What else have I missed today in apartheid Jamaica? Sarah Manley’s startling status update on Facebook a few days ago resonated deeply, pinpointing as it does the invisible walls that divide this society. These walls relegate poor, black bodies to oblivion while corralling the country’s profits and benefits for the middle and upper classes—Team Light-Skinned as Garnette Cadogan terms it—who run things here.
George Floyd’s wanton slaying in the United States, caught on film as his very breath was squeezed out of him by American police dressed in standard issue “uniforms of brutality” was doubly shocking in that the officer knew he was being filmed and seemingly didn’t care about the consequences. The brazenness of the attack on Floyd provoked a maelstrom of protest starting in the neighbourhood where it happened and rapidly spreading from city to city in the USA and then globally where it intersected with local rights-based battles. For instance, in India several Bollywood actors and actresses who made statements in support of the #BlackLivesMatter protests were called out for their hypocrisy because several of them are also spokespersons for skin-lightening creams such as Fair and Lovely.
In Jamaica, a call to join in the global protests produced a different kind of quandary for some. How could we protest police brutality in the US when there haven’t been widespread national protests against police brutality in Jamaica? There are protests of course but they’re small and rarely move beyond the immediate locale of the atrocity in question. Valiant human rights groups such as Jamaicans for Justice have done their work but how many of us have joined their protests in numbers large enough to make a difference?
How could we support an anti-racism demonstration exclusively about racism in the US when it’s alive and flourishing on these very shores? What about showing our solidarity with such causes? Didn’t we support the South African struggle against apartheid, asked Rupert Lewis and other scholars? Shouldn’t we continue to support such struggles for human rights wherever they happen?
The dilemma, of course, is that as a society we remain indifferent to human rights abuses of our own citizens. During the course of the week the media disclosed that an 81-year old Rastafarian prisoner, Noel Chambers, had died in custody after being detained at the Governor-General’s pleasure without trial for 40 years (Kudos to INDECOM, the police watchdog NGO for bringing this to light). The inhumane death of Chambers, whose body was emaciated and covered with scars, and the certainty that there are others like him languishing in Jamaica’s pitiless prisons underscores the need for local protests insisting that Black Jamaican lives matter.
Kei Miller, one of Jamaica’s foremost writers, wrote a longish post on Facebook asking how, in this particular moment, Jamaicans could plan to show solidarity with African-Americans without doing the hard work of introspection right here, at home. His meditation took him back to lessons he had learnt during and after the publication of his groundbreaking 2018 essay, White Women and the Language of Bees, in PREE. Some of the issues he revealed there provoked a series of responses on Facebook, introspective examinations by a range of individuals about their particular backgrounds and heritage and how they fit into the charged racial landscape of the Caribbean. Monique Morrison wrote “The classism born of racism in Jamaica is like climbing slippery walls for the masses including those of us deluding ourselves by trying to live a law abiding so-called middle-class life. So many knees on so many necks…”
A teacher named Shyrel-Ann Dean described her teaching strategies, a model for pedagogical intervention:
My classrooms are loud and political. I drive into them every day how important it is to push back, take claim of their lives and reject the box food politics that has kept them and generations of our families locked into poverty and violence. I taught them how to push back on the colonial ideologies that insist that they are not good enough and must accept their position of servitude to the brown upper class.
The good news. I taught those 13-16 year old children to read for the first time (yes, they were just learning to read! Having been in school for 10 years) and over the two decades they are now taking their place as teachers, police officers, doctors, business owners, all with my voice in their heads and a new agenda.
Dean highlights one of the continuing problems in postcolonial Jamaica that perpetuate the gross inequality in this society. Children from impoverished backgrounds can go to school for 10 years without learning to read! This is how an apartheid system is propagated–with poor schools for poor children and good schools for well-off ones.
We at PREE decided that some of the more sustained responses deserved wider exposure, discussing as they do, the multifaceted nature of racial and ethnic identity in the Caribbean. Not every single text is a direct response to Miller’s post, but they are all inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter protests.
A pigmentocracy that has existed for centuries cannot be dismantled overnight. Unfortunately, decolonization couldn’t just be programmed into the national mindset at Independence. What the nation’s founding fathers did instead was to adopt a policy of non-racialism, fostering a myth of Jamaica as an exemplar of racial harmony, a melting pot of different races and ethnicities. The identity being promoted was Jamaicanness and being Jamaican, not Black Jamaican versus White or Chinese or Indian Jamaican. As a commenter on one of Kei Miller’s posts on the subject correctly said, “Jamaica’s motto, ‘Out of Many, One People’ is our own version of ‘All Lives Matter’.” So entrenched is this policy of non-racialism that the very utterance #Blacklivesmatter has elicited the pat response of #AllLivesMatter from some members of privileged minority groups here.
The image anchoring this text is a photo of a John Crow Blow Nose or Basket Stinkhorn Fungus taken by the ceramicist David Pinto. Its hideous beauty perfectly symbolizes the raw and smelly wound of systematic racial and class discrimination still haunting the Caribbean. It’s an unpleasant thing to face down but face it we must.
The predictable rush to head off these discussions on race, to divert or silence them, is regrettable. The term ‘Karen’ frequently enters social media discussions on the subject, having become an internet meme for a light-skinned or White individual perceived to be entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is considered appropriate or necessary. According to Wikipedia “A common stereotype is that of an American middle-aged white woman who displays aggressive behavior when prevented from getting her way.” In this context Adam Patterson red-flagged “The flexes being performed against Kei’s meaningful reflection of the work against anti-blackness we need to do in our own backyards, somehow turning it into ‘this post is about me and i don’t like it! I was the white woman in question!’”
“What kinda academic-karen foolishness is this?” asks Patterson, going on to say: “Sis, no one cares that it’s you, it’s not about you right now.” And that really is the point. For once an honest and introspective discussion about race and racism in the Caribbean has kicked off. Let’s all tune in. At PREE we aim to foster fruitful discussions about the Caribbean and its politics. We welcome comments on the posts themselves and are willing to publish new responses as long as they are civil and genuinely introspective.
Annie Paul is editor-in-chief of PREE and managing editor of Social and Economic Studies.