Blog: Race and colour discrimination in the Jamaican hotel sector, 1962-2020

News | Posted on Monday 24 May 2021

Henrice Altink examines how race and colour relations have affected employment and staff-guest relations in the Jamaican hotel sector since independence.

Sandals White Hous, Jamaica. Credit: Gail Frederikson
Sandals White Hous, Jamaica. Credit: Gail Frederikson

By Henrice Altink, Professor in Modern History and  Co-Director of the IGDC

A 2011 study of travel brochures used in UK travel agents found that white tourists appeared in 97.1 per cent of the images and that non-white people featured mostly as workers serving or entertaining white tourists (Burton & Klemm 2011). Mid- to high-end hotels are traditionally white spaces: set up with white capital, managed by white executives, and frequented mostly by white guests. As such, non-white guests and non-white senior staff have always been seen as out of place. Numerous black guests at well-known international hotels have often been asked by staff to show proof that they are staying guests, and black people are grossly underrepresented in hotel management (Costen et al 2002). In the US in 2019, for instance, black executives made up only 1.5 percent of hospitality industry executives at director level or above.

Because of a past of colonialism, hotels in majority-black countries in the Global South hotels have traditionally been white space. The limited scholarship on race and tourism in the Global South has focused mostly on the experiences of overseas white guests, particularly their sexual encounters with non-white local, and the commodification of race in the tourist industry, such as musical performances in resorts (Vandegrift 2008Jamerson 2016; Alberti and Iannuzzi 2020). But largely ignored are the experiences of local non-white people as hotel workers and guests. In my recently-published article ‘Out of place: race and color in Jamaican hotels, 1962-2020,’ I reveal the persistence of practices of race and color discrimination in the Jamaican hotel sector since independence in 1962, focusing on both hotel workers and guests, and show how these racialized practices have co-evolved with structural changes in the tourism industry.

From independence in 1962 up to the present, the employment structure in Jamaican hotels has largely mirrored that of the island more broadly. A small number of white expats have occupied the top positions, such as general manager. Light-skinned Jamaicans have held mostly the assistant-manger roles and the more  client-facing positions, such as front-desk. And  the least-skilled and lowest paid positions, such as cleaner, waiter, and gardener, have generally been undertaken by mostly dark-skinned Jamaicans. This structure was more the result of subtle than overt discrimination and the requirements for the higher-level jobs, such as educational standards. As class and colour were closely entwined in Jamaica, darker-skinned Jamaicans were less likely than light-skinned Jamaicans to have attended the best schools and thus hold the right qualifications for a job, degree or training scheme in the hospitality sector.

But other reasons also explain why so few dark-skinned Jamaicans have made it to the top in hotels. Firstly, throughout the post-independence period middle-class parents have been averse to hotel management as a career option for their children partly because for them hotels resembled slave plantations with their emphasis on servitude (Crick 2008). And secondly, race and colour discrimination have acted as a glass ceiling for African-Jamaican hotel workers. Even today many white expat managers still hold stereotypical views of non-white staff and doubt their managerial abilities (Adler & Rigg 2012).

Relations between African-Jamaican hotel workers and guests have always been uneasy because both groups were socialized into a system that placed a high value on white or light skin. In the immediate post-colonial period, it was mostly members of the traditional light-skinned middle-class that visited hotels but from the 1970s more dark-skinned people, who had moved into the middle-class as a result of the expansion of secondary and tertiary education, visited hotels. These newcomers to the middle-class tried to mark their status by trying to emulate those above them – the light-skinned middle and upper class – and distance themselves from those below – the dark-skinned lower class. Thus when they visited hotels they often treated dark-skinned service staff discourteously. But dark-skinned service staff in turn did not give them the same service as they gave to white or light-skinned guests, not only because the latter were deemed better trippers but also because of their racial socialization and hotel training that defined tourists as white overseas guests. Access to the white space of the hotel, then, has always been largely policed by African-Jamaican service staff, who in doing so helped to affirm the island’s race and colour relations. And many African-Jamaican guests, especially upwardly mobile guests whether light- or dark-skinned, have also done so through their patronizing treatment of the mostly dark-skinned service staff.

Because hotels in postcolonial states have traditionally been white spaces, changing staff training materials to include a wider definition of tourists or other measures to improve relations between local black guests and service staff are unlikely to achieve the desired impact. While Jamaica can do little to change the perception of hotels as white spaces, which dates back to the colonial era, it can confront what I have called elsewhere the ‘public secret’ of race and colour, and adopt measures to create a more level playing field for men and women of different skin tones so that the hotel sector will become less racially divisive.

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
igdc@york.ac.uk
01904 321042
Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
@York_IGDC

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
igdc@york.ac.uk
01904 321042
Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
@York_IGDC