Monday, January 12, 2009

Lighter better for many Jamaicans

I caught a piece of Island Stylee on Black Entertainment Television Jazz recently. If you have flown Air Jamaica you may have seen the travel and entertainment video produced by the airline. I have seen a few hosts on the show over the years, most often former Miss Jamaica Rachel Stuart. The host of the episode I saw on BETJazz was new to me, but had a familiar characteristic. She was light-skinned, as was every other host I had ever seen on the show.

A few days prior to my seeing the show, a friend sent me a clip originally shown on Current TV, addressing the concern of skin bleaching in Jamaica. It occured to me that the unhealthy practice and the selection of hosts for the show could very well be fruit of the same ugly tree.

While Jamaica did not have the racial struggles African-Americans did, the island has had, since its independence, distinct color lines that ran across social and economic standing. Things are less discriminatory today than the days when office and bank jobs were reserved for light-skinned Jamaicans. Today the discrimination is largely social and self-inflicted.

In 1992, popular dancehall dj Buju Banton came under fire for his release Love mi browning, refering to Jamaican women with light skin. Public condemnation of the song forced him to quickly respond with another tune, Love mi black woman. I worry that 17 years later, the first song would have meet less public outcry. The widespread use of skin lightening chemicals suggests that many Jamaicans have accepted the notion of black inferiority.

The view of light skin and Euro features as more attractive than dark skin and Afro features is rampant in the island. The tie-dye faces - tell-tale sign of bleaching - of women, men and children are a common sight on the streets of the island. Bleachers use a myriad of methods - from toothpaste and curry mixes to illegal creams - alarming the government and health officials. Two years ago, the Health Department launched a campaign Don't Kill the Skin to warn users of the dangerous effects of the practice and to clamp down on illegal product import and sale. I have not, however, heard of any efforts aimed at addressing the underlying problem.

In Jamaica light skin is associated, not just with beauty, but also with affluence and privilege. A vestige of slavery and colonialism, businesses and property owners are largely descendants of Europeans, ie people with light skin. Even as Jamaicans of every hue are represented in academics, politics, and entertainment, the island's poorest residents are still wearing the shackles of colonialism - mental slavery, so to speak. Any attempt to curtail skin lightening has to start with fostering pride of self.

1 comment:

  1. As an immigrant to the US, I have addressed many questions regarding my ethnic background With a typical deep European name, light-skinned with the green eyes to match, In Jamaica I am considered “brown” or with great affection in school referred to as “red yute” .
    I do agree there are privileges that may be had while in Jamaica, however to assimilate in the US culture as a black person you are greeted with question from predominantly African Americans, who combine my English raised diction with the obvious physical appearances they claim I am acting white.

    Oh the pain.

    So Toni, in JA it may be a plus, but here it is a curse