The #EverydayColorism campaign shares 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 continuums of gender, age, socioeconomic status—and skin tone. Light-skinned people are not immune to colorism. In fact, their experiences highlight the ambiguity and arbitrariness of colorism. One day they might be given preferential treatment because of their light skin, and the next, they or their darker-skinned loved ones experience discrimination because they are, after all, still Black—at least in someone’s eyes. 

Colorism and privilege for light-skinned people

Comedian and writer Lisa Allen-Agostini from Trinidad and Tobago, author of Home Home, Swallowing the Sky, and The Chalice Project, relates.

I’m a light-skinned woman of mixed heritage (African, Indian, Indigenous Trinidadian, Middle Eastern, and European), but I identify as Black. My husband is a dark-skinned man of African heritage.

Several years ago, we went to a store in Port of Spain, and the cashier asked me if my husband was my ‘security’ (bodyguard). She was anxious that he was in the store among other paying customers.

More recently, her husband arrived to meet her at an event, and the ushers in the lobby phoned her to verify that he was her husband before letting him in.

As a light-skinned Black woman, I have the burden of ‘redness,’ which carries often-untrue assumptions about class alliances and income status. Red women in Trinidad are also perceived as hyper-sexual and faithless.

Allen-Agostini emphasizes that, while unsettling, the indignities she suffers are minor compared to those that others experience.

Red people have privilege. My husband is the one who actually lives with the outrageous racism all the time.

The privilege of walking in the “middle world”

Photo credit: Dionysia Browne

Arts educator Arielle John of Trinidad and Tobago, who curates the Pro-Cure series, concurs.

I have a complicated ancestry. Known to me, I carry African, Chinese, Indigenous, and Indian origins. In the Caribbean, I am the makings of billboard advertisements. In Europe, I am ‘the exotic island girl.’ And in South Africa, I am what they call a ‘designer baby.’

Because I walk this middle world, I am too aware of how I have had access to spaces, opportunities, and networks that other women darker than me have not had.

In fact, her grandmother discouraged her children and grandchildren from exploring their African heritage and forbade romantic relationships with Black partners, at least under her roof.

Arielle, while acknowledging her own privilege, laments the implication “that people who look like my father and his 12 brothers stand as lesser representations of beauty, value, and importance in the Caribbean future he was hoping for.”

Internalizing Colorism as a Light Skinned Woman

Photo Credit: Caribbean Regional Youth Council

Katrina McIntosh, a development specialist in Trinidad and Tobago who founded and directs a non-governmental organization, speaks of her initial ignorance of colorism.

Growing up I didn’t know the term colorism. I didn’t know that there was a social ill impacting my life. What I knew was that I could count on one hand the number of students in my prestige class that looked like me.

She remembers a boy calling her a bat. Later, he would declare that the fairest-skinned red girls with the coloured eyes were the ideal type of woman. She began to question the value and meaning of her caramel skin.

When a boyfriend broke up with her because his Indian parents would not accept her.

It changed something in me. I started feeling like it was necessary for me to speak better, act better, do better to be accepted. My hair would be broken with the numerous chemicals, but at least it was straight. Somehow, though, those nappy roots quickly reared themselves each time reminding me of my ancestry.

It took a long time for me to love myself.

It also took some time for me to recognize my own privilege. I had to accept that in society’s eyes caramel and molasses would never be equal. I had to accept that my own outlook of what a partner should look like was skewed.

Why did I automatically shut down the dark guys who pursued me, instantly passing them off as ugly? And not fight and speak out when my friends would look at them with apprehension and disdain? Why did I give into this belief that to be accepted, I needed to become a palatable hue?

I had to teach myself that Black was beautiful, because I didn’t have anyone teaching it to me. I also couldn’t show poverty or that I lacked education. And I definitely couldn’t be like my white and Indian friends with their teenage angst. I had to do better.

Colourism has clouded who I am, and it has taken a great deal of purposeful unpacking to come to a place of acceptance. I worry, though, for my children. How can I ensure that they don’t operate from a place of internalized self-hate? How can I ensure that this self-hate is never imposed on them?

Katrina does not have all of the answers but hopes that breaking down her own internalized colorism will help her be a better Black mother to Black children. What does she want to teach them? 

You are enough exactly as who you are. By hopefully removing all of the unrealistic expectations imposed on myself and my fellow Black bloodline community, I hope I can reach a place where colorism only exists in history.

The importance of speaking out

As these reflections from Lisa, Arielle, and Katrina make clear, it is not those who experience discrimination and harm because of colorism who must speak out. It is just as vital for light-skinned people who might benefit from the preferential treatment that accompanies colorism to raise their voices and sound the alarm. Because, ultimately, even those who appear to benefit from this societal bias are, in fact, worse off because of it.

Those who 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 contributed to this series. We urge you to keep reading and to share your own experiences with and reflections on #EverydayColorism on your social media channels.

The Conversation

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