I’ve been in predominantly black spaces all my life. I go to a predominantly black school in a predominantly black neighborhood and come home to my all-black family. One might think this lack of “diversity” in my life deprives me of exposure to different perspectives. But this assumption fails to accurately capture my experience with blackness — namely, that every black person with whom I interact has had their own unique experiences, the influence of which transforms the way I think about the world and my identity.
All of my friends at school are black, so we relate to each other in that sense, but just barely. We recognize the similarities between us on the surface and know that the outside world sees us as all the same — a stereotypical monolith of kids who grow up too quickly, commit crimes for fun, and excel in nothing other than sports and entertainment.
But within our community, we know that being black means much more than that and that our understandings of and experiences with our blackness manifest in very different ways. When my friends and I talk about blackness, it’s clear that, to us, being black is neither easily understood nor does it have a single meaning at all. As someone from an immigrant family, my experience of blackness is an entirely different one from my African-American friends — an experience that often makes life feel like a battle that is impossible to win. Being part of the first generation of my family born in America further complicates things: Claiming this country as my own already feels difficult when it has oppressed people like me since its foundation, but being raised in a household that doesn’t feel American so much as it feels like a home on a Caribbean island makes it even more difficult for me to identify with America in anything other than a technical sense.
The differences in my black American friends’ experiences highlight this distinction. When my black American friends talk about being from Brooklyn, they speak of hip-hop and bodegas, of brownstones and tree-lined blocks. They don’t think of the particular pockets that West Indian people have created within those same neighborhoods, of the restaurants that sell our food, clubs that play our music, or stores that sell our clothing. If they do think of those things, they may speak of feeling alienated and confused by these environments. My friends who were born in America and who have American families identify with different music from their childhood — they talk about artists like Aretha Franklin, LL Cool J, Marvin Gaye, and Rick James, whereas my friends and I who grew up in West Indian households or were born in the West Indies remember musicians like Shabba Ranks, Beres Hammond, Beenie Man, and Super Cat.
Sometimes, pieces of our upbringings might be the same, but our different backgrounds have led us to experience those same things differently. We may have all watched shows like Martin or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but we have different memories about how they impacted us or which jokes were the funniest. We can all relate to the urge to search for black role models and hold on to them in hope of rising to success in a country that systematically oppresses us, but some hold on tighter to the ones who traveled across oceans to come here and still made their dreams come true.
Beyond cultural differences, some black Americans have very different day-to-day experiences due to their unique backgrounds. Many of my black American friends were told by their parents to behave themselves and come home on time because if anything goes wrong, they’ll get in more trouble than their nonblack friends. But unlike their black immigrant counterparts, those same friends were never told to also be on their best behavior because getting in trouble runs the risk of exposing their family’s or their own immigrant status. All my friends were told that there was more pressure on them to do well in school because we have to work twice as hard to get the opportunities that white students do, but my black American friends were never told that their families risked everything to come to this country and their academic success was the only thing they had to fall back on. When we talk about slavery in class, some of my friends feel tangible outrage while some of us feel like we’re not sure how we fit into the story, if we do at all. When racists tell us “Go back to your country,” we’re confused as to whether they’re referring to where our immigrant parents actually came from or somewhere in Africa, as if the country their family has been in for generations isn’t even theirs at all.
Making sense of my identity becomes even more complicated when I talk to my friends who were born in the West Indies but came here recently. At first, we can relate to each other’s food preferences, language, and culture. But at some point, there is an unexpected blockage. When they speak in their island’s native dialect, they might say something that I don’t understand because they’re more accustomed to speaking the language fluently. I might not know the names of specific fruits or foods like they do, and sometimes it feels like they are more authentic West Indians than I am and have more right to claim our native island than I do.
Often, I feel like I don’t belong with either native West Indians or black Americans. My black American friends have more security in this country, which legally claims them and their families, than I do, whereas the lines between my first-generation West Indian friends’ native and American backgrounds are frequently blurry and unpredictable to me.
I know that being black is a lot more than the color of my skin. I know that it’s deeper than my physical appearance and deeper than the stereotypes others have created and perpetuated. I know what blackness isn’t, but after being in predominantly black spaces for all 15 years of my life and being surrounded by different components of what makes up the elusive “black culture,” I’m also still trying to figure out what it is.
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