Mr Brown (1 of 3 essay-stories on race in Jamaica)
And because high school boys had learnt the habit of addressing each other and identifying themselves by their surnames, he has carried this into adulthood. He will often introduce himself simply as ‘Brown’. ‘Good evening,’ he might say, ‘I am Brown.’ And often this has become a sort of unwitting joke – for the word ‘brown’ on the island signified something more than just a name, but a sort of ethnicity, a mulatto-ness if you will. ‘Brown by name and nature, I see!’ is a rejoinder Sebastian Brown has heard too many times. These days, he even anticipates it, but is generous enough to smile each time as if he is hearing the witticism for the first time.
When he is alone, as he is now, Mr Brown likes to think about his ‘brownness’ though he does not share these thoughts with anyone. He learnt a long time ago – from his days in college – that to share one’s thoughts could be dangerous. And in any case he is not an argumentative man, nor the kind who takes much pleasure in bringing people around to his way of seeing things. It is satisfaction enough for him to live with a thought, even for years, slowly peeling away at its levels of complexity. Many evenings you will find him here – silent on the verandah that overlooks the city of Kingston, sitting with a bottle of Redstripe, and with his thoughts.
Having travelled around the world, Mr Brown has come to the conclusion that he is a man of indeterminable race. He has seen the look of confusion on people’s face – a confusion that gives way even to an annoyance. It is as if people believe it is his own duplicitousness, his own guile and cunning that makes him not reveal his true racial self to them – and it is as if such people believe that if only they knew what exactly he was, they would then know everything about him. He knows too well the furrowed brow, and how the lips of a person will part slowly, carefully before asking him the same old question: What exactly are you? When he travels through Miami, he has learnt to say very quickly, ‘No entiendo Espanol.’ Before they take him as Latino. In Spain he is taken as Spanish, and in Trinidad as well, though ‘Spanish’ in Trinidad means something else. In Greece he is taken as Greek, and in Egypt and Morocco and Algeria he is taken as Arab. It is impossible for him to learn how to say ‘I do not understand’ in every language, or ‘I am not this thing you think I am.’ In Jamaica, however, he is simply ‘brown’ and it is a strange comfort to Sebastian, to be so placed and in a category that he knows, and understands, and accepts.
It is true though, that some days Mr Brown thinks he may as well be Arab, or Latino, or Spanish or whatever the hell it is people think he might be. For what is race anyway but a decision that other people make about you – an assignment that has been given to you. Race, it seems to Mr Brown, is not so much what you are, as it is what people have decided that you are – what it is they see in you, how they make sense of you. Race and Ethnicity are not the same things. Ethnicity is what is in your actual DNA, your genes, your ancestry and all of that. Race on the other hand is how society constructs you – what it is they see in you, and it does not matter whether they see wrongly or not. What they see does not your approval, or to be corroborated by facts. For most people in the world, their ethnicity and their racial assignments are one and the same things, so it is easy to confuse the two. For people like Mr Brown, however, things are more complicated. As Mr Brown has travelled around the world he has also travelled in and out of races.
Sebastian Brown is not always a fan of academic language though he was once in the academy. He left that life many years ago (Harvard to be precise) and has not looked back. But sometimes, he must confess, that oh-so-turgid language actually gets things right. He is therefore a fan of the word ‘racialized’. He believes it is altogether more accurate to say that So-and-So is racialized as black, than to say ‘So-and-So is black’. Or it is better to say ‘So-and-So is racialized as white’ than to say ‘So and So is white.’ Sebastian Brown’s mother for instance had always been racialized as black, though this was not the entire truth of her ethnicity, of her very mixed heritage. Her physiognomy and complexion showed little evidence of the Lebanese/Chinese/White mix that was also part of her family’s story and which her siblings (to her great resentment) showed off generously in the olive colour of their skin and the curly bounce of their hair. In the presence of her siblings people would ask incredulously, ‘Then you really have the same mother and father?’ and then to themselves exclaim, ‘Then is how she come out so black?’ In vain, Sebastian’s mother had lived her life trying to insist she was more than what her skin suggested. ‘I’m not really black you know! On my mother’s side, my grandfather did come to Jamaica straight from Lebanon – set up shop right there on King’s Street, and my father’s mother was a woman who did mix with Chinese and white – no nayga was in her at all!’ It didn’t matter – this useless insisting on genealogy. She came out looking the way she did and was always racialized as black.
All that complicated genealogy was only stored up inside her to be passed down to her children – her children whose brownness she would revel in, taking it as new evidence of her own superior pedigree. Over and over, his mother had said to her two children, ‘Look at your clear skin, and your good hair. We are people of a higher calibre. Remember that!’ And these were things said so matter-of-factly, and corroborated by everyone – by teachers, by friends, by security guards who dutifully opened every gate wide for them – that it was difficult for Sebastian Brown to unlearn these things. How does one unlearn privilege, especially the kind that is given to you daily and without question, so it does not seem like privilege at all, but simply the everyday-ness of life.
At Harvard, he had studied economics. He had even begun a PhD though his heart had never been in it. He was clever enough and had won a scholarship. It was the 1990s. His group of friends were mostly international students and he had envied the way they were not only bright, but also eager. It was as if they all wanted to change the world. They truly believed that they would. Deconstruction theory was all the rage then, and having come from small corners of the world, they were also postcolonialists – in love with Said and Spivak and Bhaba. It was at dinner one evening that Prisha, a linguist from India, had asked him, ‘So how does postcolonial theory inform your own work as an economist?’ The whole table had turned to him, for he had not really spoken about his work before, his research, his ideas. They were very curious. But Sebastian Brown was not like them. He did not believe in things in the way they did. He didn’t have the same kind of passion. He had raised his eyes querulously. ‘The Postcolonial?’ he asked. ‘Is that a real thing? Isn’t it just a category of discrimination that rich kids from the third world like to claim when we find ourselves here, in America, in the academy, and we want tenure or something like that? It’s nice to feel oppressed. Then we don’t have to face the fact that back home we are actually the oppressors.’
You could have heard a mouse fart! He tried to take it back, to laugh awkwardly as if it was just a joke, but everyone could see it wasn’t just a joke. It was a statement so profoundly unfair and yet so profoundly true. It was as if he had betrayed them. In the silence that followed he could already feel the tenuous knots of friendship unravelling – people pulling away from him. He had revealed too much of themselves to themselves, and perhaps too much of himself – for there it was – what no one had been able to read in him before, because they had had no context to read it – his sense of his Jamaican brownness – a privilege which not even America could diminish in him.
He never finished the PhD. He left – ABD – All But Dissertation. He has never regretted that, though some days, back in Jamaica, he thinks maybe he should have studied something else – something like sociology, or even ethnography. Lord knows he spends enough of his spare time thinking about these things. He has collected old ‘Casta’ charts from Mexico – read their explanations of mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, mestizo, mustee, zambo. When he hears new racial terms across the Caribbean, he writes these down as well – dougla, hawkwei, shabine. The distinctions within a single racial category also fascinate him: busha – a white native; whitey – a white tourist; red – which could just as easily be one of those German descended creoles from St Elizabeth, or a poor white who had been burnt red from the sun.
Still, it is brownness that most fascinates Mr Brown – the way it both functions as a race – as its own distinct race – and yet is hidden as a racial category. Sometimes this is quite obvious, like when the brown woman down the road got herself into that great big deal of trouble. She had made a public complaint about her neighbour – her neighbour who happened to be a black man – her neighbour who was really just a country boy who had done well for himself, had come into money and moved himself into the well-heeled neighbourhood. She had complained, as uptown people will, that his music was too loud, and that his parties were too many and that they went on well into the morning. And even on Sundays there was no respite, for he would rev his motorbike along the once-quiet street. It had all become too much for her. He was a terror. And how she wished and wished and wished (this is what she wrote) that he would just go back to where he came from.
Poor brown lady. She had taken him as just another country boy – the kind of boy she had learnt her whole life that she should be able to talk down to and reprimand. She did not take him for who he had become, a man beloved around the world, a decorated Olympian, Usain Bolt. The backlash was tremendous. Some people thought she would have to migrate. It got worse as the story emerged from other neighbours that his parties were actually not that many, and his music not so loud, and though he did ride a motorbike, so did several others in the neighbourhood – but these other motorcycle riders looked very much like the woman who was complaining. They did not look like Usain Bolt. So why did she zero in on him? Why?
But here is what Mr Brown finds fascinating – that when the brown lady was accused of being out of order, the entire country agreed, Oh yes! Yes! De woman was well out of order! And when she was accused of being unfair, and rude, and classist, everyone was hollering as if they were at a political rally, blowing their vuvuzelas to punctuate every point. Is true! Is true! She too raaas unfair, and she bloodclawt rude, and she look down pon poor people like she better dan we. But then, when someone introduced that big and contentious R word – when it was suggested that in addition to her general rudeness, and her classism, that as well her statement was racist, then all at once the same critics were sputtering out their cups of tea, turning to each other frantically, raising their hands and shouting together, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop! Now this thing is going too far!’
It was the same old Sankey after that: Yes, we have a class problem in Jamaica. Of course we do. And as well, there is a colour problem – so many people bleaching their skins. It is an issue. You might even go so far as to say we have a problem with shadeism or colourism, but no one can accuse us of having a race problem! And look at this case in particular. The lady is brown! Do you understand that? She is brown! That means there is some black in her. Somewhere. The point is, she cannot possibly be racist.
It seems to Mr Brown that brownness is like a magical cloak in Jamaica, how the person who wears it is allotted a kind of power and prestige but when push comes to shove, that same cloak can hide the wearer within blackness or even whiteness.
Mr Brown understands his island’s reluctance to use the big and contentious R word. It is a brutal word, uncouth even in the softness of its own sounds. And it is generally assumed that racism is a thing that only happens on TV, or in America, or in the distant past, and it is always tied to white supremacy. Mr Brown thinks differently. Mr Brown believes that to understand racism, then the first thing you must understand is how race is constructed and how it functions in a specific place. ‘White’ is not the same thing everywhere, and ‘Black’ is not the same thing everywhere, and some countries have races that do not function at all in other countries – bodies that when they travel cause people to look at them curiously, and if the onlooker is brave enough they might ask, ‘but exactly what are you?’.
Mr Brown believes that only then – only when we know how race works in a specific place can we begin to think about the ways in which power and prestige are distributed unevenly based on those local ideas about race and colour and phenotypical features. If race works and behaves differently in different places, then the same is true for racism. Mr Brown does not believe that the brown lady who complained about Usain Bolt was a white supremacist, or that she didn’t have black friends, or black aunts and uncles and cousins. But he believes that she was participating in a kind of racism all the same – a kind of racism that is specific to Jamaica but for which the island does not yet have the language to talk about or examine.
But Mr Brown only thinks these thoughts. He would never share them with anyone, because these are the kinds of thoughts that implicate him. Any why would he want to do that?
His phone buzzes. He glances at the screen and sees that it is an incoming Whatsapp message from his neighbour, Mrs Veronica White. Instinctively he looks across to the property next door and sure enough there she is on her own verandah. She smiles and waves in his direction. He reads the message. ‘If you are walking over to No 18 later, do knock on my gate. I will walk over with you.’ He had almost forgotten about the dinner party. He looks back over and gives Mrs. White the thumbs up sign.