Welcome

Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Thank you, Mr. Obama?

Whatever the outcome of the US presidential candidacy races and then elections, I believe that many people will owe a debt of gratitude to Barack Obama. What he has done by being a very credible black candidate is to raise race and colour to a new level of debate, clearly in the US for now. But I think, that in a wider international context, he has done much to bring to the fore some of the fluff and confusion in discussions about race and colour. Mr. Obama is a black candidate with whom many white voters clearly feel comfortable for the time being (see his primary wins in predominantly white states). Yet, he is a black candidate whose blackness has been questioned by several prominent voicesincluding in the black community (see, for example, Time report). But he has opened up the question about what it means to be black.

For many people who identify themselves as black or are described as black they know that having some visible element of whiteness in their appearance really changes nothing in the eyes of people who identify themselves as white or are described as white. Once the darkness is clear the line tends to be drawn. In the US, the so-called "one-drop" rule tended to ensure that: a person with any trace of non-white ancestry (however small or invisible) could not be considered white. You were black or white. As a result of 400 years of living alongside white people, the majority of "African Americans" have white admixture, and many white Americans also have African ancestry. Some have suggested that the majority of the descendants of African slaves are white. In modern times, you have clearly dark people in America, of clearly mixed racial heritage, possibly raised by a white parent but in no way feeling "white" or being seen as "white". Yet they are not necessarily seen as "black". What is Derek Jeter? What is Mariah Carey? What is Jason Kidd? Each is a product of Irish-something mothers and African-soemthing fathers. (There are separate issues about those who are seen as mixed race and I want to deal with some of them in a separate post.)Mr. Obama brought a different wrinkle to the discussion with his very recent arrival as a black American (a true African-American, with black Kenyan father and white American mother), and with his absence of "black history" by not really being a product of struggles through the civil rights movement, and hailing from Hawaii. (Do Americans really see those islands like the mainland?)

In north America, Europe, and the Caribbean, we have lived through several hundred years of clearly black and clearly white peoples mixing, voluntarily and accidentally (both amicably and by force), with the outcome being a range of people who are not clearly as white (or classically European-looking) as most of the original settlers who travelled from Europe across The Atlantic, nor as clearly black as those who came originally from black tribes in Africa. During that period, which spans a good 500 years, we have known that on the one hand that those who could be seen as white or nearly white gained many privileges that were denied to those who were seen as black. Let's simply by saying they got their hands on economic and political control. So, if possible, there was a natural tendency to be seen as white/European. People are not stupid and rarely choose to impose suffering on themselves. In visible ways, that meant that through time many vestiges of a black/African origin were displaced in simple and complex ways: hair was de-kinked, skin was bleached, manners and tastes were changed to seem more white/European. These are familiar processes of assimilation--no different than learning to speak like a local when you move to a new place. They made sense in a time when clearly privileges were tending towards the whites/European.

In a broad sense the privilege structure did not change much, but through processes such as decolonization from European rule and civil rights successes a black identity started to take on a different and positive meaning. Skipping through the years, we moved to a point where black people could take pride in their blackness and believe that maybe this did not automatically penalize. In some places and the minds of some people, this created a new thin line to tread. At its extreme, "black" people would omit or suppress references to a clear set of white/European roots and/or relations with "white" people, because this was now a possible negative in a world that saw blackness as a positive and whiteness or relationships with it as negatives. So, now being black is alright. But the degree to which whiteness is looked down upon varies. Here in Barbados, there was an instance 2-3 years ago of a black Cabinet minister, Environment Minister Elizabeth Thompson, being overheard using the word “Caucasian” as a derogatory racial term.More recently, Barbados' new mega-star, Rihanna, reportedly admitted in a media interview that she was bullied in school for being “white” (see report and picture alongside of her and Jay-Z).

Various social systems in countries that have a significant proportion of white and black people, but where whites tended to be on top have not yet fully embraced the elevation of blackness. By that, I mean that they have not moved to make things fully even for blacks and whites--hence all the discussion about Mr. Obama's run for president. On the one hand, America has over the past 50 years embraced more the black person as truly an integral part (as the prime sports heroes and heroines; icons of popular culture, especially music; increasingly as a leader in local legislative politics as high as Congressperson and Senators; as important in national affairs--head of the armed forces, in charge of foreign affairs and national security policies; increasingly leaders in large businesses),but up to the past 12 months did not seem ready to embrace the possibility of their political leader being black.

Britain, which has seen a significant increase in its black population through mass immigration in the 1950s and 1960s, and reproduction since, has seen the black person as "British" (and that is synonymous with "being like the white Britons" in many people's minds) especially in the sport world, but seems to have lagged in this process in the areas of politics and business (see report). The rest of western Europe is mixed. France (which is complicated because it includes already black islands like Guadeloupe and Martinique as part of the "mainland") and Holland (which similarly has the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao as part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands), who were both colonial powers, have seen immigrants and their offspring from former colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, become integral part of their sporting lives. They have also shown interesting recent political developments in including non-whites in national political office. Countries such as Germany, Sweden, Italy, and Norway are seeing the integration of non-whites move along a range of varied lines; but such countries without much of a history associated with centuries of slavery and mistreatment of nonwhites move on a different track. [The pitcure of Inter Milan footballer Mario Balotelli-Buruwah tells a micro-story of what some of Europe is trying to deal with. He was born in Palermo, Italy, in 1990, of Ghanaian parents, then entrusted to an Italian family at age 3, but still is not an Italian citizen (he must be 18 to make that request).] If the discussion is broadened to include "ethnic minorities" we can see that the progresses have been more widely spread.

So, being being black now carries many elements of confusion within and outside of black communities. It's hard to be too general not least because I believe that there is a world of difference between various experiences. There is America (with its strong, still recent history of racial segregation and intolerance). There is Britain-France (with their ex-colonial powers and mass immigration histories). There is much of western Europe (with little mass immigration, though seeing increasingly migration through asylum seekers and economic refugees). There is the Caribbean (with our history of much inter-racial mixing, being overseen by European colonists and the favours they disposed to those who were seen as "white" or acted more European). Inside the "black community" it tends to be a good thing. Outside the black community, one has to judge the context and it could be a good or a bad thing. At a micro-social level outside the black community, it could be a plus such as being the "black friend(s)" that some white people would claim.

Few of us blacks are truly black through and through. I think most black people know this.

My wife is from the Bahamas (intriguing enough in the region, with "family islands" that were historically quite different in racial mix). Her family on her mother's side would be categorized as "Conchy Joe" (a Bahamian term for a white person or a non-white person who acts white). Her maternal great grandmother was white French-Haitian, and blackness was introduced variously by Jamaicans and Bahamians. But my wife looks more brown than anything else (there's another blog to come on women's skin colour in the Caribbean).

I have very dark brown skin and everyone in my family before me looked much the same, but I must have Celtic genes. Why? My first wife was clearly a Celt (white and a redhead, with family from Scotland and the Isle of Man). My first daughter has skin that is paler than it is dark and is also a redhead. For that to happen, there must be a recessive gene--one that is present in both parents--such as gives blond hair and blues eyes. Therefore, somewhere (probably in that southern St. Elizabeth melting pot of Jamaica) some Celtic blood entered my line. History tells us that the Vikings sailed from northern Europe to the Caribbean, centuries before Columbus. But it could have been from post-Columbus intermingling. I look and feel black. My daughter? She was raised in mainly white neighbourhoods. She has been described as "white", "black" and "other" (which is the description that covers her best, probably). Her racial experiences have been quite different in the US, Canada, and the UK (about which she will write soon). At the family level some of the pertinent questions are:

Do we think we are black? Yes.

Do white people see us as black? Yes. (I can't go beyond that to say if that means they see us as friends or foes, but most experiences suggest more the former than the latter by far. As we have never been criminals it's hard to talk too much about how being on that side would change perceptions.)

Do we act like we are black? Yes, as befits people from our respective island. Which means that we often do not see ourselves as subservient to white people and we are proud of our colour.

Do we feel disadvantaged for not being white? No.

Do we mix with black and white people freely? Yes.

Do our children mix with black and white people freely? Yes.

Do our children have more white friends than black friends? Yes.

Do our children see themselves as black? Yes.

Do people see our children as black? Yes. No. Sometimes.

Looking beyond my immediate family the debate that has been broadened is complex and long and won't be resolved quickly, if ever. But it's a good one with which to get engaged.

1 comment:

Gibson Ampaw said...

Whats all this obsession with Barack Obama. In Africa we have had hundreds of elected black Presidents. Is'nt that enough for Black people around the World to be proud of.Obama just happens to be America's first elected black president. To me thats is nothing special except for black Americans. I am therefore happy for them and nobody else. We in Africa and the Carribean have enough of our own black presidents and prime ministers.Thank you very much