Arc of the covenant: Thoughts on a migratory path

Why did my parents choose the paths they did? After my mother decided to go to England to further her nursing career, why did my parents do what they did? My father could have stayed in Jamaica with me and kept on a nursing career path already underway. He could have taken me to my mother in England and left me with her (she had potentially good family support there). Long-distance relationships were, and still are, not uncommon amongst migrants, so too are families where children get left behind while parents seek work abroad. Splitting the household could have minimized risks and removed many uncertainties. I could have grown up as a ‘barrel child’. Their son could have moved along an educational path that, while not certain, was better known and understood. Instead, he was pitched into a new educational set-up, which he navigated better than many of his migrant peers and ended up well-positioned, as his parents had hoped. My parents opted to move into a world that often treated migrants as second-class citizens, especially in key areas like jobs and housing. What a huge risk!

At what point did any of these options get discussed or discarded? Of course, I can’t now pose those questions of my parents.

That the choices they made did not leave them on the floor of migrants’ fortunes over a period of 25 years is fascinating. They succeeded far more than they failed. For instance, they moved from renting small basement flats in London’s inner city to buying houses in the suburbs. That’s a good story to tell.

No way could they have foretold events that would leave them living comfortably as retirees in Jamaica, debt-free, pensions coming predictably from the UK, largely protected from exchange rate losses, not uncertainly from Jamaica in depreciated dollars.

Hindsight is 20-20, so I don’t know how much second guessing my parents did through their lives, but I know they were happy with the outcomes.

Bouncing on a springboard

I’m always fascinated what happens when I travel. Do the problems in my home country follow me, or do I become immersed in the issues of the place to where I’ve travelled? My home is on my back. Dr. Peter Phillips and his proposed bank tax is being discussed at the poolside while my daughter has early morning swim practice. The virtues of patois and its richness are giving myself and the other fathers and brothers plenty to chew on. We hope to chew on more when we see our kids finish in the pool, and enjoy what some of the mothers are preparing.

One of the coaches took to his room last night some cinnamon buns from the restaurant where we had a pizza buffet dinner; he had study to do and needed his extra food. This morning, I asked if he’d eaten the buns for breakfast. He looked at me as if I was mad. I understood. “You wan’ hol’ a plate o’ salt mackerel an’ bwoil banana,” He nodded. We travel and need our place holders in life to keep us together. Food is one of those. People who have not travelled may not understand how important ‘home cooking’ is. That’s why international teams travel with their kitchen staff; that also avoids some of the nasty tricks that unscrupulous hosts can try. Been there, suffered that.

Why am I in Orlando? It’s for a school swim meet. Some of our club’s swimmers are in Aruba, for the Carifta 2014 games, and doing very well. Their team mates who did not make the national team either because their performances are not yet up to standard, or are too young, still have to ‘work on their game’. I’ve written before about the value of sport for youth development. When you see a group of children working hard to better themselves, with good guidance and care from adults and each other, you have to wonder how social problems persist. But, some children do not get that guidance and care–simple.

So far, America’s problems have not featured in my thoughts. I have not watched any TV and not seen a local paper. I am still following the Budget discussions in Jamaica. Although, I did not hear Andrew Holness give his presentation yesterday, I followed it on Twitter and through his postings there and on Facebook. Social media are getting a good work out this week as a place for Jamaicans to have their big discussions. I have a view that better governance will come from this, once we get over the challenge of some public servants resisting demands for better information and more open discourse on subjects. We also see that the country has many voices that want to be heard and also people with heads that can think their way through issues, without immediately reverting to the tired and tiring jabs that come from partisan politics.


One of our group had problems with US Immigration at the airport: he’d lost his passport years ago and since that keeps featuring in the US’s security screening processes. He had to go through a four-hour wait in ‘secondary inspection’ yesterday afternoon–sounds like the meat packing business, and he says they made people feel like livestock. So our on-time arrival turned into a very late departure from the airport. By the time we got to our lodgings it was night, and by the time we checked in and ate a wonderful (I’m being ironic here, because we had eaten really wonderful food from Island Grill before we left) pizza buffet, it was very late. A quick trip to a dollar store for essentials like water, eggs, toothpaste, body wash, sunglasses that were marked ‘Made in China’, waffles and syrup, had all the kids excited

. We then played ‘chicken’ crossing the busy six-lane highway. “Dis is not Jumayka. Dem will run you down!” one boy said as he traipsed across the road and car headlights closed in. The children got to bed around 11pm, and some in my room did not get to sleep till way after midnight. Now, they are getting a refreshing work out, with a 7.30am start. Not ideal. But, the meet starts at 5pm today, and they need to be prepared. The team’s head coach told the children last night that when they returned to Jamaica and were met at the airport by reporters that they ought to be able to say proudly what they had done, rather than come with a string of excuses about a poor performance.

The day will have some good downtime for us all after breakfast. I suspect that many will to hit the malls; one is just across a busy highway from our hotel. I would like to play a little golf, and I understand that a course is just 10 minutes walk away.

How ironic. We’re listening to piped music at the pool side…and it’s reggae, and mento. Gwendolyn, pass the smelling salts! But, why should surprised when on our way from the airport I saw a bill board advertising Red Stripe.

Red Stripe billboard in Orlando, FL
Red Stripe billboard in Orlando, FL

Jamaica to the world!

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’.

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