Kristen Gyles | Emancipation and the colonialised Jamaican mind
One experience I’ll never forget is when I spent a solid 10 minutes making a fool of myself trying to balance rice grains on the back of my fork at a student leadership workshop on dining etiquette some time ago. It was an insightful experience. I learnt about the American and continental dining styles and how I had been using the wrong ‘knife and fork’ rules my entire life. You see, based on the continental style, the fork stays in the left hand and the knife stays in the right hand, but the prongs of the fork must be facing downwards throughout the meal.
To translate, the fork fi tun backway. So, like everyone else, I sat trying to make sense of how I was expected to put the food on the back of the fork and keep it there for the entire journey to my mouth. I engaged in this buffoonery for quite some time only to hear the presenter say something to the tune of “When you are invited out to a lunch interview, remember to eat before you get there! You weren’t invited to enjoy the meal!”
It was then that I really felt like a clown.
To this day, people all over the place are being looked down upon for their lack of mastery of some very ridiculous things – things that just don’t matter. Unfortunately, many children are grown to think genuinely that their worth and value in this world are a function of how well they have learnt the way of the Europeans. And that’s all that it is - if we are honest with ourselves.
Last year this time, the country was enthralled in a nation-wide debate over the right, or lack thereof, of Kensington Primary, a St Catherine-based primary school, to turn away a child who wore locs. Then, I categorised the issue as nothing more than an antiquated push by those still stuck in the ‘70s to keep students as standardised in their dressing, and as robotised in their thinking, as possible. After a year, it’s clear that the issue was not simply a matter of rules being rules as many tried to suggest, but one symptomatic of something far greater.
FORCE TO RECKON WITH
The colonialised Jamaican mind is truly a force to be reckoned with. It has parents scolding their children for speaking patois, high schoolers stocking their book-less school bags with cake soap, and schools turning away students for wearing ‘chiney bumps’. Unfortunately, we are still suffering the lingering effects of our enslavement, which seems to have crippled our sense of identity. This manifests itself in the disdain we have for that which characterises our heritage and culture.
Some time ago I remember overhearing a conversation between two men within a particular corporate space. One boldly told the other that his father told him from early that as his child, there are three types of people he should forget about ever becoming: 1) a thief; 2) a homosexual; and 3) a Rasta.
I thought that his confidence in saying something like that loudly enough for passers-by to hear was very telling. But I’m glad I heard it. Like the average Jamaican, I am well aware of Jamaica’s pronounced homophobia, but I learnt something new that day. After relaying what I overheard to someone else, I finally realised that there are actually droves of Jamaicans who, for some reason or another, have the Rastafari community in their bad books.
In the same way black people across the world just don’t know for what crime they have suffered persecution over the centuries, I’m not sure Rastafarians are clear on why they have attracted the disdain of so many within our society – that is, the same society that loves to expound on the many ills of racism and classism.
One of the many things we are yet to emancipate ourselves from is the view that those who live differently shouldn’t live at all or that persons simply shouldn’t have the right to live differently. Tolerating different people from different backgrounds with different experiences who hold to different philosophies is a key part of living in a pluralistic democratic society. This doesn’t assume a welcoming embrace towards all other lifestyles – just a recognition that they have a right to exist peacefully. These include, by the way, even subtle lifestyle differences like how we eat, how we dress, and how we do our hair.
It is clear that with every new, though increasingly infrequent, case of students being chastised for wearing locs to school, the issue is far more deep-seated than just being a matter of rules. The issue is, and has always been, that as was subconsciously communicated by a senior official at the Kensington Primary School, we find our identity and our culture dirty, repugnant, and appalling. The patois is appalling; the locs are dreadful and dirty like the Rastas who sport them; the overall way of life is savage and repugnant; and we dare not allow our school-aged children to be infected with the fast-spreading virus of this crassness.
My hope is that we will emancipate ourselves from the assumption that every Eurocentric practice is representative of decency while our own culture is coarse and unsophisticated. Can we free ourselves and hold that mentality captive instead?
- Kristen Gyles is a graduate student at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.