“Dem a Bleach”: Colorism in Jamaica
By: Cherisse Lewis
Colorism is a form of discrimination based on skin tone.
Classism is often intertwined with the implications of colorism. The Jamaican Constitution broadly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, stating that freedoms of individuals are granted regardless of “race, place of origin, political opinions, color, creed or sex.”
However, race and skin color have shaped the relationship of power, status, and identity on the island of Jamaica from its colonial era and continue to do so in the present day. The 2011 Jamaican census recorded that the population was 92 per cent persons of African descent, six per cent mixed race, and the remainder a plethora of minority ethnic groups.
Growing up, I personally even perceived Jamaica to be a racially mixed society with people accepting of all colors and creeds. To many, it may seem unfathomable that a diverse country that portrays a welcoming vibe of others and shares a vibrant culture could hide such a dark presence of self-hate and overt colorism.
During the era of decolonisation, dark-skinned Jamaicans were still the least likely to be hired or promoted in particular fields. To get a well-paid job in Jamaica, it generally required a good education and a social network.
Even long after independence, it was common for students in these schools to sit next to those of a similar ‘shade’ and for teachers to have higher expectations of light- than dark-skinned children. There have been several reports of “colorism” where lighter skinned persons were favored in areas such as employment.
Reports stated that significant advantages premised on race, skin color and class persisted. The Jamaican government does not have policies that regulate the use of race and/or skin color in hiring practices. I have spoken to my own relatives who recall being unable to apply to certain public-facing jobs such as being a bank teller, simply because of the darkness of their skin.
It has been a longstanding issue facing the citizens on the island for decades. For example, it was not until the 1950s before Barclays and other banks hired the first African Jamaicans but it took until the 1970s before African-Jamaican staff managed to reach the most senior levels in banks.
But schools were not the only place where children learned about race, the family home was another important site of racial formation. Only in retrospect, I now realize that my family members have expressed colorist phrases to me and around me.
They chalk it up to those beliefs being a part of the culture or just being said in jest, however it can have a lasting effect on a person. As a result, this form of prejudice encourages harmful practices such as skin bleaching.
Due to colorism, hair straightening and skin bleaching have become common practice on the island. According to a Jamaican government survey from 2017, about 300,000 people in the country of 2.8 million bleach their skin. Such prejudice has its origins in slavery, when slave children fathered by white planters or overseers – often as a result of sexual violence – were given special privileges. Often, lower-class dark-skinned Jamaicans struggled more than others to exercise their civil and political rights.
They were disproportionately disenfranchised and were also more likely than middle-class and predominantly light-skinned Jamaicans to be convicted of a crime and given a harsher sentence. It is no shock that people would then take drastic measures to make their skin lighter.
It is imperative that the local government address the systemic issues of color hierarchies that limit Jamaicans with access to jobs, education, and other positive opportunities. The very absence of such anti-colorism policies may signify that such practices are not institutional. Thus, Jamaicans may tend to point to class as the more salient explanation for poverty or inequality.
Many citizens targeted by colorism will have long-lasting effects of low self-esteem or worth, self-hating practices and mental health difficulties. Not only does it infringe on people’s alienable rights to gain an education or work freely, but it also creates an indelible stain on the beauty and diversity of the country. Colorism was a symptom of Jamaica’s colonial past and was hereditary; if this issue were to be addressed now, it would be able to be solved in the future.
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