Why I’m talking about Colourism…again
In St Elizabeth, there is the saying: “cousin an cousin boil good soup”. I do not know how to word it any better but to explain it, it is advocating for incest *cue gasps*. A friend from back home once tweeted that this takes its origins in white and light-skinned people in the parish marrying their own cousins. Taken from Steve Burnard’s thesis on St. Elizabeth, “As the parish evolved, intermarriages between families, whether whites, ‘quadroons’ and ‘mulattoes’, became customary and was widespread across the island, with each group adhering to their set colour and class code…” He goes on to say that the parish’s divergent structure resulted in, “generations of people fairer in complexion than inhabitants of other parishes…”.I imagine they practised intermarrying not solely to keep their fair skin but also to keep the money and assets within the family
There are so many aspects of colourism that are not, in my opinion, explored enough, even I, Jemmar, the woman who stays ready to discuss colourism have focused mainly on colourism and desirability politics. There is not a day that goes by without Black women sharing their experience of colourism and they are met with several silencing techniques. But colourism is so much more than Black men not finding Black women attractive or the Black girl who rejected the Black boy at age 12 and that is why he harassed dark-skinned Black women for years on social media and for that reason. And because of this, I decided to dedicate this article to colourism outside of romantic relationships. Instead, I will attempt to explore intergenerational colourism, using my family, my parish and my country as the case study.
Intergenerational trauma, according to Health.com is “trauma that isn’t just experienced by one person but extends from one generation to the next.” They spoke to licensed clinical psychologist and parenting evaluator Melanie English, PhD, who said “It can be silent, covert, and undefined, surfacing through nuances and inadvertently taught or implied throughout someone’s life from an early age onward,”. Oxford Dictionary provided a fancy definition of colourism, “Colourism is a form of racial discrimination based on the shade of an individual’s skin tone, typically favouring lighter skin. It can occur both within a specific ethnic group and across ethnic groups.”
The colourism that I experienced outside the institution of my school was at the hands or rather, the words and actions of family, friends and the community. This was simply because all these individuals are pure evil but the result of an accumulation of things, mainly colonialism. I do not know every detail of each of their life stories, but they likely experienced the very same intergenerational trauma inflicted upon me via colourism.
Let me start with some lived experience and history. My family hails from the parish of St Elizabeth, it is well known the parish is home to an abundance of people with lighter skin, not necessarily white people, but lighter. In 2019, in a letter to the Editor of The Observer, Martha Brae wrote that “the parish of St Elizabeth has a fairly large population of light-skinned Jamaicans, often with light-brown, blue, grey, or green eyes.” She goes on to suggest there is no light-skinned privilege, but I am not here to rebuttal her perception of reality.
Anyways, some of my family once told me this story about how my great-great-grandparents met. My great great grandfather was a dark-skinned Black man who was selling cassava in Middle Quarters and it was this occupation that led my great-great-grandmother to him. She fell in love and fast forward to ruin what could be a romantic story, they had a baby, Lena my great grandmother. According to my family, Lena’s white family were not happy and outcast her and her mother. Lena resided in Middle Quarters for a substantial amount of her life, she is buried behind her house, next to her fourth husband (I know my great gran was a baddie), her granddaughter (my aunt), her grandson (my uncle) and her eldest daughter (my grandmother). Growing up I used to remind everyone that my great-great-grandmother was a white woman, embarrassing and shameless I know. But I was taught that despite my Black skin, my dark skin, this was my access, proximity to whiteness and I should let it be known.
Let us get into my father’s side, really he is my stepfather, but he is the only dad I know. He comes from a well-off family of individuals, of whom, the majority is on the fairer side. My dad never made me feel less than, but I can admit growing up, he made my older sister feel that way and I joined him at times. We called her King Kong a few times and although I was a child, it is still one of the stupidest things I have ever done.
In her 2000 paper, Patricia Mohammed argued that not only the mixed-race population was an early byproduct of colonisation and slavery but one which thrived of distinctions amongst race, class and colour. The paper explained past constructions of gender and sexuality comparatively to gender relations at the time . She wrote the colour of one’s skin was a crucial signifier of parentage, status and position in a slave society, then later in creole society* and I argue that even in 2021, this is still the case.
Using data provided by previous Caribbeans scholars, Mohammed shared that mulatto [mixed women or as Jamiacan’s called “browning” accordingly to Mohammed at the time of writing] often had children with lighter-skinned men and that this was not the case if the genders were reversed.
I did not join my sister in feeling outcast until we met his family in Jamaica. Most of them are light-skinned Black people, the majority of whom migrated to America. I do not recall explicitly experiencing colourism, but at this age, I just knew, I was not welcome. On my father’s side, I saw what money, access and power could get you. What was more interesting was the family relations, two former prime ministers of Jamaica are apparently my father’s distant cousins. For years, I assumed not being biological related and experience of colourism shaped my opinions and views of the entire family. But it was not until two years ago when I met up with my cousin who I grew up with, his mother is my father’s sister. He, like me, was one of the few non-fair persons in the family. He shared a similar feeling of being seen as the other by the rest of the family. I first met him when our white great-grandmother died, it was rumoured she would spit on Black people. I should say the father of her children, our grandfather was a dark-skinned Black man. When it came to my mother, to this day it remains unclear whether or not she was truly accepted. And if she was not, if it was because she was not light enough or if she had children before meeting and marrying my father.
Whenever I was in Sainty (St Elizabeth) it was very normal to hear adults in conversation that XYZ had started bleaching. It was not just dark-skinned people doing it. I recall seeing one of my cousins who had sung at my grandmother’s funeral who was considerably lighter and somewhat pink/red than how she was in the DVD of the funeral (we watched it a lot). Before I started bleaching, I recall one way or another my family letting me know that I was smart, had potential but I should really make an effort in my appearance. To some extent, this was about the fact I was a scruffy child. I did not care about how my hair looked, if my clothes were draped or if my lips were dry. But when my family suggested I make an effort, I soon realised some were advocating for me to start toning (bleaching on the lighter end). I was encouraged to bleach and in their own twisted way, my family thought it would be to my benefit.
Out of my mother’s six children, there are only two of us that are dark-skinned. I will never forget my therapist pointing this out to me and making me think that this may have some impact on my experience of colourism. My family was not very supportive, and they did not understand my experience and considering where we come from and their skin tones, it is no wonder I felt so alone. There was no real support for all the times family and family friends would show so much love, admiration at the beauty that my older and younger siblings held in comparison to my full sister and me who were darker.
If any of my family, immediate or extended read what I wrote, they would scold me for trying to paint them, the community and Jamaica as racists. Yes, they would not even know what it means to be a colourist and for some, they would declare their preference for the lighter skin as perfectly normal and acceptable. I am very fortunate to not have been raised with a colourist grandmother or something of the like. But still, I was raised around people who were not fond of my complexion and who did not positively affirm me as a child. Raised around people who are the despite the result of some distant interracial unions, where the majority of African descent subscribe to a hierarchy of race. And as a result of all of this, I was burned by the flames of colourism in school, but it was the gasoline of intergenerational trauma from intergenerational colourism that kept it going.
The only place which shamed bleaching was my high school, it was not cool, or lady-like and if I am being honest the rhetoric reeked of classist and elitist undertones. To best explain what it was like to be at my school, I imagine myself narrating my own coming of age high school movie where I break down the social hierarchy. At my high school, you were judged and given points based on your race, there were Jamaican who were Black (of African descent), those who were Chinese-Jamaican or Indo-Jamaican. And then there was the complexion of Afro-Jamaicans, the lighter they were, the more you were liked. Nationality also got your points, some people didn’t care about me until they found out I was born in the UK. The social class of one’s parents were important, borders often were from places outside the parish and were born into families with wealth and fame. Two other aspects which gave a girl points were attractiveness and intelligence. At times a girl didn’t have to be wealthy or necessarily light-skinned to be popular, all she needed was to have those features deemed appealing by society and she was good. On intelligence, I went to one of the best schools on the island, nothing could beat you getting respect by constantly topping your form, or more importantly the year group.
At this point, one can probably wonder what is the point of sharing the complexion dynamics of my family and some brief history of colourism in a Jamaican context. Well because it shared the view of myself. I often have to explain the kind of support I have at home while experiencing colourism in school. The answer is simple. I didn’t have any. A friend of mine shared her experience of colourism and expressed she was grateful for her mother being a buffer and reinforcing a positive view of her complexion. Such an experience is foreign to me. I had to rely on myself and a community of Black women I found online (which can be very dangerous). Mohammed cited Rhoda Reddock’s 1999 work who argued that women marrying/forming relations with men ‘superior’ in status to themselves continue to inform the system of marriage and mating in Jamaica. She writes that ‘notions of beauty and the tyranny of colour affect women disproportionately’ as compared to men, but at the same time are central to patriarchal relations, ensuring that men’s position and power is continuously ensured (Reddock, 1999).
Another level of unpacking colourism for me is if I ever have children. Even when I learned to love my skin, I realised I desired a lighter partner not out of self-hate but just so I could try and ensure my child/ren avoid the harm I had. I find it ironic that I am an established activist around colourism who still worries and is left baffled about how to deal with colourism in my family and community.
Mohammed, P. (2000), ‘But most of all mi love me browning’: The Emergence in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Jamaica of the Mulatto Woman as the Desired, Feminist Review. 2000;65(1):22-48. doi:10.1080/014177800406921
Reddock, R. (1999) ‘Ethnicity, Class and Gender in the Anglophone Caribbean: A Conceptual History’, paper presented at the 1st ‘Brown Bag’ Lecture Series, University Women’s Group and Mona Unit, Centre for Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies.
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Jemmar Samuels is an activist, artist and aspiring academic. She currently works as a youth worker and community organiser. She is a freelance writer, public speaker and filmmaker.