So a very long post from me – maybe a little out of character, not for its length but because I think if I have that annoying thing some people call a ‘brand’ it is the attempt (not always achieved) to be measured and fair and careful in all that I write down. But I’m feeling way too triggered to do all that airbrushing.
Two marches are being promoted in Jamaica to show solidarity with what is happening in America – one for today, and one for Saturday. I fully support solidarity, and yet something about how these marches have been conceived and promoted make me hesitant. To explain that, I must talk from a completely personal space.
So way back when – when that whole bacchanal erupted because of my essay ‘The White Women And The Language of Bees’ – I learnt many things, and these were the kinds of lessons I was determined to learn only once so that I’d never have to learn them again. I wrote a long Facebook post right at the time, saying then that I’d continue it, but I never did. See this then as that continuation. Here are 10 things I learnt from the brouhaha:
1) I was conscious, even then, that I was writing a book – a sequence of essays about how race works in the Caribbean. And that I had the presumption to start writing such a book meant that I thought I understood much of its workings. I learnt then that I didn’t really. I had to live through that bacchanal, to understand on a very personal level, some of the darker workings of race – in order to finish the book.
2) I learnt that the body of a white woman can access ‘damsel’ privilege in a way that no other body can. It is exactly the privilege that Amy Cooper was calling on when she called the cops in Central Park on a black man who shared her last name but not her humanity, and who by making a simple request had irritated her to no end. When the damsel so much as whimpers, she expects to be defended. Her whole life has taught her to be confident in this defence that will surely come.
3) I learnt, fortunately or unfortunately, to be less trusting. When one particular white woman living in Jamaica wrote a public letter to me, I decided to engage. No – she wasn’t at all on my side, but I don’t expect everyone to be. That is arrogance. I still appreciated the attempt at some form of dialogue. I took the time to write out a response to that public letter, but she chose not to publish it. For weeks I checked and my response just withered there on her blog, hidden, ‘waiting approval’, even though she approved other supporting comments that came after. Eventually I just gave up and never even called her out on it. I learnt from that what every writer should learn: to be careful about whose hands we put our voices in. And I’m sure I’m mixing metaphors now – but the very hands that profess they are opening a door for you, would sometimes prefer, given half a chance, to put those hands over your mouth instead – to stifle you or just shut you up.
4) I learnt from that same public letter and other utterances from the writer that the great moral failing in that whole episode was not that a racist thing was said or done but rather that it was exposed. ‘Haven’t you ever said something in private that you regretted?’ she asked – as if racism was a thing so everyday, so permissible, that its casual occurrence should be simply absorbed by the black body as it always is – the black body whose greater moral duty is not to protect itself, but to protect the perpetrator from any possible embarrassment.
5) I learnt, once again from the same letter writer, that when you try to articulate how racism works using contemporary paradigms like ‘white fragility’ or ‘micro-aggressions’ that they can be easily and mockingly dismissed as you just being influenced by the fad of the day – these clearly not being things that actually exist or operate let alone things that have real life consequences.
6) I learnt that people – very well-meaning people who I don’t for a second begrudge – but people nonetheless, from every conceivable corner will, if you talk about race and racism, come out of the woodwork to lecture you on how to do it properly (in the same way that some are lecturing Black Americans now on how to protest properly). Nothing is wrong with your topic – they will say – but couldn’t you have found a way that didn’t make people upset or uncomfortable? Isn’t there some magical way in which people won’t feel unnecessarily accused and can walk away still feeling good about themselves?
7) I learnt that there are other people, much worse than the lot I just mentioned, who will never actually approach you but will whisper amongst themselves (words that eventually make their way back to you) how very disappointed they are in you, how they’re not even sure they’ll be able to look you in the face again, and horse dead and cow fat – because again, it must have been possible for you to be more polite and respectable and generally likable when talking about race and racism. Remember – you must never make the Amy Cooper character upset!
8 ) I learnt what gaslighting looks like. You’re a black man critiquing a white man? Oh! Then that’s reverse racism! (Naah, I’m just call you out on your bullshit.)You’re a black man critiquing a white woman? Oh! Then you’re a misogynist! (Naah! I’m just calling you out on your bullshit.) You’re a black woman critiquing a white woman? Oh! How disappointing! You must be one of those women who don’t support other women! (Naaah! I’m just calling you out on your bullshit!)
9) There was never a threat to my life, but several attempts to threaten my livelihood – attempts to get me disinvited from festivals that had already booked me, attempts to embarrass me enough that my job might reprimand me. The black body that forgets its place will be punished.
10) I learnt that there are a few white people who will absolutely stand up against racism, who believe that racism is worth protesting, but only if they understand themselves to be the victims of it. They will boycott festivals to protest the presence of your own black and clearly racist body – racist because you mentioned race. They will make it understood that any form of racism (against them!) will not be tolerated, because – you know – #AllLivesMAtter
And I learnt that everyone who did the gaslighting and the silencing and the shifting of the moral goalposts and the insisting that racism be discussed in a way that does not discomfit those that benefit from racism – none of them understood themselves to be doing any of it, but just standing up for a friend, or trying to bring peace, or any other heartfelt motive that did not require introspection.But what does any of that have to do with these marches of solidarity planned in Jamaica? It is this: I simply don’t understand how, in this particular moment, you can plan to show solidarity without doing the hard work of introspection.
I do not understand how we continue to locate racism as something that happens over there – way over there – in America. I do not understand why we wouldn’t take this moment to reflect on how these things operate in our own world. It is obvious that the outcomes of racist ideology are often lethal in America – but we are not simply protesting the outcomes. We are protesting the mindsets that make such outcomes possible. At some point we have to recognise that those mindsets operate just as much in the Caribbean and lead to their own unique outcomes.
You cannot condemn some idea of ‘Black American docility’ and not recognize that when a black boy is kicked out of a prep school in Jamaica because of his afro – that that is an outcome of racist ideology. You cannot ignore that the crowd that insists in defence of the school’s policy that ‘Rules are rules!’ is a crowd that is promoting the same docility that you condemn in America.
You cannot continue to condemn the Jamaican language and wish that people would learn good and proper English without recognizing it as a local outcome of racist ideology.
You cannot have a march in Jamaica protesting the death of George Floyd in America without making space as well to acknowledge, in that same march, the death of Susan Bogle as a local outcome of a classist ideology that is profoundly rooted in a larger racist ideology.
What kind of f&*ing solidarity is it that is only willing to look, fingers wagging, across the water, but never in the mirror?
I am not immune. Housed as I am in a black body I have been on the receiving end of racism, but growing up privileged in Jamaica means that I still have easy class assumptions that are rooted in racist ideology.
I support marches of solidarity, but I wish they were reconceived in ways to also acknowledge local outcomes of racism. That to me would be solidarity of a more powerful and meaningful kind.
Image credit: Blue Curry. Untitled. Hair Comb Series, 2013-19.
Kei Miller is a poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer and a broadcaster. He is the author of over nine books, and winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literaure for his novel Augustown.