Novelette Smith is a Jamaican, Protestant, single mother of four, a retired nurse, and helper (Jamaican term for hired help). She has worked as a helper for my family for over ten years. Novelette was born on the island country of Jamaica on 1964 to an absentee father and a deaf mother. Due to her father’s absence and her mother’s disability, she was raised by her grandmother and her older cousins. She graduated high-school at nineteen and soon after became pregnant. At twenty, Novelette began working as a helper. Including her job as an unlicensed personal nurse in the US, Novelette has worked in service for over thirty years. I chose to interview Novelette because as a member of the upper-class in Jamaica, I am ignorant to the oppressions that a majority of Jamaicans face, and I believed that her compelling childhood, decades of experience in service, and the alternate intersectional perspective she offers as a lower-class, Jamaican black woman in contrast to African American women, would help me become more learned in the experiences of Jamaican women. In our conversation, we discussed topics surrounding the symbolic, institutional, and individual levels of oppression present in Jamaica, mostly stemming from religious conservatism, and colourist ideals implanted by white supremacy.
A prevalent issue facing many black Jamaican women and children is the lack of agency that many Jamaican men feel towards the emotional support and upbringing of their biological children. When talking about her childhood Novelette mentioned that she never knew her father and that she was raised by her grandmother. Most Jamaican children are born while their parents are in a visiting relationship, but nearly half of these relationships have ended by the time child is five or six years old and even though only 45% of households are female-led, they are generally larger than the national average (“UNICEF Jamaica – Parenting Corner – Parenting In Jamaica”).
This rings true when observing Novelette’s relationships with her father and her children’s fathers, or lack thereof. Of the three fathers of her children, none showed financial or emotional support to their children. This is not a rare issue in Jamaica and it cultivates a symbolic dimension of oppression, described by Patricia Hill Collins in her chapter Towards A New Vision as “widespread, societally-sanctioned ideologies used to justify relations of domination and subordination…central to this process is the use of stereotypical or controlling images of diverse race, class, and gender groups.”(Collins 78). Due to the prevalence of absentee fathers, the image of Jamaican men as adulterers and unfit parents is perpetuated. This image eventually became a status quo story possibly producing the mindset that it is ok for Jamaican fathers to abandon their children because that is what is expected of Jamaican men. This, in turn, begins the status quo story of the mother as the expected caregiver, creating a socially prevalent appreciation for the mother and in turn a potentially matriarchal society.
Luke: What do you think of her calling herself Mama P?
Novelette: (Laughs) Lord Lukie I think she’s so butu (Jamaican slur for lower class) and stupid
Luke: Why do you think she calls herself that?
Novelette: Because she wants to look like she’s Jamaica’s mother
Portia Simpson-Miller was the first female prime minister to Jamaica, she served three terms spanning from March 2006 to March 2016. Portia’s popularity widely varied throughout different class groups in Jamaica. Portia’s inner-city Jamaican accent, and focus on resolving the widespread poverty made her an idol to the lower class, they saw her as one of their own, someone who understood and looked out for them, earning her the name Mama P. This is indicative of the symbolic effect of Jamaica’s apparent social matriarchy. This affectionate nickname could be interpreted as the symbolic position she held to inner-city Jamaicans as Jamaica’s mother. Evidenced by her opinion of the nickname, Novelette saw this as a manipulation of the Jamaican appreciation of the matriarch.
Luke: I know but do you like that she was a woman as a prime minister?
Novelette: It didn’t matter
Luke: It doesn’t matter to you?
Novelette: No, it does not, she didn’t do a good job and she’s too vulgar, so I didn’t like her to be my prime minister
Luke: If Portia was a man do you think that she would have been treated the same.
Novelette: No, she couldn’t be elected if she was a man.
Novelette: Because she’s so stupid she just followed orders, if a man was like her he couldn’t have been elected
Novelette’s criticism of Portia was widely shared throughout most of the upper and middle classes. Many believed that her decisions were too easily influenced by external parties and that while she provided more financial aid to lower class communities, she showed no interest in creating self-sufficiency, doing little to nothing for the improvement of the education system or creating better-paying jobs. This creates a large, uneducated, lower-class with a dependency on and dedication to Portia and her financial aid. This tactic reminded me of the cycle of dependence of many low-income and single parent families on childcare from the government. Caroline Fredrickson states in Under the Bus “For some parents … when offered a chance at a promotion or a better job, they will decline because … the additional pay will bump them out of subsidized child care and they would pay out more in child care expenses than they will gain in income”(Fredrickson 172). Both systems create a dependence through removing any opportunities for progress, be it a denial of an education or well-paying job, or punishment for moving to higher paying jobs.
Jamaica is a predominantly Christian country, conservative Christian morals have a significant presence in politics, government, society, and schools. This significant presence understandingly perpetuates Christian sexist narratives on the institutional, individual and symbolic levels. Patricia Hill Collins defines an institutional dimension of oppression as “Systemic relationships of domination and subordination structured through social institutions such as schools, businesses, hospitals, the workplace, and government agencies represent the institutional dimension of oppression” (Collins, 78). This institutional based oppression can be seen in the sex education of the Jamaican youth. In all Jamaican schools it is a requirement that the only sex education allowed, if any, is through abstinence, a method of teaching known to be ineffective in the prevention of STD’s and teenage pregnancies. Abstinence is an unrealistic expectation for these teenagers due to negative social perception because for Jamaican teenagers and all teenagers, their sexual activities are tied to sexual identity. For Jamaican men, a refusal of sex is an indication of homosexuality, something reviled in Jamaican society. While Jamaican girls choose abstinence in fear of pregnancy, their religious beliefs, and for preserving their reputation, the fear of losing their partner makes sex difficult to refuse. John Berger states in Ways of Seeing that “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.” (Berger, 47). These girls are likely experiencing internalized oppression. When all they hear about in school and church regarding their bodies are narratives promoting objectification they begin to believe that their value lies in their “virtue” and how others perceive them. When Novelette attended school in the seventies Christianity was even more heavily intertwined with the school system. She had nuns as teachers and priests as principals, thus it is unlikely that any form of sex education was given. Novelette’s avoidance of giving her age of when she was first pregnant indicates a possible shame that she feels for decisions made in her youth, likely stemming from her hegemonic belief that her “promiscuity” somehow lessened her value.
Dark Skin? You can’t win.
Luke: Ok do you think having darker skin affected your life and you?
Novelette: Um, yes just a little not much, when I was much younger. Because you know Jamaican men, if you’re high colour they’ll go for you, when your high colour says brown or white, they want their women brown or white women. They don’t really go for black women.
Novelette’s response shows the prevalence of colourism and self-objectification of black Jamaican women. Without hesitation or prompt, Novelette connects the effect of the darkness of skin tone with her value to men. Colorism can be found in most non-white races, regardless of location. Due to Jamaica’s small size, when the African slaves were traded to the Caribbean it did not take long for them to outnumber the number of European slave owners. Black Jamaicans make up over 90% of the Jamaican population, however, the upper class is predominantly white, often descendants of plantation owners. Having a predominantly white upper class inevitably influences colourism amongst the non-white races.
Luke: No what you think pretty eyes and hair look like.
Novelette: In general?
Novelette: Well you would call pretty hair if it’s long and straight, we in Jamaica that’s how we look at pretty hair. Everybody has a different look in their eyes I don’t know what pretty eyes look like.
Jamaican colloquialisms themselves perpetuate colourist ideals. The colloquialism of pretty hair and eyes I used in the recording directly associates the word pretty with notably white features, in turn justifying the higher position of white people in Jamaican society. Audre Lorde defines this with the term “mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In America, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society.” (Lorde) Because of the mythical norm, white features are idealized, influencing dark-skinned Jamaican men to seek out lighter skinned women with white features, in turn making darker skinned Jamaican women to feel devalued, possibly turning to potentially damaging skin and hair bleaching.
Luke: Why do you think people bleach?
Novelette: Because, as you said, when you’re black you’re in the back of the line, so when they bleach their skin they get more decent men or men that would give them money and car and house, because Jamaican men love brownie (lighter skinned women) so that’s why they bleach their skin to look nice. Because when you’re black they feel that they don’t look nice, so they bleach their skin to look nice. To look like brownie or white women because they get by when they brown but when you’re black it’s like nothing
I find Novelette’s last statement is quite powerful and telling of the intense racism present in a predominantly black country “when you’re black it’s like nothing” This skewed perception of value or beauty directly ties to the class system basically segregated by shade.
Novelette: Well, since Michael Manley, I saw mostly people who looked like me
Luke: You started seeing better representation?
Novelette: Yes, it started out just with light-skinned girls, but I remember when I saw a Milo ad with a black girl drinking some, it was the first times I saw a black person on a billboard
Luke: Did it make you feel good?
Novelette: I guess, it was just nice to see a real Jamaican advertised.
Michael Manley was the first Jamaican prime minister to establish a close relationship with the poor majority, much like Portia, he was informal. Unlike Portia, Manley attempted to take down the barriers built by classism and colourism. He tried to accomplish this through focusing on providing more opportunities for lower-income people by establishing the minimum wage and free secondary education. Prior to Manley’s term, colourism was much more prevalent and blatant. In the previous recording, Novelette noted a change in representation when first saw a darker skinned woman on a billboard. Within Novelette’s essentially segregated black community, the image of white superiority still existed in the billboards. bell hooks describes a very similar experience in The Oppositional Gaze “within my family’s southern black working-class home, located in a racially segregated neighbourhood, watching television was one way to develop critical spectatorship. Unless you went to work in the white world, across the tracks, you learned to look at white people by staring at them on the screen” (hooks 117). Both hooks and Novelette only saw white people through the media, for novelette this was the only media that she would see. This lack of interaction between races establishes white people into a position of power. Too little interaction amongst races can lead to stereotypes being formed through occasional interaction. Since the only white people Novelette saw were on billboards, she would associate the image on the billboard with that of power. Without having anything verbally taught to her, Novelette saw whites as superior to her. Thus, novelette’s catharsis caused by seeing a dark-skinned woman on a billboard is understandable. After years of only seeing white women and the occasional light-skinned brownie, novelette finally saw herself represented.
Luke: You don’t have to give me a number, but have you worked more for light-skinned people, white people, or dark-skinned people?
Novelette: More whites, yes. I have only worked for one black person
Luke: Do you think that’s is because of the people that you look to work for or just the people that hire.
Novelette: The people that hire. The lighter skinned the family the more helpers they normally have.
It is not surprising that Novelette had worked more with white and lighter-skinned families in comparison to only one black person in thirty years as a helper. Lower-income parents cannot afford to give their children anything more than the public education, let alone hiring a helper. With no degree, many have no choice but to turn to service work as helpers to support their families. The colourist and exclusive class structures makes upward mobility nearly impossible. Thus, many find themselves stuck in their line of work with no option of escape rather than leaving the country with a visa, something typically reserved for those deemed “admittable”.
Luke: Are there any white people in your neighbourhood
Novelette: No, none
Novelette has no white neighbours, in upper-class Jamaican society, the act of even going to lower-income neighbourhoods is observed as uncouth. This is an extreme example of othering, Lorde explains that “women of Color become ‘other’, the outsider whose experience and tradition is too ‘alien’ to comprehend” (Lorde) Upper-class Jamaicans feel so separate from the lower class they feel as if their neighborhoods are “butu” and alien to them.
Luke: Novi, as a helper could you try to describe your relationship with us, like Nina, Jude, and me?
Novelette: Very good, I love you guys like you are my family, not blood-related.
When we watched the documentary Maid in America I drew many parallels between the relationship between Telma and Mickey, an immigrant nanny and the child she cares for, and Novelette’s relationship with my siblings and me. There is a close bond that forms when you take care of a child and watch it grow, Telma watched Mickey from infancy to elementary school, and Novelette has been with my family for over ten years, longer than my younger brother has even been alive. My siblings and I had grown up with helpers, so we were accustomed to having them around, this by no means devalues those relationships. When someone cooks, cleans and watches you for ten years of your life it’s basically impossible not to have some affection for them.
Luke: How do you think being a helper has affected your life? Do you think that it’s been good for you?
Novelette: I’m going to have to pass that one.
Luke: Ok, um how long have you been a helper?
Novelette: Oh my god, many years, I can’t give you a figure
Novelette’s pause can be interpreted as an underlying shame in her success in life and how much of her life she had spent and is currently spending as a helper. Realistically, she has warranted a desire for something more since being a helper does not offer opportunities to rise in rank. Novelette was essentially robbed of her childhood when she had to start working as a helper to solely support her child at twenty.
Luke: When you think about being a helper in Jamaica, do you think that you were given opportunities that you would not have gotten if you weren’t a helper?
Novelette: Yes, I think I’ve been given good opportunities. I got to practice as a nurse, I met Miss Nats and mister Johnson (my mother and father), I got to go to foreign (US and Canada), I have my iPhone, and I get to cook.
Luke: Do you enjoy cooking?
Novelette: Yes, I do it’s my favourite part of the job, and I have learnt so many recipes that I make at home
While the occupation of helper doesn’t promise much, a positive relationship between helper and employer can allow for opportunities not readily available to other lower-income people. By being a helper, Novelette has been able to travel throughout the Caribbean, US, and Canada, pursue a passion of cooking by being exposed to new styles from various countries, and has been able to afford luxuries such as apple products and the internet.
Novelette has led a very difficult life and our discussion taught me a lot about the many obstacles that she and many other Jamaican women face and the magnitude of the effect that the classist, colorist, and sexist society has on Jamaican women. As a male member of the upper-class Jamaican society, I have to acknowledge and compensate for the fact that I have some bias in favour of the upper class, and that I am still ignorant to many of the obstacles Novelette experienced and continues to experience. Novelette has faced oppression on all levels. On the individual level, Novelette suffers from self-objectification and shame for her accomplishments, stemming from a colourist and classist mindset linking personal worth to how she is perceived by white men. The symbolic level of oppression forced the position of the matriarch onto her and through the othering of her community, established the image of the upper-class white people as superior. Institutionally, the conservative Christian values miseducating schools on sex, the abuse of the image of the matriarch in exploiting the lower class, and further removing any possibility of upward mobility through the establishment of a cycle of dependence. If I were able to ask Novelette more questions, I would focus on topics surrounding the influence of her religion on how she views herself and how she views others, as well as the quality of education that she received in comparison to the quality of education of her children. I believe that if I were to have questioned my mother, a lighter-skinned, upper-class, Jamaican woman the same age as Novelette, that she would be able to provide the experiences of a Jamaican woman from another perspective, allowing me to analyze the similarities and differences of the oppressions that Jamaican women of different class face.
Berger, John. “3.” Ways of Seeing, British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 2008, p. 47.
Collins, Patricia Hill. “9.” Toward a New Vision: Race, Class and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection, Center for Research on Women, Dept. of Sociology and Social Work, Memphis State University, 1989, pp. 78.
Fredrickson, Caroline. “6.” Under the Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over, New Press, 2015, p. 172.
Hooks, Bell. “7 The Oppositional Gaze.” Black Looks: Race and Representation, Routledge, 2015, p. 117.
Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 1984.
“UNICEF Jamaica – Parenting Corner – Parenting In Jamaica.” Unicef.Org, 2017, https://www.unicef.org/jamaica/parenting_corner.html.