The case of mistaken identity

Becoming the victim of discrimination is something that haunts many people. I don’t want to limit my concern to black people, because I know that the problem is not limited to people of any one colour or race. But, my concern is not so much about racism, which I sometimes see as being identified too readily as ’cause’ once black and white people are involved in disputes. Many of my friends will have their own stories of discrimination, which have nothing to do with race as the main cause, but because they are female, or male, or gay, or did not go to university, or went to a certain school, or did not go to a certain school, or live in a certain place, or come from a certain country or region, or eat certain foods, or …

However, once again, some highly publicized incidents raise public awareness of something that is all too common, although, as is all too common, the focus is on racism.

Oprah Winfrey is now in a public spat about what happened recently in a Swiss store, when she wanted to buy a handbag. The bag she wanted was very expensive and she felt that a store worker’s refusal to show her the bag reflected racist motives. I am always leery about getting into other people’s heads and what they are thinking. But, to keep it simple, let’s agree that Oprah believes what she’s saying. The worker has now taken her turn to contest publicly the celebrity’s account. Let’s take it that the shop worker believes what she said. So, we have two people telling what they believe to be the truth, about an incident, but their stories do not seem to gel. Such is the making of misunderstanding. Here, one person feels slighted and it’s quite possible that the other person meant no slight. The slighted person takes it as a sign of discrimination; the alleged offender denies the charge. Outsiders have been quick to take sides, some seeing Oprah as motivated by opportunities for publicity as a new movie is coming. Some wonder whether a store worker would pass up the potential large commission from selling a very expensive item to play out some prejudice. The water gets muddy. We will see how this plays out. Just a few hours ago, a new story came out with Oprah apologising and saying that this was “just an incident in Switzerland”. Maybe, this will end with no harm, no foul.

That is different from another recent incident, when a black American baseball player (Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles) alleged that he had bananas thrown at him on the field. I say alleged because he did not see the thrower, and someone claiming to be thrower has come forward to admit throwing the banana, but also claiming that it was in disgust at how his team was playing against the Orioles, not at the player. The Jones incident is different from what happened to Mario Balotelli (AC Milan) some months agobalofront_2491925b: he was taunted by rival Inter Milan fans, who waved inflatable bananas at him. In the world of sport, taunting by rivals and their fans is not new, and the abuse seems better if it is more likely to ‘get under the skin’ of the intended victim. Anything to get an edge. Players do it. Fans do it. It’s not nice. I was reading last night about the rant on Twitter by English golfer, Lee Westwood, who was upset by ‘trolls’ who took on his lack of success at the PGA (and other majors) and he told them to “bring it on”. It may seem childish. It may get the actors on both sides into trouble. But, humans have not been conditioned to do only sensible things and fear of trouble has not stopped many idiotic acts.

My view is that one has to be highly deluded to believe that the human world is without discrimination. We may see more of certain types than others, but it’s something that is very much part of the core of how many of our societies have developed. Prejudgment, preference, unfairness, insults, etc. underlie many activities that we see as normal. What is deemed normal is not agreed universally. I am not going to defend any practices, but I’m also not going to get into any wholesale condemnation, because that may easily betray my own prejudices, preferences, sensitivities, etc. The motivation behind such actions is what we find bothersome. I may try to bring up my child by pushing certain values, but she will have other values pressing on her which are in contradiction. She’ll end up bending one way or another. I hope my way, but no guarantees. She may just end up well-equipped to see what is going on, but in no position, or with no personal inclination to take it on.

Oprah is black and very wealthy (estimated net worth about US$2 billion). She let her sensitivity about being slighted for her race be known. Would some feel that her willingness to spend somewhere in excess of US$40,000 on a handbag and being upset about not getting what she wanted displayed any offensive behaviour? I’ve read some comments from people who wondered what her conspicuous consumption might have displayed, and that she too is guilty of discrimination. I leave that as food for thought.

When I see people railing about black people being mistreated by whites, I always smile and remember being in a pub in Wales, where a group of (white) English-speaking tourists came in and wanted to be served, but the (white) Welsh-speaking landlord ignored them until they left, at which point most in the pub (mainly Welsh speakers) cheered. (I speak some Welsh and could understand the unpleasant comments coming from those happily having their beers. Though, I’m black, I have a true Welsh name. I was more ‘insider’ than the English ‘outsiders’.) There’s a long history of animosity between the English and their Celtic neighbours. The Welsh symbol is a red dragon. The English patron saint, George, was famous for slaying a dragon. Modern people may see that as evidence enough that the two nations should dislike each other–even though in the past the red dragon was part of English monarchy symbols. The dragon/dragon-slayer imagery alone would seem to support the idea that serious disagreements are the norm between these people.

News media do not often publish stories of incidents where white people are the victims of other white people’s prejudices, unless it occurs in some big context such as results in social conflicts, often cataclysmic ones. Think of Nazi Germany and Jewish persecution. Think of Bosnian genocide. Incidents on a smaller scale–say, one-on-one, are rarely reported, or get classed as something ‘normal’ rather than something that involves any major social issues. If sports teams from the US South are in a spat with teams from the North, do the writers run for the ‘Confederates versus Yankees’ box? The media have their biases, and when racial or ethnic issues are big in a society, those biases may get played out in what is deemed newsworthy. Think hard now. When is the last time you read about ‘white-on-white crime‘? Of course, it occurs a lot, but it’s seen as part of something other than prejudice or other discrimination. Men killing or harming women is not often tackled as evidence of misogyny. Men killing men is not often tackled as signs of any discrimination unless it is staring the reporters in the face (such as when one party is homosexual) and there is evidence of some rift). Groups taking it out on each other will get attention, as in some civil war context. But, more often, such incidents are seen as evidence of disaffection within parts of a society, and discussion moves to ‘subcultures’: think about Mods versus Rockers in the UK in the 1960s; punks; hippies; skinheads, etc. mods_and_rockersSo, it is not easy for ordinary people to get a handle on what is really going on. Their conclusions and those of so-called experts may be simplistic. Neither may be totally right, and neither may be totally wrong. Conclusions will depend on prior assumptions–prejudices, preferences, etc.

But, we have to deal with our perceptions, but they are not pure and can be due to misunderstanding. Dealing with them need not involve action, and we have to understand that much is absorbed without evident reaction.

When talking with friends over the weekend, plenty of stories came out about how the English treated Jamaicans badly when they were new immigrants in London. The stories of available rented rooms, which suddenly were let once the prospective tenant was seen to be black. “Europeans only” or “No blacks” were not unusual signs, back then. If bad intent existed on the part of the English, then it was not good. If it was based on ignorance, do we feel any better about the slights? Now, after decades of migrants and their offspring living in the midst of the host population, ignorance is less, though not gone. British teams have the faces of West Indian offspring who speak and live more like the British than like people in the Caribbean. But, they are not necessarily loved by most and acceptance may never be reached. I often laugh when I hear one soccer team booing and taunting the opponents’ black players while cheering on their own. Confused?

The Oprah incident shows how a seemingly simple exchange can take on a very complex character. It also shows the difficulty of people having different recollections of incidents. Then comes the matter of intent and perceived intent. You cannot disprove a negative.

Jamaica has as its national motto ‘Out of many, one people’. However, not unlike many countries, it is clear that not all Jamaican people are seen as equals. I remember when Rasta were vilified, but now they are more revered than rejected, having given much to make Jamaican music renowned to the world and to stand for aspects of black culture that people now see as positive. Jamaicans have a reputation for their often violent reaction to homosexuality. Many people in Jamaica will justify that attitude yet still rail against any sign that they are being slighted for what they are: treat a Jamaican badly when passing through US or European Customs and Immigration and hold onto your helmet as the flood of cussing hits your ears. Ready to reject one minority? Upset at being rejected, especially if perceived to be a minority? We give insults, but we don’t take them? Imagine the national reaction if Usain Bolt was greeted by any banana throwing when racing in Europebolt. I’m sure that not much time would pass before chants of “Europeans hate black people” and link it fast to slavery days. But, how much love did he get when it was known that he had a white girlfriend?

We are humans, complex to the core. We are filled with likes and dislikes. Ignorance guides many actions but knowledge does not cure all differences.

Has it been so long? Glad to meet you, after all these years. Come, let’s eat.

A family with whom we are friends at our church in Washington DC, who happen to have Jamaican roots, came to visit us yesterday afternoon. They are here to distribute the ashes of a close relative. That part of their journey has been a series of episodes in the morass that is bureaucratic complexities and differences between countries. Suffice to say that the urn with the ashes is with Jamaica Customs, while necessary paperwork is completed to verify the body contained and the manner of death. The visitors were able to laugh about their experiences, but what they had gone through was not funny at the time. But, it had some great elements of Jamaican life:

  • Get into a line, and mistakenly jump ahead of everyone else and being ‘put straight’ by those waiting
  • Finding they were in the wrong line, after getting to the front, and having to join another line, after a 40 minute wait
  • Finding that the person who could deal with the paperwork had just gone on her lunch break–and it would be 2 hours
  • Getting ‘precise’ directions for how to find another government office: “Go straight…”
  • Having to figure out the roads in Montego Bay and its limited parking
  • Worrying that all of the time lost on the parish council office would mean that they could not make progress before Customs closed

Not surprising in this episode, some of our friends’ tempers got a little frayed, and that gave the local Jamaicans a chance to show a good side: “Miss, would you like a seat and a cup of tea to help calm you down?” I told our friend that she could easily have been offered a splash of Limacol.image description

We all settled into a steady state of reflection over how often we’d been in similar situations, but how awkward it is when you’re within a different social and administrative system.

We were joined in the early evening by some long-standing Jamaican family friends, with whom I had reconnected during the week, after a few decades We had decided to also invite them to join us for dessert and drinks on Sunday afternoon.

This being Jamaica, it did not take long for us to find that our two sets of visitors, though meeting for the first time, had one degree of separation.

This being Jamaica, it did not take long for us to get into the importance of food. The visitors from North America had not had too long to get into good country-style Jamaican food, but they had had a good sampling, and liked much of what they’d tasted. All the children present had parents with Jamaican roots, and a good base in the Jamaican countryside. They had different degrees of exposure to local food; our daughter was the ‘veteran’, in that sense. But, from what we heard, the other two children, teenage twins, were ready to try new things: they’d been presented with manish water, whole fish, bammy, cow skin, escoveitch fish, etc.  They were not yet convinced that eating fish heads and cow foot was really so tasty.yabba

The friends who arrived later were, however, foodies in the nicest sense of the word. The man, a doctor, was happy to retell how my grandmother had taught him how to cook and that she was a great cook. His and my stomachs could attest to that last point. He retold some stories from when he was a boy and having charge of the yabba when it came time to make Christmas cake.CakeContestR20101217RB The doctor’s older than me and as a boy had been responsible for stirring all the ingredients. I could really only remember waiting for the scrapings of the cake mix, and my first chance to taste rum, as a four or five year-old. He had developed his own skill and style over the years and told of how he had prepared little banquets for fellow medics when he was a student in England. He had studied anatomy, so when it came to eating fish, especially the head, he put all his knowledge to use 🙂 I remembered some of his signature dishes, especially the big, stuffed, steamed snapper, filled with callaloo, drenched with vegetables and coconut milk. It was hard to keep control. He told stories of how my father had served up some wonderful stewed ox tail, with the skin. “Man, where did he get that from?” I was none the wise. I know my father’s prowess with seasoning and cooking meat, especially on a coal stove outdoors. Perhaps, that’s why his sole offspring loves to do barbeques, though mostly now on gas grills, but on coals when needed. I know I season my pork joints his way.

We talked about how Jamaican and other West Indian migrants to England in the 1950s and 1960s had congregated in areas and sought their opportunities for food from home for comfort and helping them to regain some sense of identity in that strange land. Weddings were especially popular for that reason, I conjectured. Funerals became that way, too, as time went on, but such events would also be a point of possible cultural clash. “What is it with the open coffins?” the English would wonder. The West Indians would be getting drunk and wailing and jumping into graves and flocking in great numbers to send off their dearly departed, not have a dribble of people present, as if the life was of a no-count. Oh, the coloniser and the colonised. Far apart after all those years so close together.

Eating fish came up as a topic that showed how different we can be. English fish and chips was not like anything served back home. Inside that batter was a piece of fish, “But where was the rest of the fish?” a Jamaican would ask and the English fishman would feel insulted. Thus, was made the lack of love between two sets of people, who totally misunderstood each other’s attitudes, and who had great difficulty understanding each other’s speech. Give many an American a whole fish and he or she may have no notion of what to do with it. Give a Jamaican a fish without the head and tail and you may have your kitchen staff hauled out into the street for a good mauling. “What do you do with the bones?” asked one of the teenagers. “Chew them up and make a pile on a plate,” came back an adult’s answer.

My daughter showed off her new-found expertise and love for Jamaican food, especially roast yam and patties. She knows that peas soup needs to have dumplings and sweet potato.

With all of our lives reduced to our love of food, what better than to get on with a mango crumble that we offered with Devon House ice cream?  Simple to a fault.

One of our guests had wondered why Jamaicans had not yet figured out how to use the bounty of food we have. I pointed out that we were eating the bounty, as I’d collected the mangoes on my walks. We’d eaten some mango chutney made by a friend from the crop in her yard. We could not really emulate the big companies and package and export, for instance, but little goes to waste if it can easily be used.

The food talk was nourishing and helped us think and talk about how we could work to nurture the minds and bodies of vulnerable children in Jamaica.