“Chapter 7: Growing Up West Indian and African American: Gender and Class Differences in the Second Generation”

-By Mary C. Waters

In preparation for the class discussion, we split the article in half, where Reid would discuss the first half and Andrew would tackle the second half. We read the article together, while highlighting and taking notes on the parts we deemed most important. Unsure of how to start the discussion, we decided to have people write something on the board so that we could assess their familiarity with and understanding of the reading. Unfortunately, we forgot to take a picture of the board after class, so we will put up a different picture as our featured image.


Since I was presenting the first half of the article, I decided that it would be best to open up with a little bit of a background about the author, Mary C. Waters. Mary Waters is an American sociologist and professor at Harvard University. She specializes in the study of immigration, identity formation, and inter-group relations, with an emphasis on ethnic and racial identity among the children of immigrants (which is what this article is about!) She is especially noted for her concept of ethnic option which is the idea that the children and descendants of immigrants have the option of choosing whether or not to identify with the ethnicity of their ancestors based on 4 factors:

  1. Knowledge about ancestors
  2. Surname
  3. Looks
  4. Relative rankings of the groups

Here are some notes that I took on the parts of the article that I presented:

  • Waters began a study in the early 1990’s of West Indian immigrants and their teenage children in New York City to explore how they developed racial and ethnic identity, given the overwhelming attention to race in American society. She also aimed to explore whether first and second generations would follow the same assimilation pattern that immigrants of European origin did at the beginning of the 20th century
  • To do this, Waters conducted many in depth interviews with first generation immigrants from English speaking Caribbean countries, native born whites, native born blacks, and adolescents who are the children of black immigrants from Haiti and the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean.

Ethnic and Racial Identities

  • 1st generation immigrants go to great lengths to differentiate themselves from black Americans, which serves as an aid in their assimilation process and relative success in the economy.
  • Materialist American culture, oppressive racial environment, and segregated city schools and neighborhoods pose serious obstacles to the children of West Indian immigrants.
  • Immigrant children grow up hearing negative opinions voiced by their parents about American blacks and to the belief that Americans respond more favorably to foreign born blacks.

o However, since they lack their parents’ accents and other identifying characteristics, other people are more likely to label them as American blacks.

o Some adolescents agree that the U.S. holds many opportunities, while others believe that racial discrimination and hostility from whites will limit their ability to achieve their goals.

  • Social class, type of neighborhood they grow up in, schools they attend, and gender all play a role in how young people experience race.
  • People from poor households in inner city neighborhoods are more likely to develop an “oppositional identity.”

3 Paths of Identity Development

  1. Identifying as American
  2. Identifying as an ethnic-American
  3. Identifying as an immigrant
  • 42% of respondents identified as black American.

o They had definite elements of oppositional identity and saw schools as representing white culture and white requirements.

  • 31% of respondents adopted a strong ethnic identity and distanced themselves from American blacks.
  • 27% of respondents had more of an immigrant attitude.

o Accents and styles of clothing signaled to others that they were foreign born.

  • Ethnic identified people were more likely from the middle class.
  • Middle class children who attended local high schools were more likely to be recent immigrants who, due to the superior education in the West Indies, were the best in high school, attended honors classes, and were bound for college.
  • First generation immigrants believe that while racism exists in the U.S., it can be overcome through hard work, perseverance, and the right attitudes and values.
  • The second generation constantly experiences racism and discrimination, which influences their perceptions that race plays an overwhelming role in their chances of success in life.
  • Parents are terrified of their children becoming Americans. For children, however, to be American is to have freedom from parental control.
  • The parents’ faith in opportunity and structure open to hard work is undermined by their children’s peer culture and actual experiences.

Gender and Identity

  • There are no gender differences in teens’ choice of identities.
  • Girls experience greater restrictions and control by parents.
  • Boys experience more racial solidarity in the face of societal exclusion and disapproval.
  • Boys also face a more violent environment.
  • Girls are more likely to graduate high school

Immigrant and American Identities

  • Europeans experienced “straight line assimilation” which was learning the language, voting, adopting the culture, and achieving economic security and social mobility for

their children. By the third generation, they were thoroughly American, which was coupled with economic success.

  • Since assimilation for Caribbeans was becoming American blacks, one of the most stigmatized and abused people in American history, the incentive to maintain their cultural and ethnic ties was high.
  • The middle class used their Caribbean identity to claim “model minority.”
  • Choosing to be American is an economic decision. The Europeans chose to become American because it positively impacted their economic success. Caribbeans choose not to become American because the less Americanized they are, the better they do in school, more time they spend on homework, less materialistic they are, and the less they challenge their parents’ and teachers’ discipline and authority.




In the rest of the article Waters continues to talk about the role of West Indians as a model minorities, but also goes on to speculate on the future of second generation immigrants as well as the cultural color line in the United States as a whole. When it came time stimulate some discussion with the class I believed a series of questions would hopefully bring out volunteers and bring new opinions on the topics discussed. I had hoped that differing opinions would arise and that this would organically lead to more discussion. Unfortunately, the class was not responsive and no argumentation broke out. Perhaps I had suffered from question either too narrow, leading people to one word answers, or perhaps they were too vague leading people to not know how to answer due to a lack of direction.


One question I asked was “How do you feel about this article’s explanation of the model minority concept being pushed onto West Indian blacks in retrospect with other views we have seen in this course?” My responses were largely blank stares and a single student saying that this was basically the same as we had previously discussed and it was a self fulfilling prophecy. Everyone nodded and continued with blank stares and since no one had any divergent opinions the idea trail was dead and we had to move on. I believe that the main reason this question was so poorly received was because everyone felt that this discussion had already taken place so it brought nothing new to the table.


One idea that Waters discussed was the idea that model minorities were a conservative answer to other minorities living in a “victim culture”. When I tried asking the class how they felt about this idea the answers were about as complex as “bad”. I feel like this question suffered from the bias of the article, clearly leaning on the idea that suggesting someone is using a misfortunate circumstance as an excuse is completely unethical and morally irresponsible. Personally this level of bias turned me off from the article; it confused me about the identity of the paper thus lowering its credibility in my opinion. Although there is a ridiculousness to get angry at people for being upset about a disparity and citing their low starting place as a reason they could not rise as high, I find it necessary for the victim mentality argument to exist to provide a certain moderation. If you always excuse people for a lack of success they will not become more successful. These are the types of options I was hoping to receive as feedback from the class. I wanted people to explore controversy, have others serve as moderating voices, and let a chain reaction take off, but I failed to execute in initiating this type of response.


I believe a better question I should have asked was “Did any of you feel like Waters showed a bias in this article? What was that bias?” From there I may have gotten a response or two and then could have asked, “Does anyone disagree?” I feel like this would have been better at eliciting a response from the class because it is structured enough to give them some larger concept they have previous experience with, but open enough that they are free to choose any part of Water’s article as the premise of their answer. Additionally this is more inherently opinion based on a matter that people would not have answered so unanimously to.


In a discussion of poor class response I have to address other factors beyond the questions I asked. First off, it seemed clear that not the entire class completed the reading as only a few people had any response the entire session. Secondly, I had used no visual aid to stimulate the class. This was a trend apparent in the more successful class presentations than my own. Mia and Jonas’s presentation hit the class with sights and sounds of her powerpoint in an aesthetically pleasing way. This was more engaging as it literally targeted more of the five senses than speaking questions by mouth could have. Another successful group in leading the discussion was Susan and Mario. Susan’s map that evolved as she relayed information chronologically helped the class make sense of a lot of information that can come across as dense in paragraph form. Unfortunately, Reid and I had no real geographical analog to work with and we did not devise any symbolic pictures such as Venn Diagrams at the time, but that would be a direction to move in with similar assignments in the future.


Here is an outline for the second half of Water’s article:


Model Minority:


-Idea of cultural vs structural obstacles facing blacks

-conservative vs liberal views of roots to difficulty for blacks

+liberals believe it to be structural

+conservatives believe it to be cultural-victim mentality


-West Indians generally have better interactions with whites

+Water’s hints it is because West Indians do not expect whites to be as racist so they are less tense which will make whites more comfortable

+Model Minority Ideas are self fulfilling prophecies

+West Indian success is not a triumph, merely a contrast to failure by white society


Future of the Second Generation:


-Structure rapidly affects culture


-Blacks disconnect with society when they perceive white culture as hostile towards them

+This creates a second self fulfilling prophecy as this disconnection leads blacks not to climb as high in the society

+This also promotes a culture of opposition

+Idea that blacks would rather be hated than disrespected because they will not accept the treatment their grandparents received

+Cycle of attacks and disrespect by whites, retaliation from blacks and counter retaliation from whites


-Policies that benefit immigrated Americans benefit all Americans


The Future of the Color Line in America:

-Prior to 1965 immigration wave, black/white was the prevalent race dichotomy

+People of color has come to encompass all non-whites

+People of color should challenge white hegemony


-Irish and blacks used to be on equal footing when dealing with racial prejudice

+Eventually all Europeans crossed the color line and became white

+Most asians crossed the color line and are effectively white

+Koreans fullfill the old niche role of Jewish Americans in ghettos

+West Indians are the the blacks who have crossed the color line and are thus the whites of the black population


-Wealth grants decision to choose identity


-Both whites and blacks in America view themselves as children of immigrants