Thursday, February 28, 2008

Multiracial Jamaica?

So one of the things that surprised me about Jamaica, specifically Kingston, where my mother and her siblings were born and raised, is that it wasn't nearly as multiracial as I thought it would be. My idea of Jamaica/Kingston as this multiracial space has a lot to do with my family, but it also has to do with reading on-line copies of The Jamaica-Gleaner (newspaper) and reading a novel, Margaret Cezair-Thompson's The True History of Paradise: a Novel.

[By the way, this is a good time for a book plug for Cezair-Thompson's novel. A friend-colleague of mine gave a fascinating conference presentation and since it was right before my trip, I went out and bought it and read it and found that it was not only engaging, but also provided an interesting narrative about the political change that Jamaica was undergoing between 1960-1975 as it changed from a colonial state to an independent nation. For more on Cezair-Thompson, click here for her personal website]

Anyway, what I found throughout Jamaica was that aside from the tourists, locals appear to be black Jamaicans, with a few shopkeepers and grocery store clerks who are Indian and Chinese. Our driver, Errol, who drove us from Kingston to Ocho Rios and then around Ocho Rios sight-seeing, claims that 95% of the grocery stores owned in Jamaica are by the Chinese. And while I don't know how accurate his statistics are, certainly anecdotally it appears to be true since the few groceries we went into were, indeed, owned and staffed by Chinese Jamaicans and, historically, this would make sense since Chinese in Jamaica comprised a middle-man economy of shopkeepers.

But in and around Kingston and Port Royal, away from tourist centers, Jamaica appeared to be comprised of mainly black-Jamaicans--at least that's what I "saw." Yet, my cousin "W" saw something different--to him, he noticed much more mixture; he commented on people having "Chinese" eyes and seemed to discern between white Jamaicans and white tourists in Ocho Rios more readily than me.

When I mentioned to "W" that I was expecting to see a more multiracial Jamaica, he said that his idea of Jamaica, growing up and upon his return, was that it was a predominantly black nation, but that it was also a multiracial nation--that there had been so much race mixing, because of the legacy of British colonialism, that while currently "black" Jamaicans are more apparent to the naked eye, the truth is that Jamaicans don't just think of themselves this way--that the way that we talk about race in the U.S. is not how people in Jamaica talk about race. Or at least not the way that "W" and his family think about it.

And the truth is, I did experience a multiracial Jamaica. For example, the family friends and my family's family are all very mixed: "W's" aunts and cousins (mixtures of Indian, Chinese, black, and white) and my Uncle "N" who married into our family has family who is still in Kingston and at a dinner at his parents' home there was a mix of what looked like, black, Indian, and Chinese people, all part of his family, all local Jamaicans.

So while I may not have seen evidence of a multiracial Jamaica on the streets, in people's homes I met plenty of people who were multiracial Jamaicans, and perhaps more importantly, my own family seemed to be evidence that the idea of a mixed-race Jamaica is alive and well.

11 comments:

Dance said...

Tangent--I was once in Trinidad with someone who didn't know the Caribbean, and she said, after a few days "There's no Indians here." Of course, Trinidad is about 50/50 Indo-Trinidadian and Afro-Trinidadian. Turns out she had been thinking there were a lot of Latino people around.

So yeah, a lot of it is in the vision, although Jamaica is less multiracial than Trinidad or Guyana.

Jason Clinkscales said...

My sheer lack of international experience (London for three weeks back in 2004) doesn't lend to any anecdotes or stories. Yet, I found these posts describing your time in Jamaica extremely fascinating. Outside of the tourist spots and Bob Marley, Americans of non-Jamaican descent have no clue of this nation. Thanks for the insight (as well as the blog plug).

Rachel said...

Hey, thanks for the plug! Anyone interested in more info about The Pirate's Daughter can take a peek here: http://unbridledbooks.com/thepiratesdaughter.html. The novel just won the Essence Literary Award for Fiction...

-Unbridled Books
-unbridledbooks.com

Jennifer said...

Thanks everyone for leaving comments--I'm still digesting the trip and I'm sure I'll return to this topic in future posts. And you are so right Jason that it seems most people don't truly know the history of Jamaica or see it as anything but a vacation destination that is riddled with crime in its capital. Which is sad. Which is also why reading Cezair-Thompsons's novels can be a good antidote--I mean, I know they are fiction, but since I am fond of getting my history through fiction (hope this doesn't bother you too much Dance!) it's one way to both enjoy a good read and feel like you are absorbing some knowledge about Jamaica beyond tourist pamphlets.

Rachel, please congratulate Margaret Cezair-Thompson on my behalf--I haven't read Pirate's Daughter yet but I look forward to getting to it soon!

sejal said...

i haven't read margaret's book, but she was my first english professor in college...very smart woman.

i'll have to check it out.

Eastern Reflections said...

Nice posting. I find it very interesting too. I have two friends, both from Jamaica. One black, one white. Both consider themselves Jamaican through and through and consider it home....and needless to say, the first time I met the latter, I found it really hard to fathom that he was JAMAICAN. Sad to say, it just never crossed my mind that Jamaica could be just as diverse as any other place!


When I was traveling the mid-east....I got SOOOO Many questions about my nationality. People REFUSED to believe I was American. I have black hair, brown eyes, tanned skin....I passed off for different Arab nationalities, even Persian, and a couple times people thought I was Filipina. I just didn't FIT their idea of what the "American" should look like.

I found it disheartening at one point. But then again, my confusion at my white Jamaican friend shows I internalized the same narrow lens in regards to how something "should" fit my perceived view.

matthew said...

I'm still not considered Jamaican there. Just Chinese and its definitely not some multiracial utopia. Who is this Missa Chin everyone keeps confusing me for?

Colorism is rampant there, and "brown" people are king.

My parents do look way too fondly on Jamaica's past.

GunRights4US said...

I lived in Jamaica for two years in the early 80's. At the end of that time I married my Jamaican-Chinese girlfriend and we've been together for over 30 years now. For the last 32 years I've traveled to Jamaica at least once a year and sometimes several times a year. If you want to find Jamaican white people you'll have to visit St Elizabeth parrish where legend says a shipload of Scotsmen was marooned sometime in the 16th or 17th century. Naturally they mixed into the local population, and today it's quite common to meet red-headed and freckle-faced white Jamaicans who establish their bona-fides as such the moment they open their mouths.

Regarding the premise of your overall blog, I would just like to say (as a white, redneck Southerner) that until America takes a color-blind approach to things, racism will continue to be a problem. When diversity of IDEAS is valued more highly than diversity of skin color, then America will improve - and only then.

Jennifer said...

GunRights4Us,
Thank you for your comments, especially your observations about Jamaica. I do think that there is a lot of mixing in Jamaica, hence their national motto, "Out of many, one people."

We are obviously going to have to agree to disagree about how to end racism. As many notable scholars who study race and racism have observed, colorblindness doesn't work as an effective means of eliminating racism--it actually does quite the opposite, reinforcing systems of privilege and hierarchies that continue to put people of darker skinned phenotype (generally speaking) in the bottom strata and those with access to white skin privilege (including people of color in some cases) into an upper strata.

If I may, let me direct you to the works of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Ian Haney Lopez as folks who have written, quite clearly and eloquently about the need to go beyond a colorblind ethos and to recognize intersectional systems of power (including along the axes of gender, sexuality, class and religion) as a means of anti-racist praxis.

Jennifer said...

GunRights4Us,
Thank you for your comments, especially your observations about Jamaica. I do think that there is a lot of mixing in Jamaica, hence their national motto, "Out of many, one people."

We are obviously going to have to agree to disagree about how to end racism. As many notable scholars who study race and racism have observed, colorblindness doesn't work as an effective means of eliminating racism--it actually does quite the opposite, reinforcing systems of privilege and hierarchies that continue to put people of darker skinned phenotype (generally speaking) in the bottom strata and those with access to white skin privilege (including people of color in some cases) into an upper strata.

If I may, let me direct you to the works of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Ian Haney Lopez as folks who have written, quite clearly and eloquently about the need to go beyond a colorblind ethos and to recognize intersectional systems of power (including along the axes of gender, sexuality, class and religion) as a means of anti-racist praxis.

Natalie said...

Jamaica is not multiracial in the [democratic and free-flowing) way that the word often connotes. Race/color and class are tightly wound together, so the reason that you see more dark-skinned people of African descent is because they are largely the working-classes who spend more time in public and are thus more visible.

There is significant segregation along class lines throughout Jamaica, so if you want to experience a "multiracial" Jamaica, both visually and socially, you have to go to places where there is more likelihood of socio-economic groups interacting, albeit in limited ways. Kingston is a working-class city; New Kingston and "upper St. Andrew" is where you find middle-class and elite Jamaicans interacting with each other as well as with working-class Afro-Jamaicans.

"Out of Many, One People" is an ideological claim not a descriptive one. Because critical thinking is not exactly what is encouraged in Jamaica, you will certainly hear Jamaicans use the motto to put forward the argument that there is no racism in Jamaica, or that race doesn't matter. To them, the presence of the motto means the absence of racism. They don't know where the motto comes from and don't even think to ask. Instead, people are far more willing to talk about classism and elitism than anything else, in part because the motto has been [actively] used to discourage critical analysis about people's actual experience, but also because class has long been taken up by political parties and NGO's as a way to mobilize for change. Class is the language that people are more willing to talk about open, including in disparaging ways. Jamaica is a complex place with its own history and culture, and which do matter. So, it's not likely that concepts like "multiracial" will travel and take root very easily. You have to understand the context in which you find yourself.