Black. Blackness. Colour. Coloured people. Shades. Skin.
What does it mean to be black in the Western World, particularly in Jamaica and North America? It is necessary to make a distinction between what the word colour means in Jamaica and America when it refers to race. In Jamaica [and by historical, socio-cultural, extension other Caribbean territories] to say someone “has colour” means you are not dark skinned. In the alternative if you “have colour” as it is phrased, you are “brown” which is light-skinned. In North America if you are said to be a person of colour or a coloured person it means you are a black person regardless of the shade of your skin, that is, dark or light skinned. A person with jet-dark shinning Sudanese skin or lighter chocolate vanilla tones- is deemed black in America. What does this mean in reality? Alicia Keys, American pop artist is considered black in American society but in Jamaica, she is a "brown woman" because the colour of her skin is not as dark as Oprah Winfrey or Woopie Goldberg. The son of Bob Marley, Jnr Gong is recognized as a “brown man” in Jamaica but in America he is black.
In America brown is black. Brown equals colour which equals black. Simple racial math. However, in Jamaica brown is greater than black which equals stratification and privilege.
The Plantation Society
For most of the plantation era in Jamaica, society was stratified by race and colour. The Caucasian plantation owners reigned at the apex of economic and social life because they were white. Being white meant they owned the factors of production. A purebred white person in Jamaica was wealthy. Their souls were darkened by evil and inhumanity, but the glow of their white skin made them appear inherently superior, naturally supreme. When the Europeans landed in Jamaica in 1494 the native Taino Indians thought they were gods because of their ships, clothing and skin. Below the whites were the mulattoes who were the offspring of white planters who in many cases raped black enslaved women; also known as the “browns”. The pre-Emancipation browns were the air hostesses, bank tellers, receptionists, and beauty queens of the 20th century. Below the browns were the black field slaves.
This plantation system of racial and colour based stratification has remained in Jamaica. British planters implanted colour-based division deep into the fabric of Jamaican identity. It went so deep that almost two hundred years after slavery was abolished the skeleton of the plantation society still haunts us. Browns could not elevate themselves to white privilege, but they could assert their dominance over the blacks. The browns were house slaves; the blacks were field slaves. The browns were artisans; the blacks were labourers. The browns had a chance to receive an education; the blacks had little to no path to literacy.
In the primary education sector in Jamaica, brown girls and boys are shown preferential treatment by teachers. It shows in the level of acknowledgement, engagement and embrace distributed around the racial colour wheel. The presence of colourism in primary education has decreased with every decade since Independence from colonial rule since 1962. Thankfully in 2020 it is not dominant and as obvious as it was then but to avoid acknowledging that it exists in the classroom is to render an incomplete understanding of educational outcomes in primary education in Jamaica. It is not submitted that it is a determining factor but it has contributed to outcomes in literacy and high school matriculation.
In America, a child of colour is prejudiced in the education system regardless of their skin-tone. It is not of advantage to be brown, as it would be in Jamaica. There is little to no incongruence between dark-skinned and light-skinned treatment. Both skins are racially prejudiced by school zoning rules, under-resourced schools in black communities and other systemic militants.
Indentured Servants and Commerce
The emancipation of our enslaved ancestors drove British capitalists to seek labour from China, India, Syria, Lebanon and Germans. Late 19th century indentureship increased the ethnic diversity of types of light-skin. They were immediately placed above dark skinned Jamaican ex-slaves and mulattoes because they had entered a society stratified by colour. No comment made in this article is aimed at shaming Jamaica’s diversity but I have been baffled by some observations. In Metropolitan Kingston, 4 out of every 5 registered business is operated by people of Asian, Middle Eastern or Hispanic descent. This is not an official statistic, but you can verify it by walking down Orange Street, King Street or Church Street where there are dozens of wholesales, haberdasheries, small, medium and large stores. Walk into the store and ask for the owner or just look for a Chinese man hoisted on a highchair watching his Jamaican employees. Frankly, it is alarming to see how few establishments are owned by dark skin people. On the other hand, on the same streets 4 out of every 5 street side vendor or higgler is dark skinned. The current cohort of business owners are a mixture of modern migrants and the descendants of 19th century indentured servants who are still where they are when they first arrived-above the blacks and the browns.
To ignore that there is a relationship between a person’s skin colour in Jamaica and their life chances is an act of willful blindness. I am tempted to call it a causal relationship but that would suggest inevitability and an outcome that is natural. A fraction of this is true but it is a truth to be stamped out of Jamaican society. There should be no causal link between a human being’s skin and their quality of life. 21st century Jamaica is meritocratic, but this fought for meritocracy feels almost artificial. The welded metal barriers and chains that divided plantation society have been replaced by glass ceilings. Mulattoes and blacks can enjoy upward mobility in a space that has been expanded but there is still a transparent ceiling that allows them to look over at the high-skinned minority. It’s a new kind of barrier that is more tolerant to modern thinking that doesn’t accept lashes and lynching but still serves its purpose to divide and limit.
Listen to the struggle of black-owned business operators in America. The tone of their skin is of no moment to the marginalization of black business and discrimination by the formal financial sector. The weight of the struggle of being a black business owner is not coloured by skin tone. Having any colour at all sets them at a disadvantage to compete successfully in a market where Caucasian men and women owned their now black competitors up until 1865.
The discrimination in North America is far more wholesale. Colourism exists but brown Jamaicans of the lightest skin tones will tell you that when they ascend to the North Americas they descend into racism. One ounce of melanin means you are black and you have forfeited the pleasures of Caribbean colourism. Colourism has faded in the minds of Jamaican people the fact that people of colour belong to the same race but when we go to America, we are properly reminded.