Monique Rainford | Should the Jamaican diaspora educate their children about race?
In recent years, I have expanded my research examining health disparities experienced by African-American women. I came across an especially disturbing statistic: compared to African-Americans, Caribbean-born black people have better health outcomes, while United States-born Caribbean black people had the worst outcomes.
I have no doubt, based on my findings, that the main cause of health disparities is squarely tied to racism.
My conclusion, although perhaps not completely scientific, is that our Caribbean parents living in America are not adequately preparing their American-born children for the impact of racism.
Consider this: As a Jamaican-American of predominantly African ancestry, my background has given me a unique perspective.
I was born in New York, but my Jamaican parents chose to raise me in Jamaica – and I was taken there before my first birthday.
I spent several years in Jamaica until graduation from upper sixth form at Immaculate Conception High School. I returned to the US for tertiary education, which included undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, medical training at Harvard Medical School, and ob/gyn residency at Georgetown University.
Over the course of my career so far, I have lived and practised in both Jamaica and the US.
My husband and I now live, work, and raise our children in the US.
How can we ensure that our Jamaican-American children with African ancestry thrive in this country that adversely affects the health of some of their peers?
My interactions with successful African-Americans have led to the following conclusion: I need to talk to my children about race.
A few nights ago, I was lying in bed with my older child, my ten-year-old son. He told me that he was taught at school not to use the ‘N’ word. He had no idea what the ‘N’ word was, and he was afraid that he could use it by accident and get suspended.
I did not elaborate on the meaning but reassured him that it was not part of his vocabulary, and so he need not be concerned about using it inadvertently.
However, I recognised this as an ideal opportunity to talk to him about race. I explained to him that the concept of ‘black and white’ to describe races originated from the desire to exploit Africans for greed and profit. I learned this from my visits to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
I explained how some of our ancestors were stolen from their homeland in Africa, placed in subhuman conditions, and taken to America and the Caribbean.
I explained how some escaped by jumping into the ocean, and he felt and hoped that some were saved by sea animals.
Based on my brief description, he recognised that the conditions were not even fit for animals. I suggested that our ancestors were superhuman to have survived.
Although he disagreed with the term superhuman (being a Marvel movie fan), he coined the term ‘peak human’ (meaning having peak health). I still suggested that some of our ancestors were superhuman.
I made him aware that we have ancestry from countries outside of Africa as well, but I deliberately highlighted the exceptional aspect of our African ancestry. I explained that not all people of African descent had slavery in their ancestry. I used the example of his close friend, whose parents are of Senegalese descent.
I know that the brief discussion does not address all the issues. I know that it is not sufficient to prepare him for all the effects of racism, but it is a start.
So the question is, what are we, as Jamaican-Americans, to do to prepare our American-born children to have the very best future in this country, which I believe remains the land of opportunity?
Could it be that we need to teach them about race?
Monique Rainford is a medical doctor. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.