Professor discusses skin color and gender issues in Jamaica

Assistant professor Glaude presented topics from her book ‘Higglers in Kingston: Women’s Informal Work in Jamaica.’ (Tim Lee/Staff Photographer)

A higgle-what? That was a question asked by several attendees of the College’s third politics forum of the semester. Winnifred Brown-Glaude, assistant professor of African-American studies, spoke about “Race, Space and Women’s Informal Work in Jamaica” on Thursday, Sept. 29.

Glaude, author of the book “Higglers in Kingston: Women’s Informal Work in Jamaica,” began the lecture by introducing a scene of conflict in Jamaica. The country is divided into two sections economically — the formal, regulated and taxed citizens of Jamaica and the informal untaxed, she explained.

Throughout the lecture, Glaude frequently pulled from points in her book that focus on the informal economy, as well as research drawn from studying the lives of “higglers” in the region of Kingston. Glaude explained that a higgler is defined as a female street vendor belonging to the lower class. Higglers are either market women who specialize in the sale of produce or informal commercial importers who sell items imported from neighboring Caribbean islands or China. Historically, the market women date back to the slave era, when they sold produce in the slave markets, while the informal commercial importers date back only to the 1970s, Glaude said.

In Kingston, women turn to higgling due to limited employment opportunities impacting the lower class. According to Glaude, the development policies that the government has pursued since 1962 triggered economic issues and led to an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent. Jamaican women face gender issues, as they hold twice the unemployment rate with 20 percent unemployed as of March 2011, according to Glaude. In spite of structural expansion of formal versus informal work, women have turned to higgling to support their households, she said.

In her book, Glaude explains that she looks at the interactions of these women with the state, business and residents of Kingston.

“To fully understand informal economy women, we must understand how race, class and gender complicate these experiences,” Glaude said.

A distinctive feature of Kingston is the division between the uptown and downtown parts of the city, Glaude explained. In terms of race, small portions of brown- or white-skinned elites reside in uptown Kingston, while the poorer, darkest skinned people are residents of the downtown. With race comes segregated space, and by belonging to either town shows one’s membership, she said.

“Uptown is not (only) a geographical identifier but also signifies one’s social standing,” she said.

The uptown residents fear that if the informal economy dominates the brown elite area, the meaning of “uptown” will change and their social status will fall, Glaude said.

There is also a class distinction made between the stereotypical refined Jamaican lady and unruly, dark-skinned higgler woman, Glaude said. Even if a higgler eventually manages to move up to the elite class, their skin color can keep them locked out, so they are never fully accepted into this society, she said.

Throughout Kingston, residents have called upon the state to remove these unwelcome women from the streets, Glaude said.

“The same police forces that are a source of stress for these women protect the brown middle and upper class,” she said.

Higglers also face barriers in terms of where they can sell their goods. Government markets where higglers are allowed to sell are both unsafe and unsanitary and dissuade any potential customers from shopping in these areas, Glaude said.

Audience member Henry Coslick,  junior political science major, said, “I had no idea what a higgler was and this is (taking) place in a part of Jamaica I’d never even heard of.”

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