Well, actually, I am Jamaican.
Jamaica is a country, not a racial denomination. Sorry to shatter the perception that all Jamaicans are of African descent. I am, too, but only partially. I suppose I should simply spell it out. I don’t look Black. And I can’t go to a reggae jam (even here in Toronto) and not stick out. It’s no insult, really. Most Jamaicans are dark-skinned and of mostly- or fully-African heritage. Even ‘real Jamaicans’ can be taken aback when they discover where I’m from.
And, yes, I am actually from there. I spent about seven years of school there. I was born there, emigrated to Canada and, after the first few school years in Canada, went back for Grades 4 through 10. Or, as we call them: Grades 4-6 and Forms 1-4. I consider Jamaica my home. Not that I think people need to have a single place they call home. Most of you do and that’s just fine. I have two, Jamaica and Canada, and it’s not as uncommon as one might think. Jamaidians are a feature of living in Toronto.
Anyway, despite what I look like — which is a mix of Chinese, Italian, African, Scottish, and Costa Rican native — I’m a Jamaican.
I never really cared about not being Jamaican enough. I’ve lost track of the times someone said something akin to, “You’re not Jamaican!” It’s all rather meaningless. You see, that’s the first thing you should know about me. It’s my most favourite thing about my life. I learned at a very early age that the colour of your skin, the accent of your speech, the place you come from, and any number of identifiable features by which people are often classified makes very little difference.
You can be an asshole, or a humanitarian, or a scholar, or a crook, or a bastard, or a block mom, or a bully, or a hero, or a coward, or any such vocation or personality type regardless of where you’re from (and even labels and archetypes like the aforementioned can intermingle in one person). This knowledge is something I consider a gift from the universe. You see, people’s reactions based on surface criteria are not only unfortunate on their part but also a weakness which can be exploited. And exploit them I did. Not the warm’n’fuzzy PSA direction you thought I was heading? Eventually, I got there to the ‘we are all equal and distinct regardless of race’ part. But I started out as kind of an evil high school kid.
I was four-eyed, scrawny, and knock-kneed growing up — prime meat for your average bully. So, what I couldn’t do to ‘survive’ with force, I learned to do with smarts. When they tried to grub me in 1st Form (Grade 7), I responded to the bully’s intentionally impossible instructions (like go blow out the sun, or here’s five bucks now go and buy me seven dollars worth of food and bring me change) with ridicule. I made fun of their grasp of physics and math and whatever logical weakness their demands possessed. The lead bully had a moment (I surmise) where he considered pounding me into cookie dough but, instead, he bellowed in laughter and said something Hollywoodish akin to, “You’re alright, kid.” So, for the first little while I got by. And the times I couldn’t get by I was smart enough to avoid precarious situations. Most of the time.
The second high school I attended was different. I got to re-invent myself and there I aligned with many of the misfits. Safety in numbers, after all. At one point, I became the mouthy sidekick to a fellow misfit with the nickname of King Biggah and we got into all sorts of trouble. Not being black in just about any Jamaican school makes you a misfit, no matter how you slice it. It comes in varying degrees but it’s always there, just waiting to cut its eye at you and call you Mr. Chin or white boy or whatever. At that school — where I stayed in the boarding house with a bunch of resourcefully unruly lads — I learned more tricks of the trade, more about the human condition, and more ammunition with which I could be evil.
And when I came back to Toronto, and was set back two grades by some ignoble bastard of a guidance counselor, I was armed to the teeth. The first year was rough but soon after, everything which I had intuitively learned about human behaviour was in full force. You see, worse than a bad boy is a bad boy who is somewhat deft at appearing to be a goody-two-shoes or ‘simply misunderstood’.
Look, I didn’t kill anyone or do anything truly awful but I spent the final few years of high school being a conniving little bastard. I learned the beginnings of the art of manipulation. My own mother once lamented to my brother (in a fateful letter I ‘discovered’) that she feared I would end up pursuing the goal of becoming a mastermind criminal. It was a fair concern. But that discussion is for another time.
Suffice it to say I am no longer a wannabe Lex Luthor but what I learned in those days has never left me. One of the great lessons it taught me is that no one can be judged by what they look like. Whether you are aware of that because you are a walking Benetton commercial of warm’n’fuzzy sentiment or you are a con artist grifting your way across the country, it’s just a useful fact. For that reason, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest that someone is shocked if I whip out the old accent. It doesn’t bother me when a fellow Jamaidian only politely covers up their disbelief about my background.
I am Jamaican.
I am Jamaican and I am Canadian, too. I am many things. I do not need to fit into anyone’s Dewey Decimal System of human categorization. No one does, really. And if I don’t want to be shunted into some cookie-cutter stereotype then I have no right to do it to anyone else. If you study human behaviour enough, you come to realize that each person is a product of a multitude of factors. The majority of people are complex constructs.
But, hey, it all comes down to perception. I could write until I was blue in the face about social diversity and the uniqueness of the individual but if your idea of a Jamaican is a mahogany-skinned dude with dreadlocks, swathed in rastaman colours, clenching a giant spliff between his teeth, and speaking in a thick patois then, to you, I will never be Jamaican. Of course, if I hadn’t decided to use my powers for good instead of evil, if I had manifested my mother’s greatest fears, well … I would fit you into a singular, categorical label.
I’d call you a mark.
Because anyone who thinks they can discern the breadth of a person just by what they can see is someone who is just begging to get their ass conned. It takes years of training or a true gift to do that kind of visual profiling, and even those experts prefer additional information to assist in their assessment. And even those experts are sometimes wrong. So, the next time you catch yourself ready to jump to a conclusion about someone, mind the gap.