PNP Race Too Brown and Too White?

Let me make it absolutely clear that there’s a question mark in my headline. I shouldn’t have to point this out. But, reading comprehension is a skill that has not been learnt very well by some of the people who comment on my columns on the Gleaner’s website. Two weeks ago, the headline was another question: “Govament a hide up di truth bout di virus?”

This is what ‘Mick’ posted: “Don’t you think it is irresponsible to be saying that the ‘Govament a hide di truth bout di virus’ without providing the evidence to support your claim? Where is the beef?” In response, I drew attention to the punctuation mark. ‘Bernie’ buy out di argument: “Well Dak although I agree with you sometimes, we miss the question mark especially if the sentence is constructed more like a statement than a question.”

I had to clarify a key element of the Jamaican language that distinguishes it from English. I’m not a linguist, so I gave my common-sense understanding of the distinction: Intonation – the rise and fall of the voice – is an important part of meaning in the Jamaican language. Unlike formal English, Jamaican doesn’t change the order of words to indicate a question. Compare

Yu coming. – statement

Yu coming! – command

Yu coming? – question

It’s so challenging to be a language teacher in Jamaica. No matter how hard you try to explain basic facts, there is such resistance to accepting the evidence. Everybody is an expert on language because they can speak. Here’s how hard-headed ‘Bernie’ responded: “Once again, I agree with all of that but, I am sure the sentence was constructed like that to get people to read the article. So, I just see it as linguistic trickery.”


At the risk of being accused, again, of playing tricks with a question mark, I’m sticking with today’s headline. It’s in English. But headlines are not sentences. So I’ve deleted “Is the” which would have confirmed that I’m not making a statement. And if the abbreviated headline gets people to read the column, so be it. I’m highlighting a fundamental question about racial politics in Jamaica. Black, brown, white: who is entitled to be a political leader?


In theory, the answer should be all of the above. Our optimistic national motto declares that we are ‘out of many one people.’ In practice, our political leaders at the highest level tend to be brown/ish. They do not usually look like the black majority, or the non-black minority, for that matter. The ‘many’ in the motto does not refer to the largest racial group. It means that Jamaica is, supposedly, a multiracial society. But any sane person can see that this is not true. The population of Jamaica is predominantly black, with a relatively small percentage of minority groups.

In pre-Independence Jamaica, Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley first served as chief ministers and then premiers. They were both brown. Bustamante could probably pass for white, if you didn’t look too closely. His father was white and his mother was mixed-race. Since Independence, we’ve had nine prime ministers: Bustamante, Donald Sangster, Hugh Shearer, Michael Manley, Edward Seaga, P.J. Patterson, Portia Simpson Miller, Bruce Golding and Andrew Holness.

There may be some disagreement about who falls into which of the sliding racial categories of black, brown and white. I speculate that some of those I consider to be black would want to place themselves in the brown class. But it’s not only skin colour that determines brownness. In colour-conscious Jamaica, hair texture and facial features are factors in determining racial categories. For me, Shearer, Patterson, Simpson Miller, Golding and Holness are definitely black; Bustamante, Sangster and Manley are clearly brown; and Seaga is white enough.


The current PNP leadership contest has brought the uncomfortable issue of race out into the open. I’ve been told that there are objections to Mark Golding’s candidacy on the basis of race. He is, supposedly, too ‘white’ to be leader of the People’s National Party (PNP). And, perhaps, prime minister! This is pure nonsense. Our prime ministers have been black, brown and white/ish.

Then, there are those who object to Lisa Hanna’s candidacy, also on the basis of race. She is too ‘brown’ and, by extension, too pretty to win the leadership race which is not a beauty contest. That, too, is pure nonsense. I could understand objections based on the fact that Hanna almost lost her seat in the last general election. But beauty? That’s a liability and/or asset over which she has absolutely no control. I suppose she could let herself go and try her best to become ugly. To what end?

I haven’t heard anyone saying that there should be a black candidate in the contest. Perhaps, that’s the default position. Black, not white, nor brown! But race should not be the primary factor in decisions about political leadership. If there’s no viable black candidate this time round, that’s just how it is. Given the dominance of the ruling party, the PNP needs a skilful leader who can rally the troops and mobilise a vibrant opposition party. Not just for the future of the PNP, but for the good of the nation!

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