Some Jamaicans who live on the island may often say otherwise, but for those of who have experienced real racism in First World countries, there is hardly, if at all, such a thing as racism in Jamaica. In fact, it is widely accepted that Jamaica’s social divider is not race, but class.
This is despite the fact that like the United States, and many of our West Indian neighbours, we were once victims of slavery. So, what happened? It’s hard to say. Racism is still very much an issue in other Caribbean countries, but as a collective, Jamaicans have processed and emerged from slavery with a much different mindset from other formerly enslaved nations around the world.
Whereas slavery continues to be a point of shame and hurt for many other nations, for us, it is a point of pride. No; we are not proud to have been the playthings of the plantocracy. But, we are proud to have survived and emerged the victors—not the victims. Blacks in Jamaica run our country, make our own laws, and climb the social ladder on merit and connections.
In my opinion, one of the best bits of evidence for how much we have progressed beyond being defined by slavery and its aftermath, is the slavery references that no longer trigger a racial response in our culture. Here are four of the most common.
FAIR WARNING: If you are easily triggered by racial themes and use of the N-word, this article is not for you.
While learning about African-American culture, reading American books set in the enslaved south, and watching American slavery movies like Django Unchained, a common word I came across was Massa. At first, the racial significance didn’t resonate with me. Clearly it meant Master.
While talking with African-Americans about the racial disparity with wealth in America, the word came up again as a less than favourable reference to White Americans who fit one or more of the following categories.
- White Republicans
- Wealthy Whites who looked down at Blacks
- Whites who were racist, or affiliated with the KKK
That’s when I realised for the first time that in America, Massa was not just Master, but White Master. Still, it was not until my Mom asked me something and I jokingly replied, “Yes, Massa!” that I realised the difference in the meaning for Jamaicans. We refer to each other as Massa all the time, especially the older generations.
Yes, without a doubt, the term Massa originated in slavery for us, too. But, after slavery ended, we no longer only referred to our former slave masters as Massa; we also referred to ourselves as such. In fact, in Jamaica, Master is no longer an accurate translation for Massa. All it really means is Mister, though it can also be said between women who know each other well, as was the case with me and my mom.
The N-word isn’t a thing in Jamaica. We know of it—sure—but it’s not considered a part of our culture. That said, it is quite possible that the racial slur nigger was once used in Jamaica, but even use of the word nigga is considered highly Americanised, and often only done in jest.
As with Massa, Jamaicans tend to refer to each other, even those they do not know well, in ego-boosting ways. This is especially common between men, who use phrases like:
- Big Man (meaning strong, powerful, or grown)
- Boss Man
- Man a Yaad (American translation: Man of the House)
However, there is one remnant of the N-word in our culture and that is in the word niggeritis. In almost all English-speaking countries, the word “itis” is used or was once used to describe the feeling of lethargy after eating too much. Without a doubt, using the N-word as a prefix was an allusion to the alleged laziness of Africans, who did the back-breaking work of chopping sugarcane in the Caribbean heat.
Sounds obvious enough, right? But not to most Jamaicans. Not to me. One day, I was out with one of my White friends. We had eaten a heavy meal and had barely made it to the car when the first series of yawns started.
“We ate way too much,” my friend observed, patting his tummy. “I’m so sleepy right now.”
“Tell me about it,” I agreed. “I have niggeritis.”
The word had barely made it out of my mouth when he turned to look at me with wide eyes. “What did you just say?”
I repeated the word, innocently, but as I said it, I now realised for the first time in my life that a racial slur made up the first two syllables of niggeritis.
3. Free Paper
Last year, I read Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, a historical fiction novel set in the American Reconstruction era. One of the characters in the novel is privileged enough to come from a family of free women, whose female ancestor received her free papers and was allowed to live and work away from the plantation as a herbalist. For the generations she birthed, their continued freedom was dependent on their ability to protect their free papers and present it when necessary.
These days, free papers aren’t much discussed in contemporary American society. However, the phrase is still used in Jamaica. The exact phrase is, “Y’uh free paper bu’n up!” which translates literally in English as, “Your free paper has been burned up”. Here are the two times you are most likely to hear this in Jamaica.
- As a child, you hear this a lot from your parents and other adults when your holiday break is coming to an end.
- As an adult, this may be said when your vacation time from work is coming to a close.
Until I studied slavery in high school and college as part of my history courses, I had no idea free papers were rooted in slavery. It was just another thing our parents said.
Jamaicans love Britain. We are more proud of our historical ties to Britain than we are happy with our proximity to America. As I have detailed in several posts before, Britain (and Ireland!) contributed heavily to the language and culture in Jamaica. In fact, the lingo-cultural exchange continues even today.
Last year, while discussing White appropriation of African-American culture with a bi-racial who passes for White, he asked me the following question.
Aren’t you offended by how British people try to sound Jamaican? I hear them using so many of your phrases.
“Do you know who the mother country is of Jamaica? Do you know who is our Head of State?” I asked him. He did not. “Britain is our mother country and Queen Elizabeth II is our Head of State.”
I then explained to him that patois developed out of a need for the slaves to communicate with White planters, Irish indentured labourers, and other Africans. Contrary to popular belief, all Africans do not speak the same language: not then, not now. So, the slaves had to create one language everyone could understand. And thus, patois was born.
Since then, Britain and Jamaica have continued this cultural exchange, as Jamaicans love emigrating to Britain, and British people, especially British people of colour, love to retire in Jamaica. We have both borrowed so many words and phrases from each other that we no longer remember who came up with what first—and we are A-okay with that.
But, Britain was also the very same mother country that enslaved us for hundreds of years and prosecuted many of our Black leaders. So, how did we move past that to develop a love for our mother country? I have no idea, but I’ll tell you this: most Jamaicans I know regret independence. If Britain would take us back, many of us would return with open arms.
Since living in America, one of the things that has always saddened me is how little people really know of the history of people of colour. From Native Americans to Japanese to Africans, the stories have all been whitewashed to suit the majority-conscience. Many of the things African-Americans pay thousands of dollars to learn about Black history in college, I learned in first and second grade. Yes: first and second grade. For free.
I do believe that intimately knowing our history as a people, in Jamaica, is a big contributing factor to our confidence in our Blackness. I also credit the Afrocentric movement that began with Marcus Garvey and Rastafarianism. The torch was later carried by Bob Marley who further injected pride into the Black consciousness of Jamaicans. I mean, come on: we have a lot to be proud of!
While this certainly explains our national and ethnic pride, it may forever remain a mystery to me how we made it to a point in our development, where we could divorce so many slavery references from their source. Do I think this is a bad thing? No, I really don’t. I think in the Third World we have much bigger fish to fry than semantics. Don’t you?
About the Author
Alexis Chateau is a Jamaican entrepreneur, avid traveller and author of mystery, paranormal, and crime fiction novels. Her interest in the social sciences and the history of Jamaica was shaped by her social sciences degree, earned with first-class honours, at the Montego Bay Community College and the University of Technology, Jamaica. To see West Indian characters in action, read her historical novel, The Moreau Witches.
Praise for The Moreau Witches from the National Library of Jamaica
This book catapulted me into reading so many others, looking for that good feeling I got from reading yours. It was so well written! I absolutely love it. You are a genius.
—Monique Fergie-Scott, National Library of Jamaica