Colorism is discriminatory or preferential treatment of same-race people because of skin tone. In this installment of our series, Dr. Amne Osseyran shares her experience with colorism in Bermuda. Dr. Osseyran is a general practitioner and forensic specialist, and an ambitious, light-skinned daughter of a proud, Black family from Bermuda.
I grew up the lightest in a Black family, my mother being a Black woman and my father an Arab man I barely know. My mother instilled Black pride in my sister and me. Each birthday, Christmas holiday, or gift-giving occasion included Black history books from “True Reflections” and reminders of why that knowledge was paramount. We were only ever allowed Black baby dolls, and we were taught via daily mantras, “The Blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” and “Black is beautiful.”
Not Black Enough: “I wanted to be dark like my mommy.“
While colourism generally promotes a view of dark-skinned people as “lesser,” over time, Dr. Osseyran came to feel inferior because of her light skin.
I wanted to be dark like my mommy. I loved learning everything about Blackness and our history; the stories of my uncles who were chastised and segregated entranced me. In primary school, my year six teacher Mrs. Weeks would further cement the pride that my family had already taught, with daily soundbites and social studies lessons on the wonders of our Black people. I remember feeling shame that I was so light, much to nearly everyone’s disbelief. It seemed that others were taught that lighter folks, with longer hair, were superior. That was never my reality. My mother reminded us there was “no such thing as pretty or nice hair” and that we were to always be proud of who we are.
When Dr. Osseyran left Bermuda, where she and her family background were well-known, to attend university, she faced relentless questions about her ethnicity and identity. She wasn’t dark enough to be perceived as Black but wasn’t light enough to be perceived as white. “Yet,” she recalls, “the reality was that the racist people didn’t care much about how Black you were; being Black in any regard was frowned upon.” In 2007, she was conducting HPV research that was groundbreaking in its focus on male carriers. “My research garnered the approval of and accolades by Professor zur Hausen, who discovered HPV, later won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine and visited Bermuda on our invitation to share information on HPV.” It was an unforgettable year.
Not Light Enough: Racism and Colorism in a Professional Setting in Bermuda
I was initially to complete these studies under the supervision of a white consultant pathologist (haematologist) from South Africa, and we were both extremely keen. She had given advice on literature that I was to collect and had reviewed and approved my proposal. The ball was rolling and with great speed, until my mother graced the laboratory to visit me during a lunch break. I proudly introduced her to my supervisor, who was shocked (her eyes could not hide it) when I exclaimed, “This is my mama!” She greeted my mom with as much politeness she could muster but hurried off to what I assumed was a job-related task. Not even 24 hours later, the supervisor wrote to inform me that she had too many tasks to complete and was unable to proceed with supervising my research and dissertation. She was later overheard complaining to another white colleague about the “niggers in this place.” Yet there was no disciplinary action, termination, or formal warning written and placed on her record. This, no doubt, would have marred it.
I was broken by this and angry at myself for not being Black enough for her to know from day one that I was proudly Black. Angry that she was so blatantly upset that my mother was a Black woman! Angry that this mistreatment was not even one iota of the hardships my family often spoke of! Just angry, but simultaneously, so relieved that my mother taught me who I was from day one and relieved that I was and always will be, no matter how light I am, a PROUD Black BERMUDIAN WOMAN!
This kind of discrimination is harsh, cruel, and unfair. But the internal struggle that #EverydayColorism and racism impose on BIPOC as they internalize messages is perhaps even more striking. That they are at once too Black and not Black enough—too light and not light enough. These stories need to be told as we highlight this colonial tool of harm and collectively reject colorism and its oppression of all BIPOC – in Bermuda and across the world.
The #EverydayColorism campaign has shared the diverse experiences of Caribbean people affected by colorism. We thank everyone who contributed to the series. Please keep reading, share your own experiences with and reflections on #EverydayColorism on your social media channels.