My Struggle With Racial Identity

Opinion Editor Khalil Gordon discusses his struggle with drifting away from his heritage and finding a new identity amidst the chaos of summer 2020. “I remember lying in my bed last semester in Dugan wondering, ‘Why do I feel so empty?’”

A street vendor in Jamaica selling St. Mary’s banana chips, a snack whose ingredients and manufacturing are all sourced on the island and a favorite of Gordon.

As of a few months ago I have lived in the United States long enough to qualify for citizenship. The paperwork is not something I look forward to, but beyond that I am just not very excited to be a US citizen. Sure, the politics of this country have gone to pieces and in earnest my career prospects are statistically quite slim, but none of that is why I feel the way I do. At least they’re not the only reasons. In truth, the closer I come to being American, the further I feel from being Jamaican. 

I remember lying in my bed last semester in Dugan wondering, “Why do I feel so empty?” It wasn’t unusual for me to lie in bed like that, but this time something felt different. That’s when I realized that the weight of seven years of separation from my culture had suddenly and all at once moved to the forefront of my mind. 

There is an indescribable pain that can only be understood when you can’t find the ingredients for the dishes that were once so common, when you’ve spoken in a dialect so far from your own that your original voice is unrecognizable, when for years there has been a paywall between you and the relatives you grew up with. It was crushing. What’s worse was that I had no one to share in that pain with; how would my friends understand? They’re Americans, everything they’ve known is right here. 

I think that a major cause for this was that, from the moment I landed here in 2013 I was no longer Jamaican — not to any onlooker. From this point on I was Black and it was never something I’d noticed before. Most people I knew in Jamaica had dark skin, it becomes so common that you stop noticing it. I didn’t have to notice it, there was no systemic penalty for it, it just was. Now, I’d walk into a room and be the only Black person there. I could spend an entire day at school and see maybe two or three other people who looked like me. But even though these people looked like me, they were not like me. 

Most of the other Black people I met were African-American, meaning their ancestry was tied to those enslaved in America, who have been oppressed and suffered here. That was their legacy and history. Their culture, their style, all the good and the bad of who they are were tied to this identity, but I did not share it with them. While we may share common ancestry, there is well over a century of difference in how our cultures have evolved.

I’ve noticed over the years that when you ask a white person where they’re from they’ll often list practically the whole map of Europe naming their grandparents and their grandparents’ grandparents. It’s important to them that their cultural background be as well represented as possible. Black people don’t often have that luxury. Most of our ancestral background has been lost to the slave trade, undocumented and uncared about. I think this lack of specificity in our background leads people to just view us as a collective mass, when really, there is so much variation of culture in our diaspora. 

I worry that it sounds like I’m trying to distance myself from the reality I’ve found myself in. It’s because I don’t feel it’s my place to claim the suffering of others as my own. As many of you know the Black community was placed squarely in the forefront of public consciousness this summer when the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were made public. 

I specify made public because events like this are common, just never exposed to this degree. In truth I did not expect anything to come from the ensuing protests, and as some of know the perpetrators in both cases have gotten away relatively scot free, so my assumptions were mostly confirmed. 

What the protests did spark in me however was serious introspections about my place in all this. And what I realized was that so long as I live here I am a member of the Black collective. My background is irrelevant so long as I am a potential target; this is my fight as much as it is any other foreign or American-born Black person. Just as it should be for all those who want to see an end to the systemic racial issue plaguing this country.

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