Colonialism, Beauty Pageants, Colorism, and Skin Bleaching

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This post is going to make a lot of Jamaicans angry if they read it but this is my blog, my thoughts, and my rules so if you have an aversion to hearing an opinion different from your own please stop reading now…Well so on to the real message of my post. We are currently in the midst of the 2015 Miss Universe competition where women deemed the most beautiful, talented, and smart from countries around the glob compete to see who will be the reigning Miss Universe for the year. (Let us not get into the politics of parading women around to be judged that though they try to dress it up still hearkens to the age when beauty was all that made a good woman). I am here to discuss the beauty aspect but in a very particular case, beauty as it relates to my birthplace and homeland of Jamaica. So this year our Miss Jamaica Universe is the stunningly beautiful Kaci Fennell who won in December. The girl is just undeniably gorgeous yet this post is not about Kaci as I feel that when people attempt to critique what I am about to it is interpreted as an attack on the winner. This is not an attack on Kaci or any previous winner. This is an attack on the system that is in place that stems from slavery and colonialism in Jamaica.

Now Jamaica is truly a paradox when it comes to race. On one hand you have people claiming that race does not exist in Jamaica but that everyone is Jamaican (Though let’s not forget that racial terms are used to distinguish people such “black (wo)man” coolie[sic], Chiney (wo)man [sic], etc.) then you have the Pan-Africanist ideals championed by the country’s first national hero Marcus Garvey that inspire many which advocate that blackness is not something to be despised (See image above). Jamaica in my opinion is somewhere in between Haiti and the Dominican Republic in terms of race, one side prides itself on its blackness since the vast majority of the population is black while the other side prides itself on the mestizaje or mixedness of the country always clamoring to the country’s motto “Out of many, one people”. Both of these sides are true and that’s what makes Jamaica so amazing in my opinion. The problem comes when one side outweighs the other which has always been the case following colonialism which set in place a particular racial caste on the island with the arrival of immigrants from China, East Asia, the Middle East, etc. See just like everywhere touched by the ugliness of slavery and colonialism, skin color determined your ranking in a society more than your intellect or character. We see these attitudes codified in the Spanish colonies with the casta system that determined what racial mixtures created what person in society. Though different names would exist for different categories depending on the country the casta always had whiteness as the highest thing to strive for while blackness was always at the bottom to be despised. (I saw this personally during my time in DR when my dark skin made a cashier put the change on the counter instead of my hands although she had placed the change in the hands of the light skinned Dominican woman that was in front of me earlier). Now the English colonies did not have such a restrictive system codified but the racial hierarchy was there with it being understood that whiteness was desired, blackness abhorred, and mulattos[sic] trapped in the middle. The middle category presented several challenges as they were never really here nor there, blacks felt that the mulattos felt they were better (which is understandable considering how whiteness was to be desired) and the whites never really accepted the mixed people because of their blackness which they believed made them lesser beings. Fast forward to 1962 when Jamaica received its independence this racial caste had been in place for the island’s entire history and continues to define how race  operates in Jamaica.

Despite the large immigrant populations that called Jamaica home, 76.3% of the population is firmly rooted as descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the island. Yet people are upset at beauty pageants in Jamaica because at least recently it appears as if all the winners have been light skinned women. Just to provide context, out of the last 11 Miss Jamaica Universe winners for the last 11 years, 7 of them in my opinion can be classified as lighter skinned. Now again this is not any fault of the women who are beautiful but this is a systemic problem that is not only restricted to Jamaica but anywhere that has endured the ugliness of institutions such as slavery, colonialism, and segregation. I just finished watching the OWN documentary Light Girls which is in response to the 2013 critically acalaimed Dark Girls and it is very eye opening to how far colorism affects the black community as a whole. Iyanla Vanzant starts the documentary by explaining the cellar memory that people of color have in regards to assigning value/worth to skin color (this included anglicized features). I strongly recommend the piece because not only it explains how colorism traumatizes lighter skinned women sometimes because of bullying from darker skinned individuals who are operating off off self hate but the film also highlights to what lengths people fetishize light skinnedness in black communities. Light skin is so idolized that we have seen in many communities an explosion of skin bleaching in efforts to achieve this ideal sense of beauty. Jamaica is one of the countries where this is so rampant that people have convinced themselves that it is a style thing and not a form of self-hatred. Yet many who bleach attempt to make the process sound nicer by using words such as “toning” instead of bleaching. What is crucial for this discussion is that bleaching in Jamaica is mainly practiced by people of lower economic standing who tend to be darker skinned. In a linked video from the TVJ All Angles 2013 report you get to see supporters of bleaching explain why they do it and how they do not interpret it as a rejection of their blackness yet at the same time they say that they do it to “look nice” or to increase their relationship prospects. Due to colonialism, a good majority of the mixed lighter population live in what is classically referred to as uptown where the middle to upper class residents of Kingston stay meanwhile the poorer and the majority of the time darker skinned people live closer to the downtown area. The desire for a “browning” or lighter skinned woman is commonly referred to in songs and as noted in the Light Girls documentary lighter skinned women become a trophy for men.

Now I say all of that to say that beauty pageants do play a role in constructing a national symbol of beauty. In a white supremacist world, even in the 21st century many are still clamoring for the white ideal and when that is not attainable the next best light skinned thing is chosen over blackness. In Latin American countries you have families who constantly want their children to mejorar la raza(improve the race) by marrying lighter skinned or if they a lucky white people. Jamaica does present an interesting case because yes there is a significant mixed population but why have the majority of the recent Miss Jamaica Universe winners been light skinned? Someone stated on a status that it is because that a majority of the contestants need money to enter which is only available to the descendants of a group of people who have historically had access to better opportunities because they were not black. But I looked at the other contestants who competed this year and that was not true because there were many shades of brown represented alongside the eventual winner Kaci. So what really is the problem? Am I just applying my America framework of race to a country that prides itself on nationality instead of racial differences? Well of course I am viewing the situation in Jamaica through my understanding of race but that is important for this discussion as it forces individuals to see things in ways they never saw them before. What does the little 10 year old dark skinned girl living in downtown Kingston with her coarse natural hair think of herself when for her entire life the majority of the national beauty pageants winners have been lighter skinned? And this is not just an issue for women but for men as well. The Light Girls documentary touched on it briefly but more personally I know that I have faced the issues of colorism internally as well. I remember telling my mother to my regret when I was younger that I wanted to marry an Indian girl so that my children would have “nice good hair”[sic]. I remember a really long time ago watching the Bill Nye The Science Guy  after school that a majority of the kids were white and they sometimes had a black character. I concluded that in order for me to get on TV one day I had to be white. l don’t know where I picked up these ideas because my parents were always proud of their blackness and champions of Garvey’s ideals (explains why I am so radical now) but it does show the power of media in constructing images of self in our society. Yet this is something many of us will always struggle with. More recently, someone commented on how I am darker than when I was younger and I had to catch myself as I was getting sucked into that trap of looking in the mirror and obsessing over what happened to my “nice light skin”. That scared me considering how radical and pro-black I have become yet it is telling of how colorism is so real and as Iyanla states in the documentary ingrained in our cellular being where these things just manifest without us really knowing why.

I want to end by saying I love my homeland of Jamaica very much even if I was raised in the US but this is problem not just restricted to the beauty pageants but with the country whose racial foundation has allowed for these perceptions to exist unchallenged. Yes “Out of Many, One People” is great and true but sometimes Jamaicans use it similarly to Latin Americans to stress a type of racial democracy/mestizaje rhetoric concerning the face of the country. Other times you have people attempting to access whiteness by explaining the black away by packing in their description of self with reference to very distant ancestors who were only a limited percentage *insert ethnic/racial group not black* (this happens with African Americans too, the whole “My great grandmother was a Cherokee Princess” is a common joke). Yes we can all embrace our beautiful heritages that make us who we are yet we have to understand if we are doing it for good or jut to hide from the stigmas associated with blackness. Now I know people will criticize me because I am using the “One drop rule” to some extent with defining blackness but I view blackness as not just racial but political. By claiming blackness, one is rejecting the notions of a white supremacist society that deems blackness as all things negative irregardless of their race/ethnic background. I am hopeful though that things will begin to change as we move forward as young black girls can look up at people like Lupita Nyong’o even when the trend has passed for the fashion industry and Hollywood. People can look at Viola Davis slay as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder and say I want to be like her because I can identify with her “Classic Beauty” even when they don’t see too many Viola’s on billboards.

Skin Bleaching Special Mention in Post:

Suggested Companion Viewings:

Dark Girls (2013)

Light Girls (2015)

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