“Colour and the Tourist Trade”

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Gleaner column 21/4/18

In an interesting postscript to my last column “Modern Day Plantations”, I was sent a response from tourism mogul John Issa saying that my account of Evon Blake’s plunge into the Myrtle Bank Hotel’s pool was “not quite accurate”.

Apparently the story as told to John Issa by Evon Blake himself, went as follows.

“After my grandfather, father and uncle purchased the Myrtle Bank hotel in 1943, Evan (sic) Blake wanted to test if it still discouraged black guests, which it had done when it was owned by the United Fruit Co, now that it was owned by Jamaicans. He went to the front desk to buy a pool ticket and it was sold to him, he then proceeded to the swimming pool and was given a changing room and towel. He then proceeded to dive into the pool. He told me at all times he was welcomed.

“He however added, with a smile on his face, that when he dived into the pool it was like watching a movie in reverse as all the foreign guests who were in the pool came out.”

Issa went on to say that he was proud that his family had “removed racism” from the Myrtle Bank. He had also personally appointed the first black General Manager of a major Jamaican resort hotel when he appointed Willard Samms as General Manager of the Tower Isle Hotel in the early 1960s.

These details are interesting and also a perfect illustration of how deceiving appearances can be when they are decontextualized. On the face of it we might be inclined to buy this narrative of benign racial inclusiveness yet the incident involving Blake occurred in 1948, when Jamaica was still a colonial society and racism was even more pronounced than it is today. Thus you could very well have no explicit colour or race bar and still control the entry of Black people to your property. Heck, their entry is still being discouraged today, which was the point of my column.

Issa himself says that Blake told him as soon as he plunged into the pool all the foreign guests jumped out, a clear indication that it was NOT the norm, stated policy or not, for Blacks to swim in the Myrtle Bank’s famous pool. Likewise we might note that the appointment of a black general manager in the 60s while admirable, likely made no difference to the treatment of black guests, as indeed continues to be the case, more than 60 years later when it is the norm for hotels to have black managers.

Despite being managed and staffed by Blacks in 2018 too many Jamaicans who attempt to sample their country’s world-renowned hospitality find that it doesn’t necessarily extend to them. That was the gravamen of my column last week. So the fact that Evon Blake bought a ticket to the Myrtle Bank pool without hindrance is neither here nor there. The list of black guests I quoted complaining about their treatment had also paid for their stays at the hotels in question, yet it didn’t insulate them from the racial profiling they suffered. I’m sure those hotels have no explicit policy barring the entry of dark-skinned folk either. They don’t have to. Centuries of racial ‘grooming’ so to speak, cannot be undone overnight; the racism is internalized and practised by Blacks against Blacks.

Add to this the potent poison of class prejudice, something we all systematically practice in this day and age and you realize how complex the situation is. If you’re black and poor there are hardly any pools or beaches available for you in Jamaica.

As art historian Krista Thompson notes in “An Eye for the Tropics” Evon Blake was very concerned also about how Jamaicans were portrayed in tourism campaigns. He deplored the fact that in these representations black Jamaicans always appeared in menial positions, or as boys climbing coconut palms or diving into the sea to retrieve coins. Middle class Blacks were rarely featured. Blake pointed out that in contrast, neighbouring Haiti emphasized the fact that tourists would be visiting a ‘Black Republic’ where you would be expected to fraternize with ‘Negroes’.

According to Blake the unwritten message in Haitian tourist publicity went something like this: “If you object to associating with Negroes go somewhere else.” Americans who went to Haiti forgot the colour prejudice practised back home:

“They chin and chum with Negroes, and they appear to love it. They sit next to Negroes in swank hotels and clubs, bathe in swimming pools with Negroes, dance with Negro men and women, and consider themselves privileged when offered the opportunity to pay their respects to officials of the ‘Black Republic.’”

And while this was going on in Haiti, in Jamaica tourism interests were assiduously keeping tourists from meeting locals, on the grounds that they wouldn’t like to hobnob with black folk, a belief apparently alive and well today. Clearly a sea change is needed in how tourism is practised in this Black country.

Modern Day Plantations

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Gleaner column 14/2/18

The story is told in hushed tones of well-known journalist Evon Blake who jumped into the pool at Myrtle Bank Hotel, a whites-only facility in downtown Kingston.

“One summer day in 1948, as tourists and elites casually colonized the poolside deckchairs of Jamaica’s premier hotel, the Myrtle Bank, a black Jamaican journalist, Evon Blake, suddenly burst onto the brochure-promised scene. He hastily disrobed and plunged into the waters of the hotel’s unofficially racially segregated pool. The staff quickly congregated at its edges, hurling threats at the intruder. Taking advantage of the protection of the water, which prohibited security from entering the pool, Blake defiantly challenged,”Call the police. Call the army. Call the owner. Call God. And let’s have one helluva big story.”

The quote above is from a chapter titled “Diving into the Racial Waters of Beach Space in Jamaica” in Bahamian art historian Krista Thompson’s groundbreaking book

You might think that the Myrtle Bank’s covert racism in Jamaica was symptomatic of colonial times, it was 1948 after all. But I have news for you. Racial profiling is alive and well in Jamaica today, and raised its ugly head in Port Antonio recently. A video making the rounds on social media features a woman who has been visiting Jamaica for many years talking about a distressing experience. The caption below the video sums up what happened.

“CAUCASIAN tourist vacationing/visiting ERROL FLYNN MARINA IN PORT ANTONIO JAMAICA, claims her BLACK JAMAICAN FRIEND WAS discriminated against !!! Her local black Jamaican friend was warned not to swim with the TOURISTS!!! Classism.”

In my opinion the incident is a toxic mix of classism and racism. The video attracted a slew of responses many of them retailing similar stories of racism suffered by black, Jamaican visitors and tourists returning to their beloved country for vacations. I quote some of them below:

Venus Jack I can relate. While checking into the resort in Montego Bay the young lady serving drinks to the arriving guests excluded us and didn’t offer us anything to drink. She just ignored us like we did not belong there. What a welcome home! Previously at another resort we had guests and the security guards were rude to them because they were locals. Wouldn’t let them visit us in peace… they were under constant scrutiny and treated them like thieves even though they had to stay in the lobby area only. It was very upsetting.

Donna Rose Omg Venus Jack I experienced the very same thing at RIU in Ocho Rios. That hotel chain would never ever get another penny from me. When I arrived at the hotel to check in, they asked us, whey uno a go? They would not allow my local friends to park on the property. Jamaicans I tell you.

Steve Shers I’m used to being treated as a second class tourist/visitor when I visit the Caribbean although I’m from there.

Beverley Ranglin This happened to me and my family at the holiday inn in montego bay 2 years ago.

Tanya Weise That’s happened to us at Ibero Stars too.

They just pass and offered all white guest the cocktails and we were among everyone else waiting to be checked in.

Amanda Scott Venus Jack that very same thing happened to me at Grand Bahia in Ochi with the guests. I was so ready to leave by the 3rd day. Never again.

Almarie Davis She is so right. I wanted to rent a beach chair at a particular beach in Portland and was told I can’t. They are saving them for the cruise shippers.

Christine Creary-taylor My family and I went to an all inclusive resort in Montego Bay and they were serving drinks to all the new arrivals that just walked pass us. Colour not light enough I guess.

Clearly blatant racial discrimination is still being practiced in Jamaica’s world-renowned tourism enclaves. Yet in November last year when  Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Taleb Rifai, “strongly urged Caribbean tourism stakeholders to stop promoting modern-day plantations called exclusive resorts” at a Montego Bay conference on jobs and inclusive growth he was raked over the coals by tourism interests.

Rifai went on to  warn against the practice of building five-star resorts in three-star communities, where the citizens were not part of the transformation. The backlash he suffered from Jamaica’s tourist industry forced him to tone down his statements the next day.

The case of the Errol Flynn Marina places the subject raised by Mr. Rifai on the table once again. Let’s not sweep this ugly intersection of racism and classism under the carpet yet again. Racism in a black country should simply not be tolerated in this day and age. Neither should classism. Do we have to send for Evon Blake’s duppy to finish the job?

“As a Jamaican Negro I know my country well…”

A peep into the history of Jamaica and its Constabulary

While searching for something else I came across this interesting 1938 letter to the editor of the Gleaner taking Alexander Bustamante on about something he had said regarding the officer corps of the Jamaica Constabulary. Apparently he didn’t approve of black or coloured Jamaicans being appointed as Police Inspectors for fear they would abuse their subordinates. Since both Mr. Bustamante and the JC are in the news right now I thought others might find this peep into history interesting as well.

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Nelson Mandela, Servant Leadership and ‘Born-heres’ : An Interview with Kumi Naidoo, Part 1

An interview with Kumi Naidoo on the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s death in which he talks about the great leader, leadership, activism and identity.

Kumi Naidoo, left
Kumi Naidoo, left

On December 5, the day Nelson Mandela finally died, after a heavily mediated, prolonged deathwatch, I was in Amsterdam with Kumi Naidoo, a close South African friend of many years standing. In between hundreds of requests for his comments from global media I managed to sneak in an interview myself. I had originally planned to interview Kumi about his role as Executive Director of Greenpeace International, about the predicament of the Arctic 30 who were still in captivity in Russia then and other environmental issues. After Mandela’s death I decided to include Kumi’s views on this historic passing in the interview, as an ANC activist of many years standing, as someone who knew and worked with Mandela personally, who better than Kumi Naidoo from whom to get a perspective on Nelson Mandela and political leadership in general. This constitutes Part 1 of the interview. In the second part which i’ll post in a couple of days i ask him about Greenpeace, environmentalism and the Arctic 30 among other things. First an excerpt from Kumi’s Greenpeace blog:

I was 15 years old when I first heard the name Mandela, or Madiba, as he is fondly known in Africa. In apartheid South Africa he was public enemy number one. Shrouded in secrecy, myth and rumour, the media called him ‘The Black Pimpernel’. He was able to avoid the police, using several disguises – a favorite of which was that of a chauffeur – until the CIA colluded with the apartheid regime to ensure his capture. In Durban, where I was born and grew up, and all over Africa, he was a hero! Now he is a hero to the world.

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AP: Kumi, you knew Nelson Mandela personally, you’ve had experiences with him, you are from South Africa, and I heard you in the BBC interview a moment ago saying something about how you thought the world could best do justice to him, or the best tribute they could pay to him. Could you develop that point for me?

KN: Mandela was very keen not to be understood as an exceptional person. I’ll give you a story. In 2004, I was in Mobutu, Mozambique, to help moderate a discussion with young people and with some senior African leaders which included Graça Machel and Joaquim Chissano, who was President of Mozambique at that time, and these were kids from eastern and southern African countries who had developed a vision of what they wanted Africa to be in 2050, and were presenting the vision. So, when I was moderating the discussion, one of the young people asked the question: “What is your definition of leadership?” And Mandela’s mind flipped back to the forties and he answered it as he would have answered it at that point: “We in the ANC youth league believe in the idea of collective leadership.” So essentially his notion of leadership was a very servant leadership, that you are there to serve not to take. And the reality is today most of our political leaders want to be treated as gods and semi-gods, from the security details to the fuss around them and so on.

AP: They’re more interested in the aura of leadership?

KN: And I think even though he was feted and praised as he was, he always was at pains to say, I’m a human being. And whenever anybody called him a saint, he would say: “If by saint you mean a sinner who is trying to be better, then I’m a saint.” His own sense of himself was a very humble reading, [different] from how the world read him. And, quite often, you had the sense that he was not comfortable with all the accolades that would be, you know…

AP: Hurled at him.

KN: Yeah, in fact, there’s a beautiful one on women. Nelson Mandela once said “I can’t help it if the ladies take note of me; I’m not going to protest.” He also spoke about how, as a human being, he’s made mistakes. In 1995 when I was heading the Adult Literacy Campaign in South Africa I took kids and adult learners to the Parliament to meet Madiba on International Literacy Day. They were excited to have their picture taken with him – the image was to become a poster for our campaign to promote adult basic education – but everyone was anxious; they were asking me what they should say and how they should approach meeting the President! The main line that people had prepared, the kids, and even the adults that were there, was something like, “Thank you, Mr. President,” or, “Thank you, Madiba, for taking time. We know how busy you are.” But when Madiba emerged from his Cabinet meeting he turned the tables. He walked in and thanked everyone for taking the time to see him. “I know how busy you all are and I thank you for taking time to meet me,” he said. In that moment he closed the gap. He was just a human being, a person like them, and everyone relaxed. Within a minute, that sort of thing about the leader and the lead, the gap was closed, and that’s a rare thing.

One of the things that I noticed with my own eyes was his ability to engage with kings and queens and heads of state on the one hand, and his ability to engage with ordinary people, equally comfortably. For example, I first met him when I was in my late 20s, in 1993. I was helping facilitate an African National Congress (ANC) workshop to plan its media strategy. I went down to meet him for the first time and you know me I got stupid… I just choked. I said, “Hello Madiba, it’s a real honour to meet you,” and I couldn’t get another word out. Just that one sentence. So during the workshop, he quietly, didn’t make a big fuss of it, quietly asked, “Can I go and say thank you to the people who prepared the food, and the workers of the hotel?” And I followed and I watched what he did and he basically shook everybody’s hands in the kitchen and said thank you to everybody.

 
I’ve come across a lot of people in my life who talk about poverty and talk about the poor, but you rarely have a sense that it matters to them to the point at which they will be willing to sacrifice something. Yes, they feel a sense of solidarity, but when you speak about the poor, that you actually celebrate the eloquence of the poor, the tenacity of the poor, the perseverance, courage… I mean, to survive poverty is… You know, many people theorize poverty, but so many elements of poverty, individually, for most people who theorize about poverty would be really difficult to even comprehend the individual things. Just take homelessness. If you are homeless, what does it mean not to have a post box where people can contact you; what does it mean not knowing where you’re going to sleep at the end of the day; what does it mean not having a place where you can store what little you might possess. So dealing with homelessness in itself is a huge thing for most people who are commentators [on] or benefactors to poverty. Then you take an issue like living with HIV/AIDS… I mean, you know, where health care is difficult… where people have to struggle for access to antiretrovirals and some still don’t have access to them and all of that, and just confronting that alone, for most people, would be a major challenge. And then you got things like educational deprivation as a result of a conscious apartheid strategy, where the founder of apartheid, Verwoerd, once said, and I quote, “Blacks should never be shown the greener pastures of education, they should know that their station in life is to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

AP: Who said that?

KN: Verwoerd. V-E-R-W-O-E-R-D. He was the architect of apartheid. Those legacies still live on. And Mandela’s very strong commitment to education more than anything else, and very strong commitment to children more than anything else, comes very much from a deep inter-generational understanding as well. Like when I was the head of the adult literacy movement in South Africa it was always easy to get him to send messages of support and so on. But, because you can say, well, okay, the new government… There’s a term for it in South Africa now, like you know how they talk about the Millennials? There’s a term… ‘Born frees’! The born frees are those that were born after ’94. So now they’re ten years old. They got no… In fact, even if I take talking to the wonderful kids that are a part of my life, and who know the stories because they’ve heard it from me a thousand times, or they’ve been in the presence of friends, who when we get together we always tend to reminisce But still, often they think we’re exaggerating about  how bad it was. They don’t really believe, because thankfully they are in more normal situations now, they attend schools with kids of different races, and its no big deal like it was for us. That was such a big thing. So the one thing about Mandela’s leadership is that he was not only a strong leader showing the importance of understanding the appropriate role of individual leadership. But he was always collective-minded, understanding that the wisdom comes from a range of people. For example, his relationship with the other senior leadership of the ANC was critically important to him, like Walter Sisulu was his confidant right until he passed away, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada.

AP: I wanted to ask you about Ahmed Kathrada.

KN: So Kathrada was the youngest of the Rivonia trialists…

AP: Of the what?

KN: The Rivonia trialists. Rivonia was a farm where they were captured from and the trial was known as the Rivonia trial.

AP: Mandela was part of that?

KN: Yes, that was the trial where he got life imprisonment.

AP: What were they trying to do?

KN: They had some explosives…Probably, in military terms, it was not even security training 101.

AN: Kindergarten.

KN: Actually, maybe I should take that back, because at that time maybe it was as sophisticated as you could get. But the other thing about Mandela which is really important was his passion for peace, because when he came out of prison he was unequivocal about the need to eliminate violence from the politics of South Africa. I remember this one speech, he went into Durban where there was a huge conflict between the ANC and Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party, and it was Mandela’s force of character, his strength with humility, and so on. I mean quite often I think leaders are put into positions of unilateralism where they’re not prepared to deal honestly with their people about the ambiguity of leadership, because sometimes there are situations where you need a leader to be more assertive and maybe even less consultative, and in other situations, normally, I would say that’s a better style of leadership.

AP: Being consultative?

KN: Because then the responsibilities are shared more broadly and those who have responsibility for decisions have a greater investment in them… And as President, in the five years Mandela was there he was a very hands-off President, I would say, Thabo Mbeki did a lot of the day to day management of Cabinet Ministers and so on. And de Klerk was the other Deputy President, there were two Deputy Presidents in the first Cabinet. So I think that the kind of leadership that we need to revisit now as we reflect on one of the greatest leaders that walked this planet is, given where the world is, for example, should leaders take as given that the level of material privilege they assume, that comes with the role of leadership, should it be so vastly different from the day to day realities of often the majority of the people in their countries? So, for example, we have had some signs of positive actions such as the current President of Malawi, first woman to head up Malawi, and she, for example, sold off the Presidential jet. We just assume that the norm of leadership is living the life. So therefore you can see that there are times when leaders have to honestly say to their people, this is a time of austerity and we need to…

AP: Tighten our belts.

KN: …tighten our belts, people are thinking, well its easy for you to say. Its going to mean nothing to you because it will have no material effect on you, given that you have so much of excess income anyway, from what it takes to meet your basic needs. And so I think there needs to be a conversation. If there’s something that should come out of Mandela’s death right now, I would think there has to be a conversation about equality, and its importance, because every problem we have here is a world out of balance. I mean to have less than 200 of the wealthiest people in the U.S. be equivalent of, own more than, 65% of the American people, there’s something wrong with that system, where people have so much that they don’t need and they start being silly, and engage in exuberant consumption which is completely self-serving, and so on. And in that sense Mandela did not… and it was also the issue of his age and all when he came out, because, and don’t forget, he was cut off from the world for 27 years. Its amazing how he just appeared to fit smoothly into that world. But there’s a lot that he had missed in absolute terms. And so I don’t judge him too harshly on this, but the fact is, you know, he didn’t really fundamentally challenge the structural injustices in our economic life, and in that sense, I think that if you assume that he had spent, if you take the time that he was in prison, for example, and how much of that was lost. Because you know people don’t sufficiently acknowledge that he was not only about charisma and wisdom and all of that, he was also a person of intellect. He had a very very amazing intellectual gift, and I think his real gift was that ability to be able to walk one day with kings, queens and heads of state, and another day be as comfortable, and in fact, quite frankly, more comfortable, walking with regular people.

AP: That’s really good, you’ve given me a few private glimpses which aren’t out there which is great. I wanted to go back to the fact that you’re an Indian South African, and people don’t realize that many Indian South Africans participated in the ANC and in those struggles against apartheid. For instance I was quite surprised to see that this cellmate of Nelson Mandela was another Indian South African. What’s his name again?

KN: Ahmed Kathrada

AP: Right, so its not as exceptional as it seems?

KN: No, no, in fact, several South Africans of Indian origin were in Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. There was Mac Maharaj, Billy Nair, who spent twenty years there, and Zed, Uncle Zed we used to call him.

AP: Zed?

KN: Yes, Z-E-D, he spent fourteen years. Yeah, many, and disproportional to the size of the population in terms of this thing, but it was because of the legacy of Gandhi. During all of that there was quite a strong spirit of resistance in the community. Mandela was fond of Gandhi in terms of his life and work and writings, but the apartheid state, like all colonial regimes, maintained control by divide and rule, and in South Africa, the main form of divide and rule was on the basis of race, and not just that but also on the basis of language, so it wasn’t that it was just white, Indian, African, coloured, as they would’ve called it, but the African community was, the black African community were then broken up into Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana and the other African languages… your language and culture.

AP: Interesting, I have never heard that side.

KN: Yes, so there were people like myself who came through the liberation struggle, who were first influenced by Steve Biko, and were resisting the divisions of apartheid which were also historical and cultural divisions. Distinctions, let’s say, because obviously the people who came as indentured servants from India have a different history versus those who came to be defined as Coloured, whose numbers are in excess of three million; and their community was rich in culture…

AP: And the Coloureds are the hybrid people born out of contact between the Europeans and Africans?

KN: Yes, but the people who were so defined have forged themselves also into a rich community in their own standing. I think one of the richest cultures in South Africa in terms of music, dance, even rich art forms and so on, because there is also Malay influence, because there were slaves brought from Indonesia and Malaysia.

AP: Really, I didn’t know that.

KN: So, given all of these different influences, our response, those that came through the struggle like myself, when the state used to say white and non-white, we said we didn’t want to be non anything. So black then became the unifying identity. And Steve Biko’s big contribution was in the way that he defined black consciousness. He defined it as everybody who wasn’t benefiting from the privileges of white citizenship, and the ANC drew on and embraced that as well, and so for me my identity is very much first and foremost…

AP: A black identity, as a black person?

KN: Today, given the journey I’ve traveled, my first identity, it might sound silly but, is as a human being who is not bound by any man-made boundaries, but my second biggest identity is as an African whose identity is fundamentally linked to the African continent as a whole, and third it is South African, and then fourth, I would say, as a South African of Indian origin, and I don’t see any of those in contradiction. I think that they enrich each other in different ways.

The day the cowdung hit the fan…

Indian Railway Coolie. The term ‘coolie’ is as overloaded and weighed down as the porters it denotes in India!
Indian Railway Coolie. The term ‘coolie’ is as overloaded and weighed down as the porters it denotes in India!

 

Well, I had been saving this subject up for a moment when I could find enough time to spend on it but I’ve been pre-empted by events in the media landscape in Jamaica. Ever since Ragashanti, popular talk show host on Newstalk 93 (formerly Radio Mona, located on the campus of the University of the West Indies), invited callers on February 4 to express opinions on the topic of the week, Indians or Coolies (Raga’s topics cover a wide range from things like the subject this week which is, “Is it ok to deh with somebody who did deh with one of your friends or relatives before?” or Do wives have it better than Mateys or vice versa?), I’ve been itching to write a blog called “Cows ARE sacred” but have been simply too busy. Over the weekend the news broke that the local broadcasting commission had recommended the shutdown of Newstalk 93 based on the racist slurs made by callers expressing their views on the subject.

On the day in question I was shocked at the stream of callers freely expressing the most derogatory opinions about Indians. I think Raga himself was taken aback at the absurdity of some of the comments (the most frequent complaint voiced by almost every caller was the intolerable “smell” apparently attached to Indians whom most of them referred to as Coolies or to be precise ‘di coolie dem’). He had deliberately chosen the subject as the topic of the week because as he put it, “There are a lot of stereotypes about Indians in Jamaica” and he wanted to elicit the views of his callers on the subject with a view to having a discussion on air that would have served to interrogate and challenge these stereotypes.

Alas long before he could do that the cowdung hit the fan. The views expressed on his show were so racist, such a slavish recitation of precisely the kinds of things the European colonizers said about “natives” in various parts of the world, so exactly a repetition of the things slavemasters said about the slaves that it was impossible for any Indian or any conscientious person not to feel disturbed and upset by what caller after caller was saying. Indians/Coolies were described as smelly, dirty or ‘nasty’, dishonest, oversexed and simultaneously physical weaklings. Several callers identified the fact that Indians eat with their hands as being ‘nasty’ and problematic to the extent where I am now abnormally self-conscious about a perfectly normal mode of eating food not merely in India but in many parts of the African continent. The word “coolie” was also being bandied about with alarming abandon and while it’s a word I myself use quite freely, it IS– like the word “nigger”–quite loaded when deployed by someone who doesn’t share the particular ethnic category being referred to. I cringed at the thought of Indian children trying to make sense of all this.

So I decided I had to intervene on behalf of my coolie brethren and sistren. Yes folks ‘coolie’ is a word that is freely used in Jamaica unlike Trinidad and Tobago where it’s actually illegal to use it. Over here as far as i know it is not used as a term of abuse. Still I knew that if Raga continued along these lines he would definitely get into trouble and since I value his show and him very much I sent him a message to call me so that we could have a discussion on air about the subject in question. By then he had already received a call from an outraged lawyer who said that he was so appalled by the broadcast that even though he wasn’t an Indian himself he was willing to take action against the show and the station on behalf of any Indians who might be offended like himself.

So on the day in question I actually appeared on Raga’s show–in the guise of an expert on Indian affairs I suppose–and found him very receptive to my suggestion that he be more cautious with the use of terms like ‘coolie’. In fact the next day he apologized profusely for having inadvertently offended anyone and announced that he would discontinue using the C-word, urging callers to do the same. He went on to say that the topic for the week had now been broadened to elicit the views of any ethnic or racial group about any other ethnic or racial group.

Interestingly despite this the majority of the callers who responded in the following days continued to sound off on the subject of Indians and how nasty, dirty and dishonest they were in their opinions. I found myself intrigued by this. Numerically Indo-Jamaicans are about 2% of the population and unlike their counterparts in Trinidad and Guyana most of them remain impoverished and are little or no threat to anyone anywhere, least of all black Jamaicans.

What accounted then for such hostile views towards those of Indian descent? According to an eminent cultural theorist friend of mine it has to do with the history of Indian arrival in Jamaica where indentured labourers or coolies, from both India and China, were brought to the Caribbean in the mid-19th century by the British, to supply cheap, virtually free labour, which had suddenly become unavailable after slavery was abolished. The ex-slaves had entered a period of ‘apprenticeship’, a kind of neo-slavery, that many of them rightly refused to participate in. The newly arrived Indians were therefore seen as ‘scabs’ and perceived to be crossing the picket line as it were by the rest of the working (or non-working!) population.

I remembered a story an Indo-Jamaican friend of mine once told me about her first encounter with racism here. I wished I could remember it in detail; Lucilda Dassardo-Cooper now lives in Cairo so I emailed and asked her to recount it to me again and this was her response:

The story I told was of the first time I realized that the prejudice in Jamaica was irrational. I had always heard the kids taunt us as being weak, which was not quite thrown at me because I had actually beaten the school bully in my basic school, and the class bully in primary school.

Callaloo, a favorite food of Indians and eaten with dhal, rotis, rice and roasted saltfish was supposedly why ‘coolies’ were weaker than ‘negah’ who ate boiled dumplings, green bananas and yams with saltfish boiled and refried with onions and tomatoes.

It must have been my first year at St. Jago, when I was on the bus to school that the incident happened. The bus was overcrowded and we were all crushed together. My nicely and carefully pleated uniform was assaulted on all sides when this pushing happened and I was swept along. I was complaining in general about the pushing and shoving being unnecessary, when this woman jumped on me, telling me that “You are coolie and I am negah so “I don’t have to box shit out of hog’s mouth.”

Maybe some of your Jamaica friends can enlighten you on the expression, but the impact on me was astonishment. Here I was going to high school, a big deal at the time as not too many had high school education, and she was going to work in a factory in Spanish town. Yet she felt that she was somehow superior because of her race. Also that she had chosen to respond to my general complaints not directed in particular at anyone, and most especially not at her as she was also shoved along with the rest of us.

“Boxing shit out of hog’s mouth” is an expression of being so poverty stricken that one is competing with hogs for shit. Go figure!

Then when I was on the beach in Jamaica maybe four years ago there was a little girl who asked me “Are you a coolie?” Instead of responding, I asked her “What are you?” she told me “I am a negah.”

See how complicated, vexed and vexing all of this is? That’s why I didn’t want to write about any of this till I had plenty of time to write something considered and illuminating rather than a knee-jerk sort of response. So there you are, my take on all this is that in the haste to censor if not prosecute Raga and Newstalk 93 the important work of combating the stereotypes Indo-Jamaicans are faced with has fallen by the wayside. That to me is the pity of it all. Complicating much of this is the confusion people make between Indo-Jamaicans, the descendants of those who came here as indentured labourers and Indian nationals, creatures of quite another make-up. The latter are notoriously obsessed with skin-colour themselves and wont to look down on people of African descent. Their racism, clannishness and refusal to mix with the natives of the countries they migrate to contributes quite a bit to the ill will towards Indians in general. I come from this latter group myself so I know what I’m talking about; and with regard to Indians from India I would say its not a bad thing for them to be confronted with the same kind of racism they mete out to others. Indeed their attitude towards Jamaicans of Indian descent is extremely problematic but that has to be the subject of another blog.

One can only be grateful to Raga for having brought the subject of Jamaican stereotypes of Indians to light in this way. Neither he nor his station should be penalized for doing this. The question is what are we going to do about the stereotypes?