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The Marginalization of Jamaican Immigrants of Color in the United States: An Interview 

Toni Fuss Kirkwood

Among the more recent immigrant groups in the United States are those emigrating from the third largest island nation of the West Indies, Jamaica. Over the seventeen years from 1980 to 1997, the number of Jamaicans living in the United States rose from 196,000 to 397,000. Approximately one-fourth have chosen South Florida as their place of residence.1

Jamaican culture in the modern era clearly demonstrates the legacies of African slavery, European colonization, and concentrated immigration from Asia and the Middle East. As a result, Jamaicans claim complex ethnic identities and familial histories. After emigrating to the United States, many Jamaicans of color find that although the world’s largest and most diverse democracy offers many opportunities, assimilation and acceptance into mainstream U.S. society are fraught with challenges as well.

I learned about this from a colleague and friend, Dr. Angela Rhone, who was born in Kingston and attended the Ardenne Grammar School in her native country before emigrating to the United States. Dr. Rhone holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English Education, and a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of North Carolina at Greensborough. She is currently Assistant Professor of Multicultural Education in the College of Education at Florida Atlantic University. She has lived in the United States for over twenty years, interspersed with regular trips “back home.”

The following interview focuses on the complex issues faced by Jamaican immigrants of color in the United States. It explores the marginalization of African Jamaican immigrants as they attempt to adjust to life in a new country. It also sheds light on tensions that exist both among Jamaican immigrants and between Jamaican immigrants of color and African Americans. Dr. Rhone further elaborated on some of these issues after the original interview.

Why do Jamaican immigrants of color feel marginalized in the United States? Isn’t marginalization true of all immigrant groups that have come here?

History demonstrates that American society, in many instances, is anti-foreign and anti-immigrant toward certain groups. Whereas the white immigrant will have assimilated by the second or third generation, Jamaican immigrants of color cannot. One can argue, therefore, that our marginalization is complicated by the color of our skin. It is a matter of being black and West Indian in America.

 

Is this the only distinguishing factor in the marginalization of Jamaicans of color?

No. In contrast to the Haitian and Cuban immigrant, marginalization of Jamaicans of color is compounded by their choice to be able to return home. Whereas Cubans and Haitians are fleeing for either political or economic reasons and are destined to stay in their country of refuge, the Jamaican immigrant of color goes home several times a year. He/she straddles two countries. However, this is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives the Jamaican a sense of empowerment; on the other hand, some Jamaican immigrants of color are perceived as acting arrogant … as not being serious about the race issue in America.

 

Are Jamaicans of color not making an attempt to assimilate into the larger
American society?

Yes and no. Some Jamaicans living in America choose to stay within the Jamaican enclave in their host country. They prefer to live among each other and isolate themselves from the dominant culture. Other Jamaicans reach out to the larger society, form friendships across ethnic lines, and, most importantly, raise their children in a diverse environment. A negative consequence of choosing to remain within our ethnic enclave brings tension among Jamaicans themselves. A positive outcome is that the ethnic enclave provides a safe haven in which we feel protected.

 

Please describe the tension among Jamaicans living in the United States.

Many of us continue to perpetuate the idea of social class in America. It is a legacy inherited from the English that existed in Jamaica before we came to this country. As a result, we bring to America a more class-conscious than color-conscious perspective. One solution for some Jamaican immigrants of color is to stay close to their families and to remain within their social class. This condition, however, reinforces the marginalization of both groups.

Are there other factors that add to the Jamaican marginalization in America?

The arrival of Jamaican immigrants of color in the United States also brings tension between them and African Americans. We all know that people of color struggle in America. This is not new. What is difficult for many to understand is that the relationship of Caribbean immigrants of color—especially Jamaican immigrants—and African Americans is full of conflict and struggle. It is a black against black issue.

African Americans and Caribbean people of color share a common ancestry. Slavery took us to the United States, the Caribbean, South America, and other places in the world. The consequences of this are the result of the “divide and conquer” attitude that was skillfully organized from the outside. For example, this tension is manifested in Haitians feeling superior to Trinidadians, Trinidadians feeling superior to Jamaicans, Jamaicans feeling superior to African Americans, and each group feeling threatened by each other in its tenuous economic, political, and social struggle in America.

I must emphasize that the marginalization of Jamaican immigrants of color is underscored by deeper issues of an economic, political, social, and educational nature. When one looks at groups of African ancestry in America one should ask: Who benefits from this divisiveness among people of African ancestry? In whose interest is it being perpetuated? For what purpose is it being done? And, what is being done to alleviate the problem?

 

Many Jamaicans in this country speak excellent English. Is command of the “Queen’s English” an asset for Jamaican immigrants in accommodating to U. S. society?

Yes, for those of us who speak it. English is Jamaica’s national language. Many of us were encouraged in our homes to speak the “Queen’s English.” Proper English was an avenue to success, while patois was downplayed. These Jamaicans have been educated in a Jamaican traditional grammar school where English is rigorously taught throughout one’s entire school life.

The Jamaican grammar school is the ticket to success in Jamaica and abroad. It is the entree to America, Canada, England, and South Florida. There are 48 traditional grammar schools in Jamaica to-date. They were founded by the English who settled there during the 17th and 18th centuries. A national qualifying exam at the age of ten determines a student’s entry into these schools. Imagine being placed in this environment from age 10 to 18. You were expected to succeed. There were certain stigma attached to failure. Thus, it was in the student’s best interest to shine.

Students who complete the 14th grade and graduate from the traditional grammar school are admitted as sophomores in American universities. They are prepared to become professionals and leaders in business, education, and government. They represent “la crème de la crème” of Jamaican society.

 

What happens to Jamaican students who are unable to attend traditional grammar school?

Students who do not pass the qualifying exam attend non-traditional grammar school. These are our comprehensive technical high schools and private schools. Although in all of these schools English is vigorously taught, they are more technically oriented. These nontraditional schools comprise the majority of schools in Jamaica today. These students ultimately fill the service and maintenance positions in Jamaica.

 

What have been the consequences of this elitism in Jamaican society?

The consequences were that Jamaica continued to maintain a superior class system inherited from the English. Finally, after centuries, Jamaicans have acknowledged what a privileged education for the few has done to the nation. Last year, the qualifying exams to attend the Jamaican traditional grammar school were eliminated.

Over the years, highly educated Jamaicans have become more comfortable about speaking Jamaican patois in public without fearing that people will condemn them or put them in a certain class. It is interesting to note that many of us in America who did not speak patois in Jamaica do speak it when we step off its shores. Is the use of patois in America a connecting link that holds us together outside Jamaica? I believe so.

Can you talk about how marginalization affects Jamaican school children of color in America?

Jamaican children, depending on their circumstances, experience different types of marginalization. We have children who were born in Jamaica and immigrated to America, and we have children who were born in America and who may or may not consider themselves Jamaican.

The child born to Jamaican immigrants of color in America becomes an African American—a black child of America. Many Jamaican children born in the United States want to identify with their African American peers. Why not? The children have nothing to look back to in Jamaica, and lack any knowledge of the history of their country of origin. Their sense of marginalization is only reinforced by Jamaican parents who want their children to retain their “Jamaican-ness.”

We have two distinct groups of Jamaican-born children in America. The first group of chidren are those who have received a grammar school education. Many arrive in America with a sound knowledge base and social skills and can compete successfully in this culture. The second group of Jamaican-born children of color have not had a grammar school education or have not completed it successfully, and as a result are marginalized in U.S. schools. However, both groups of students have to confront a concept of blackness in America which they never had to face in Jamaica.

You represent the successful Jamaican in America. Have you experienced your own marginalization?

Yes. It was profound. When I first arrived in this country, I was marginalized by my immigrant status, my color, my social class, and being female. In a most painful way, I overcame this by living in a place where there were not many Jamaicans.

In North Carolina, where I lived, I was the only Jamaican on campus for many years. I had to force myself out of my Jamaican-ness or my life would have been a very lonely one. I became a hall director in the undergraduate women’s dorm and in the co-ed graduate dormitory where the students were predominantly white. Slowly, I was able to move out of my cocoon and begin to understand what it means to be an American. However, the catalyst for my assimilation was teaching African history and African American history, and joining a book club that discussed issues of ethnicity, race, and gender.

Most Jamaicans of color did not identify with their African roots before the Garvey movement of the 1920s and the Rastafarian movement of the 1950s. The civil rights movement in the United States and the independence movements in Africa also helped push Africa toward the center of our identity. Our new awarenesses helped create a closer bond not only with our African heritage but with the African diaspora. Today, our connections to our ancestry are reflected in the presence of African history in Jamaican schools and the establishment of embassies of black nations in Jamaica. It is no longer a big event to have African leaders visit our country, in contrast to only some years ago, when the Royal Family were our exclusive visitors.

 

What is the role of the social studies with regard to the marginalization of Jamaican immigrants of color?

The social studies curriculum should play a critical role in reducing this marginalization of Jamaican youth. It is the primary discipline that can make a difference in the life of the Jamaican child of color.

First, the social studies must integrate Jamaican culture, geography, and
history in the curriculum. The historical and contemporary linkages between Caribbean nations and the United States must be examined. If you look into today’s history textbooks, you will find two or three sentences on the region. Learning about Jamaica is more than knowing about reggae, Bob Marley, fine coffee, and its spectacular scenery.

Second, social studies teachers must teach the history of immigration. Students will learn that all immigrants had to pay a price for a place in the sun. Teachers are generally white and mayhave been told that their ancestors had to assimilate. Rightfully, they ask why minorities cannot integrate into the mainstream. Teachers must know why some Jamaican children are marginalized.

Third, my greatest fear is that teachers do not distinguish among African American and Caribbean students of color in the classroom. I am concerned that schools and teachers simply see a group of black children. How will they teach history if they do not know the national origins of their students? The social studies can offer group projects on different Caribbean nations and their linkages to American culture that will greatly enhance the curriculum and reduce marginalization of the Jamaican black child.

 

What are your hopes for the future?

My greatest enlightenment in America came with the opportunity to teach African American history at the university. Because of my understanding of American society and its history, I now find myself interrelating not only with the educated Jamaican of color but with Jamaican immigrants who are less well educated.

My hope is that bridges will be built among Jamaican immigrants of color and among all people of African descent in the United States. Through education, these cultural bridges will be extended to create harmony among all groups of people in this country.

 

Toni Fuss Kirkwood is assistant professor of social studies and global education at the College of Education at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.