The Black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness. ~ Marcus Garvey
Light-skinned. Dark-skinned. However you want to refer to us, one thing remains true: We’re Black! And our skin tone? Well, only the Black community cares about that, because to every other ethnicity/race, we’re still… (you guessed it): BLACK!
Emancipation Day was celebrated on August 1 in most of the Caribbean isles, and although the
physical chains became undone for most of us, there are still other chains we have to work on: Hair Texture/”Quality;” Shadeism/Colourism; The Negro Complex; and of course, how we treat the women in our community.
Since our Emancipation from slavery, we’ve been subjected to a number of atrocities. Black men were redlined throughout history, leading many of them to later develop what was called, “The Negro Complex;” (but that will be discussed in another post), and Black women were made to feel inferior in both our appearance and intellect and are often compared to our White counterparts. In effect, we were prescribed a standard for how we should look, dress, act, and be. This, in addition to our expectations when it comes on to being in a relationship with the Black man.
Less than half a century after the Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S., Madame C.J. Walker “invented” a hair-straightening system that was the rage. It would straighten out that “nappy” hair at the expense of discomfort and burning of the scalp. And while she stated that her products were not created to emulate whiteness, it was apparent to some members of the Black community that this was indeed an attempt at removing as much of the Blackness from one’s identity as is possible.
Then, society took it a step further by denouncing our Blackness through our hair. Black hairstyles like cornrows and Afro puffs were considered “unprofessional,” and one’s intellectual capability is forgotten as the application process ended with one look at one’s hair. Even in predominantly Black societies, like Jamaica, for example, one is heavily critiqued for wearing dreads, and other “Black” hairstyles. I recall wearing cornrows to work once, and a co-worker came to ask if I needed someone to comb my hair, while offering her services. For the sake of my students who were seated in my class, I respectfully declined her asinine offer, while looking at her flowing weave under her receding hairline and her newly bleached skin.
Further, cornrows didn’t become ”chic” until some famous, white female, who has made no significant contribution to her own people or ours, started wearing them. It became obvious that our Blackness is only appreciated when it is modeled by women with European features. Emancipation, indeed, as our culture is suddenly rescued by people who have never been exposed to social oppression.
Shadeism/Colourism: the Bleaching Epidemic
The other large topic is that of colourism/shadeism. Being black with kinky hair has become such a travesty for our women, that we invest thousands of dollars per year on straightening our hair, through weaves or relaxer systems. But why stop there? Why not interrupt the natural pigmentation of our beautiful skin (which has the ability to absorb sunlight to an extensive degree without resulting in skin issues) by bleaching? As a Jamaican, I am saddened by how many people – male and female – think that this is a ticket out of poverty. The women assume that they can get better jobs and it heightens their chances of finding a wealthy partner, while the men use it as a method of attraction (for whom, I don’t know…).
At the same time, people who are darker skinned are shamed, by being referred to as “Black gyal” or “Likkle ugly black bwoy!” as the word “black” is often associated with being ugly. And while those uptown (wealthy) bleachers refer to their process as “toning,” the result is the same: skin-lightening. The funny thing is, in lightening the skin, it doesn’t erase one’s blackness. Ya still Black underneath all the chemicals that you have exposed your skin to, and you become a spectacle as it becomes apparent sooner or later that you did, in fact, bleach. Further, if you should move to another country, ya still… (YUP!): BLACK!!
Additionally, bleaching the skin highlights rejecting one’s own identity while embracing the identity of our colonial oppressors. We were basically conditioned to see ourselves as “less than” and therefore view “whiteness” or – in the case of bleaching – “lightness” as superior. Unfortunately, for us as a people, we have not moved away from the idea that we were considered “less than,” because bleaching is a direct perpetuation of that same inferiority complex that makes us feel the need to alter our appearance. The idea here is not to see ourselves as “better” than another race/ethnicity, but to recognize that we, too, have a place in society; we, too, are worthy of recognition, and; we, too, are valuable members of modern society in our own skin.
Jamaican society and the Black woman
The Black man in Jamaican society is always hailed as the breadwinner, the man of men, the King of the home, if you will. Regardless of the woman’s status (high level of education or economic status), she receives little respect and/or recognition from the Black man. The Black man is celebrated for his ability to sleep around while maintaining his status as husband/partner for a particular woman. The relationship is often beneficial to the black man, as he has a secure home along with the additional partners he has on the street.
The rationalization of this is that it is attributed to the attitudes developed during slavery, where one man – a bull – was paired with several women for breeding purposes. This is said to have trickled down into modern society where the Black man is innately drawn to multiple partners, even when he has a partner who deems the relationship to be “exclusive.” If this is the case, have we truly received emancipation?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that “Emancipation” means, “to free from any controlling influence.” It becomes clear, then, that our Black men are still in bondage, and the women continue to suffer along with them.
We celebrate our physical Emancipation from the powers that be, but as a group of people, we have not invested enough into ourselves and our well-being to truly achieve that “freedom” of which we speak. In general, our men have neglected to work collectively to liberate themselves from the system, and the women who have stuck with them throughout the struggles continue to feel the brunt of the men’s apathy towards their own freedom.
Being a Black Woman in North America
My perspective of being a Black woman is grounded in my experience as a Jamaican. I have lived in three other countries, and worked in two of the three. I have never felt truly accepted as a part of either of the North American societies that I had the privilege of living in. While one country exudes overt racism, and this is appreciated (I’ll explain why); the other country has the more hush-hush, covert form of said racism.
While living in a rural Florida community, I would have the one-off experience of people telling me they didn’t know Jamaicans were so smart, or that we spoke “such good English.” This is often expressed in very badly worded English on their part as well, which leaves me to question their level of intelligence, or whether these individuals have ever been exposed to our good friends over at Google. You see the motive to belittle your intelligence as a Black woman from the Caribbean; you understand where it is all going; and you deal with it (however you choose). Easy. Thankfully, I’ve never had to deal with the extremists or White supremacists; and I hope I never have to.
Then I moved to Canada.
Endless opportunities exist here. The overly-friendly nature of most of the people I’ve met throughout the years keeps one feeling safe. But then, overtime, you’ll notice unwarranted questions about your hair texture (and the awkward reminder that your hair is thick), or random people recognizing your accent and immediately launching into awkward convos about the many places they’ve visited in your home country. I recall someone reminding me that Jamaicans are usually dark people, and asked me pointedly if I was mixed or had other people in my lineage. While I do, I had to remind the individual that Jamaica is, in fact, a melting pot. We are a conglomeration of different races/ethnicities and we are proud of that.
But then I remembered that we do make it burdensome to be Black in Jamaica. The light-skinned women were preferred as bankers, and most advertisements for the face of a company, such as a bar, massage parlor, or hotel, specifically requested that only “brown-skinned” women need apply. Often, you’d find the darker women working in housekeeping and completing janitorial duties. Which then adds fuel to the unnecessary fire of bleaching. White/Light-skinned, straight-haired women fared better economically and in finding a mate, than those who were darker-complexioned, especially if they maintained their natural hair.
Emancipation is an all-encompassing concept that covers the idea of “freedom.” The unfortunate thing is that people tend to associate freedom with bars, chains, and bondage, without recognizing that one’s mental state plays a strong role in the level of freedom one has attained. We have a long way to go, my fellow Jamaicans. And no amount of politics, bleaching cream, or weaves can bring about that change; it has to start with how you see yourself as a Black person in modern society, and how you treat others who look just like you!
Jodi-Ann is a Master of Arts in Geography graduate who enjoys helping international students, and represents her native island, Jamaica, at every opportunity. An educator at heart, she enjoys taking each opportunity to offer advice and answer questions about school, life and work. If you want to get to know her, walk with your pet cat, one of Jodi’s published books, and chocolate – the good kind!