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Black Skin, White Masks

 On some of the street-walls in Kingston and the larger towns there are roughly painted signs which read: “Birth-control is a plot to kill out black people”. Colour distinctions are still with us. But increasingly in Ja­maica reference to colour, except in very straight-forward descriptive use, is a reference not to shade of skin but to pattern of behaviour. “White people” are those who have chosen to adopt or to continue in a European rather than a local way of life and thinking. In this sense some “blacks” are very “white”.

But it is no longer necessary to be “white”, either in colour or in behaviour, to get to the top. Once at the top, however, the temptation to adopt “whiteness” is felt. This is not difficult to understand. Opportunity is, for most people, still very small. The majority remain, but with less patience, in their familiar world of poverty. The more enterprising manoeuvre for position, and once they achieve it they do all they can to make their achievement both obvious and permanent. If ever they sink back, or even appear to do so, they might never recover lost ground. Somehow, their “difference” must be established for all to see. Where opportunity is scarce, the search for patronage is keen. One way to demonstrate and to bolster superior position is by the exercise of patronage. Those who command it use patronage to win friends and influence people. Those who pretend to position pretend to have patronage also. In part, this also is a legacy of slavery and of colonial status. The slave, who had no rights, enjoyed privilege only at the allowance of his master. The colonial looked to his metropolitan governor and administrator for preference. But patronage and its opposite, blackmail, thrive best in small societies, such as Jamaica, where anonymity is difficult to preserve. Jamaica will always be a small society. Population growth cannot alter that, for the “smallness” of a society is a function of social propinquity and geographical size. In Jamaica, people live close together, and the divisions of social class are not now so clear as they used to be.

Familiarity need not bring contempt, but it will certainly wash away mystery, awe, and majesty. The judge looks less formidable in his wig and gown if we have often seen him in his shorts. There is consequently some compensating advantage in smallness. It can lead to straighter talking and to the substitution of earned respect for pomp and circumstance. But in Jamaica that will take time. In the days of slavery; in the traditional hierarchy of the estate-personnel; in the system of Crown Colony Government; communication ran, for the most part, in a one-way traffic, downwards. The high officials and the bosses issued the orders which were passed on to those who passed them on to others who carried them out. Labourers were expected to give labour, not opinion. This is no longer true. Trade Unionism and adult suffrage have given importance to the voice of the labourer. But we are still accustomed to the assumption that important offices are always held by important men; and we are still reluctant to risk the challenge of authority. In the long years of our history that has been a dangerous exercise. Nowadays, moreover, even though we feel freer to offer criticism, we are little practised in the arts of discussion and enquiry. We deal rather in assertion and counter-assertion, in which the louder and the stronger frequently silence those who may be right.