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Blackness, Monkey and Mawga Dawg

Grace Virtue

Wednesday, February 13, 2013    

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In 1988, the government of Jamaica bestowed a signal honor on me, then a young student heading to the University of the West Indies (UWI). It was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marcus Garvey, our first national hero. The government commemorated the anniversary with a single academic scholarship which was awarded to me. It remains one of my proudest moments.

Among the reasons I was selected from the final eight candidates, I learned, was that my profile closely resembled Garvey's-rural, a commitment to service, a passion for social justice, a love of the arts, and a facility with both the written and spoken word. Most importantly, I was one of two candidates who did not seem to have a problem with my race. I was comfortably black and spoke of "us"-black people-in the first person; I included myself in every reference to the race. The other candidates had difficulty with that, some even refusing to be called black even though that's what they were.

Fast forward approximately 18 years. I was an employee at Howard University and received a communiqué from one of our leading universities. I was mildly surprised because it was not UWI - my alma mater.

It didn't matter. I indicated that I would honour the request, which was to receive a senior member of the institution's administration who wanted to talk to me about my work in higher education, how my division (university advancement) was organised, and how it might translate back home.

We had a collegial few hours at the designated time. I answered all his questions and analysed, as we went along, the difference between the institutions.

I was due a visit home shortly after and I said as much. He asked if I could meet his boss - the university president - and continue the conversation. I agreed, still without indicating that this was serious consulting work. I met with the president and again answered all his questions while he took notes.

The staff member walked me to the door.

"You make so much sense," he said almost wistfully, as a follow up to a discussion on whether I would be invited back to speak to the staff. "But you are black. You look like one of us and you sound like us. I don't think they want to hear it from you..."

I took no offense because I knew none was intended and I understood what he meant. He was being real about that race/skin colour issue - the same one that former Assistant Commissioner of Police Les Green opened his mouth and told the world about in his sweeping and embarrassing analysis of his time as a cop in Jamaica.

"It played to my advantage being white skinned because the people trusted white-skinned people much more than they would trust a black officer," Green told the Daily Mirror.

The words meant the same as those used by the University administrator: We do not trust our own.

We do not want too many directives from those who look too much like us and worse if they also sound like us too. The intellect, expertise and capabilities of our own are always suspect, certainly when compared to our light-skinned/white counterparts. By extension, the idea of blacks as authority figures remains difficult for many of us. We either ignore them or set out to sabotage their efforts.

To the extent that some of us are embarrassed by Green's comments, I hope it means we are growing up, and I hope that a part of our discomfiture is our realisation that sensible white folks are privy to our self-hatred and that they are as uncomfortable with being treated preferentially because of their race, as blacks are offended by being put down because of theirs.

Ultimately, we cannot separate our backwardness from our lack of productivity and the challenges that we face as a nation. As I have written here before, there is no separating our problem with poverty, for example, from our history of slavery and colonialism. The disadvantage, suffered by people of African descent, has never been systematically addressed. In fact, the superstructure of the society, including the media, continues to reinforce those disadvantages and the prejudices around race and skin colour.

The education system, which rightly should have been a pathway out of poverty and an avenue for self-knowledge and self- growth, was designed to, and has done a very good job of preserving the status quo.

Where, for example, there are roving bands of uneducated, unskilled, unemployed and unemployable young men, leading purposeless lives in a place where they do not feel they have a stake, there will be crime and violence, and there will be an excess of sexual violence; it is the only expression of power or manhood that they know.

This is why aggressive policing alone, while essential in the short term, will do little to solve the problem in the long run. Violence is a multidimensional problem; a one dimensional approach will yield little result.

The question of justice is another issue. History has taught poor, black Jamaicans, not to trust that society or the system will be fair to us. Many are familiar with instances where justice has been selectively applied; where state apparatuses, like the police force, have been used against them; where both the state and civil society have chosen not to confront people who really need to and should be confronted at some level. Issues of race and class are too often at the core of how one person is treated vis-à-vis another.

Well, now, the storms are upon us. Will we sink or swim?

The way forward includes taking steps to address those national issues of longstanding and developing strategies to address those challenges that are the result of a being part of a small nation state in the global system.

The government seems mostly reluctant to make the hard choices and the opposition is busying itself boring us with banalities and convincing mostly itself that they are doing anything else apart from playing monkey to their mawga dawg. After all, if there are only two acts in the circus, the only question is: Who is on now? Or, who is on first?

On a great note, Foreign Affairs Minister AJ Nicholson is talking about restructuring our missions abroad.

Hopefully that is at the top of his to-do list.

More on that next time.

GREEN ... was being real about race/colour issue

NICHOLSON ... restructuring moves ahead

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