Out of many, one people? Know your place!

The Caribbean is full of class differences. We can argue about their origins, but undoubtedly they exist. Their proximate bases may be income, schooling, speech, skin colour and tone, gender, geography, or more. How they play out in everyday life is very varied. I’m not going to try to capture much of that, but reflect on a few recent incidents that show, worryingly in my mind, that people in Jamaica are still tied up in class knots.

Yesterday, I was on the verge of meeting one of the pinnacles of a class system–a member of a country’s royal family. Let’s not argue here about whether the British Monarchy is merely symbolic; we have them, still.

Prince Edward greets a Jamaican reception committee
Prince Edward greets a Jamaican reception committee

We did not know what to expect, but I suspect most people were ready to be on their best behaviour.

Cut away, now, to the event to which the British prince was coming. I was out playing golf, and having a good time interacting with my playing partners and the two caddies they were sharing. It was a hot day, and we had all been doing the smart thing of taking in fluids, thanks to one of the sponsors, Wisynco, who had provided ample supplies of Wata (plain and flavoured). Being on a golf course for four hours or so, drains energy, and most players will bring food with them. I have protein bar, trail mix, and often take a carb filler, like bulla. This time, we were treated to the offer of a beef patty about midway through the play. One player asked if there were patties for the caddies. “No! No food for the caddies!” we were told in a very hostile manner.

Now, perhaps I have become too sensitive because of my years living in Europe and the USA, but there are ways of denying something to one group of people that is being offered to another group, especially when both groups are present. The caddies seemed to understand how things operated and got back to handling clubs, wiping balls, finding balls, helping read greens and generally keeping the players on an even keel. The players in my group had a discussion about this incident. We were agreed that it was both distasteful and unnecessary. Sorry, if there are 80 players and they each get a patty, then the caddies numbering no more than half that figure could be offered that basic and relatively cheap food (about US$1.10 each; call that US$90). If someone felt that the caddies needed to be ‘kept in their place’, they could even have each been offered half a patty (call that between US$20-45).

Golf has had a long history of making it very clear that caddies and players are not equals.tiger caddy In the US, that had the overlay of racism, with black caddies having a different and worse form of discrimination to deal with. One of the sweet ironies of all that is, two of the greatest ever golf players, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, were products of caddy shacks. One of the other sweet ironies is that the best player in the modern area is a black player–one of very few golf professionals who are not white.

Caddies in Jamaica have their work on the course as their main source of income. Don’t work, don’t get paid. Do something extra, you may make a little extra. Treat your players right and the world will be a better place. Many players have regular caddies, whom they trust and work with closely. Despite that close relationship, both sides know that most club houses are off-limits for caddies; settlement of fees has to take place before the player ‘goes into the club house’. It gets interesting when you have a caddy playing in a tournament, but of course the new and old roles are not confused.

Some people love to have the opportunity to make sure that they put people in the category that they need them to hold. “Know your place!”

While the prince was presented to the players and organizers of the event, from what I had heard, he was never presented to the caddies.

There is a deeper set of issues at play, so to speak, as far as Jamaica is concerned.

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’.

Pariahs of the Caribbean

It doesn’t take long to be reminded how sordid Jamaica’s image has become. Just travel on Caribbean Airways to Nassau, The Bahamas. Then, you will experience one of life’s ironies and ignominies. Sniffer dogs jump,over the arriving bags before they get loaded onto the baggage lets. Consequence? Yesterday, a choice one hour wait after an on-time departure and arrival, and a quick move through Immigration. I felt royally p****d off. This is life as meted out by one of our Caricom cousins. Meanwhile, visitors from the gun-toting, massacring and drug-using USA get near red carpet treatment. All for one and all for one!

The Jamaican government is in a wrangle with Barbados about possible systematic discrimination against Jamaican visitors, stemming from the Shanique  Myrie case; the governments are duking it out in The Caribbean Court of Justice. Her case is different from the now routine checks which planes from Jamaica get. I suspect that many arrivals feel a similar sense of violation. The ordinary folk, diplomats, imageand church dignitaries might all have had reason to fear their possessions being rifled through.

A few rotten apples have spoiled the barrel.

I can understand theory behind the checked luggage searches, but I wonder if they are really effective. In the absence of any published data I can find, I’m going to contend that they are not. Like America’s silliness with TSA procedures at its airports, which still do not stop criminals and innocents alike walking onto planes with dangerous objects, the sniffing or scanning is not stopping the bulk of contraband going into The Bahamas.

If the bag checking procedures used by Jamaica are deemed inadequate, then it would seem logical to doubt also the body checking and hand luggage checking at Jamaican airports. In which case, systematically screen all passengers.  On the contrary, there is no systematic check, merely random checks at Customs. Once we declared that we had come from Jamaica, our checked bags had to be opened. Once we staTed that we had no food items, we were allowed to proceed. No checks of hand luggage. No checks of persons. So, apart from giving Rex and Rover some extra play, what the Dickens is going on?

A senior diplomat, who enjoyed the long wait with us, said he would raise this whole issue with the Bahamian government. I wish him well. Nothing like battling against inertial processes.

You bastard! You, too?

Jamaica is filled with many apparent contradictions and confusing situations. I’m reading a book by a friend, which touches on some of this, but I’ve not finished it yet. Meantime, let me make some bold assertions. Most people in Jamaica are closely associated with people who come from so-called illegitimate liaisons. Many people also come from very stable relationships. Illegitimate offspring and their parents are not necessarily the same as people in fractious relations. Our world is not filled with happily married couples and their smiling children. Au contraire.

When a large part of your population comes from ancestors who were slaves, with all the restrictions on normal associations that such situations involved, you’d think that the way that social relations are considered would be mindful that people lived for centuries by rules created by oppressors. Why then should those rules govern modern lives? That realization has not yet penetrated all aspects of Jamaican or Caribbean life. You don’t have to hate the colonists, but it seems a bit odd to drink the Kool Aid, unthinkingly.

Historical accounts tell us that many things that were the norm for the colonists were not the norm for their slaves; one of these was marriage, which was largely forbidden amongst slaves. So, you build a whole social structure around the banning of marriage, with reproduction going ahead outside legal marriage–including between slave masters and their slaves. Why then should it be a social stigma to continue to reproduce children in such ways?

You have a whole social structure based around social support that is much wider than immediate family. Why then would it seem odd that such support systems prevail in the future?

Recent data show that around 75 percent of births in the Caribbean are to out-of-wedlock mothers.
Sexual relations between unmarried people is very much the norm in Jamaica. This should really be no big surprise, if you recall that slaves could buy their freedom and one easy way to get the money needed was prostitution. This is not seeking justification for women exploiting their bodies, just putting some historical context into the Caribbean picture.

Children who were born out of wedlock in Jamaica could not inherit property until Michael Manley piloted the act to abolish the illegitimacy law in 1975, so that “no bastard no deh again”. That would not force fathers to act in any particular way, but it set new legal standards here.

Jamaica only made it a legal requirement for a child’s father to be named on the birth certificate a couple of years ago. My father was there with my mother all of her life and at my birth, and throughout all of my existence, but his name is nowhere on my birth documents. He was a full part of the family picture, just not needed to be present, legally. Did he feel insulted?

Being a bastard has never meant that children did not know their fathers or did not have their fathers’ influence in their lives. Amongst Jamaicans, I would imagine that being a bastard, though not with that term and it’s pejorative tones, would not be seen as a major issue. Many families are made up of children of several fathers. Children of a single father but of different mothers may live in close association. Family is family! It’s a complication that hits Jamaicans when they have to deal with other societies, who feel that marriage and it’s legal trappings bestow some sort of superior status on persons. So, it’s hard for them to deal with half-brothers and half-sisters, or children who carry the mother’s surname, or children who cannot state their father’s name. That’s how it’s been for generations of Jamaicans. Many of us can only trace our lineage through the female sides of our families.

My impression is that any stigma of illegitimate status is lessening when Jamaicans move outside of this island. As other countries find so-called alternative lifestyles becoming more common, Jamaican norms are closing in on other norms. To the world!

Similarly, most children in Jamaica are still brought up by groups much wider than their immediate families. That’s not so out of line with what happens in lots of small or rural societies. It’s still common to have “Granny” much in the picture. A cousin of mine just had a baby and ‘boom!’ she’s back home with her mother. It’s still common for a village or neighbourhood or close associates to be involved closely in a child’s rearing. That used to be seen as a positive, but it need not be so: outside influences are not all good. However, I was having dinner with friends over the weekend and several people were recounting stories of how they had funded other people’s children’s education from primary school through university.

These are just some simple complexities of this little country. They are not unique but they have a large influence on how things run.

Yes, mi bredrin

So, listen! What is going on in Jamaica? Why are the people so discriminating?

I don’t wear dreadlocks and I’m not a Rasta; my shaved head signals that I’m a ‘bald head’. Beat me up for that? No. I walk into stores and staff do not huddle in corners and whisper or point at me.

I have dark skin but I don’t bleach my face. I could land a job in any bank or prestigious office. When the men who want to wash my car windscreen get close they don’t take a leap back and say “What the….? ‘Im so hugly!”

I don’t wear coloured nails or high-heeled shoes. Joking apart, that’s a combination not to be fooled with in this little island. Alright, I’ve been known to spend an good few hours in a spa trying to make gnarly feet–bruised and battered after years kicking balls–look more fetching. But, sporting my open-toe sandals, I can stroll along the sidewalk without strange looks or wolf whistles.

But, here’s what I’ve noticed happening. I walk into some situation and start talking to the Jamaicans there. Things are going along smoothly, but there’s a certain stiffness presented to me. Then, I let something slip that shows that I have Jamaican credentials–a look, a movement of the mouth, kissing my teeth, some understanding that foreigners are not supposed to have such as the meaning of ‘bangarang’ or the difference between ganja and janga. Then, budum! “‘Im is wan a wi!” Everything changes. “Yu is fram here?” That sadly flat British accent of mine, that people have told me should be on radio or TV, has been giving people fits. “No, man! A Hinglan’ ‘im cum fram,” has just been turned on its head. From then on, I notice that the conversation changes and I get the looseness that I’d expected from the start. People had been putting on a front, thinly in most cases, but now they could dump that.

I tend to think of Jamaicans as generally friendly people and quite welcoming to outsiders. That’s what I know from experience. But is that because I’m Jamaican and feel comfortable with most situations I encounter, or can relate in some way to the local people around me, even though I’ve not lived here for a half century? That’s the image Bolt and Shelly-Ann are selling ‘to the world’. One love!

When a foreign diplomat told me she thought Jamaicans were a bit reserved and tended not to invite you into their homes, I nearly choked on the piece of sugar cane I was chawing (Jamaicans don’t chew). Where has this woman been living? Look, she has a splendid residence and I’d happily go there instead of inviting her to my roost. But, that’s not it.

It wouldn’t be unnatural for us to give each other a pass on friendliness. That how most people are with their own kind. But, Jamaicans have so many kinds–out of may, one people, right. You’d think the smart thing would be to nice up everybody. But, we nice up those whom we think are foreign, but really, really nice up those whom we think are from Yard (Jamaicans double up on a word to make it really strong). So, when I pull up for gas and don’t acknowledge the attendant with a “Mawnin,” I get a glare. Justified for such rudeness. But when I say “You cyan fillit wid 90?” I see a little smile and a glint as she asks me to “Pap di tank fi mi an tun arf yu henjin.” It’s popping.20130829-050144.jpgI’ve been in many situations where people have run off with some stereotype of me. It’s usually been funny.

The Welsh-speaking lady in my office building in North Wales, who came to meet Mr. Jones, and was taken aback when I greeted her and said in Welsh “I’m Mr. Jones.” That’s a very common Welsh name. “But, you’re black!” she’d said with incredulity. Right, in one.

Those customers in grocery stores in the US, who ask me where to find items on the shelves. I’m struggling to find the mayo, myself.

The man who parked his car outside the restaurant where I was standing, waiting for my wife, and gave me to key and said “Park it, for me.” He was shocked when I said “Park it, yourself!”

The official driver waiting at the airport in Uganda, who asked me if I’d seen a white man on my flight. I’d said no. “Where is that IMF man?” he grumbled. Hello! We had a great drive into Kampala 🙂

That’s life, sometimes, in that graded world that assigns lots of roles by colour or gender or race. Like my wife bristling when the server in a restaurant brings me the bill, and the silly look on the server’s face that follows when I hand it over to her, it’s all part of renegotiating the world. But, now, I’m having to be a bit more attentive.

Yesterday afternoon, I dashed out to do an errand before the rains lashed down and the afternoon traffic got heavy: I went to buy coconut water. The sign said boldy “Sorry. No coconut water”. I went in and asked the lady, politely, what was going on; water had been short for weeks, now. Coconuts dried up? She told me that the shop had had supplies earlier in the day, but they were now finished. “Cum back tomarra,” she said, coldly. I just reacted: “Mi a go Mandeville a mawnin.” Her head shot up. She held my hand. “Tek dis numba. Call back ’bout four a clack. Is den di truck due fi cum,” she said, helpfully. Inside track? I can’t be sure. But, I’m going to watch out.

I’ve long known that people make snap judgements on first meeting. That’s why I go to hardware stores in tee shirt and rough shorts or pants: I seem more like a handyman and get better service. Do not go there in a business suit: the shark will bite you.20130829-052330.jpg

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.