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
42 thoughts on “4 Slavery References that Have Lost Their Racial Trigger in Jamaica”
What a beautiful, eloquent, and honest article. I believe it could reflect a key part of the reason for the difference between black people the UK and US. Jamaicans are proud to be ‘British’ (as so many ex-Colonials) whilst African-Americans want to be ‘African’.
I’m not sure all African Americans want to be African, but I’ve met many who tried to troll us for identifying as West Indian instead of African. Jamaicans are proud to be Jamaicans above all else. We certainly take pride in our Commonwealth roots, but being from a tiny island that has so dominated pop culture and is recognisable anywhere in the world is a huge achievement for us. ☺️
Also, thanks for reading and sharing such kind words! 🙂
You are so talented! Your articles, even as a Jamaican in this case, always allow me to reflect and/or take notice of things I usually don’t. Keep up the great work Alexis!
I’m glad this really helped you to reflect. 😊 A lot of these things escaped my notice until I came to the United States. You never notice how “different” you are until you’re constantly around people you think of as “different” but who have their own set of norms. It really does force me to think about some of the many key differences in our cultures and what could have caused Jamaica to take the route it did.
Thanks again for reading! 🙃
“The N-word isn’t a thing in Jamaica.”
We do have “negah,” which is the same word, though difference in accent has led to a difference in pronunciation. Of course, in Jamaica, the word has not accrued the same harsh sense of insult, probably due to history. Despite Jamaica’s history of racism, the small size of the white population led to the development of a more porous racial hierarchy. As you alluded to in the article, the success of black Jamaicans to gradually win access to power/wealth has eroded away the most glaringly racial characteristics of Jamaican hierarchy and transformed it a class hierarchy mostly governed by wealth, education, etc. Though the racial tinge was visible to a accentuated extend into the mid-twentieth century.
I would say a lot of this was helped again by the small population of the whites in Jamaica. Obviously, privilege is passed down through generations, as wealth is passed down. Since Jamaica is so overwhelmingly black, blacks were able to become the majority of every social class by the late colonial era, without needing to disentrench whites from their disproportionate representation in the upper classes. In America, the white population is much larger, and the upper class is much more “crowded,” so to speak. Therefore, despite the incredible gains American blacks have made in the last several decades, their progress can easily be drowned out visually, and the openess of acceptance from older families of the upper class is not as much as it was in late colonial Jamaica – to some degree due to them not feeling they HAVE to be open, as I am sure many upper class whites in Jamaica felt, however reluctantly.
Great article as usual, i’d just like to mention two things:
1) There is also an iteration of Maasa where the a is dropped and the word becomes Maas. There are
still people in certain country parts that refer to My father as “Maas Rowan”
2) The the word Niagah or Nayga as used in the phrase “ole naygah” that is an off-shoot of the
You are so right about the Maas! I had forgotten about that. Very good point. It’s mostly common with the older generations, especially in rural areas. I didn’t hear it much in the city or with young people outside of joking around.
Good point on the ole naygah, too, but even that has no racial bite. I grew up in German town and even the White people were old naygahs when we got started. 😂
Loved this read. As an American from the United States , I must agree with you . We never have and unfortunately will NEVER come to terms with our history. I get angry when I hear Black History month and how it should be celebrated , the shortest month of the year at that. I’m sorry we are part of United States history and it should have been taught 365 days of the year and not in high school . Good on Jamaica for coming to grips with your past and not playing the blame and victim game.
As one of my friends pointed out, you guys have to live with your opressors and we don’t. Our oppressors were outnumbered, ironically because unlike the US, slavery was our only industry.
However, as someone who is treated as an African American here because of my race, the fact that I don’t internalise things the way others do here goes a long way for me. I’m only concerned about current ills, like who voted for Trump. 😂
Here’s to hoping you guys find a way to heal and move past it collectively.