Kezia Page | Queen Victoria and her duppy at BOJ
Last week, a university student conducting research on Jamaican currency was turned away from the research library at the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) downtown. He is an international student at the University of The West Indies, Mona; he is from the United States and he is black. I offer this information because I think it will be useful context as I tell you more.
The day before, in preparation for his visit, we telephoned the BOJ. We were informed that to have access to the research library, one needs to send an email requesting access. An email was sent, a reply received, then the trek downtown was made. But we were not told by email nor on the phone that to access the research library, one has to conform to a Victorian-inspired dress code. We did not know this and so my student wore shorts, a T-shirt, shoes and socks.
Had he been raised in Jamaica, he may have known that even in our black nation, only white and brown people have the privilege of dressing as they please or as the weather demands, and that most of the rest of us are ever seeking the accoutrements and products that might lessen the offence of our selves.
According to the librarian, my student was turned away because the library is not on the main floor of the bank, but it is rather on the executive level – upstairs, of course. The executives at bank of Jamaica cannot witness other humans with their knees or shoulders exposed at their workplace. Even with a knapsack, entering, working, or leaving the library, this would be too much for them to process.
Indeed, a young black man in shorts and a T-shirt might be a petty thief, certainly out of place on the executive level of the bank in a country where the suited corruption rate is notorious.
The fact is, covering up has not helped our behaviour at all; if anything, it has displaced our energies from the more pressing root problems that afflict us.
QUEEN VICTORIA AND HER DUPPY IN HUMAN RESOURCES
Queen Victoria began her reign over the United Kingdom and Ireland in June 1837. She was the queen who ignored the social problems of her day and focused instead on imparting middle-class mores through an emphasis on moral responsibility and domestic propriety.
Things were not much different in the colonies. After full free in 1838, British missionaries came to the colonies to impart God and Victoria’s morality with a vengeance. Caribbean historians Brian Moore and Michele Johnson, in their book They Do As They Please, explain that “all aspects of British culture [were] employed as agents of ‘civilisation’, and the people of Jamaica were propagandised, largely by force of opinion and public policy, to think that these cultural imports were superior to their own Creole culture”. They go on to say that “A system of shared values around the idea that things British were superior was to be fostered while social distance would be preserved along race and class lines”.
Indeed, in human resource (HR) departments and religious organisations all over the island, Victoria’s flag is waved with vigour and resolve even in the 21st century. Many have confused the simple teachings of Christianity with Victoria’s interpretation of right (white) and proper behaviour. And, of course, her duppy – in HR departments, churches, libraries, and courthouses – lives in air-conditioned comfort or it sweats righteously and modestly, defying the hot and tropical reality of Jamaica. This is why suits, stockinged feet, long skirts, sleeves, etc., are her vestiges – because of privilege and righteousness.
But even under the guise of morality, Victoria’s bad min’ was real. Her mores helped maintain ‘social distance’, keeping access to education and real social mobility for the wealthy, the rightly classed (and dressed) and, of course, keeping the inappropriately dressed out and away from the executive floors of banks, out of libraries, hospitals, even heaven, if they could.
INDEPENDENCE? AND A CALL FOR DRESS REFORM
The Bank of Jamaica began its operations in 1961, the financial arm of our newly independent nation. Our money tells of our independence, stating proudly and colourfully the people and places that have mattered to us. Why is it then, that in these other important things, such as what is considered appropriate dress to access information, have we so thoughtlessly continued to remain where Victoria met us? Should we really deny information, especially to young people, if they don’t look like good colonials?
Victoria is dead. Even the Brits have moved on; it’s time we do too.