- But some of my best friends are Brown
It is always hard for Caribbean people to talk about that most unspeakable topic: race. But then, perhaps it is hard to talk about it anywhere. We live, each one of us, in bodies that we cannot change, neither can we change the histories that those bodies inherit. Discussions on race can feel divisive and it can feel as if we are called into some silly kind of historical re-enactment. In Jamaica, therefore, whenever the discussions veer dangerously into that most unspeakable topic, and when the discomfort sets in which is usually very soon, you can count on someone to invoke the national motto. ‘Out of many, one people!’ We shout it as a kind of censorship. We insist on it. ‘We are out of many, but we are one people!’
I have this friend – like me, he is relatively young and from Jamaica and lecturing here in London – and whenever we talk about race in Jamaica he loves to say: ‘Kei, I have no problems with brown people. Some of my best friends are brown.’ He means, of course, to echo that most facile rebuttal often made by white people who have been accused of racism. ‘I’m not racist! Some of my best friends are black!’ or worse, the more telling version we imagine as said by a white southerner, ‘I’m not racist! Some of mah best friends is niggers.’
In his own comic way, my friend both acknowledges and pokes fun at the idea of a brown/white Jamaican experiencing discrimination. On the one hand, it is sometimes hard to take seriously the complaints of people who have been historically privileged – who have been granted not only land and money and political power, but the strange privilege of being seen almost always as beautiful, also the privilege of an accent that lends a sense of authority and intelligence to whatever words are imbedded into it, however unintelligent those words might actually be. And there are other privileges as well…such as the right to take offence. We will get to that. Still, on the other hand, the ways in which non-black Jamaicans, and in particular the brown/white Jamaican, is often accused unfairly of all manner of things, is not a thing of fantasy. It is a fact worth considering. And we will get to that as well.
This week, I managed to cause offence. I offended a particular brown/white Jamaican. In truth, all over facebook people were posting this video of a former Miss Jamaica contestant who, in my opinion, was acting quite the fool for the world to see. And all over facebook people commented on this display – the young woman’s arrogance and her flippancy. Other people were smarter though. Perhaps instinctively they knew that though they were engaged in one of the most normal facebook activities – posting a youtube video and commenting on it – that this particular video featured someone who had the special right to take offence. Another Jamaican writer commented on his own timeline that in this video the young woman proved herself 100% moron. And there were worse things said. But those threads were private; mine was public, and so a much larger conversation ensued, one that eventually landed on that most unspeakable topic, and one which, towards the end, included the very woman from the video who rushed in angrily to her own defence.
And suddenly it didn’t matter what my long standing politics on racial constructs in Jamaica have been; it didn’t matter that many of my published essays are at pains to acknowledge the unfair accusations that non-black Jamaicans often face, the multiple apologies they are cornered into making and shouldn’t have to; it didn’t matter that even here, on this blog, my recent ‘Defence of Carolyn Gomes’ once again makes my position clear that I do not agree with the ways non-black Jamaicans are dismissed so easily, how sometimes their very Jamaican-ness is called into question. None of it mattered. Instead I was accused of making a racial judgment, sometimes even a gendered judgment. And I wanted to say as my friend likes to say, ‘But I have no problems with brown people. Some of my best friends are brown.’
2. ‘But I’m not white!’ said the White Jamaican.
‘And I’m not brown!’ said the Brown Jamaican.
This idea of the brown/white Jamaican might seem curious to those not from Jamaica. What do I mean by that? And is it really possible for ‘brown’ (mixed-race) to elide more easily into ‘white’ rather than into ‘black’? Though, Obama is technically just as much the 44th white president of America as he is the 1st black president, the former will never be said. But race in Jamaica operates in a slightly different way than it does elsewhere.
I usually shy away from academic language, but in this instance, the verb ‘to racialize’ is a much more accurate and helpful way to talk and think about race. Despite what we might think, race is not a fact of biology; rather it is a social construction. We do not biologically belong to any race other than the human race; instead we are racialized by the society around us. We are given an assignment. So some of us are racialized as white, and some as black, and some as mixed, and so on. And confusingly, some people’s genealogies are so complex that they are racialized differently depending on the society they find themselves in.
My friend Raymond grew up in London to a black Jamaican father and a white mother; he has always identified as Black British, seen himself as part of Black British culture, and it is Black British aesthetics which largely inform his art. But when he went to Jamaica to connect to his father’s family, they saw before them a man with light skin and ‘good hair’; they heard from his lips a British accent, and so they called him ‘white boy’. It was a shock. ‘But I’m not white!’ he wanted to insist. But such protest would have been useless. In Jamaica, he was white. It was what had been assigned to him in this new context. Still, his protest, however useless, is a complex thing that we must stop to consider. For it wasn’t just the way he was being racialized that concerned him, but all that surrounded it; it was the politics that came with that assignment, the unfair assumptions that were being made. In being called ‘white boy’ he probably heard with it an accusation – that of being privileged, of being the oppressor, of benefiting from a history he had never thought of himself as benefiting from. For a young man who had lived his whole life on a particular periphery of British culture and who understood what oppression felt like – such assumptions were profoundly hurtful.
My father has a similar story. Recently, driving out of St. Andrew’s Parish Church, a man cycled straight into the side of his jeep. He stopped the car and came out. The crowd in Half-Way-Tree who had heard the impact of metal against metal also gathered around. The crowd became boisterous at once. They cried about injustice; they called for the police; they called for CVM TV; they said ‘But look pon dis brown man (my father) who lick dung de poor man off him bicycle; no sah, it nuh fair at all! We want Justice!’ And in the midst of this cacophony, all my father wanted to say was, ‘But I’m not brown!’
My father’s mother is, in almost equal measure, Norwegian, Indian and Black. My father’s father was black, but lighter-skinned. So my father came out that curious complexion where one isn’t always sure if he is ‘proper’ brown (like his mother) or just a lighter-skinned black man (like his father). My father, however, has never been confused about his race. He has always identified as black, and so the baying crowd concerned him – not only because of how he was being racialized, but more importantly, the assumptions behind it – that he must necessarily be the kind of man who lived up in the hills, who looked down on poor black people, and who probably hit them off of their bicycles as a matter of sport.
So when I posted this video of the young woman being silly and offensive, the first person who came to her defence accused me of picking on her because she was white. She ignored the several other posters who registered their own offence and that included other black Jamaicans, brown Jamaicans, white Jamaicans, white British, white Canadians, and others. It seemed easier to focus on me. It was easy to assume that since I was a black Jamaican then I must necessarily have blinkered black-nationalist politics and that it couldn’t have possibly been that there were offensive things in the video. It was assumed that what I was actually taking offence to was her ‘brown-ness’ or her ‘white-ness’.
- The Right to Cause and Take Offence
So what then was so offensive about the video? Many people asked rhetorically – but was there anything untrue in what she said?
No…I wouldn’t say ‘truth’ or lack thereof was what caused offence.
Others asked, again rhetorically, would you have preferred some shallow Jamaica Tourist Board scripted speech? Something like — Come to Jamaica! The land of incredible beauty where everything is wonderful and everyone is happy and nothing is ever wrong!
No…I certainly wouldn’t want that, and I’ve never, ever taken offence to anyone being critical of Jamaica. In fact, I think we need much more meaningful criticism.
I do however take offence to mockery, condescension and derision. But perhaps in the moment of watching the video I was in a particularly sensitive place. Having just heard the news that my most amazing aunt (Dorothea Walker) had just died from complications brought on by the Chik-V virus, I was in no mood to listen to or to tolerate anyone laughing riotously about this disease that is causing havoc and unnecessary deaths all across the island. In a similar same way I wouldn’t expect anyone to laugh about Ebola in West Africa or AIDS across the world. But laugh and laugh she does. She twists her hair, flicks it, bends over and laughs about Chik-V that causes people to have arthritis; she twists her hair some more, flicks it again, bends over and laughs now about the crippling poverty that affects so many Jamaicans. ‘Oh my god!!! Like seriously…I sweaaar to Gawwwd. It’s like sooo funny!’
For those of us making funeral arrangements, it isn’t funny at all, and I wonder about those who seem surprised that so many of us should have registered our own offense at this video. I wonder about a kind of shallowness that demands only that things be true, but does not require a kind of sensitivity and a kind of care in how those truths are spoken.
If I was to do a further literary deconstruction of the transcript of the video I would also note the pronominal construct of it all. It is only half way through the video that the beauty queen thinks to include herself in the category of people she is talking and laughing about. That is to say, she remembers to use the pronoun ‘we’. It is all too telling than until then, the Jamaicans she talks about are ‘they’ – ‘them’ – a category somehow separate from her, and perhaps then, easier to laugh at.
In one of my favourite Miss Lou poems, the narrator finds herself in France in the middle of a language she does not understand. Asking for directions proves frustrating and so in a moment of feeling overwhelmed she tries to reclaim a place of authority and so she decides to ‘leh guh English pon dem!’ English thus becomes a tool to reaffirm one’s place of authority.
Well my dears, that is exactly what the beauty queen did. Arriving on my facebook timeline, she decides to ‘leh guh Englsih pon mi!’ Intent on proving herself not the ‘airhead’ many accused of her being in the video, she seems to have imbibed a dictionary and then spews it back out, the words landing where they may. This is her first sentence: “The reactions to this video are a veritable case study in undue extrapolation, conjecturing far beyond what is empirically available to levelling insults that are, by the way, pretty laden with cornerstone misogynistic overtones.”
Though her sentence teeters on the precarious edge of malapropism, she carries on nonetheless and in that mode. She admits disappointment in me as a ‘literature student’ for missing the irony in her video. My friend, Erin, helpfully points out that she probably meant not a ‘literature student’ but ‘a student of literature’ — a small change but a vastly different meaning. Alas, the beauty queen is continually less than careful in her words and is constantly causing far more offence than she had intended.
But what is incredible in all of this is that the beauty queen has remained insensitive and unapologetic to the offence she has caused many, all the time while insisting on the offence she herself has taken. And that privilege, that right to take offence suddenly strikes me as an incredible thing – a profound right – for it is one and the same as the right to be considered as a fully complex human being, the right to never be made into a caricature. Ironies abound, for in her video, Jamaican people are constantly caricatured but she insists on more than that for herself. We are accused of ‘undue extrapolation’. The beauty queen claims her right to take offense while denying that right to the hundreds of Jamaicans and Caribbean people who first took offense, who have probably lost relatives to Chik-V or who simply don’t find their poverty funny or a thing worthy of belly-aching laughter. We have no right to take offence, the lot of us. According to one poster on twitter we are ‘shitheads’ to express any such offence, especially against one so beautiful. OONOO PLEASE TO LEAVE HER ALONE!
Perhaps we – the originally offended – belong to that category of ‘they’ and ‘them’ on whose behalf she seems hesitant to speak. If there is a problem with our skin it is not necessarily on the level of complexion but on the level of thickness; we, apparently, are too thin-skinned. We need to get over ourselves. Importantly, we must remember that we do not have rights – certainly not the right to take offence or to register such offence. And thinking about it all now, maybe … maybe this really has something to do with privilege. Maybe, this really has a lot to do with race.