I am a proud Jamaican; I love my country, its people, culture, and resilience. We have so much going on for us. There is the natural beauty in our landscape, white sand beaches, our language, and the way we treat visitors and our fellow Jamaicans. Conversely, like most countries, we have our challenges; Crime (a persistent challenge that only seems to get worst) and a myriad of social issues, one of which is colorism.
The term colorism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group”.
It has become commonplace to experience colorism in Jamaica. One wonders why a country that has a predominantly black population is having these issues. The answer: Slavery! Slavery is the evil that robbed us of our identity, our connection to our heritage and culture. We were yanked from our homeland and placed in an environment that repeatedly told us that the way we look, the way our hair naturally grows out of our heads, our natural skin tone was not beautiful. What was and still is considered beautiful, is the European idea of beauty, i.e. straight hair, white skin, and straight nose.
To further deteriorate our idea and love of self, systems such as Jim Crow in America, Apartheid in South Africa, and a penchant for xenophobia in Europe propelled the idea that black people were second-class citizens (The sheer impudence of white supremacists who believes that they are better than everyone else, is beyond me). We were repeatedly told that the way we look was not beautiful. Despite systemic racism, most black people have maintained their identities and their love of self; however, some drank the Kool-Aid and believed what they were told.
To reconcile the way they look with what they were told was beautiful, some persons turned to skin bleaching. Skin bleaching is the process whereby chemicals containing hydroquinone are applied to the skin to decrease the production of melanin. In colloquial Jamaican terms, the process is referred to as “rubbing” or “toning”.
You cannot travel to a parish in Jamaica and not find a person who is bleaching. I have family members who have bleached their skins, some for so long, that you cannot remember what they originally look like. I remember asking a family member whose face and leg color was polar opposites, why she was bleaching, her response: “yuh nuh si dat a suh all di bashy gyal dem a duh, if yuh nuh brown an sexy, nuten nah gwann fi yuh” translation: skin bleaching was the in-thing and if you did not have light skin, you were not considered hot, hip nor sexy. I remember thinking “suh mi dead inna di show den”!
However, taboo, skin bleaching has been around in Jamaica for years. It made a comeback in 2008 when popular dancehall artiste vybz kartel started bleaching and somewhat changed the narrative around skin bleaching from a taboo subject to something hip, hot and happening. It has gotten so commonplace, that some people believe that they have the right and audacity to ask “yuh nah tone”? As to imply that if you have dark skin, something was wrong with you. To be considered sexy or beautiful, you have to have lighter skin.
Skin bleaching is a physical manifestation of colorism; however, there are more subtle manifestations. Some Jamaicans wholeheartedly believe that ‘nutten black nuh good’ giving rise to a culture of self-loathing and the ‘browning syndrome’. This self-hate, like most things, has been projected on women. Some men consider the ideal partner to be any woman that has light skin.
My experiences and that of members in my family with the browning syndrome are endless: I was at the bank recently and because of the COVID-19 restrictions, you had to wait on the outside in what felt like 100°F, while in line for what felt like days, a light skin female came to the entrance of the bank to collect a ticket for entry, she, like all of us waiting was given a number, the security guard (a dark skin man) said to her, “come and stand by me in the shade like how you brown and pretty”. I shook my head in disbelief.
A family member recounted her experience in primary school. She joined the Brownies, a section of the Girls’ Guide organization; she was asked by boys in her class why she could join the brownies when she was black. These are just a few of many, not always PG experiences.
It was the practice of some dark skin successful men in Jamaica to date or marry women who were lighter, by doing so; your social position was elevated. You would have married well if your wife was lighter. By marrying well, you were considered more important, more palatable; you would have propelled yourself beyond the limitations created because of your complexion.
Experiences and situations like these hurt me to my core. It hurts that little dark skin girls are told that because they are black, they are ugly or “yuh pretty yuh kno, the ongle ting is dat, yuh black”. Little girls who will want to feel beautiful so they bleach their skin. Girls, who will allow themselves to be abused by their partners because they don’t think they deserve better.
I am a dark skin woman, and no one can convince me that I am not beautiful. I have a love of self that is unwavering (some may argue that its slight narcissism, but what the heck). It came not from affirmations I received from my family, but knowledge of the atrocities that my forefathers endured and how they fought to be considered more than mere objects. It is this knowledge that prevents me from straightening my hair, bleaching my skin, or ever entertain the idea that my beautiful black skin is somehow mediocre.
I am unwavering in the display of my blackness; Many Jamaicans have been doing the same. We have embraced everything that makes us unique: the nappy hair, the dark skin, everything. We will not be told that black is not gorgeous as heck. I urge all Jamaicans to follow suit. Whether you are considered ‘black’ or ‘brown’, we all belong to the same race; we don’t need to do the racists any favors. Let us embrace our uniqueness and celebrate and uplift our brothers and sisters regardless of their skin tone.