I recently read commentary by a colleague that suggests that many Jamaicans don’t “understand” race and racism. While it is clear that the aim of the piece was to present a lighthearted explanation for John Public to understand the sometimes stoic and seemingly naïve responses of Jamaicans to issues of race, racism, and prejudice in the United States, I found the article a bit reductive and dismissive of an ongoing and active culture of empathy and resistance to the social constructs of race that many Jamaicans engage—in and outside of the U.S.—after being exposed to literature, research, and just the news. The article suggests that Jamaicans aren’t empathetic, when in fact, they are! Jamaican scholars have tackled racism extensively in their work and have been “walking” hand in hand with anti-oppressors in the U.S. and around the globe, for decades. From Nanny to Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, Stuart Hall, Claude McKay, Claudia Rankine, Stacyann Chin, Sylvia Wynter, and a host of others, Jamaicans have engaged race and racism, critical race theory and concepts of racism in their creative and academic work.
Again, I acknowledge that the article was supposed to be “lighthearted” but I stand in staunch opposition to anything that suggests that we are monolithic or “removed” from understanding race, prejudice, or the effects thereof. The author suggests that we work hand-in-hand with our fellow Blacks in the United States to establish a middle ground from which we can understand and fight racism. Again, such a suggestion fails to acknowledge the fact that in these United States, there is no distinction between the Jamaican man or the American/British/Other Black man who walks down the street in a suit, a hoodie, or a t-shirt “just by looking.” Until he opens his mouth and makes a distinction, it is unlikely that anyone will know the difference (unless he’s wearing paraphernalia that suggests some kind of cultural affiliation–like one of those colorful mesh shirts or a rasta cap, for example). One doesn’t simply “look” Jamaican and is therefore immune to racism and microaggressions. An inability to recognize incidents of prejudice also does not justify or nullify their existence.
Therefore, to say Jamaicans don’t “see” or “feel” race is a fallacy. They experience race/racism just like anyone else. How they may or may not understand microaggressions and/or outright racism, however, can be due to upbringing and sure, naivitee. What we must not do, however, is consider this acceptable or excusable nor can we attribute this to a culture where race and racism are absent, for that, too, is a fallacy. If Jamaicans don’t understand “race,” they certainly understand colorism, where people of lighter complexion are often privileged over those who are darker. If they don’t understand race and racism, they certainly understand the effects of classism, where the haves are always privileged over the have nots and oftentimes the haves are of lighter complexion than the have nots. So for Jamaicans, there is the quagmire of race and class being intertwined with nepotism, popularity, and sometimes, political affiliation and clout.
The author fails to acknowledge Jamaica’s deep roots in the struggle for equality of Black people across the world. While it does not begin there, Marcus Garvey’s (the father of Black nationalism/Pan Africanism) legacy to the world has been and will always be his fight for equality and his staunch opposition to oppression and subjugation of Black people across the diaspora. Consequently, it is imperative that we acknowledge the works (creative and academic) of countless Jamaicans who have spent their lives acknowledging racism, prejudice, and the effects thereof. We can be lighthearted about why we carry certain mannerisms, but what we must not do is seek to widen the chasm to somehow separate ourselves from the very thing that Black people throughout the African diaspora have in common: the culture of oppression and resistance to the same.
For this reason, let’s look at 5 Jamaicans who have actually engaged race and racism and who have contributed to a better understanding of injustice around the world.
- Marcus Garvey: In his many works, the father of Black Nationalism/ Pan-Africanism sought to unite Black people across the world, while standing in staunch opposition to any structural, cultural, or contrived systems that sought to subjugate Black people. A Jamaican national hero, Garvey is arguably our best example of how Jamaicans became active from across the seas, in the fight for the liberation of Black people from the clutches of racism.
- Bob Marley: It is Marley whose sultry voice reminds and admonishes that “until the philosophy that holds on race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war.” He also maintains in the same song, while echoing the sentiments of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, that “until the color of a man’s skin if of no more significance than the color of his eyes, then everywhere is war.” Marley’s body of work addresses racism, classism, systemic oppression, neo-colonialism, and imperialism.
- Claude McKay: We are all familiar with the famous sonnet that calls for action on the part of the oppressed to stand firm in the face of adversity. McKay warns “if we must die—let it not be like hogs.” Instead, he urges that we must, “face the murderous, cowardly pack, pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.” Surely, many analyses of McKay’s poem acknowledge that his words echo the sentiments of many who have experienced racial oppression and subjugation and who have sought ideas on how to overcome.
- Sylvia Wynter: Wynter’s work continues to challenge white supremacy in the academy, political spaces, communities of color, and popular culture across the world. In her recent work, On Being Human as Praxis (2015), Sylvia Wynter tackles the concept of humanness while providing a nuanced analysis of how those who are a part of the culture of power are privileged, even in death, over those from oppressed groups.
- Claudia Rankine: In her acclaimed book, Citizen, Rankine explores the concept of invisibility because of race and calls for a greater and more inclusive definition of the term, “citizen.” Rankine’s work rips the veil off the term “post-racial” and forces readers to engage and face injustice and seek ways to create a more honest and inclusive society.
So you see, Jamaicans are far more empathetic and understanding than our attitudes or reactions may have you believe. We have been involved in the fight for liberation for decades and will continue to do so with the understanding that out of many, we are all originally from the same continent.