Thanks to Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley Jamaica is famed as a font of black consciousness. And no country gave stronger moral support to Zimbabwe and South Africa in the fight against apartheid. So what will Nigerians watching the Miss World contest next month think of a white Jewish Miss Jamaica?


Of course that’s assuming the contest is held in Nigeria as planned. Because many of the world's beauty queens have threatened to pull out in protest over Amina Lawal, who a Nigerian Islamic court condemned to be stoned to death when she has finished breast-feeding her daughter. Her crime was to ‘commit adultery’ by becoming pregnant after her divorce.


Such incomprehensible brutality rather puts tempest-in-a-teapot Miss Jamaica controversies in perspective. That Danielle O’Hayon has as many defenders as detractors and that her religion is irrelevant are in fact blessed signs of tolerance. Yet the question must be asked – why are nearly all the women chosen to represent this country on the world beauty stage clearly unrepresentative of the population at large?


This is not to criticize Danielle, who was a popular and probably worthy winner. And there would be nothing inherently wrong with a European looking girl occasionally being voted ‘most beautiful’ in a country of mainly African descent. But when it happens almost every year – and there never seem to be any black women judges - you have to wonder if something is not amiss with that country’s psyche.


Now Jamaica has handled the tricky issue of race better than almost anywhere else. But Martin Luther King’s dream of a man being judged by the content of his character and not the colour of his skin has been fully realized here only in tourist brochure fantasies. For though matters have improved greatly over the years, the old saying of “white is alright, brown stick around, but black stay back” still holds true all too frequently.


Even now ‘quality and pretty hair’ means ‘fair complexioned with long tresses’, and ‘bleaching’ remains sadly prevalent. For Hollywood movies and cable TV have unfortunately counteracted the fading of colonial racial hangovers. And it will take a determined and conscious education effort to persuade children whose main source of entertainment is a 90% Caucasian screen world that white skin and long hair are not the universally desired norms.


Now raising the question of colour in this country usually brings an immediate “Out Of Many One People” chorus. And our admirable motto is undoubtedly one reason why populist racism has not destroyed our national economy a la Zimbabwe. Yet excessive out of context parroting of this fine sentiment can make it seem at times almost a defense of the status quo. For while this island may have citizens of all races and hues living together in rare harmony, the plain reality is that 95% of Jamaicans are of primarily African descent and it is absurd to pretend otherwise. Were we a truly racially blind and integrated society 95% of most positions in this country – both high and low – would be held by recognizably black persons.


But while significant progress has been made since independence, the commanders of our economic heights are still overwhelmingly light skinned - look at the executive of the Private Sector of Jamaica and the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce for instance. There are also many gatherings of the good and great here, not to mention quite a few gated communities, where practically the only black faces are waiters, bartenders, maids and gardeners. And would a Martian looking at the pictures in Sunday newspaper socialite columns not think that Jamaica is predominantly populated by visibly non-black persons? While of course light complexions are virtually unknown in our ghettos and penitentiaries.


“Jamaica has a class problem, not a colour one” some blithely respond, which is to some extent true. And it’s certainly easier to change class than colour. But when the lowest class is completely black and the highest predominantly light skinned, well class and colour are bound to get confused. There are many uptown verandahs where plantation racial prejudices still prevail. And persons in similar jobs are still sometimes treated differently depending on their appearance and background.


For instance certain sections of the media who addressed the former Police Commissioner in respectful tones now speak of and to his successor with almost open disdain. Now it seems to me both men have done the best they could in exceedingly difficult circumstances. So are these contrasting attitudes a result of some seeing the first as one of us, and the other as one of them?


Now skin colour is a strange thing. Few things are more scientifically irrelevant – the human genome project showed that every human being is 99.99% identical genetically and the ancestors of every living human came from Africa. Yet many still rigidly classify people according to how much melainin they have in their epidermis.


It’s human nature to be more comfortable with the familiar, which is why social circles tend to have a certain average hue. What is unacceptable is to regard skin colour not merely as one of the thousand elements we use to evaluate people but as an overriding factor that cancels out everything else. And though Jamaica has moved further away from this than most places, there is still a long way to go.


One reason for our lack of racial tension over the years here has been the patient wisdom of the Jamaican masses, who realize that centuries of inequality cannot be remedied overnight. They know that while race is irrelevant, cultural attitudes are not and only time changes these – though careful legislation can help the process.


Jamaicans have tolerated often patent injustices as long as they saw steady progress towards equality being made. But the people would undoubtedly not hesitate to let their quiet majority power be heard if the move towards full racial parity ever stalled. And certainly a full and vigorous debate of the issues is an indispensable prod in our march towards that goal. It may make some uneasy, but discomfort is a necessary - if not sufficient - condition for change.


So while it may seem trivial to some, the colour of our beauty queens is not irrelevant. Because they are very visible signposts of how representative of the average Jamaican our institutions really are. No one would want an ‘affirmative action’ queen, but a black Miss Jamaica winning a global beauty crown would certainly be a cheering milepost of progress. Trinidad did it. And perhaps Jamaica can too in the not too distant future. changkob@hotmail.com

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