The Caribbean is known for its pristine beaches, vibrant music, and warm, friendly people. Yet though the region is an oasis for many, deeply ingrained within its culture is the painful burden of colorism. The term “colorism” was coined in 1982 by Pulitzer-Prize winner Alice Walker to describe the “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color”. Some suggest that colorism is a result of our colonial past – a tool used to divide Caribbean people. Regardless of its origin, colorism is a serious, widespread social problem that threatens the wellbeing of Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in the Caribbean and globally.
L from the Bahamas recalls how colorism seeped into her consciousness as a young child, leaving a lasting impact.
My experience with colorism began as a child, before I knew the meaning of the word or understood the concept. I would often hear my grandmother call other kids “dark”, “black like tar,” and “dirty”. In my mind, dark skinned became synonymous with dirty, something I didn’t want to be. As such, my daily routine included scrubbing my face, arms and legs, sometimes until the skin came off, just to get that light “clean” look.
My cousins, who were a darker shade than I, were treated differently. They were called last for dinner and often denied candy and treats. What’s worse is that they knew they were left out because they weren’t “pretty.” I had other cousins who were of a lighter hue than I was, and they were treated as royalty when they came to visit my grandmother’s house. They got the best food, and ate out of the “good” dishware. In her eyes, they were special and could do no wrong.
Colourism takes many forms, from backhanded comments like, “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” or, “You would be prettier if you straightened your hair,” to workplace biases that affect hiring decisions and microaggressions that wear employees down over time.
For many, colorism fosters internalized self-hatred and feelings of inadequacy.
Some people seek light-skinned partners to fulfill a wish for children with light skin and “good hair”. Others bleach their skin in an attempt to adhere to colorism’s impossible standards. L remembers:
My mother would drop caps of bleach in my little sister’s bath water, because she was born too dark and needed to lighten up. My little brother and I would get the same skin treatment if we stayed out in the sun too long and got a tan. This was normal to me as a child. It was a common practice among my friends, our parents, our grandparents, and our neighbors.
Only as I got older did I realize the destructive nature of putting undiluted bleach on the skin and understand the magnitude of the mental anguish of being called black and dirty. My cousins now joke about their experiences, but I can only imagine the deep-rooted hurt. They have all used some form of bleaching cream on their skin since, to maintain a lighter skin color. I tried bleaching creams as well, before I truly understood what I was doing to my skin.
During the following months, we will highlight the lived experiences of Caribbean people like L who have been affected by colorism with the #EverydayColorism campaign.
We hope that this difficult but necessary storytelling will heighten awareness of this issue. We want to encourage people to examine their own beliefs, unlearn their biases, and embrace the beauty of BIPOC. The people who will bravely share their stories in this series in the coming weeks shed light on the pervasive nature of colorism and highlight the urgency with which we must work to dismantle colorism. Like L, they blaze a trail forward.
Now I embrace my skin shade and that of others, whatever the hue. I appreciate my highlights and don’t try to scrub them off if I’m caught in the sun too long. I am more aware of proper skin-care routines including the use of sunscreen. I have a child of my own whom I teach to embrace all of her melanin skin, to love it and to take care of it and appreciate that each person is unique. Black is no longer a bad word. It is synonymous with beauty, purity, and magic!
Campaign Authors: Elizabeth Futrell and Kizanne James
I want to write a special thank you to the persons who have shared their stories for this series, I know it was not an easy thing to do. Also thank you to Elysse Marcillin, Elizabeth Futrell, and Charlie-Ann St Cyr for their creative input.