Multiracial Jamaica?

by Jennifer, crossposted from Mixed Race America

Editor’s Note: I’ve been thinking about the unique way that America views racial identity lately, partly because of my own family research and dabbling in DNA testing, and partly because I just re-posted an essay on What Tami Said about the strange relationship many black Americans have with their own multiracial makeup (Many of us approach it in a way that reveals disdain for Africanness, but also exoticizes and marginalizes people of other cultures.). This weekend, I remembered Jennifer’s post on Mixed Race America, written after she returned from visiting Jamaica for the first time. (Jennifer is of Chinese Jamaican heritage.) I thought you might find Jennifer’s exploration of racial identity in another country interesting. Visit Mixed Race America and read other posts about Jennifer’s family heritage and her introduction to Jamaica.

So one of the things that surprised me about Jamaica, specifically Kingston, where my mother and her siblings were born and raised, is that it wasn’t nearly as multiracial as I thought it would be. My idea of Jamaica/Kingston as this multiracial space has a lot to do with my family, but it also has to do with reading on-line copies of The Jamaica-Gleaner (newspaper) and reading a novel, Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s The True History of Paradise: a Novel.

[By the way, this is a good time for a book plug for Cezair-Thompson's novel. A friend-colleague of mine gave a fascinating conference presentation and since it was right before my trip, I went out and bought it and read it and found that it was not only engaging, but also provided an interesting narrative about the political change that Jamaica was undergoing between 1960-1975 as it changed from a colonial state to an independent nation. For more on Cezair-Thompson, click here for her personal website]

Anyway, what I found throughout Jamaica was that aside from the tourists, locals appear to be black Jamaicans, with a few shopkeepers and grocery store clerks who are Indian and Chinese. Our driver, Errol, who drove us from Kingston to Ocho Rios and then around Ocho Rios sight-seeing, claims that 95% of the grocery stores owned in Jamaica are by the Chinese. And while I don’t know how accurate his statistics are, certainly anecdotally it appears to be true since the few groceries we went into were, indeed, owned and staffed by Chinese Jamaicans and, historically, this would make sense since Chinese in Jamaica comprised a middle-man economy of shopkeepers.

But in and around Kingston and Port Royal, away from tourist centers, Jamaica appeared to be comprised of mainly black-Jamaicans–at least that’s what I “saw.” Yet, my cousin “W” saw something different–to him, he noticed much more mixture; he commented on people having “Chinese” eyes and seemed to discern between white Jamaicans and white tourists in Ocho Rios more readily than me.

When I mentioned to “W” that I was expecting to see a more multiracial Jamaica, he said that his idea of Jamaica, growing up and upon his return, was that it was a predominantly black nation, but that it was also a multiracial nation–that there had been so much race mixing, because of the legacy of British colonialism, that while currently “black” Jamaicans are more apparent to the naked eye, the truth is that Jamaicans don’t just think of themselves this way–that the way that we talk about race in the U.S. is not how people in Jamaica talk about race. Or at least not the way that “W” and his family think about it.

And the truth is, I did experience a multiracial Jamaica. For example, the family friends and my family’s family are all very mixed: “W’s” aunts and cousins (mixtures of Indian, Chinese, black, and white) and my Uncle “N” who married into our family has family who is still in Kingston and at a dinner at his parents’ home there was a mix of what looked like, black, Indian, and Chinese people, all part of his family, all local Jamaicans.

So while I may not have seen evidence of a multiracial Jamaica on the streets, in people’s homes I met plenty of people who were multiracial Jamaicans, and perhaps more importantly, my own family seemed to be evidence that the idea of a mixed-race Jamaica is alive and well.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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