Some may feel no need to harp on about the words a current Cabinet minister uttered, recently, seeming to dismiss a group of Jamaicans as ‘the articulate minority’. I’ve tried to look at the comment from several angles. At my most generous, I speculated that we are each a minority and can articulate in unique ways. We become a majority when other minorities join us in numbers. That’s noteworthy when thinking about what Jamaican elections have become–victories for articulate (meaning voting) minorities.
But, now I revert to the more accepted view, that the articulate minority was seen by this politician as irrelevant, and not ‘ordinary Jamaicans’. The offensiveness of that hit me as I watched a sample of ordinary Jamaican people sit as witnesses in the Tivoli Enquiry. Some struggled to articulate in the same smooth, clear tones of the highly-educated lawyers. But, articulate they did. Some of those witnesses represent a socioeconomic class that is fragile because it has no stable work and income. People who ‘do a little something’. That’s not much compared to those in the same community, such as the lady who makes wigs, or the radio and TV technician, or the wholesaler, for instance. Because of their different articulation, do we want to lump them as the inarticulate? Residents of Tivoli and those who have to relive the horror of May 2010 in public are one of Jamaica’s minorities which need to be articulate. Their call is for justice and understanding. Who’s listening?
I thought back to what much of my life has been. I’ve often been an articulate and a minority.
When I was very young and new in England, white locals thought it strange that this little black boy could speak well and handle subjects better than most of his white peers. The Jamaican boy could write cursive when other children could barely write. I started school in London as a visible black Caribbean minority, who was very articulate.
That continued through grammar school: some 600 pupils but barely a handful who were not white. My minority position was worse than before, because most of my black or brown peers didn’t do well enough in the 11-plus exams to go to better academic schools.
Yet, no one sought to margianlise me more by saying I was not relevant or not an ordinary (English) person.
I went to university and the story then, in the early 1970s, was much the same. Most of the few Caribbean students came from the region to study, not from the families of migrants from the Caribbean, who were a minority within the minority at universities.
I started work in Wales. One black man in a town of 10,000 people. My name is Jones, so it seemed that I was like the others, but just look at me. Black, though not as dark as the coal many mined.
I learnt some Welsh and that improved my status there, even though Welsh speakers are a significant minority in the nation but almost the majority in some northern areas, such as where I lived. I played football and that raised my status but not as much as if I’d played rugby. Still a minority but articulate in many ways. My feet did a lot of talking. My mouth and hands did, too. I became a union convenor–a black man non-Welshman representing the predominantly white Welsh work force. Speak up, Jones! We want to hear you. Minority, but very articulate.
I left Wales and went back to London in the early 1980s, to work as an economist at the Bank of England, the UK central bank. My memory is not exact, but I think about 10 black people were on staff out of a complement of some 3000 people. A very small minority. For some reason that might have had something to do with my perceived abilities, I was amongst a group of new entrants earmarked as having ‘high potential’. We were going to be groomed as a generation of future managers.
One of my jobs before I became a manager was to act as secretary to a committee headed by one of the Bank’s executive directors. He was one of a long line of descendents from one of England’s landed gentry families that has produced noted politicians, including a prime minister or two. Lucky him for being part of the ruling elite, an articulate minority if ever there was one.
At one meeting, he uttered the words “nigger in the woodpile”. I asked if he’d said those words, as my minutes needed to reflect him accurately. He confirmed. I then asked him what he meant. He explained, but added that I shouldn’t take offence. I was confused by the explanation and the attempt to mollify me. I wasn’t satisfied. I took the matter to my manager and then to our HR department. I was called to a meeting where the director apologized and said he’d not use such terms again. I have no way to check if he kept his word. He’s dead now. I continued as secretary under him and his successor.
The minority has to articulate when faced with what it sees as abuse directed at it or one of its members. Otherwise, it will be crushed by that abuse and by the proof that it’s deemed irrelevant.
You see, being a minority and articulate is a privilege, of sorts, but it carries responsibility. We need to use our status well.
But, the majority also have responsibilities. One of them is to listen carefully to the minority voices. They should also listen, respectfully. If action is needed, the voices of minorities, articulate or otherwise, cannot just be swept aside. When those who feel they represent a majority, politically, dismiss the minority it’s a dangerous stance.
To me, it’s too dangerous to be tolerated in silence.
We live in a country led by a woman. She sits proudly as a minority above her own Cabinet members. I hope that when she articulates her views to them none has the temerity to think that she is irrelevant for being in that minority. I also hope that her Cabinet doesn’t hold men who think that she’s no ordinary Jamaican and can just be dismissed. That would be a sorry state of affairs.