As black people in societies controlled by white institutions, Hortense and Gilbert’s daily interactions and the possibilities of their lives are framed by racism. While the novel focuses on the Josephs’ experience of racial prejudice in England, it also offers glimpses of the way race operates in two other societies: colonial Jamaica and Jim Crow-era America. The remarkable lack of prejudice Gilbert experiences in wartime Britain spurs his decision to immigrate, and suggests that Britain, in its first attempt to absorb non-white citizens, might prove a positive contrast to the prejudice running rampant in Jamaica and the United States. However, in the postwar era, the Josephs face racism that’s even worse than what they anticipated. The Josephs achieve a modest triumph over their circumstances, establishing themselves in their new country against the odds and learning to find security and support in each other rather than relying on a hostile society. Still, it’s clear that England’s rampant prejudice will influence their lives forever. Regardless of their strength or resilience, racism remains a huge and unresolvable demon at the end of the novel.
While Jamaica is a majority-black society, it’s controlled by colonial institutions, which means that racial prejudice permeates its social structures. In a colony that largely aspires to emulate the “mother country” (England), light skin is a mark of higher status, and light-skinned people are privileged among others. Hortense’s upbringing is a striking example of this phenomenon. She’s born out of wedlock to a light-skinned government official named Lovell and a dark-skinned maid named Alberta. Hortense’s mother gives her up to be raised by Lovell’s cousins because “with my golden skin, everyone agreed that I would have a golden future.” Similarly, Hortense notes that the best schools, staffed by white missionaries, accept “only the wealthiest, fairest, and highest-class children.”
However, it’s important that this system benefits even light-skinned black citizens only to a limited degree. Hortense’s complexion allows her an education, but lack of opportunity still leads her to emigrate away from her society. She says that even the wealthy and light-skinned children “nevertheless still looked poor” to the white missionaries. This shows that the white people of the book, especially representatives of colonial institutions, perceive all Jamaicans as a homogenous and backward bloc, oblivious to the socioeconomic distinctions that exist between them.
As Gilbert sees it through his experiences with American soldiers, the United States enforces racial prejudice through complete and brutal racial segregation. As an RAF soldier, Gilbert experiences curiosity and sometimes insults from British people, some of whom have never seen a black person before and think that by rubbing his skin they can “make it turn white.” However, this pales in comparison to the treatment he, and black American GIs, receive from white American officers. In one episode, Gilbert watches in astonishment and dismay as his arrival at an American base causes a diplomatic flurry. Gilbert can’t retrieve the weapons he was supposed to collect, because the American soldiers would revolt if they saw a black man on their base, much less in the important position of driving a truck. Shortly after, he gives a ride to two black GIs, who have lived in such segregated towns that they “never talked to a white person ‘fore,” and are astounded that Gilbert shares a room with other white soldiers. They inform Gilbert that under the army’s rules, black and white soldiers are allowed into the neighboring town on alternate days, so they never have to interact. Their casual acceptance of this fact, and Gilbert’s revulsion, highlights the institutionalized nature of racism in the United States, and contrasts it with the more casual prejudice displayed by the British.
The climax of American racism occurs when Queenie and Gilbert take her father-in-law, Arthur, to a film, only to be informed that, in deference to the tastes of American patrons, Gilbert has to sit at the back of the movie theater. Queenie and Gilbert’s indignation and refusal to comply sparks a riot and street fight between black and white soldiers, and in the ensuing chaos, Arthur is accidentally killed by a member of the Military Police. Gilbert describes Arthur as a “casualty of war,” referring not to the war against the Germans but the one fought every day by white Americans to deny black soldiers basic dignity. Arthur’s death shows that this visceral racism isn’t just harmful to the black community—it can also tear the fabric of the entire society.
While Gilbert’s favorable impression of British society compared to Jamaican limitations and American segregation leads him to immigrate to England, he soon realizes that as England becomes more diverse, racism inexorably takes root. While he generally received good treatment as an RAF soldier, when applying for jobs after the war, Gilbert finds that employers are indifferent to his contributions in the army. Instead, they give desirable jobs to white soldiers and tell Gilbert that in order not to offend other white workers or set a precedent that immigrants of color can expect professional jobs, Gilbert must be restricted to manual labor. Hortense also experiences an immediate rejection when she applies for a job as a teacher, which is shocking to her because in Jamaica, she was qualified as a professional. Queenie’s neighbors, represented by Cyril Todd, are increasingly worried about preserving a “respectable”—in other words, white—neighborhood. While they may have accepted small numbers of black soldiers during the war, when Hortense arrives in a large wave of immigrants, the neighbors become actively racist in response to what they perceive as an attack on their society’s traditional character.
It’s important that, in England, racism is closely linked to entrenched class prejudice. Before Cyril Todd faces the Josephs, he resents that Blitz refugees from a poorer neighborhood come to live on his block. It’s Queenie’s defense of and volunteer work for these people, whom she’s been taught to look down on her entire life, that primes her to accept and befriend black tenants later. The neighborhood’s similar attitude toward the Blitz refugees and the Jamaican immigrants shows that for them, prejudice is a way to preserve and enhance their own status at the expense of others. At the same time, their attitude towards immigrants of color is particularly cruel because they’ve never spent time with non-white people before, but rather have imbibed stereotypes about them since birth.
As they move through different societies and eventually settle in England, Gilbert and Hortense experience many different forms of racism. Their inability to ever escape its presence qualifies their personal happiness at the end of the novel; it’s a foretaste of the decades of fierce fighting for civil rights that will occur in Britain and America. Ultimately, the novel’s refusal to neatly resolve the racism that pervades it is not only a strong indictment of racism’s potential to shape the protagonists’ lives, but a statement of doubt that the paradise Gilbert imagines Britain to be—a heterogeneous society existing without racial tension—can ever actually exist.
Race and Prejudice ThemeTracker
Race and Prejudice Quotes in Small Island
Father said later that this African man I was made to shake hands with would have been a chief or a prince in Africa. Evidently, when they speak English you know that they have learned to be civilized—taught English by the white man, missionaries probably. So Father told me not to worry about having shaken his hand because the African man was most likely a potentate.
With such a countenance there was a chance of a golden life for I. What, after all, could Alberta give? Bare black feet skipping over stones. If I was given to my father’s cousins for upbringing, I could learn to read and write and perform all my times tables. And more. I could become a lady worthy of my father, wherever he might be.
I could understand why it was of the greatest importance to her that slavery should not return. Her skin was so dark. But mine was not of that hue—it was the color of warm honey. No one would think to enchain someone such as I. All the world knows what that rousing anthem declares: “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Anthropoid—I looked to the dictionary to find the meaning of this word used by Hitler and his friends to describe Jews and colored men. I got a punch in the head when the implication jumped from the page and struck me: “resembling a human but primitive, like an ape.” Two whacks I got. For I am a black man whose father was born a Jew.
Living far from you is a beloved relation whom you have never met. Yet this relation is so dear a kin she is known as Mother. Your own mummy talks of Mother all the time. “Oh, Mother is a beautiful woman—refined, mannerly, and cultured.” Your daddy tells you, “Mother thinks of you as her children; like the Lord above she takes care of you from afar” […] your finest, your best, everything you have that is worthy is sent to Mother as gifts.
Ask any of us West Indian RAF volunteers—ask any of us colony troops where in Britain are ships built, where is cotton woven, steel forged, cars made, jam boiled, cups shaped, lace knotted, glass blown, tin mined, whiskey distilled? Ask […]
Now see this. An English soldier, a Tommy called Tommy Atkins […] Ask him, “Tommy, tell me nah, where is Jamaica?” And hear him reply, “Well, dunno. Africa, ain’t it?”
I was learning to despise the white American GI above all other. They were the army that hated me the most! Out of place in the genteel atmosphere of this dreary tea-shop these three aggrieved GIs twitched with hostile excitement, like snipers clearing their aim at a sitting target […] these poor GIs were in a murderous mood watching a nigger sitting with his head still high. If the defeat of hatred is the purpose of war, then come, let us face it: I and all the other colored servicemen were fighting this war on another front.
Arthur Bligh had become another casualty of war—but come, tell me, someone…which war?
In that moment, standing tall on Kingston harbor, I was shocked by the awful realization that man, we Jamaicans are all small islanders too!
“The cheeky ones,” she told me, “will be Cockneys. You’ll want nothing to do with Cockneys, they’re all jellied eels and kneesups. No, that one’s a gentleman. No spivs or ne’erdowells ever read The Times.”
For this dismal garment, which I had taken to be her dressing gown, was her good outside coat […] She look on me distasteful, up and down. I was dressed as a woman such as I should be when visiting the shops in England. My coat was clean, my gloves freshly washed and a hat upon my head. But Mrs. Bligh stare on me as if something was wrong with my apparel, before telling me once more, “I’m not worried about what busybodies say. I don’t mind being seen in the street with you.”
She think me a fool that does not know what is bread? But my mind could not believe what my eye had seen. That English people would buy their bread in this way. This man was patting on his red head and wiping his hand down his filthy white coat. Cha, why he no lick the bread first before giving it to me to eat?
The mechanics, the teachers, the clerks who were all left out here sat brooding on their worth to a country they loved. Wondering what sort of Britain was being built without us. Forgotten war, forgotten army, forgotten again.
Still he went on: “I am not one of those people who wish the English out of India. I like you. Are you not protecting us all this time from the filthy Japs with their slitty eyes? Your British bulldog understands that there is nothing worse than foreigners invading your land […] A dreadful thing to have foreign muddy boots stamping all over your soil. Do you not think?
I want to shoot him […] but he’s still smiling and I start to think, Oh, well, maybe he’s not so bad. Until I see his sword flash. Light cracking off it in a spark. I knew we were in danger. But suddenly Queenie sits up in bed, turns to the door, looks the Jap straight in they eye and says, “Hello.” Just like that. Hello. Like she’s talking to a neighbor. Hello. As if she’d known him all her life. “Hello. Come in.”
There was something I recognized on the face of Bernard Bligh […] Come, I saw it reflected from every mirror on my dear Jamaican island. Staring back on me from my own face. Residing in the white of the eye, the turn of the mouth, the thrust of the chin. A bewildered soul. Too much seen to go back. Too much changed to know which way is forward. I knew with this beleaguered man’s return the days of living quiet in this house had come to an end.
Hortense should have yelled in righteous pain not whimper in my ear […] Come, let me tell you, I wanted to tempt these busybodies closer. Beckon them to step forward and take a better look. For then I might catch my hand around one of their scrawny white necks and squeeze. No one will watch us weep in this country.
The war was fought so people might live amongst their own kind. Quite simple. Everyone had a place. England for the English and the West Indies for these colored people. Look at India. The British knew fair play. Leave India to the Indians. That’s what we did.
“Gilbert, come, you no scared of a little hard work. I can help you.” She spun round the room. “With a little paint and some carpet.” She moved to the corner leaning over to spread out her arms and say “And a table and a chair here,” before rushing to the fireplace with the suggestion, “and two armchairs here in front of an open English fire. You will see—we will make it nice.”
“It would kill you, Bernard,” I said. “Have you thought about all that? Because I have. I’ve done nothing but think about it. And you know what? I haven’t got the guts for it. I thought I would. I should have but I haven’t got the spine. Not for that fight. I admit it, I can’t face it, and I’m his blessed mother.”
Gilbert sucked on his teeth to return this man’s scorn. “You know what your trouble is, man?” he said. “Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it give you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. […] listen to me, man, we both just finish fighting a war—a bloody war—for the better world we wan’ see. And on the same side—you and me. […] But still, after all that we suffer together, you wan’ tell me I am worthless and you are not.”
For at that moment as Gilbert stood, his chest panting with the passion from his words, I realized that Gilbert Joseph, my husband, was a man of class, a man of character, a man of intelligence. Noble in a way that would some day make him a legend […] But this Englishman just carried on, “I’m sorry… but I just can’t understand a single word that you’re saying.”