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Is there an elephant in the room?

Race, colour and our African heritage

Clement
Lambert

Thursday, September 05, 2019

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Issues of race, colour, and discrimination are still alive and well in Jamaica. However, we seem to brush them under the table. Our motto “Out of Many, One People” was coined almost 60 years ago. That “one people” ideal has still not materialised. Personally, I believe it cannot materialise, because it connotes the denial of what makes us unique as individuals and promotes the melting pot concept.

Our ancestry, be it African, European, Asian or Middle Eastern, are important identifiers of who we are. Jamaica, after centuries of a very colourful past (European conquest, decimation of the indigenous population, capture and enslavement of Africans, and subsequent post-Emancipation and post-colonial era) has not fully come to terms with valuing our ancestral identities. Apart from spurts of revolutionary ideology and action in post-Independence Jamaica, there has been the absence of a sustained effort to promote equally the value of our African ancestry and heritage.

Vignettes of racial profiling

In the summer of 1993 I went with a group of my fellow The University of the West Indies (UWI) graduates on a graduation celebration trip to Dunn's River Falls. Not having visited that attraction for years we walked behind a small group of white tourists to get to the falls. We were promptly intercepted by a guard who said, “Oui, unno cyaan walk deh so!” [Hello, you can't walk there!]

I promptly pointed to the tourists we were walking behind and asked, “So how did you allow them to go through and you said nothing to them?”

Our group proceeded on the path. Another guard of very dark complexion yelled out, “Cho, mek dem gwaan, a black people, dem no know better.” [Allow them to go ahead. They are black, they don't know better.]

In 1998 (five years later) I was on an education mission to a school in Negril with a group of three other colleague consultants on a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) project. We stopped at a restaurant and had a tasty lunch. At the end of the meal, without asking, the waiter cheerfully handed the bill to the only white male in the group. We had a good laugh because we saw how flustered our white colleague was, and how bewildered the waiter was when we said we wanted separate bills.

Fast-forward to 2019. A family member who works at a four-star resort in Montego Bay is involved in a tragic accident. His colleague with whom he was riding on a motorcycle died and he is battling for life. Family members have journeyed from Kingston and Port Antonio to Montego Bay and are anxious to speak with a doctor to get the prognosis on their ailing son and brother. The nurses informed them that they could not see the doctor until the following day when they were doing the rounds. His employers (Hispanic middle managers) turned up shortly afterwards and requested to see the doctor. The doctor is immediately summoned and shows up. The employers get an update on the ailing man, while the family members were left aghast wondering what just happened.

Tourism and the

These vignettes are just a few illustrative incidents of rampant devaluing of the black race by individuals of the same complexion in Jamaica. Up to the 1980s discrimination against blacks in our hotels was rampant. This softened significantly in the great economic collapse of the late 1990s when local business (for example, teacher residential workshops and other conferences) became the financial saviour to many struggling hotels. At that time, I assume management — prodded by complaints from the conference organisers — prodded their employees to be kinder to their local guests. However, there have still been stories of substandard treatment of guests of darker colour and African descent in our hotels.

Jamaica has always retained strong elements of its African roots. Ironically, a couple nights at a resort on the north coast will reveal neatly packaged bits of our African roots in our music, language classes, and, of course, cuisine. In our education system this is also packaged in our festival of the performing arts and small portions of our history lessons. However, if any efforts are made to formalise any aspect that points to our African heritage, there is great outcry in our society. A few examples include teaching in Jamaican patois — a language which still possesses strong African elements in its vocabulary, sound system, and grammar.

The existence of different standards of recognition, treatment and customer service for people in Jamaica today, because of their colour, calls for attention to be given to issues of discrimination that are still evident in our society. In a country where over 90 per cent of the population is associated with some African roots it is quite befuddling that discrimination is still rampant and is often meted out by our people of the same hue. The historical analyst will always trace this back to centuries of subjugation and brainwashing about the ills of our African heritage by our colonial masters. The psychologists might trace it back to the scars from centuries of physical and mental abuse. However, as an educator, I attribute much of it to the absence of explicit attention to African Diaspora literacy in the early stages of our education system.

Beyond the Obeah debate

The proposal to decriminalise Obeah (a practice that has deep African roots) was met with disdain by many circles of the Jamaican populace. Despite my Christian upbringing, I am fully aware of the colonisers' efforts to demonise all things African and deify all things European. Many of my colleagues in education were surprisingly panicking that the Obeahman would be standing side by side with the preacher in official events. I had to allay their fears by pointing out that decriminalising marijuana hasn't led to “weed” tea being served alongside Blue Mountain coffee at our resorts. The reaction to the Obeah issue transcends the disdain of Obeah itself, because I daresay that many who decry it in public may revere it in their private lives. It is indicative of systemic historical disdain for the celebration of our Africanness.

Is showcasing enough?

Jamaica is undoubtedly big on culture. There has always been a ministry of government with culture in its portfolio. However, this has always been an appendage to a broader ministry with a bigger mandate (for example, education, youth and culture). This gives rise to the question: If we integrated our culture in our school curriculum and our official proceedings, would we need to have our African roots as appendages that we engage when convenient, and deny when we want to demonstrate a more 'official' presence?

It is time to go beyond conversations and implement African Diaspora literacy in our school curriculum at an early age. In diasporic literacy, our children will learn from an early age that their physical appearance, language, and customs are to be celebrated and appreciated. They would know that great people and traditions came out of Africa. It would be a positive step towards removing the veiled stigma associated with our colour and the deference we accord to people of lighter complexion. This requires great introspection and an admission to ourselves that colour is still an issue in Jamaica and “white privilege” is a reality we perpetuate in subtle and not so subtle forms.

So, who will effect the change in self-perception? Is it those in power seeking reparation and entering into agreements that will ultimately benefit the institutions they serve? Or is it a rise in consciousness that will alert us to the fact that reparation for the psycho-social damage inflicted over centuries are far more important than monetary exchanges among intellectuals?

There is no clear answer. However, conversations on race and perceptions of our African heritage need to be prioritised to advance a culture of self-worth among our citizenry who still believe that black is wrong and white is right.

Dr Clement Lambert is an educational researcher, consultant, as well as an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Northern Arizona University. Send comments to the Observer or clementtmlambert@gmail.com.


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