Of stereotypes and labelling

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Of stereotypes and labelling

Donna
Hope

Thursday, February 20, 2020

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During my first stint in the corporate world years ago I worked as a legal secretary in a law firm downtown Kingston. That place taught me many many lessons. One day, a man turned up at the front desk. He looked like someone who had literally just come in from farming a field all day. He spoke in loud, boisterous tones, laughing heartily, voice booming. He was quite unlike all the other clients that had come to the law firm since I began working there.

The receptionist dealt with him professionally. My desk was close to the front, in the wide open area, and I looked on inquisitively at this enigmatic person. Eventually, the gentleman was ushered inside the office to see his attorney. He greeted everyone with a loud, cheery voice. He turned out to be one of the well-known and well-loved clients of the firm, a hotelier and a man who loved life.

I later learnt that cars were one of his passions and he owned several brand name vehicles – the usual fleet of Benzes, BMWs. His wife eventually came by to do business; a svelte, beautiful, and well-groomed woman. I often wonder how he would fare amongst the celebrity following, hype-blinded mob of today. How would they react to a man like him on first sight, especially as the long-standing and now very popular trend is to judge books by their covers?

In today's Jamaica, more than ever, you are what you wear, what you drive, where you socialise, where you live, and so on. Indeed, for many, a person's entire cache of identity and their future prospects can be deduced at a glance. This trend of using superficial markers to rank self-worth, honed in the classist underbelly of Jamaica, has hit the stratosphere in today's world, leading many to misjudge and, even worse, to do unnecessary harm to the self-esteem of those who they deem unworthy.

So, recently I've been thinking a lot about how we identify and treat each other based on labels, perceptions, and the ideals of status as we negotiate this timeline — and some things call out more than others. One such poignant call came last weekend while I was at Centrestage theatre watching a truly excellent production, Patrick Brown's The Windscream Posse. As always, this team's production provided much food for thought around very contemporary social issues, spiced with humour and well-placed popular music and singing. I was choking with laughter in one minute and choking back tears in the next at the heart-rending stories that showcased the intertwined tales of poverty, abuse, abandonment, loss, fear, love, friendship, and caring in the lives of The Windscream Posse.

The often nameless and faceless windscreen wipers that many of us encounter daily were humanised in the humorous antics, playful interaction, and dead-serious engagements of Bull (Glen “Titus” Campbell) Stamma/Lickshot (Courtney Wilson), Crissy (Sharee Elise), Midget (David Crossgill), Pretty Dunce (Quera South), with Saltfish (Ryann Graham) and Sardine (Annmarie Jump). A lack of family support and critical, necessary social resources to care for and protect our vulnerable children resonated throughout this production. But what also resonated throughout The Windscream Posse was the summary disregard for the lives, futures, and development of many children; these young men and women who end up homeless, living on the streets, often with responsibility for their siblings and sometimes even parents and other family members.

How do we treat with them when we meet them; these children carrying adult responsibilities and facing adult challenges far too soon? Usually, many people are, at best, annoyed or, at worst, angered by the presence and insistence of the often all-male windscreen wipers at various intersections. Bogged down by their own pressing issues of work, family, bills, and so on, many have little time to stop and think about the reasons these young men (and women?) end up here, hustling at traffic lights, what dangers they encounter and navigate daily and nightly. No one considers what kind of future prospects might lay in store for them.

You will have to see it for yourself. Nonetheless, weaving its way through too many lows and few highs, The Windscream Posse ends on a high, hopeful note, even as it balances reality because, the truth is, not everyone makes it out of those depths. Here, I have to give kudos to those who collaborated on the Windscreen Wipers Initiative in 2019 to provide a group of young windscreen wipers with a bit of hope beyond the stereotypes.

And then there are the deportees who continue to be in the news. The recent hue and cry about a group of 50 Jamaicans to be sent home from England and calls for the Jamaican Government to refuse landing rights to the carrier in the post-Windrush scandal period trended for several days last week. Even with a last-minute court order in place, efforts to stall this latest in the now regular round of deportees from England were not fully successful and 17 of those individuals were deported to Jamaica.

Every year stories of planeloads of deportees on their way home from the USA or England makes the rounds and, at times like these, I ruminate on Buju Banton's song Deportee, which carries haunting lines that hit home very harshly in its depiction of these individuals. “Boy get deport, come dung inna one pants,” isn't a laughing matter. Having no “abiding city” and being “bruk an; nuh have nuh money” is torture. Even while individuals can be and are deported for a range of activities, including overstaying their times or non-fatal traffic offences, the ideas that coalesce around the image of a deportee are usually of someone who is a hardened or violent criminal, perhaps involved in illegal drug or gun activities. These ideas and the accompanying stereotypes that are often boosted by news stories from the site of origin, and local disaffection with those who lost their “golden opportunity”, affect the reception that many receive in Jamaica, especially when they attempt to reintegrate into the society to seek jobs and so on.

One young man explained that once potential employers heard his English accent they wanted to know why he was seeking that kind of job, instead of going back to England. They then enquired if he was a deportee. People are so afraid of the deportee image and its purported connections to crime and violence that they are unwilling to offer employment. What is frightening and often painful is that many of these men and women are wrenched from the bosom of their families and repatriated to a country from which they have often long cut ties. Indeed, many had been taken to England as children under the care of their parents and so, even while deportees try to find some footing in what is now a foreign country, the moral debate on what constitutes a citizen in England is crucial. This is even more so as we navigate our connections to a place whose monarch still stands as our head of State.

More often than not, stereotypes and labels are negative. They are facile and easily available methods of identification. They are weapon-like in their certainty and usually used to inflict harm on others. After all, it is less work to wrap bothersome individuals into a neat little box and metaphorically dispose of them as individuals of less value, than it is to look beyond and perceive our common humanity.

So, is s/he a windscreen wiper, hustler, or a child struggling to survive and come into adulthood in these mean streets? Is s/he a hardened criminal to be feared or a person who has been ripped from family and friends and sent back to his/her site of natal origin? You decide what is inside that book, just by what you see on the cover.

PS: While writing this column sad news came of the passing of Fredrick “Tippa” Moncrieffe, well-known dancehall dancer and dance TV instructor. Many know Tippa from the TV show Intense. I extend my sincere condolence to his family, friends, and the extended dancehall community. Continue to dance with the stars, Tippa.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or dqueen13@hotmail.com.


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