Caribbean Colourism: Embracing our own shades
“Unless the question of colourism is addressed in our communities and definitely in our black “sisterhoods” we cannot, as a people, progress.” These were the words of Alice Walker, In Search Of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose. Walker is credited with coining the term “colourism”. In our Caribbean context, thick traces are notable in terms such as “black”, “browning”, “reds”, and “Indio Oscuro” (or Dark Indian).
It is generally known that some centuries ago, British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese explorers ‘discovered’ Caribbean islands and brought over African slaves to work the sugar plantations. Eventually coming out of slavery and colonization, there was “racial mixing” between Europeans and Africans. As a result of their connections to ‘white massa’, racially mixed individuals, “mulattoes”, gained privileges that their darker peers did not such as legal status, land ownership, and education.
Some suggest it is this preferential treatment, together with the idea of white supremacy and black inferiority, that fosters the concept that lighter skin is more attractive and favorable.
So, in this Caribbean environment, to walk into a beauty shop and notice a ‘darkie’ wearing a tee marked ‘MELANIN’ is quite an unusual occurrence, though, it seems more and more there are pockets of colourism awareness around. Romain Virgo’s current song “Melanin” encourages the celebration of a variety of skin tones. Together these changes might be in response to spoken or understood phrases such as ‘black and ugly’ or ‘pretty for a black girl’.
Racism and Colourism
Colourism, or skin tone discrimination, stems from the preference for proximity to whiteness. Yet many within our Caribbean context forget this aspect of colourism, its root, and instead are busy promoting its consequences. More appropriate for our CARICOM region would be a description of colorism as ‘prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group’, but, it is far from unique to the Caribbean. In fact, colourism is a global phenomenon, impacting communities of color worldwide. Guardian US even launched a week-long series on the politics of skin color in black American communities. The series, written in first-person pieces looks at the roots and impact of colourism.
Connected to Colourism are the varied responses toward interracial marriage and interracial baby-making. On the one end, there are those openly opposed and on the other end those fervently supportive. Both ends holding reasons rooted in racism and colourism.
Conspiracy theories also feature in this aspect of colourism, with some viewing interracial marriages as another means of ‘attack’ upon the ‘black family’, no different from white cops killing blacks, the prisons are still targeting blacks, and the spirit of homosexuality, which some now term ‘the gay agenda’.
Research is showing there are more black people marrying outside of their race than ever before. Research shows that there are well over 500,000 interracial marriages between black and whites today.
But why does it matter? It matters because we exist within a colourism environment. So now, Darwin’s theory of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ has resulted in responses such as bleaching.
Reactive Response: Bleaching
“When you black in Jamaica, nobody sees you,” a young Jamaican female explained. This desire for a lighter complexion is not a new phenomenon in Jamaica. It is often understood that if you were favoured with money and a resulting good education in Jamaica, man or woman, the only ‘thing’ needed thereafter, is a ‘browning’. Dr. Christopher Charles, a senior lecturer in political psychology at the University of the West Indies who has conducted extensive research on the subject, noted “It’s about following standards that are dictated by Eurocentrism. It’s a response to hundreds of years of colonial indoctrination that has been passed down through socialization since independence.”
In no way is it restricted to women.
The 2018 Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey found that Jamaican men are using skin bleaching cream more than Jamaican women. Marlon Moore, a male development specialist, says he believes the men are seeking to gain attention from women who “love brown men.” The survey also found that the lifetime prevalence of bleaching is highest among individuals between fourteen to thirty-five years of age.
Rollingout.com reported Kartel saying “this is my new image,” referring to his new lighter skin tone. “You can expect the unexpected. I feel comfortable with black people lightening their skin. They want a different look. It’s tantamount to white people getting a sun tan.” However, Phylicia Ricketts, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies Department of Physics, warned that some bleaching creams used by Jamaicans have high levels of mercury. Ricketts is part of a group at the university that is conducting research on several of the popular bleaching products currently in use.
Empowerment: Beauty in Diversity
Colourism continues in the Caribbean hanging over our heads promoting ‘imaginary’ divisions. We use it against each other and the pain seems to be never-ending. The evolution of Hispaniola, now known as two countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti provide such evidence. The Dominican Republic is the only Caribbean country that attained its independence from a “black country,” Haiti. Yet, the country and its leaders developed a hate for anything associated with Haiti. One of Dominican Republic’s leaders, Balaguer maintained that the Dominican Republic was a “Caucasian Western Nation,” despite the many people of black and mixed race. Citizens of Dominican Republic use the term “Indio Oscuro” or ‘Dark Indian’ as a preferred term to ‘black’ and they commonly refer to “African” features such as kinky hair and wide noses as “bad”.
Skin colour matters because we are visual and the most glorified, favourable images are of light skin people. Therefore, our skin colour becomes a valued or devalued commodity, very much as the ‘workable’ or ‘useless’ slave. In the United States of America, where there are so many diverse populations, while race matters, so too does colour. More importantly, because skin color is an irrefutable visual fact, unlike race, a colourism culture is becoming a very prevalent, subset of racism.
So what could we do?
Search out inherited self-hate: What are the thoughts really guiding our actions both towards ourselves and others within the community. Singer Spice, real name Grace Hamilton, stunned fans when she deleted all of her Instagram pictures and uploaded a picture of herself with extremely lightened skin. It was part of a promotion for her song where she voiced her hurt and anger on Caribbean colourism.
Imprinting Colourism in Children: Colourism is centuries old, followed by years of reinforcement. Therefore there must be a deliberate attempt to build self-love within children of colour. One suggested meaning for the acronym BLACK was: Beautiful, Lovely, Attractive, Courageous, Kind.
Remember ‘light’ is never ‘white’: As Jay-Z explains in “The Story of O.J.” the thinking of some well-to-do-blacks considering that somehow there ‘blackness’ disappears is but an illusion; “I’m not black, I’m OJ”. After all, history recorded “mulatto” President Barack Obama as America’s first Black President.
By Kerriann Toby
Kerriann Toby is a dynamic therapist currently pursuing her Doctorate of Psychology (PsyD). She is a member of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) and has trained as a cyber counselor. Her areas of experience, expertise, and interest include child development, sexual and reproductive health, gender-related matters, marriage and family life and promoting the idea of positive psychology, using strengths to support mental health and wellbeing.
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