“Jamaicans of African descent form 76.3% of the population and are the majority. Indians form 3.4%, Chinese ancestry form 1.2% and other ethnic groups make 0.8%, the next largest racial group after multiracial Jamaicans. Lebanese, Syrian, English, Scottish, Irish, and German Jamaicans make up a smaller racial minority but are still influential both socially and economically.”
(An excerpt from Wikipedia)
Every now and again, I come across someone who talks about racism or colourism as if those topics were one-sided. For the most part, I and other Jamaicans would be affected by colourism with the population being mostly made up of people of African descent.
Nowadays, colour is a topic that is mostly ignored but in my estimation remains a hot button issue that thrives beneath the surface. It is not uncommon for there to be an argument about one thing and quickly descends into one about complexion.
Many families, including mine, consist of people with many shades and this occurs most often when the parents descend from different ethnic persuasions, or seeing that many of us are mixed so it depends on what race shows up more in our genetic mutations. It was not uncommon in our household for there to be a squabble about one thing and led to a hate-fest about colour.
Whether we like to admit it or not, there was a strong perception that to be lighter skinned was better, growing up in the sixties and seventies, and this persists to this day. And I know that it was worse the further back you get to slavery. Favouritism was blatantly shown in families, and the wider community, for children and people in general who were light-skinned.
Insults were thrown both sides to people with different complexion, but my experience is that resentment festers and simmers even in periods when relationships seemed good only to explode if there is an argument about some mundane thing.
It was so commonplace that sadly, many prejudicial statements were made and accepted without any sensitivity towards the hurt that was dished out from one to another, and we took those behaviours with us into adulthood.
I remember I had a schoolmate who was very dark and she would talk about light skinned people who had a particular ruddiness to their colour and made a joke of it. This made for some very uncomfortable moments since I was much lighter than she and was considered to be close to the colour she was joking about. The sad thing is there was no reason for that except that she could. Of course, I was offended by her mirth but for the most part I did not react because from experience it would be like throwing gas on a fiery situation if I were to tell her she was ‘black and ugly,’ which in those days once you were black you were ugly. There were ‘red and ugly’ people too, but their ugly reference did not come because of their colour. They were ugly because they did not have the more acceptable European straight features. In other words, if you were brown with a particular reddish tinge, and had African features, you were ugly.
One day we were walking home from school and she started to talk about some woman who was so ‘red’ and she started on the same trend of joking about it. There was a boy in my class who I can look back now and say by whom I was being bullied. He would hit me and run and I would run him down and hit him back. I was miffed but they, she along with other schoolmates, chose to see it as some kind of romance when romance was the furthest thing from my mind. Now I can call it bullying but because he came from a prominent family I guess I should have felt flattered.
She started ribbing me about the so called romance with the boy, and calling him my boyfriend. My protestations fell on deaf ears, in fact, she had gone and told someone in our town that he was my boyfriend and I was really riled up.
Almost bursting with anger, I spouted that I did not want him and of course, using words that would hurt her as much as I felt hurt from her unkind and unfair references. The fact is neither he nor she was ugly, in fact they were better looking than I, should still be despite the passage of time, but ‘hot words bring hot words.’ Not only did she take offence but she apparently repeated it to her cronies and anyone else who would listen, especially through the use of bush telegram, while all along, I kept mum about her and the way she ridiculed people who were lighter skinned than she was.
It is only in recent years that I realize that being an introvert I had kept everything inside and I now realize that some experiences I had had that defied explanations as a child could have occurred because she had repeated my words which were said in anger and prompted by her prejudicial statements in the first place.
It was always my perception that because of the deep reaching after effects of slavery, some dark skinned people think it is okay to bully light-skinned people just because of that difference. That they can hate you for life because you mentioned that they are black but we should brush it off when they mete out the same treatment to us, or it is in some way different to be cursed about your colour if you are brown than black. Hurtful words hurt, no matter what the complexion and it is amazing to me that the resentment is carried over decades, even though it never prevented her from borrowing my textbooks.
I remember once we were having end of term tests and she borrowed my Physics textbook, to be returned in time for me to use it. Now I was no scholar and was definitely going to fail that test but she still should have returned my book. I had to go to her house where I could hear her mother quarrelling with her that ‘she told her all the time not to lend out her books.’
Suffice this to say, I did not know at the time that in order to make their children do better than others, borrowing books and working obeah on the books was a way to weed out the competition. I do not know if that was their practice but it certainly was in the realm of possibility that her mother could have felt that that could have been done to her.
Whatever else was going on, my classmate had a strict mother who was very interested in her children doing well, and they did. Although there were other children, my classmate and her brother did very well in their scholastic pursuits. She became a lawyer and her brother an engineer proving that no matter what your circumstances are, if you have a parent who is strict with you and have high expectations you can do well enough to lift yourself and family from certain poverty.
Oh, and the boy who I now think of as a bully, he also became a lawyer, but because he came from a privileged circumstance, it was a collective expectation that he would do well. There is a lot to be said about expectation, especially when a community signs on to that.
The question of colour did not disappear in adulthood, however, and this played a part throughout my working life.
Working at a large company provides a good sampling of the behaviours within familial structures. Every class is represented, and again there is a lot to be said about the stratification of classes in our country, and every colour and race is also represented.
I was going through my wallet one day when a co-worker who was very dark, spotted a picture of my husband, well he was not my husband yet. Displaying her curiousity, she asked whose picture it was and I told her. Then she saw a picture of my daughter and wanted to know why I did not have her with a ‘black man to tone down her colour’ and those were her words, not mine.
Of course, at the time I had no answer for that and I let it slide, but it is clear that she was suffering from the same syndrome my classmate had. And I doubt that they knew each other, one being from the country and the other a city girl.
I later changed job and worked at another big company where I sat in a unit with one other person who was much darker than I but was not the darkest there is. One day my mother came to visit and after she left, my unit mate’s remark was that she thought my mother would have been as fair as I was. Well, I can’t be held responsible for her perceptions and I let that slide again because I had learnt a long time ago that they were the first to bring up colour issues, plus what could I have said that would add to that conversation?
It was a new unit, we did not know each other well but she clearly had a chip on her shoulder which was displayed in other areas. Like for instance, she tried to pass on certain functions that she felt was beneath her but I felt that there was a clear enough line in our work that made some of those functions hers which I told her. She was an administrative assistant coming from a branch, just like I was, but we were transferred to the head office where I was better known as a telephone operator since I had worked there in that capacity, so I figure she thought that that made her more superior than I.
What she did not know was that I was a secretary before becoming a telephone operator and did not like it and that was why I switched. Plus at the time, being an operator was paying more than what I had been getting and had benefits I never had, so the decision to take a ‘less prestigious’ position was not hard to make. In Jamaica, there is a lot of looking down on people because of their job title or lack thereof.
We worked together for a few years and I eventually got to meet her mother. Her mother was a lot fairer than me and she was darker than my mother. Now how is that for a contrast? Of course, I made no mention of the disparity even though she had been quick to point it out to me. By then I had come to realize that she was a bad gossip who saw everything wrong about everybody even when the same thing applied to her.
There came a time when I had a family member living with me while she tried to get into the entertainment business. She would talk a lot about the difficulty in breaking into that market and it was because she was a ‘nobody with no name,’ her words not mine. This was not an uncommon term of reference for those persons who tried to make a go of it in the arts; people in Hollywood use it. They were always striving to make a name for themselves and so these terms are quite common or so I thought.
I found out later that they are only accepted depending on who you are because if you refer to black person as being ‘a nobody with no name,’ and you were brown then umbrage is taken and not only do they take it as prejudicial but they are capable of making others see you as being prejudiced. That is when all the sub-cutaneous resentment that has been steadily boiling, surfaces, and everybody set out to avenge the injured party, including the injured party.
It was therefore, with great interest that I set out to watch a recent show on OWN which shed light on the colourism/racism issues still prevalent in the American society. I was not surprised about a lot of the findings, especially the fact that the dark skinned people were amazed to find that light skinned people were also hurting from being called the names they were called in relation to their skin colour. Like really!!!
I went to schools where if you were brown, you stood out like a sore thumb because most of the kids were darker than I was and some were not nice. They like to pretend that it was one-sided but it defies all reasoning because they were the majority and they were not tethered by the chains of slavery; neither their bodies nor their tongues.
They did not need their Prime Minister to tell them that it was ‘black-man time now.’ They hold onto the pathology of behaviour evinced by slavery like spite, but they are only spiting themselves. We all suffered through slavery, at least our ancestors, but servitude was servitude. House work may have seemed like a cushy job to those who had to work in the sun, and it clearly had its benefits, but house work was no walk in the park either.
I cannot imagine that there was any joy in being in charge of the disposal of the effluent of others who considered you to be less than, in addition to all the other daily chores that enhanced the salubriousness of daily living. Because no matter how brown you were, you were subjected to being flogged, being raped, and generally being treated with disdain. Also, neither you nor your children were exempted from being sold off to other plantations, thereby causing separation from family and all that was familiar. And I am aware that there were exceptions.
And yet I believe that all this can change. The experts say that the first step towards change is acknowledgment that these issues still exist. Then be the change you want to see.
I know that many persons do not see themselves as being prejudiced but if we take moments to examine how we feel about the things we say and our perceptions, I bet most would be surprised at the findings. Maybe the reason we can quickly identify prejudices is because we have those same words and feelings that we so readily point out in others.
The fact is, if you were not prejudiced you would not be so quick to refer to someone as being prejudiced. It is our perceptions that we oftentimes project onto others, because if we were thinking nice there is no way we could interpret something someone else says that could have more than one meaning and you pick the negative.
I have always felt that if you really want to know how people think, look for them in their children. It is the children who reflect who we are and project that into the world.