This past Saturday, I stood in front of my friend Megan, in Prospect Park, with tears streaming down my face, feeling open and raw as I shared with her the pain and hurt that I have been feeling around my experiences with discrimination and racism. I am Jamaican, black and living in America. Although I have lived in this country more years than I have lived in Jamaica, I had the privilege to experience what it meant to be a majority in terms of race there. I wasn’t judged or treated unfairly due to my skin color. People weren’t afraid of me before they got to know me. That was a privilege I took for granted.
I arrived in this country, to live here permanently, in my teens and was pretty sheltered all the way through college, I would say. With each possible experience with racism and discrimination in my twenties, I was a bit shaken but I think I bounced back quickly from all (but one of those experiences) because part of me believed that if I did the “right thing”, I would be spared the brunt of what happened to others who look like me (mainly my African-American brothers and sisters) have to go through. Somewhere, somehow, I was fed this lie that being a Caribbean black and educated would give me a pass. It was a subliminal belief. I have now come to realize that it was belief planted by people from my community, by the media and enforced by others who when they heard that I was Jamaican then placed me in the “model minority” category, reacting to me differently. “Oh, you’re from Jamaica, that’s why you have such a good command of the English language.” Yup, someone said that to me once.
So, what was the perceived “right thing”? Well, it is being formally educated — attending college, it’s speaking “properly”, it’s being eclectic in musical and reading tastes and mostly importantly, it is playing small. And in the space that I am to play big, it is only to create laughter and joy…not bring the heavy stuff.
These “right ways” of being have not, however, stopped me from being followed in stores, being assumed to be the maid in my neighborhood, have a potential roommate turn away from me once she saw me or not be able to get cabs, etc. This is compounded by how other people of color (some who share my skin tone or who are darker) treat me with disrespect and make assumptions about me because of I’m black. It doesn’t matter that I have a Masters, or that I served as an Americorps member. The constant tale of what it means to be black in this country prevails me. The fact that I am now informed of the injustices that occur (like this one and this one, and this one and this one) is often not helpful but darkens, a little more, the side of me that is becoming jaded. And yes, there are blacks who are racists, xenophobic, homophobic but the truth is I am not. The experiences that happened, happened to me. I have been treated unfairly for no other reason but the color of my skin…and although I may share, more than likely, the same education and income level of my white neighbors and yes, some of my Asian neighbors (who yes, face racism too but that model minority category lends a hand), it doesn’t matter. That was a hard reality for me to face.
After my conversation with Megan, I asked myself, what changed? I mean I have experienced racism before, why is it affecting me so much? And my answer, I have removed rose-colored glasses from my eyes.