Sat | Dec 2, 2023

Peter Espeut | What about “Massa Nigel”?

Published:Friday | March 31, 2023 | 12:08 AM
Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke
Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke

There are those who argue that Jamaica has moved beyond prejudice based on race, leaving class prejudice as our principal national sin. We sociologists know differently. Skin colour and shade distinctions remain important markers of status in this land, from the days when lighter complexions were evidence of blood ties to the occupants of the Great House.

In racist Jamaica, mixtures of European and African persons are referred to as “brown”; and “brownings” are treated as if they are a separate race within humanity, which of course is nonsense! This is a clear legacy of slavery days, when one’s colour (mulatto, sambo, quadroon, mustee, etc.) was an important legal descriptor closely tied to one’s identity. I have seen Jamaican slave records where persons resulting from non-standard mixings (e.g. sambo + quadroon) are legally described as “mungrel”.

In the racist United States, all persons with even the slightest drop of African ancestry are deemed to be “black”; “white” means unmixed European ancestry. (The term “brown” is reserved for Latinos, a euphemism for various Amerindian groups). Why not describe all persons with the slightest drop of European ancestry as “white”? The logic is the same.

Which is more racist: to make shade distinctions, or to ignore the category of mixed race altogether? Take your pick!

In Jamaica we lump Europeans, Arabs (Lebanese, Syrians) and Jews together and call all of them white. Of course, in Europe there is a huge difference between a Caucasian and a Jew; ask an Auschwitz survivor! In the Middle East there is a huge difference between Arabs and Jews; just ask residents of the West Bank.


In today’s world, race is a political matter. Some persons of obviously mixed race – who may even be near-white – wish to be called black; while others with just a touch of the tar-brush wish to be described as white. Some dark-skinned persons seem to choose light-skinned persons as mates; others would never be seen socially with light-skinned dates.

How would these people fare under The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) which came into effect in 1969?

True: not all persons of African origin in Jamaica are descendants of slaves; after Emancipation, significant numbers of Africans came to this island as immigrant labour, and settled in St Thomas, St Mary, Westmoreland, Hanover, and St James. Those in doubt may consult a 1974 publication of the Institute of Jamaica titled Jamaica and Voluntary Labourers from Africa 1840-1865 by Mary Elizabeth Thomas.

And true: not all persons with white skin are descendants of slave-owners or bushas; immediately after Emancipation significant numbers of Germans, Portuguese, and Irish came to Jamaica as immigrant labour, and settled in Westmoreland, Trelawny and Portland. And in more recent times, light-skinned immigrants from Syria and Lebanon (Arabs who may pass as white) made Jamaica their home.

I personally know of many white-skinned professionals – doctors, engineers, male and female missionaries, university lecturers and others – who have made Jamaica their home in recent years, and have obtained Jamaican citizenship. None of these persons or groups have any historical links with Jamaica’s sordid slave past.

How would you characterise persons who try to characterise all dark-skinned Jamaicans as descendants of former slaves, and all light-skinned Jamaicans as descendants of former slavemasters?

By this characterisation persons of mixed race would be schizophrenic – descendants of both slaves and slavemasters!

Where is this kind of thinking going to take us as a people?


In a prepared text, the minister of finance has referred to the leader of the Opposition as “Massa Mark”. In parliament last Tuesday, the Hon Dr Clarke claims that his use of a descriptor usually associated with white slavemasters was not intended to be racial. One of his colleagues immediately and audibly declared that ‘Massa’ was an appropriate designation for Mark Golding – a Jamaican of Jewish extract whose father came to Jamaica in 1953 – because he was the “descendant of a slave master”. The Hon Dr Clarke did not correct his colleague.

The Hon Dr Clarke has explained that persons deserve to be called “Massa” because of “a perceived attitude of those with power in relation to others, not a colour. It describes a perceived disposition, not a race. He refuses to apologise for the remark, he says, because to do so would be to admit that he was being racist.

I suppose, then, that the Hon Dr Clarke would have no difficulty and no objection if persons call him “Massa Nigel”, because often he exudes the perceived disposition of arrogance due to his power as minister of finance.

How else could you characterise how he acted as a big bully with the teachers and other public employees to accept his ministry’s reclassification proposals? Like the “Massas” of old he cracked the whip on the teachers and others: “If you don’t sign before the end of the month it will take years for you to get your retro money”.

Massa Nigel is a bright fellow, but he lacks emotional intelligence. Even if in his brilliant mind he can make the subtle distinction between “Massa” as a disembodied perceived disposition to power, and the “Massas” in slavery days who exerted brutal power, he is naïve if he thinks the rest of us don’t see a direct correlation. At least he should apologise for his naïveté.

This episode is going to dog the rest of Massa Nigel’s political career, and it may further devalue this government’s stocks with the people. And it could so easily have been avoided, and mitigated.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to