Aah Kei Miller. This morning: Leone Ross’s post, Sarah Manley’s post, my son’s post, and now yours. I started to write a response to you, Kei, and I became fearful. I stopped. But now I’m going to try, not so much about our planned protests here, I completely agree with you on that, but about the things you say you’ve learned during the responses to your white woman essay.
I am mixed race – as a young person I had no idea how mixed – but I was brought up white. That’s how I’ve come to think of it – the words are inadequate, but it’s the best I can do. So I didn’t get the gift of blackness that Leone’s mother granted to her, and I didn’t straddle the worlds like Sarah did, not as a young person. I was oblivious to the worlds then. None of my upbringing was done with language – I don’t remember any discussions on race until I was in my early twenties and had begun to read more widely and I was the one to initiate those discussions, not my parents. No, my white upbringing was far more subtle and some of it lives with me still – a value for European art, architecture and music, an ignorance and devaluation of other cultures, a belief that there was no such thing as Jamaican language, this was just bad English and a sign of low class, and most seriously, a learned blindness to realities which were not my own.
What I read as a youngster was entirely white – Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, etc, and my early high school education was predominantly English-biased. It was only in fifth and sixth form I met Caribbean literature. I remember reading A House for Mr Biswas, and being astounded by the beauty of the prose, but here’s the thing – it was Caribbean, the place I called home, but it wasn’t my story. I was a minority light-skinned person in my class at school, but then I had no idea my excellent all girls high school was not the norm for every Jamaican. But I was also a young teenager who stepped outside the bounds of my social class in a physical sense – I rode a bicycle and then a horse all over the streets of Kingston – and I soon encountered my own othering – shouts of “pork”, judgments of ‘white gal’ which were not merely descriptive. As Kei has written, I became racialized here. At home.
Then my parents sent me to an A-level college in the UK – I was young when I finished high school and had failed one A-level, and my parents thought I was too young for university; there I found out I was NOT white. There were two people of colour in my dorm – me, and a girl from Tehran, both white-ish to look at, you understand, but still, somehow, not white. We were both given petty and unwelcome attentions from the old white woman in charge of us – our warden – and it took me a while to realize why she hated us both. My parents identified with England – I think they would agree, they’re both dead now – but it was not home to me and I yearned for Jamaica.
Then came the 1970s and the five flights speech and the crime which was becoming targeted (it seemed – and this was intolerable) at ‘good’ addresses, and the fear that had always, always, lived among us, we, the privileged, that fear swelled and bloated. Family and friends left – many of them still hate what they see as ‘what was done to Jamaica’ in the 1970s. For me, it was not so simple. I stayed, chose to stay, actually, because there was a short migration to Canada with my husband and young son. (I wrote, ‘mixed-race husband’ and took it out. I don’t even know if that’s how my now ex-husband would define himself!)
Much later, I was pulled into, no, I pulled myself into, a public role as an environmental advocate and of course I was the wrong colour for that, and this was pointed out over and over again. And the environmental movement in Jamaica, if it can be called that, is still predominantly white.
And I wanted to write, had always wanted to write, but whose stories would I tell? Am I even a Caribbean writer?
I had a country but not, it seemed, a culture.
So Kei, I want to say to you that of course your white women essay was uncomfortable for us, however that ‘us’ is defined, and it is easier to remain silent than to try to respond as I am trying to here, easier to take offense, easier to fall back on a reflexive defensiveness, to wish for a gentler tone from a critic. For myself, I’m trying to listen, to learn, to read, and to realize not just in my head but in my heart that my own discomfort, even hurt, is infinitesimal compared to the hurt and threat and violence experienced in black lives, now and in the past; here and elsewhere.
Today, at home, yes, at home, an 81-year-old black man, Noel Chambers, incarcerated for 40-odd years without trial, died in prison of starvation and neglect. That, I am sure, will never happen to me inside my white-ish skin. So I’ll cope with discomfort and rejection and being called out, and I’ll manage exclusion. As my son, Jonathan, said in his post, better than I have, I do offer solidarity and allyship in this moment.
Pic caption, Church Corner, Morant Bay, St Thomas
Diana McCaulay is a Jamaican writer and environmental activist. She lives in Kingston. Her fifth novel, Daylight Come, will be published by Peepal Tree Press in September 2020.