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When West Indians(1) move abroad, they begin to see themselves and others in new ways. Nowhere is this more evident than in the emergence of new racial and ethnic identities. As West Indians travel abroad in search of economic opportunities and resources, all too often they find themselves living in societies in which blackness is more devalued than it was at home, and they face significant barriers because of their race. Being black and being West Indian take on new meanings in the immigrant situation and form the basis for new alliances as well as new divisions with people of other racial and ethnic groups they come into contact with away from home.
Just what kinds of ethnic and racial identities - and racial and ethnic relations - develop among West Indian migrants depends on the particular context into which they move. This may, at first glance, seem obvious. After all, English-speaking West Indians have migrated in significant numbers, over the years, to a variety of different places, including other Caribbean islands, Central America, the United States, and Britain. One would expect West Indians who move to the United States, for example, to have a different sense of racial consciousness from West Indians in Britain. But there is much that is not obvious. Although we may expect to find contrasts between West Indians who go to different destinations, we certainly cannot always predict what the differences will be. Nor are the structural features of the receiving society that shape West Indian identity always immediately apparent. Indeed, it is only through careful cross-national comparisons that we can begin to understand the complex, sometimes subtle, and often surprising ways in which the racial context in different receiving societies leads to specific responses among West Indian migrants.
Looking back in time as well as across cultures also gives us a better appreciation of the processes and dynamics of West Indian identity formation and racial relations. The past, as David Lowenthal (1985) reminds us, is a foreign country; the racial context and hierarchies in different historical eras may provide radically different contexts for West Indian arrivals. In some places, for example, within the Caribbean itself, West Indian immigration has continued for many years. Elsewhere, as in the United States, there have been distinctive waves of West Indian migration at different historical moments. Within the same country, West Indian identity has often changed in significant ways from one historical period to another, and therefore historical comparisons offer another opportunity to grasp the underlying structural determinants of racial and ethnic consciousness.
The basic argument of this article is that the comparative method is a powerful tool for deepening our understanding of the way in which West Indian migrant racial and ethnic identities are formed and change. Comparative studies, as Reinhard Bendix has written, "increase the 'visibility' of one structure by comparing it with another" (quoted in Skocpol and Somers, 1980: 180). They bring into sharper focus the factors determining racial and ethnic identities that might be taken for granted if West Indians in only a single setting or time period were considered in isolation.(2) Broadly speaking, the article is couched in terms of a theoretical perspective that views race and ethnicity as socially constructed. While West Indian migrants bring with them a racial sensibility that is nurtured in their home societies, they develop new images of themselves, as blacks and as West Indians, in response to the particular nature of ethnic and race relations and hierarchies they encounter in the new setting.
The analysis focuses on two destinations for West Indian migrants - the United States and Britain - that have, in the post-World War II period, been the major places of settlement for West Indians abroad. The cross-national comparison draws on my earlier research on Jamaicans in London and New York,(3) Jamaicans being the largest West Indian group in both countries and London and New York the main areas of settlement. Between 1955 and 1968 (after which Jamaican immigration dropped to a mere trickle), some 200,000 Jamaicans moved to Britain; between 1966 and 1992, more than 400,000 Jamaicans legally emigrated to the United States.(4) Because large-scale West Indian migration to Britain is only a post-World War II phenomenon, the historical comparison is restricted to the United States, where the massive influx of West Indians goes farther back. It examines issues of identity among West Indians who came to New York in this century's two great waves, that of the first three decades of the century and that since 1965. As will become clear, the racial context in each country and in each historical period has been critical in shaping migrants' racial and ethnic identities. Particular features of the American racial hierarchy, most important the presence and residential segregation of the enormous African American population, mark off the experience of West Indians in New York from those in Britain. Within the United States, the changing role of race helps to account for the increasingly public role of ethnicity in the lives of West Indian New Yorkers.
JAMAICANS IN NEW YORK AND LONDON
Difficult as it is for Jamaicans in both London and New York to adjust to being black in a white-dominated society, it is in many ways more of a problem in London. Paradoxically, in New York, where segregation of blacks is more pronounced, being part of the large and residentially concentrated local black population cushions Jamaicans from some of the sting of racial prejudice and has given them certain advantages in the political and educational spheres.
There are, of course, similarities in the kinds of racial consciousness that have developed among Jamaicans in London and New York. In both places, being black has taken on a new and more painful meaning. As members of a racial minority group, Jamaicans in both cities have found that they are subject to prejudice and discrimination of a sort they had not encountered at home. "I wasn't aware of my color till I got here," said one New York man. In nearly identical words, a London man told me that he had never known he was black until he came to England. Both men, of course, had known that they had black skin when they lived in Jamaica, but there they had had good jobs (one was a medium-sized farmer, the other a policeman) and had been respected in their communities. What had counted there was their income, occupation, living standards, and associates, not their skin colon Granted, the slavery legacy lingers on in Jamaica; white skin is still associated with wealth, privilege, and power, …