thorny potential implications of the man’s qualifying “yet another.” The man beckoned to his son to show the other guests a picture of the girl, and with an unusual swiftness and ostensible pride, the boy passed a photo around the table. My sister and I have no problem with interracial relationships; it is our opinion, rather, that a problem arises when Black people distinctly refuse to date within the race. It was then that my sister, the more outspoken of the two of us, posed a question to the boy that changed the course of the night.

The debate my sister’s question would provoke led me to consider a discussion that I believe Black people living in America must have with themselves. That discussion is how to deal with a portion of the community’s proclivity to draw a distinction between itself and other Black people in an attempt to gain favor with White America. This process enables certain groups of Black people to deem themselves better than the others based on justifications that ultimately rely on racist notions originating in White supremacist ideology. Such processes of distinction can be achieved by, but are not limited to, class status, ethnicity, and, unfortunately, hue. These three methods of distinction are all reprehensible, but this post will focus on the inherent problems associated with drawing a distinction based on culture.

As the American-born son of Jamaican immigrants, I experienced a cultural duality throughout my upbringing. My parents insulated me within the local Jamaican community as essentially all of the friends of our family were Jamaican-bred. At the same time, however, I was discovering my own iteration of what it meant to be an African American in school. This duality became ingrained in my identity over time. Although I came to greatly appreciate my Jamaican heritage, I grew into my own and considered myself primarily as a young African American man. However, as I began to develop my own personal philosophy, I started to become more and more cognizant of the problematic notions the overwhelming majority of Jamaican people in my life retained about the African American community. In this post, I will describe the anti-Blackness in the Black diaspora that I have witnessed. Notably, the extremity of the phenomenon I will describe herein is based on my own anecdotal experience. Nevertheless, I have heard anti-Black notions consistently communicated in many different settings.

For added context, the island of Jamaica was subject to British colonialism for well over two hundred years until the people achieved independence in 1962. Nonetheless, the remnants of colonial rule still retain social, economic, and political weight. Owing to the twinned legacies of slavery and postemancipation colonialism, the country has been dominated economically by non-Black people. In fact, although it is little more than 1 percent White, Jamaica continues to be saddled with socioeconomic stratification that is often correlated with complexion: Jamaicans with a lighter complexion hold the positions of authority, whereas the bottom half of society consists largely of darker-skinned people. This correlation between lighter skin color and socioeconomic preeminence is historically tied to the wealth of White colonizers who procreated with Black islanders. Setting aside skin color, there are people of all hues from and on the island who have opted to deal with the circumstance of anti-Blackness by approximating themselves to various tenets of Whiteness.

The question my sister posed to the college boy was whether he only dated White women and, if so, why? The mood in the room immediately shifted. He responded by stating that, indeed, he only dates White women because he relates to them much more than he does to Black women. Perplexed, my sister then asked, “How does a Jamaican immigrant relate more to White American women than to Black women in America?” He stated that African Americans, in general, have a victim mentality and are essentially solely responsible for their socioeconomic status in America. Although I was not surprised by his sentiment as I had heard it many times before, I was disgusted. My choice of silence on the matter ended there. I asked the young man to elaborate. He stated that African Americans (who, if they were considered together as a country, would possess the eleventh-largest economy in the world) are not economically successful because they are overwhelmingly lazy, expect handouts from the government, and would rather complain than take action. Also at the table were two other men who had let everyone know that they went to Harvard in a prior conversation. In hindsight, these men, who were also closely engaged in the conversation but had responded to the boy’s claims with silence, should have indicated to me their tacit approval. This approval was now confirmed when the two men chimed in on the argument by providing an example in support of the man’s hypothesis, stating that Jamaican immigrants are more successful than the average African American. The men cited Jamaicans’ superior mindset, a mindset that prevents them from succumbing to White oppression in the United States.  Instead of having a “victim” mindset, the men suggested, their “victor” mindset essentially supersedes any outside attempt to oppress them. At last, I thought, all Black people around the globe have to do is change their mindset and immediately their universal oppression will dissolve into thin air!

One week later, I traveled across the country to stay with my cousin and my aunt, both of whom are Jamaican-born. I was still quite bothered by the conversation at the party, so I decided to share with them the absurdity of the arguments I had heard. I presumed my aunt, a Rhodes scholar, and my cousin, who holds a PhD, would be able to find the fault in the claims presented by the men at the party. I was wrong. Both my cousin and my Aunt affirmed and recapitulated the opinions that I had just argued against. My cousin depicted African Americans as “stuck,” unable to envision or seek out an upward economic path that can lead them to social mobility—as if that is some sort of requirement in life (and as if many White people, for instance in the Rust Belt, have not felt content to work in the same factories as their grandparents). My aunt, the Rhodes Scholar, took up the mantle of Jamaican superiority, asserting that Jamaicans have a can-do mindset. Her evidence was that it has just been her experience.

What I found to be the link that existed between these people making these arguments was this: a lack of knowledge about or a mischaracterization of predatory policies throughout American history and their racist implications.

As I attempted to make sense of these sentiments of distinction, I noticed a collective ignorance merged with a considerable amount of anti-Blackness. The sentiments I heard at family gatherings are taken right out of the anti-Black playbook and are often utilized to smear African Americans and justify their continued oppression. Practically, all of these claims ignore the countless methods of state-sanctioned oppression that have injured and still continue to injure the Black community. What I found to be the link that existed between these people making these arguments was this: a lack of knowledge about or a mischaracterization of predatory policies throughout American history and their racist implications. When I tried to counter anti-Black claims, this ignorance became apparent. Additionally, the anti-Black sentiments were often advanced based on logical fallacies. The college student who only dates Whites, for example, applied blanket statements (Blacks are lazy, rely on the government, complain rather than act) to the entire African American community. Both he and my cousin falsely implied that those qualities are not found in comparable numbers among other racial groups in the United States. The “victim mentality” claim is arguably the most sickening because it subtly invalidates centuries of oppression and the suffering that continues to occur as a direct result. These claims are disrespectful and dishonorable.

Unfortunately, anti-Black ideology is not limited to Black people from Jamaica. It would be impossible for me to enumerate here all of my experiences with Black people expressing these opinions, which I have heard voiced by people from other Caribbean islands as well as many different countries in Africa. I have discussed this phenomenon with many Black people, people of all backgrounds and shades, and from all over the world, who have shared their various stories on the subject. Additionally, many different media outlets have discussed the widespread existence of Black anti-Blackness. It exists and must be addressed.

Presumably, the aim of Black people who accept these mistruths is to become respectable and paint themselves to White America as the good ones. The problem with this crabs-in-a-barrel approach (one crab climbs up, the rest drag it down) is that it generally does not work. It is also divisive. No attainment of distinction can prevent Blacks from interfacing with White violence or oppression. The police didn’t ask Tamir Rice or Botham Jean if they were Caribbean. And it will not eradicate barriers strategically set in place to keep all Black people from voting or deny them a loan from the bank. Instead, this distinguishment furthers the degrading and false racist tropes that contribute to the death, suffering, and displacement of Africans living in America.

Stephen Neilson is a graduate student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. He is a graduate of Morehouse College, where he studied Political Science and Sociology. He is interested in topics that range from Black liberation to political theory, environmental policy, and the history of the Caribbean.

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