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When preconceptions fail to match reality, reality is discarded

On Monday I discovered “wholinkstome“, a website that finds links to any given webpage.  I saw an incoming link from it, and felt the need to investigate.  Tuesday I used it to look links to saveboissierehouse.org, which is the url to which the button on the side links.  Poking around the Caribbean Beat blog, I saw this post:

Jamaican poet and activist, Staceyann Chin – who we interviewed for the upcoming March/April issue of Caribbean Beat – has a piece today in the Lives section of the New York Times about her troubled childhood in Jamaica. Click here for more.

A New York Times article about a Caribbean poet?  I felt I had to take another look.

Her story reminded me of the excerpt from Norman Manley’s autobiography that I read in primary school.  (I have wanted to get my hands on that book ever since).  Born to a black mother (who abandoned her) and Chinese father (who never acknowledged her), Stacyann Chin grew up poor, first in the care of her grandmother, and later, her great aunt.  And when they moved from the country to Bethel Town, she dealt with a certain culture shock

When I was 6 my grandmother moved my brother and me from the deep rural district of Lottery to Bethel Town to live with my policeman uncle and his teacher wife. My cousins spoke in clear Standard English sentences, while my classmates laughed at my dropped H’s and widened O’s. They told me I looked funny, they called me “red mongoose” and “dirty half-Chiney” and they hit me with green strips ripped from the hanging coconut boughs.

I realise that I may be reading my own experience into things, but if Jamaica is anything like Trinidad (and I know it is), she conflicted with the stereotypes of the other children.  “Chiney” are supposed to be rich, or at least have more money than ordinary black people.  Race correlates with socioeconomic status.  A half-Chinese child who is not only poor, but rural poor.  Her solution is to raise her status:

One day, to save myself, I blurted out that my mother had sent for me and that they had better be nice so I would mail them presents from Canada. They immediately began vying for my affections. Everyone gave me an offering at lunch — a June plum, an icy mint, a Minnie Mouse pencil. …The children soon forgot about my leaving, but they never teased me again. The tale stood as some sort of truth because my aunt never did refute my version at school.

Once she raised her status, the dynamics changed.  There is, of course, the simple mercenary nature of children – if we’re nice, she might do something for us.  But I wonder if there wasn’t more than that – with the “natural order” restored (the “Chiney” has more than we do), they were once again comfortable.

At Michigan State I met a visiting scholar from Jamaica – a social scientist who was interested in perceptions of race and class.  I learned that while “high colour” meant something in Trinidad and Jamaica, it didn’t in Grenada, because Grenada had not been a socially stratified society.  As Brian, the social scientist, said – in Grenada there were poor peasants and rich peasants, but everyone was a peasant.  In Trinidad and Jamaica there were real class differences, and those class differences coincided, to a remarkable extent, with skin colour.

People always expected that we had money.  Being half white (and able to pass for white, or at least “Trinidad white”), people made assumptions and they were unlikely to be dissuaded by mere facts.  It didn’t help matters that my father was better educated than the parents of my classmates – few of them had parents who had gone to university.  Several had parents who hadn’t gone beyond primary school.  I was two three generations removed from cane, many of my peers were the grandchildren of people who had grown – or cut- sugar cane.  Having lived in Canada and having a bit of a funny accent didn’t help either.

There were many reasons why it took me a long time to be accepted by my peers.   But I believe that part of it was that I didn’t match their preconceptions.  Long after they had accepted me, my peers didn’t believe that I was not better off than them economically – in truth, we were worse off than many of my peers.  You’re high colour, your parents are educated, your relatives are prominent people.  How can you not have money?


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