Some random thoughts on the lightness of being

Colour, race, and socio-economic outcomes are difficult topics to discuss at the best of times. They are not simple and often lead to very charged emotions.

The other evening, we were having a nice discussion with friends about colour (not race) in Jamaica; the starting point was about skin bleaching (see the video for a great documentary on the topic).

The general argument was that people bleach because they believe that lighter coloured skin brings with it certain clear advantages in Jamaica. Bleaching, however, is not my topic for today. I remarked that one does not usually see lighter-skinned people sitting low on the socio-economic totem pole in Jamaica (or in Caribbean, generally).

Yesterday, I had lunch with a group of ladies, almost all of whom were ‘white’. As I sat listening to a lady tell her story about some of her life, she commented about discrimination in England she’d faced because she was different–being an American during the Second World War. I could not help but wonder about a world I sometimes saw but could not share and understand fully: white-on-white discrimination. However, I quickly reverted to a more familiar concern: that being white in a black country confers privileges, even if they are not sought.

Jamaica has ‘white’ people–the total number is around 80,000 or 0.2 percent of the population. They tend to occupy ‘higher’ positions in the society. When Jamaica was a colony that was part of the ‘natural order’. Since Independence, the position of white people in Jamaica has not slipped much, if at all. Admittedly, many left Jamaica in the decades after Independence, in particular during the years when Michael Manley made it a less-hospitable environment for many middle- and upper-class Jamaicans. But, many remain and continue to come.

Many of them claim to be at least partly Jamaicans, having been born here, or having parents or other ancestors born here but born abroad themselves, or having come here as very young people and grown up here, or having decided to make this place their home. Compared to most of the ‘black’ people in Jamaica, ‘white’ people are rarely seen to be at a disadvantage or of low socio-economic standing.

One does not hear or see often instances of white migrants to black countries facing major negative discrimination (in fact, one often sees positive discrimination, say, coming from employment opportunities). Research–albeit based on medical histories–has shown that white migrants to predominantly black (post-colonial) countries come into a political, economic and social environment that is supportive to them. Anecdotally, this seems to be a general situation. They may face some social stigma, e.g., when a white person takes a black partner and is then ostracised by white friends and relatives, or the white person is shunned by the partner’s black friends and relatives, or both. Rare are the instances when the white immigrant has tales of housing, job, or other socio-economic discrimination. There may be some ‘selection bias’ going on, with better-situated white people migrating and therefore enjoying the benefits that seem to accrue generally in such situations.

People of African origin (and maybe many non-whites) don’t often experience such support when they migrate to predominantly white countries. They often see themselves placed at a significant disadvantage relative to the white host population (or those who are not easy to distinguish from the host population). Whether they face what is truly discrimination or have some real disadvantages that come from being ‘newcomers’ and make it harder for them to succeed is not always clear. Some systemic and systematic discrimination takes place, but there is also some simple ‘not fitting in’ that also occurs.

White landlords who refused to let rooms to (black) Jamaican migrants to England were discriminating. But, that same group of economic agents (white landlords) also discriminated against other ‘foreigners’ (currently or previously, eg, against Irish or Jewish renters). They also did not discriminate against some black migrants (with whom they felt ‘comfortable’, for some reasons). Many Jamaicans did not necessarily see or feel those other practices, so often could not compare their treatment to see if it was worse or ‘about the same’, based on race or colour, or something else. But, the general impression was that being black was a negative.

Similar experiences occurred in the job market. ‘Open positions’ often became ‘no vacancies’, once the potential employer saw the applicant or heard his/her ‘foreign’ accent.  I’ve never heard of a white person being turned down for a job by a black person in a black country; which is not to say it does not happen.

Black people who migrated to England and already had a good education, had great work experience, and could speak with a very clear English accent, were often surprised how a welcoming voice on the phone turned into a shocked stare when the white employer (or landlord) set eyes on a black person. Something inane like “You don’t look like you sound” would follow as the new person was being sized up. What happened next was often disappointing for the black person.

Many of these ‘newcomer’ barriers got broken down in England as time passed and either need or chance opened doors and the fears or prejudices that governed the previous treatment diminished (not disappeared, necessarily). In the 1950s/60s, it was very unlikely to see black people featuring across the spectrum of economic and social activities. Now, it is common place. (That’s not to say that white people are all joyous and cock-a-hoop over that development.)

But, the transition can be a hard and slow process. People of my generation, who went to England, can well attest to the changes that meant that a clearly great performer could be treated well, despite his/her colour. For instance, it took a long time for black footballers to get the chance to play for English professional teams and they had to withstand a lot of abuse and opposition in the process. Stereotypes made barriers where none really existed: black people are cowards (so who would expect to see a black goalkeeper?); black people can only do fancy tricks (so who would expect to see a solid, hard-tackling black defender?); black people can’t make good decisions (so who would expect to see a black player being the ‘midfield general’?) All of that seemed ludicrous to Jamaicans, who came from a country where the contradictory answers had already been given. But, ignorance is a great barrier.

In some simple cases, where migrants do not know the language (or ‘manners’) of the host country, we can see that they could start off with a clear disadvantage. Black emigrants to white countries seemed to be burdened by that. Yet, white immigrants to black countries did not seem to be saddled with these problems.

The linguistic and behavioral limitations could be removed by becoming proficient in the host language (or better versed it) and in the manners. That takes time, and while it is happening the ‘black’ person continues to suffer disadvantage, which may not be easy to overcome by the time they are liguistically (or culturally) proficient. Yet, does this happen to white people in Jamaica, say? It doesn’t seem so.

In those cases where the black migrant is an adult, he/she often seem ‘locked’ into an economic and social space that is low. This rarely seems to be the case for white migrants to black countries.

The children of black migrants may not have the disadvantage of their parents either because they are born in the host country and master the language ‘from birth’ or are integrated into social settings that facilitate the learning of the language and manners of the host country. You see this sort of situation vividly with older migrants who cannot function well in the host country and are ‘being taken care of’ by their children, who know the local ropes.

I’ve seen language and culture hamper white migrants to white countries as much as black migrants, say with Spanish-speaking people in the USA. So, language barriers can apply more evenly.

We know, at least anecdotally, that ‘foreigners’ are often disliked, especially, if they are clearly identifiable. So, black people migrating to countries that are predominantly black are not necessariy easily identifiable as foreigners, but once that status is established, they may find they are not welcomed with open arms. Some of that opposition is based on genuine fears of what the foreigners may be bringing–social, economic or medical ills. Jamaicans have been tainted by the high level of crime in their homeland, so often find themselves ‘unwelcome’ in many other Caribbean countries. Ironically, black people face discrimination from other black people more than white people face in those countries. Anecdotally, we have plenty of evidence that white people are given ‘a pass’ by black people more often than black people receive it: tell my wife otherwise as she stood in line in a food store or at Immigration in Barbados.

Immigration by non-whites to the UK has long been a political hot potato. Developments there will be interesting to watch in coming years because its latest wave of immigrants are predominantly other Europeans. The UK is also putting in places legislation that clearly discriminates against certain immigrants. But, Europe in general has a solid history of discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, especially in areas such as housing. Time moves, but this will give a chance to see if there is a general predisposition against foreigners rather than the same disposition against non-white foreigners. I’m smiling inside at the prospect of black Britons howling in rage at the wave of Romanian or Hungarians ‘coming here to take our jobs’.