The Caribbean is a vibrant collection of people, cultures, sights and sounds. Yet those various layers of the region are often lost behind inaccurate stereotypes.
Before National Caribbean-American Heritage Month concludes, let’s unravel some myths about the West Indies. Perhaps this will highlight the not-so-hidden gems in a place that millions of people call home.
1. Jamaica is not the only Caribbean country.
When many people think of the Caribbean, they imagine white-sand beaches and, of course, Jamaica. However, they might be surprised to find out that the black, gold and green Jamaican flag is just one of many in the region.
Including territories in the “circum-Caribbean”—nations in Central and South America that are washed by the Caribbean Sea—there are more than 28 individual countries in the region. Among them are Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Grenada.
Also, Jamaica does not even have the largest population. The nation with the most people is Cuba, which has more than 11 million citizens (pdf). Jamaica’s population, on the other hand, was just over 2.7 million in 2013.
2. We do not all “sound Jamaican.”
Foreign accents are exotic and appealing to nonnative speakers. They catch people’s attention and make everything sound just a bit more interesting. Yet mocking the way a person talks can be downright offensive.
It is even worse when the imitator is unable to pull it off and reduces every West Indian’s way of speaking to “sounding Jamaican.” Just imagine how annoyed Bajans (Barbadians) feel when a person greets them by saying, “Wah gwan, rude boi?”
Different countries in the West Indies have distinct creoles, dialects and accents. Again, not every West Indian person is from Jamaica. So avoid addressing us with a rough take on patois.
3. Rihanna is not our ambassador.
She has 13 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, has sold millions of records around the world and is probably the most famous West Indian alive today, but Rihanna is not an ambassador for the entire Caribbean. In fact, her music hardly reflects her home country, Barbados.
BuzzFeed recently featured a video with Americans tasting Caribbean foods for the first time. Throughout the piece, they made references to Rihanna and suggested that she must eat those meals every day, even though none of the dishes is native to her island.
As with our various languages, each Caribbean country has a distinct history and culture. Those aspects of our heritage are evident in cuisines and other customs. So while Chaka Khan may be every woman, it is impossible for Rihanna to be every West Indian.
4. Bob Marley was just one of our greats.
There is no questioning the impact that Bob Marley made both before and after his death. However, although he made the rest of the world aware of some facets of West Indian culture, he was certainly not the only noted figure to emerge from the region.
Other influential people born in the Caribbean include Grace Jones (Jamaica), Sir V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago), Doug E. Fresh (Barbados) and Wyclef Jean (Haiti). In addition, there are many influential people who still live in the region and proudly promote the various cultures, although they are not famous in North America.
5. Reggae is not our only art form.
Marley penetrated American pop culture and made reggae mainstream. Now, more than 30 years since his death, artists from across the world sample elements from the Jamaican export. And yet the Caribbean has much more to offer.
Calypso, soca, steel pan and parang music all originated in Trinidad and Tobago, along with limbo, which is often wrongfully associated with Hawaii. Zouk stems from Martinique and Guadeloupe, and dancehall and dub are rooted in Jamaica. Meanwhile, meringue is quite popular in Haiti.
6. Marijuana is still illegal.
One of the stereotypes that often plague West Indians is that we sit around all day listening to reggae and smoking marijuana. That is far from the truth. In fact, the herb is still illegal in most Caribbean countries.
Jamaica only legalized the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana in February 2015, making it the first nation in the region to decriminalize the drug. Meanwhile, marijuana has been legal in the state of Colorado since November 2012, and the population is double that of Jamaica, yet the stoner stereotype is not internationally associated with its residents.
7. We are not all of African descent.
As a result of colonialism, chattel slavery and indentureship, West Indian people have a wide array of influences that have shaped everything from our culture to the way we look. This might actually surprise some people, but we are not all solely of African descent, and many of us do not identify as black.
Interestingly, the majority of the populations of Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Guyana, for instance, are of primarily East Indian ancestry. Also, the sections of those countries’ demographics that identify as mixed are increasing.
The cultural practices associated with various ethnic groups have mostly been maintained, long after colonialism ended. In Trinidad and Tobago, national holidays are observed for the Hindu celebration of Diwali as well as Indian Arrival Day (May 30). Emancipation Day (Aug. 31) is also annually recognized to commemorate the end of chattel slavery.
Trent Jones is an editorial fellow at The Root. He also produces a daily video commentary called #Trents2Cents. Follow him on Twitter.