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Jamaican blackface

BY GLENROY MURRAY

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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As a majority black nation, Jamaica's people have a knack for spotting out racism in other societies. Historically, our leaders have been keen to denounce racism. Marcus Garvey, our first national hero, continues to be celebrated for his early contribution to the 1960s civil rights movement and the international community has not forgotten how a newly independent Jamaica spoke out against apartheid in South Africa from very early on. Within this context I had expected that people in our society would react appropriately to the manifestation of 'blackface' or any social equivalent thereof.

Blackface refers to the historical practice of actors, primarily white actors, painting their faces dark to represent (stereotypes of) black people in theatre or cinema. Check any old Disney or Warner Brothers' cartoons and see caricatures of black people with overdrawn lips, pitch black skin, with a general lackadaisical disposition. These representations of black people perpetuated harmful stereotypes of black people as being lazy and incompetent. Blackface is properly understood as a manifestation of racism and white supremacy.

It would seem some party promoters watched Dear White People and asked themselves, “How do we take that blackface party and make it Jamaican?” Their answer was to create “a ghetto fabulous” themed party with the dress code being “as ghetto as you wanna be”. The party is costed in a way which would ordinarily exclude the very ghetto people who will be caricatured for the event.

For those of you who see no issue with a ghetto-themed party, consider the following:

Ghetto is not a costume that people choose to wear. Ghetto is a designation given to a set of people because of where they are born. People do not control being born in the ghetto, but are systematically disadvantaged because of that. To treat “ghetto people” as a costume people pick up and put down dehumanises people and ignores the ways in which the Government has failed to provide for their needs.

People from inner-city communities have less access to quality education. The primary education institutions which serve this population are oftentimes under-resourced. Pair this with the way in which the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) acts as a gatekeeper to a successful secondary education, then those who cannot afford to send their children to extra classes are at a significant disadvantage. This is particularly so because people from inner-city communities oftentimes do not have the networks to ensure their children attend the right high school, regardless of their GSAT score.

Their access to employment and tertiary education is further limited. This is compounded by the reality of employment discrimination; Etana didn't create Wrong Address from a storybook. They oftentimes have less access to credit for their business ventures because they did not inherit bank accounts and their parents' credit cards.

People from the ghetto, despite these challenges, continue to be resilient. They “hustle” to make ends meet. They do hair on Princess Street, they run barbershops, they sell bag juice, and load taxis. They make music and create dances.

They were not given the right “Jamerican” accent to find suitable places in air-conditioned offices in New Kingston. They speak in the way they know how to survive. Some are loud because that's the only way a person without a degree and without wealth can be treated with some measure of respect. And I won't even begin to talk about how ghetto people are often targeted by law enforcement and treated unfairly. This is well documented.

For people to make fun of a people who have continued to be resilient and to survive harsh economic conditions and social disadvantage is beyond disappointing. It should earn our collective chagrin. Ghetto people are champions of Jamaican culture and are the embodiment of the Jamaican spirit. People from “uptown” do not get to mimick and mock that. They do not get to make light of it, not with all their privileges. This party is an affront. It is Jamaican blackface and should be treated as such.

Glenroy Murray is a policy and advocacy manager, Equality for All Foundation policy officer, and serves WE-Change. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or glenroy.am.murray@gmail.com.

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