For members of the Black community, defining racial identity can be a complex, highly personal and nuanced process. On the surface, the differences among people who identify as Black can be very subtle. For example, it's hard to tell whether someone is Black African or Black Caribbean based on physical features alone.
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While ‘Black’ is considered a universal, generally preferable default term that acknowledges and embraces Black people’s race, culture, and lived experiences all around the world, the suffix that follows is a recognition of every Black individual’s unique cultural, historical, and social roots. Examples of more specific terminologies include the ones used to refer to the ethnic origins of certain African Americans and Black Canadians, such as Ethiopian American or Antiguan Canadian.
Here, we recognize that just as there are different shades of Black, every Black person has a unique blend of experiences, culture and ancestry. For this Africa Day, May 25th, we're focused specifically on answering the question: What is the difference between Black African and Black Caribbean?
Location and Origin
A Black African is a Black person of African ancestry who is a native or inhabitant of a country in the African continent, or a first generation emigrant.
Meanwhile, a Black Caribbean (also called Afro-Caribbean or African Caribbean) is a descendant of Africans the majority of whom were transported as slaves between the 15th and 19th centuries to the colonial Caribbean through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These people were made to labour largely on sugar plantations and provide domestic help. Afro-Caribbean is not a term the Black Caribbean people chose for themselves but was a term introduced in the late 1960s by European Americans.
Today, Black Caribbeans primarily trace their roots to Sub-Saharan African ancestry. However, since there have been interracial marriages and unions among Caribbean peoples over the years, they may also have a mix of European, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Indigenous Caribbean blood.
Today, most of the English, French, and Spanish-speaking Caribbean nations and territories have majority Black populations. There are also major diaspora populations all across the world. These include Afro-Caribbean subcultures in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands.
Many Black Caribbean people speak creole languages like Haitian Creole (French-based creole, which is also one of the official Haitian languages), Jamaican Patois (English-based creole with West African origins spoken mainly in Jamaica or among Jamaican diaspora), and Papiamento (Portuguese and Spanish-based creole language used in the Dutch Caribbean, including countries like Curaçao and Aruba).
Just as it’s difficult to tell who is Black African and Black Caribbean based on physical appearance alone, the process of acculturation also makes it hard to distinguish one from the other. The reason for this is that various diaspora populations feature a mix of African cultural elements and that of the host country, as in the case of Caribbean culture. This is true for Black people around the world who exhibit African cultural traits in terms of language, traditions, music, dance, art, and so on. However, Black folks around the world can often easily tell where another is from when they are from another country close to home. For example, most Caribbeans can know the accent and habits of other Caribbean folks, just like many Africans can easily differentiate a Nigerian from a Zimbabwean.
These differences between the overarching Black culture and diaspora culture, which are usually too subtle for other people to notice, are only obvious to those who are aware of their ethnic origins or who are very familiar with the ethnic diversity of the global Black community.
Black Caribbean women, for example, share a lot of similarities with their Black African counterparts in terms of beauty and their style of dress. Some Black Caribbean people also adopt African names, as in the case of famous musician Olatunji. Olatunji is from Trinidad but has a Nigerian name and plays music that sounds like a cross between Soca (African and East Indian influence) and Afrobeat (West African musical styling with influences of American jazz, funk and soul music).
Black Africans also share certain similarities with Black Caribbean people in terms of cuisine. The food called ‘fungi’ (made with cornmeal, butter and salt) in the Virgin Islands and 'mayi moulin' in Haiti is a lot like the ‘ugali’ in Kenya and ‘mealiepap’ in South Africa.
That being said, Black Africans have a diverse culture that’s mostly based on which country in Africa they belong, with cultural variations further intensified by tribal subcultures within nations. These differences impact their language, traditions, worldview, art, etc.
Among Black Caribbean people, distinct variations in their cultural characteristics are rooted in their African country of origin, the culture of their host country and the degree of acculturation their ancestors experienced.
Knowing the Difference Matters
Just as it would be ignorant to assume that the immigrant experiences of Black people around the world are the same, we can’t – and shouldn’t – lump Black people into one category, as in the case of the Black African and Black Caribbean communities. These distinctions that seem subtle to someone not from that country or culture can seem obvious when in another context. For example, asking a European "can you tell the difference between a Frenchman and a Croatian? Or an Italian and a Czech?" Similarly, your Asian friends can most certainly tell the difference between a Vietnamese and a Korean person. The fact that you may not be able to, if you're not Asian, is simply a lack of your own exposure to those cultures.
Although Black folks across the globe know that we are members of a global Black community with several shared historical experiences and current prejudices, we also need to celebrate our individual Black identities by knowing about our cultural and genealogical roots, and helping others understand we are not a monolith.
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