By Neil Armstrong
It is not easy to get direct and short answers from author Malcolm Gladwell given his expansive, curious and exploratory mind. On questions of race and class he will take an interviewer on a broad journey of both issues, from slavery economies to post-slavery conditions around the world.
This is typical of the New York Times bestselling author for who more than 800 persons packed into the Toronto Reference Library to hear his conversations with Eleanor Wachtel, host of “Writers and Company” on CBC Radio One. The interview will be broadcast on Sunday, June 10 at 2pm on the Canadian national broadcaster.
The event was part of the series of events organized by the Jamaica 50 Celebration Inc. to celebrate Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of Independence in Toronto. With his parents, UK-born Prof. Graham Gladwell and Jamaica-born Joyce Gladwell, sitting in the front row, The New Yorker staff writer was asked about his family and told the story about his mother’s upbringing in Jamaica, tracing his family’s oral and DNA history back to the Igbo of Nigeria. He said he and his mother are descendants of the mistress of a slave owner and the offsprings of that union were granted certain privileges that are sustained and accentuated over years.
“It’s an odd thought to think that you owe your privileges to rape.” He said this points to the arbitrariness of privilege. “People who are privileged like to pretend that there is some logic to their success, that they got there because of their own virtue and from hard work but, in fact, if you begin to poke around, you’ll find that there is no logic at all, it is a series of events that led to your position.
It is a reminder that we ought to have some humility.” His mother’s memoir, Brown Face, Big Master, is a recounting of her childhood in the 1930s when Jamaica was becoming a country, “on the cusp of its independence,” noted Gladwell.
He said in Jamaica, unlike in the United States, if one were mulatto, he was granted, not full, but at least a healthy portion of privileges of full citizenship. Whereas in America if he were considered black - the ‘one drop rule.’ “If they could find a smidgen of black in you then you were black.” He said it was the reverse in Jamaica “because there was a shortage of white people so the bar for whiteness started to fall.” He described the education his mother and her twin sister received at St. Hilda’s High School as being very fine but problematic.
“A series of high Victorian white women from England descend on Jamaica and teach Jamaicans how to be English women,” causing invariably cognitive dissonance.
He said the British had an” extraordinary self regard that perhaps we will be better off if we just behave like Englishmen.” In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, he tells the story of the serendipitous moments in his mother’s history which led to her success.
IMMIGRATION Gladwell said he has an immigrant connection to Jamaica, similarly to England where he was born and Canada where he grew up. “Immigrants have complex relationships to the places they leave.
In a morally problematic sense, he said that by virtue of leaving a country an immigrant changes not just the country they come to but they change the country they leave. “We always talk about how immigrants change the country they go by virtue of their absence, they leave a mark.” He said enormous numbers of middle class people left Jamaica - his family among them — Jamaica lost its educated, its professional class to Miami, New York, Toronto and London” noted Gladwell.
He said immigrants also help to preserve the country that they came from. “Who leaves a country? People who are most unhappy with a country so, if the country that you’re leaving is actually functional and you leave because you’re unhappy with it its functionality, you’re doing your country a favour.” Gladwell said he decided to move to the United States after visiting the country when he was in college and he felt that it was a more open place than Canada, especially Washington DC, which he said at the time was “run by 25-year-olds.” He was appointed to the Order of Canada in June 2011.
Diverse He said his mixed race was never an issue in Canada. He grew up in Elmira, Ontario, a strongly Mennonite community and then went to Trinity College, University of Toronto, which was so “effortlessly diverse” that he didn’t remotely stand out.” He said it wasn’t until he moved to America that he realised the big deal that Americans made out of race. He described the American racial experience as very toxic.
“You cannot enslave 10 per cent or 15 per cent of your population for a hundred years or more and expect that stain to be removed easily.” Gladwell’s latest project is a book about power in which he explores the contentions between the powerful and the powerless. It is a discussion of what happens to people when they get power. A former business and science reporter at the Washington Post, he is the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures.