The coming together of friends that originated in Paris just over a quarter century ago and has since mushroomed into a global phenomenon, has now spread to the Caribbean.
Le Diner en Blanc was conceived by Francois Pasquier, who wanted nothing more than to have a picnic with friends in a public space; participants were to wear white in order to be able to easily find one another. From year to year, the event grew and soon gained international momentum. It is now a registered trademark, so event planners who would like to host a Diner en Blanc soiree must sign licensing agreements and abide by the organisation's guidelines, which include keeping the location of the event secret until the very last minute.
But hosting such a fancy affair in a developing country like Jamaica raises some troubling questions about entitlement, race, class and economic power. In a blog entry posted soon after the event was held at Kingston's Emancipation Park, Active Voice referred to “the imagined community of #DinerEnBlanc”:
The location had been announced; Kingston’s beloved Emancipation Park was being occupied by Jamaica’s One Percent, clad in white and brandishing bottles of wine and hyper-expensive loaves of bread (one lampoons them lovingly because by staging this event they were in effect telegraphing to the world that Jamaica isn’t so crime-ridden that it’s not business as usual–or should we say leisure as usual–when it needs to be)
The post went on to detail the various marketing aspects of the event, which was pitched as an epicurean celebration that boasted a waiting list of thousands. Fashion and decor retailers, food supply chains and even banks got in on the advertising action:
The upmarket picnic had no shortage of sponsors. The imagined community of Diner en Blanc has deep pockets. Organizers of all floundering and struggling cultural ventures in Jamaica please note…money is available depending on how you incorporate your sponsors into your events and how ‘tasteful’ and simultaneously boasy [boastful/proud] you are… […]
But…but…is this not a textbook case of conspicuous consumption you ask? literally eating and drinking as conspicuously as possible–or is it something else? You decide. This blog isn’t into glut-shaming. I’ve just filleted the event for you, that’s all. *Waves napkin*
Other bloggers were uncomfortable about the event as well. At first, Kelly Katharin Ogilvie McIntosh dismissed it as “just another party”. But then, she saw an interview that changed her perspective:
A representative from one of our leading banks made a statement that has been bothering me since Friday night: ‘All of Jamaica is here’. No, Ma'am. Not at all. 900 people is not all of Jamaica. Did you mean to say ‘All of Jamaica that matters is here'? Think about it: All of Jamaica (that matters) is here.
This goes to the heart of what is wrong. It reveals the thinking of many of us. It explains much of what we see around us. ‘All of Jamaica (that matters) is here.’ Us and Them. It informs the dispensing of justice, provision of health care, why some things happen in some communities and not in others. ‘Us and Them’. As long as those with means continue to pretend as if Those Others don't exist, the chasm between Us and Them will grow wider.
She also questioned the priorities of Jamaicans, suggesting that the value placed on keeping up appearances is holding the country back economically.
One of the most powerful musings about the whole affair came from Sarah Manley, the daughter of former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, who posted a Facebook note that was widely shared, and which bloggers like Annie Paul and Jean Lowrie-Chin republished:
When I posted the picture juxtaposition of the Diner En Blanc affaire beside the huge plumes of smoke from the Riverton City Dump fire blanketing the city of Kingston I did so with a clear conscience and a profound sense of irony. The elegant aerial of Jamaica's elite decked out in fine style streaming in to our National Emancipation Park, a picture I might add widely circulated in social media, and in traditional media, presented an irresistible visual representation of the haves doing what haves do. Their choice of white clothing formed an almost cloud like film eerily similar to the white smoke billowing over the capital. While Rome Burns, a long venerated metaphor for those with excess living to excess in the midst of poverty and desperation begged to be the caption.
Attendees of the event appeared oblivious to the paradox as they posted photos and videos on Instagram and sang along to the lyrics of the popular song, “Burn”:
Manley soon began to feel the backlash. Herself part of the country's elite, she was not surprised at the reaction. What did shock her, though, was the fact that most attendees “seemed unaware that there was any irony attached at all and were genuinely surprised that [Manley] would put the two images together”.
Manley provided several examples of “Rome burning”, starting with the dump fires, which are so commonplace that “it has been suggested [they] are an accepted part of an economic structure so deformed that starting the fire is a common strategy of business development for the truck owners who are paid to haul the huge mounds of dirt needed to put it out.” She noted the predicament of the cash-strapped Ministry of Health, “frequently in the news for being short of even the most basic supplies”.
Calling out the culture of entitlement which she believes the Jamaican media has also been complicit in, Manley whittled the whole dilemma down to a matter of form over function:
We Jamaicans are spectacularly good at appearances. We are good at creating the appearance of success. We seem however to have confused looking the part with being the part. It is so ingrained in our culture that to many of us we genuinely think that if we show up, in the right attire, at the right address, it doesn’t matter if we actually produce nothing, do nothing […]
That you could turn up in your finery with your picnic baskets of (What was in those picnic baskets? Good cheese? Pate? Or tin mackerel?) of whatever, is evidence of nothing. Rome is a flame, despite your presence on the Boards of Associations, despite your Jimmy Choos. The desperate in ghettos ten deep to a room are plotting ever plotting to scale your wall, to pick your pocket, to carve themselves out a slice of your pie cooling just beyond their reach on your watchtower.