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Racism in Jamaica
published: Saturday | June 12, 2004

Keon West
(In a letter to the Editor)

AS JAMES Byrd was travelling alone down that old road in a small town in Texas, I am certain that he did not see it coming. Minutes later, while he watched as pieces of his black body ripped off into tiny chunks of red on the asphalt he must have wished that he had. When the will to fight the oppression found in society wanes I tell myself the tale of this man strapped to the back of a truck and dragged for miles to remind myself that racism by itself can kill.

But that was in the United States of America, where blacks make up an insignificant 12 per cent of the population. Here, in Jamaica, the land I longed to return to since my steps on the soil of Macalester College, things were different. We were not racist. How could we be? Our Prime Minister was Black, our most famous musical artistes were Black, the police are mostly Black. We certainly could not have the same problems as the racist United States of America.

Last night however, I watched the Miss Universe 2004 competition, I sat back in awe at the outstanding whiteness of the woman Jamaica had chosen to represent us. Nothing is wrong with that. She appeared to be a very intelligent and attractive young woman. However, the tendency of a country filled with Blacks from the ghettos to the Parliament to produce representatives that were always closer to the White side of the spectrum, bothered me.

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This bothered state continued as I remembered the Sunshine Snacks advertisement that hung over Waterloo Road. Six children. No Blacks, just Browns. Then the Macdonald's billboard close to the foot of Beverly Hills. Four people, just one Black. Memories of my own life rushed back to me, of girls who were teased simply for being very dark, of who the most sought-after girls and boys were in school, and the disturbing habit that many of them had of being Brown. Who are these Browns? This varies from person to person, from day to day. I like to think of them as anyone who is clearly part Black and part something else, be it Chinese, Indian, White or whatever race you want to dream up.

To make it easier for yourself, simply think of all the people you know of who have darker skin than you do. Ask yourself, are they richer or poorer than you are? Now ask the same question using all the people you know of with lighter skin than you have. Then try the two questions using the quality 'good-looking', and if you are still in high-school, try popular.

How many beggars, windshield-wipers, and 'madmen' can you think of with light brown skin? How many very dark doctors, lawyers or Miss Jamaicas can you think of? If your life is anything like mine, you might also start to hear the voice of Trevor David Rhone's Miss Agatha (from Old Story Time) singing in the streets. She tells us to keep away from "Black Sambo" and urges us toward Miss Margaret, because she has tall hair and light brown skin, and she is 'advancement'.

But who cares? Why should it matter in Jamaica if light skin is mysteriously correlated with money, power, and perceived good looks? It matters because it points to the racism that sadly exists in our own country. What we see is just the tip of the iceberg, and the situation extends to include how we Jamaicans are treated in restaurants, airports, on the road, and in the police station. Racism, even seemingly subtle and harmless racism, when left unchecked, can be very, very dangerous. If Jamaica ignores her racism, like James Byrd, one day she may not know what hit her.

KEON WEST

kwest@macalester.edu

29 Shenstone Drive, Kingston 6

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