Race and Class Interaction in Jamaica – And its Impact on the World

In all my years in Jamaica, I never once was asked to identify my “race.”  So I find it discomfiting to respond to the questions I frequently get here in America – when I have to fill out some government document, for example.

It seems absurd to describe myself as Caucasian or African-American or Hispanic or Pacific Islander… or whatever.  All I know about being Caucasian is that there are some mountains in Russia by that name. I have never laid eyes on the vast continent of Africa, don’t speak Spanish and couldn’t find the Pacific Islands on a map of the world.

The bottom line is that I am a Jamaican – an unhyphenated Jamaican.

Looking back on my Jamaican experience, it seems we are identified more by a class system than by racial labels.

I know, “class system” sounds snobbish or worse. It has an unwholesome connotation, the implication of castes from which there is no escape. But I don’t recall the Jamaican class system as being etched in stone. I recall the sons and daughters of domestic servants sometimes becoming wealthy doctors and lawyers, powerful politicians and bureaucrats, venerated members of the clergy, and so on.

The education system, although admittedly inadequate, included scholarship opportunities that could provide a ladder for upward mobility. (Not enough, admittedly. But the opportunities are not as sparse today as they were in my time, and I am confident they will increase in Jamaica’s next half-century as an independent nation.)

Jamaica’s class system is based on money, of course, but there are other criteria. These include European-based notions of etiquette and decorum, as well as education and the way people dress and speak. But there was something else, something that inherently defines the Jamaican concept of class.

From what my mother taught me, it was “respectability.” Respectable people lived by certain standards. They weren’t “raw-chaw.”

Vulgarity, obscenity, drunkenness, arrogance, rudeness, slovenliness, idleness and “showing off” were considered signs of a “lower-class” upbringing.

Another unspoken expectation of people in “our class” was decency.

Decent people had integrity. Decent people didn’t “take advantage.” Decent people “did the right thing.”

Did all the members of Jamaica’s “upper class” behave according to these standards? Of course not. Some abused their positions of privilege.

But, as I remember it, those who betrayed the trust placed in them usually paid the price sooner or later. You were held accountable in the Jamaica where I grew up. As the Bible reminded us, from those to whom much was given much was expected.

I cannot think of another society in which the Bible is so influential.  Foreigners might think of Jamaica as some kind of hedonistic lotus land where Rastas in “dreadlocks” constantly play reggae music, dance suggestively and smoke ganja. But to me this is a false image probably created to lure tourists and sell records.

The Jamaica I know is a churchgoing society. The Rastas I know spend more time talking religion than playing music.

And the Rastas I know give and expect “respect.”

In my mind “respect” and “decency” distinguish the real Jamaican culture. The “rude boys” and “hos” that abound in hip-hop and rap lyrics are looked down on in Jamaican society, no matter what color they might be.

Photo by X. Murphy

Are there bigots in Jamaica? Of course.  Bigotry is one of the world’s most pervasive blights. It’s everywhere.

And there is a lingering “shade prejudice” inherited from slavery. Slave owners often had sex with slaves and produced offspring. Sometimes the slave owners would marry the mothers of these children, sometimes not. But, in either case, the slave owners would often protect these children from being sold into slavery by having them declared legally “white.” They lived in the Great House with their father and enjoyed privileges denied other children of slaves.

I think it may have been this tradition of privilege that gave lighter-skinned Jamaicans a special status – an advantage that still persists to some extent, although it has faded a lot over the years.

Complicating the picture, expatriate communities have created tiny, isolated cultural pockets outside of the Jamaican mainstream experience. And tourist resorts sometimes pander to prejudices alien to Jamaicans. What I am trying to examine is the indigenous culture that developed in the Jamaican heartland over the centuries.

I cannot claim that Jamaican culture is perfect. We live in an imperfect world, after all.

Undoubtedly Jamaica’s class system is unfair. Without question, people born into Jamaica’s underclass have to struggle much, much harder to achieve economic and social success than the lucky few who are born to privileged parents. Sadly, many decent, respectable people find themselves mired in poverty and subjected to indignity. And usually, these “sufferers” belong to the predominantly black underclass.

But social injustice is not unique to Jamaica. These words from Grey’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” come to mind: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its fragrance on the desert air.” That country churchyard was located not in Jamaica but in England.

Where Jamaicans may be unique is that we are far less obsessed with skin color and ethnic origin than any other multiracial society I can think of.  Jamaicans can honestly boast of being (as the national motto proclaims) “out of many, one people.”

Consider the horror of Apartheid that existed for so long in South Africa.

And consider the United States of America.

For generations, black Americans in many states were forbidden to use white washrooms, drink from white water fountains, shop at white grocery stores, eat in white restaurants and even attend white public schools. Throughout the South, they were physically shunned by the white majority and even required to sit at the back of the bus.

Abominations like the Ku Klux Klan brought injustice and terror to black Americans throughout the South. And this loathsome organization persists to this day, as does an infestation of other groups that preach “white supremacy.”

The segregated school system did not end until the mid-1950s when the federal government brought in troops to escort a handful of black children into a white school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Legally enforced segregation persisted through much of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and it took widespread civil rights demonstrations, marked by bloodshed and martyrdom, to turn public opinion overwhelmingly against this aberration.

Although no longer legally enforced, de facto cultural segregation continues. When I migrated to America I was astonished to find some churches with entirely black congregations and others without a single black face in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. There are communities in America that are almost totally black. Even some large cities, like Detroit, are basically “segregated” because of “white flight.” As black (or Hispanic) Americans move in, white Americans move out.

For reasons that I cannot comprehend, the fear of African contamination was once so great in America that Southern states used to classify as black anyone with “a drop of Negro blood.”  As I understand it, you had “a drop” of “Negro blood” if you were one-thirty-second black. That made you ethnically African-American if you had a black great-great-great-grandparent.

Don’t you wonder how many Americans know whether one of their great-great-great-grandparents was black? Don’t you wonder why they would care?

But until the mid-1960s, it was against the law in some states for a white American to marry someone black. So, as I understand it, if your great-great-great-grandmother was black, you would have broken the law to marry a pure-white American.

To anyone who grew up in Jamaica this is preposterous.

My mother’s fair-skinned aunt married a black schoolteacher, and after his death, a black dentist. Her daughter became the first female city clerk of Kingston, Jamaica’s largest metropolis.

My cousin’s daughter married a Chinese man and they have the most beautiful daughter. My cousin is half Jewish. His wife is a former Miss Mahogany (remember when Jamaica had those shade-conscious beauty pageants?). Is my cousin’s granddaughter Chinese? Jewish? Black? White?

Who cares?

As far as I am concerned, she is an American-born Jamaican.

In Jamaica, Arabs marry Jews. Descendants of East Indian or Ashanti cane cutters marry descendants of English pirates or Portuguese refugees from the Inquisition or Chinese merchants or Maroon warriors – or whomever they damn well please.

At my parents’ house on a Sunday, the parson would often sit at the head of the table and say grace. As I recall now, he was sometimes very dark-skinned. But I don’t recall anyone noticing at the time.

Come to think of it, Jamaica’s wonderful athletes are overwhelmingly black.

Many of Jamaica’s most distinguished sons and daughters – journalists, authors, poets, playwrights and academics are black or mostly black. The Governor-General is black. The Prime Minister is black. The list goes on and on.

At a Jamaican party, you will see blondes dancing unselfconsciously with ebony-skinned partners, East Indian maidens with their flowing black hair resting on the shoulders of Syrian or Lebanese youths, ivory-skinned Chinese girls flirting with Jewish boys… Nobody is aware of being at a “multiracial” event. They’re just a bunch of Jamaicans getting together to have a good time.

When my extended family gathers, you see every skin, hair and eye color under the sun. And the last thing we think about is what “race” we belong to.

We are Jamaicans, that’s all.

As foreigners visit Jamaica and experience the relaxed atmosphere of a color-blind culture, I expect many of them will return to their own countries with a new appreciation of racial harmony.

And as more and more Jamaicans – often the best educated – migrate to other countries, their refusal to acknowledge such nonsense as “white supremacy” or accept such abuses as ethnic segregation cannot fail to inspire change in their new environments.

Jamaicans simply will not put up with such outlandish and oppressive ideas and practices.  We mix, mingle and marry as we like without regard to race or skin color. And our example could be a catalyst for worldwide enlightenment – like the child in the fable who cried, “The Emperor has no clothes on!”

As racial stereotypes and ethnic divisiveness diminish throughout the world – and I am sure they will – some of the credit should go to little Jamaica, whose sons and daughters shone a bright light on the dark depths of ignorance where such evils are bred.

About the Author:

George Graham is a Jamaican-born journalist and author who worked as a reporter and editor in the Caribbean and North America for more than half a century. He lives in Lakeland, Florida. His books include “Hill-an’-Gully Rider,” “Girlie,” “Brown Skin Blues” and “Jamaica Remembered.” He also published a book of poems titled, “A Passing Fancy.”

Race and Class Interaction in Jamaica - And its Impact on the World pin