The #EverydayColorism campaign is sharing the lived experiences of Caribbean people affected by colorism – discriminatory or preferential treatment of same-race people because of skin tone. Colorism pervades the region, affecting Caribbean people across the spectrums of gender, age, and socioeconomic status. Even highly educated people with esteemed careers struggle to overcome society’s harmful responses to their dark skin. 

Jodi is a physician in Jamaica. She sees a direct line between the colonization of Caribbean countries by white settlers and the colorism that pervades the region today.

Just as interpersonal racism is a symptom of institutional racism, Jodi notes, when colourism shows up in small social interactions, it signals harmful, widespread social standards. From an early age, Jodi was surrounded by messages that people with dark skin had less value. “I suppose I qualify as a dark-skinned person,” she reflects. “I live in an affluent area of my country, Jacks Hill. Once, when a contract worker caused damage to the intercom at our house, he presumed that we were renters and didn’t own our property. My mom (who is the breadwinner) was relatively unruffled by it, but it deeply annoyed me.” 

Jane, a physician in Trinidad and Tobago, shares similar memories.

“I was discriminated against in primary school because of my natural hair. The principal made me stand outside her office until I ‘fixed it'”.

Only years later when she felt a tinge of satisfaction upon hearing that the principal had fallen ill did she realize how angry she still was about that incident.

Later in her academic career, she remembers dining at a pizzeria with friends. She was treated poorly by the staff until they learned that she was studying to be a doctor.

“To have my value and worth only justified by profession because I was Black was a shitty feeling. I may have allowed that to become a psychological trauma had it not been for a strong Black woman mentoring me and coaching me through that difficult time”.

Jane had a realization. Neither her profession nor her skin color represent her full identity or add up to her full value as a human being. “I bring value because God designed only one of me,” she affirms. 

Scholar and sexologist Onika Henry, also from Trinidad and Tobago, works hard to instill that same understanding in her son.

Onika Henry. Photo credit: Lyndon Lashley.

“As a child about three or four years old, he wanted to bleach his skin and straighten his hair,” she recounts. At first, she shrugged off his requests, “Until one day he cried and begged. He grew up in a household of dark people so I was confused about where that was coming from”.

Onika learned that one of his classmates, who also had dark skin, was teasing him. This little girl was hearing messages at home about being “Black and ugly” and “Black and stupid,” and then passing them on to her young peers. Onika recalls,

“My son explained to me that the only thing Black people could do was play sports and sing and dance, and he couldn’t do those things, and he wasn’t interested in sports. In his mind, he was therefore doomed to failure because he wasn’t allowed to do anything else. Those were the images he took, and he rarely saw Black people doing the things he was interested in.”

Heartbroken, Onika took her son to therapy, where they learned to do daily exercises in front of the mirror to help him embrace his Blackness.

“We worked with his teacher on projects for the whole class on Black history, Black inventors, Black pioneers. It was really hard. I never thought it possible for a child that age to internalise racism and colorism so deeply that he couldn’t accept himself. He was traumatised by being in his own skin and culture. I bought books and posters with various people of colour so that he was able to see what he couldn’t see in the media and the world around him.”

One wonders how children who are affected by colorism without the support of mothers like Onika fare. 

Anais Hotye, a radiographer and researcher in Trinidad and Tobago, sheds some light on colorism in the Caribbean.

Anais Hoyte.

“I am a Black Venezuelan-born woman, with a mixed heritage (African, Caribbean, Indian, and European)”. Raised in Trinidad from the age of two on, Anais quickly learned that,

“light-skinned girls with naturally curly or straight hair were always favoured and were considered more beautiful and intelligent than dark-skinned girls with African hair”.

Her sister, lighter-skinned with naturally curly hair, received preferential treatment over her. “I had to work twice as hard to receive recognition for achievements, even from my family”. At her secondary-school graduation, Anais received an award for being the school’s top typing student. She was the only dark-skinned African female to receive academic recognition that day. As she walked off stage, a light-skinned girl with straight hair asked why she got that award, implying that it was undeserved. “I gracefully replied ‘I earned it’. Being the only dark-skinned African girl to be recognized finally debunked the myth that I am inferior.”

For every courageous person, like Jodi, Jane, Onika, and Anais, who speak out about the ways that colorism has affected them and their loved ones, there are far more who have not yet raised their voices.

Many likely keep their stories private in fear of the personal, professional, social, and economic repercussions of speaking out. Others might simply prefer to move on without ever revisiting those painful moments again. These are sensible, understandable responses to stressful and traumatic events. Yet those who can share their stories shed light on the inhumanity and the toll of #EverydayColorism on generations of Caribbean peoples. We extend our deepest gratitude to those who have contributed to this series.

Author: Elizabeth Futrell
Campaign Director: Kizanne James

The Conversation

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