Early last month I was invited to write a guest post for ReDEFINE, a blog about race, religion, justice, and culture in the United States. Below is a version of that post.
When I immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1969, one of the first challenges I faced was selecting the racial categories on college, government, and job forms and applications. One could check the box labeled “Negro,” “White,” “Hispanic,” “Native American,” or “Asian,” if one were one of those, but there was no category that allowed me to accurately list my racial makeup. So I always ignored the boxes and wrote in the margins “OTHER.”
I am of a black-white-Chinese mixture: My maternal grandmother was black, a descendant of Maroons—former runaway slaves who fought and won their independence from Britain 170 years before that country abolished slavery in 1808 and emancipated slaves in Jamaica and other British colonies in 1838; my maternal grandfather was a Hakka Chinese immigrant from the Kwangtung province in South China, who immigrated to Jamaica in the early 1900s and became a grocer; my mixed-race paternal grandfather was a descendant of an English barrister who came to Jamaica in the early 1800s and became a plantation owner and magistrate; and my paternal grandmother was white, a descendant of German immigrants to Jamaica.
My mixed race is a common characteristic of many in Jamaica, a small Caribbean island nation whose national motto is “Out of many, one people”—people whose faces and skin colors reflect the intermingling of the races of our ancestors from such diverse countries as Africa, England, Whales, Scotland, Ireland, China, India, Germany, Spain, Lebanon, Syria, and from the Jewish diaspora, some coming to the island under the Spanish control in the 1500s, others coming under the British in the 1600s, and still others coming under the indentured program that Britain started in 1838 to fill the sudden labor shortage on plantations after the emancipation of slaves.
My first encounter with racism was in 1967 when our Jamaican youth choir toured America. While in Washington, D.C., the members of our choir stayed in the homes of various American families. My hosts were a white couple who welcomed me to their high-rise apartment, and, at one point during my stay, invited me to go swimming in the pool on the building’s ground floor. However, when I entered the gated area of the pool, the building’s manager stopped me and told me that I could not swim in the pool because it was a “whites only” pool. When I went back up to my hosts and told them what had happened, they were embarrassed and very apologetic.
Two years later when I returned to the U.S. and enrolled in my denomination’s small, predominantly white liberal arts college in Indiana, I was surprised by the reaction I received half way through the semester—not from the whites on campus, but from a group of black students. They were highly critical of me and other foreign students of color because we did not choose to sit exclusively with them in the cafeteria and at other social events. They accused us of being “uppity” or “Uncle Toms” for associating so much with white students. The parents of a black student went so far as to warn her not to date African students because they acted as if they were superior. This was at a time when there was a segment among the black population in America, including some of these students, who had grown impatient with the pace of the civil rights movement and had become more militant and separatist under the “Black Power” slogan and intolerant towards any minority who fraternized with whites, whom they called “Whitie” or “The Man.”
While we foreign students of color understood the defensive mindset of the black students because of the centuries of white racism against blacks and other minorities in America, most of us were from countries where we were in the majority and were far less likely to be defensive about our relationship with whites. The biases and prejudices of our home countries were more about differences in social class, religion, clans, or tribes. So as someone from a multiethnic family and culture, I was unwilling to take a separatist approach to my new life in America.
However, what defined me was not so much my multiethnic Jamaican heritage, but rather my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I fell in love with him as a result of a dramatic spiritual conversion at age 17 when he led me from out of a life of violence and juvenile delinquency to follow him in a life of discipleship, and of loving and serving people. During nearly five decades living in the United States, the image of myself as a beloved and valued child of God was the main factor that sustained me through the ups and downs of finding my way in a society and culture that sometimes could be harsh, cruel, and racist.
This image sustained me through the lean college years as I pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees by working a combination of part-time jobs supplemented with education loans and grants; through entry-level jobs, job layoffs, periods of unemployment, including one that lasted 23 months; through bankruptcy, divorce, depression, near-homelessness; and through racist encounters with people, including a white former father-in-law who refused to acknowledge or speak to me and never accepted his first grandson, the only child of his daughter and me. Throughout all this, I have tried to mirror the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus Christ to all individuals I encountered.
That approach has served me well, for at 71, I can truly say that life in the United States has been good for me and has allowed me to achieve my version of the American Dream—a solid educational foundation, university degrees, fulfilling jobs and careers, home ownership, U.S. citizenship, strong family and church ties, community leadership and respect, a healthy lifestyle, worldwide travel, and a comfortable retirement that is allowing me to volunteer with faith-based partners to serve the poor in Los Angeles, India, and the Congo.
Although much of America’s overt racism of the past has disappeared, it still exists inconspicuously in hiring, job advancement, housing, and in various levels of society. While I live in a very racially diverse San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, and often take four-mile power walks at various hours of the day or night in my neighborhood, even sometimes at 4 a.m. when I cannot sleep, I would not risk such an early morning walk in nearby Beverly Hills because I would surely be stopped and frisked by the police. And while I enjoy playing golf at various courses around the country, there are still certain courses where I would not be welcomed or allowed because of my color.
Yes, while I am thankful for the opportunities that America has given me, I am also very aware that for millions of individuals of various races and colors living in
the U.S., the American Dream is still not a reality. They still face prolonged unemployment, poverty-level wages, injustice, police profiling and brutality, discrimination, suppression of their voting rights in various cities and states, and part of a political system that favors the rich over the poor. Recent events in Ferguson and in major cities around the country reflect the anger and discontent that people feel over these conditions.
Nevertheless, I remain hopeful for my adopted country, for just as she has progressed to where there is now a space for “OTHER” on application forms, and “WHITES ONLY” signs have officially been removed from public places, I’m optimistic that her growing racial and cultural diversity will eventually reflect Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream in which our “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”