Small Island discusses a variety of forms of prejudice. While living in Jamaica, Hortense is not aware of racial prejudice, although she does mention that she is given special attention because her skin is more of a golden color than black. Her father, who was light-skinned, had an affair with a dark-skinned country woman. When the child (Hortense) was born, he took the baby to his brother’s home and paid to have him raise Hortense. The mother was sent away to Cuba.
Although Hortense is not a victim of racial prejudice in her youth, she is acutely aware of social prejudice: she is, in fact, guilty of it. She looks down on people who speak patois, the street language of many Jamaicans, including Gilbert. Hortense attends some of the better schools in Jamaica and feels she is on a higher social scale than are many of the people around her, and again this includes Gilbert.
When Hortense moves to London, she cannot understand why people cannot understand her. She comments on how hard she studied in Jamaica to learn proper English. She knows she is speaking grammatically correct sentences and is not using the more common forms of English that some of her fellow Jamaicans use. However, she must constantly repeat herself to other British people as if she were speaking a foreign language. After she is in London for a time, she listens more carefully to people and realizes that she has a thick accent. As Hortense used to look down on people in Jamaica for how they spoke, people in London now look down on her.
Even though Hortense was trained to be a teacher and brings with her two letters recommending her, she cannot obtain a teaching job in London. No one will explain why; they merely refuse to interview her. When she tells them she will enroll in teacher classes in London, they only laugh at her. Behind these refusals to employ her are racial prejudices. No one will hire Hortense because she is black.
Gilbert is also caught off guard by prejudices. When he first enlists in the British Air Force, he is taken to the United States to be trained. His supervisor explains to the Jamaican troops that they are special black people. The American Negroes are not treated as well because they have no rights in the States. The Jamaican blacks are given special privileges because they are different. Of course, the Jamaicans enjoy this. But when they arrive in England, they find that they will not be given the jobs they had been promised. They wanted to fly, but they become clerks and drivers of jeeps and trucks. When they make the mistake of...
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