In class this week we’re going to share our personal narratives. When I came across piece, I was so excited because it fits in so well with our homework assignment and because I was in desperate need of some inspiration for my own narrative. If you have a chance to read it, you really should. It’s an incredibly moving essay that reflects upon the author’s experience growing up in Jamaica, a country that, like many others, suffers from colorism.
One of the hardest parts about the story for me involved a conversation the author had with her mother as a child about her own beauty.
“When I told my mother that I didn’t think I was pretty like the beauty queens, she reassured me. ‘Of course you are! Yuh much lighter than me and yuh father. Yuh tek after di Brooks. Di Indian side. You an’ yuh brother an’ sistah have dat going fah ‘oonuh. Fi ‘oonuh skin cool an’ pretty.’ I was aware of the regret in her voice, like the sound of a plucked guitar string. It was so overwhelming, so deep, as if the one redeeming quality she saw in her children was the lightness of her people’s skin.”
It’s so interesting that even when the daughter was seeking validation of her own beauty, the mother turned to the fact that she was lighter than others in the family to encourage her. That a mother could not find that her daughter was beautiful because of her complexion itself but only in comparison to an undesirable skin tone is heartbreaking. To me, this highlights how entrenched colorism is in that society. And it is so sad because the way the mother argued about her daughter’s beauty shows that lightness is what dictates beauty. If the daughter is pretty because she is lighter than her parents, how is she
“pretty like the beauty queens” (who were all lighter than her) as she asked her mother? And what if the daughter was just as dark as the mother? Would the mother have been able to recognize the beauty in her daughter then?
Another thing that intrigued me was the author’s comparison of colorism in the United States and Jamaica, based on her own experiences in both countries. She wrote about Grace Jones and Lois Samuels, who were both Jamaican models with darker complexions. She noted that though they were both Jamaican, they never made it into mainstream Jamaican culture. She wrote, “America and Europe embraced them, gave them what we as a country never gave our dark girls–affirmation.” I’ve already written a few posts on the representation of dark-skinned women in the media in the US. I obviously think it’s not enough here, but we are making progress. It’s interesting how in US, a country the author described as pretty racist, these models were able to thrive, but their own home country did not sufficiently admire or praise them. Are there manifestations of this in American media as well? I’m struggling to think of a similar example. I feel like in US we try to take credit for everything that’s ours (and not ours), but I personally know colorism is very much alive in the US as well.
The author also provided another example of how colorism differs between Jamaica and the US.
But I was later shocked to find that in America it doesn’t matter what shade of black you are—that here, the one-drop rule is taken seriously. Racism trumped class and complexion. I became black in America.
She compared this form of colorism to that of Jamaica where lighter skin is associated with higher SES among other advantages. While I understand her argument about how racism affects all those appearing Black in America, I think her statement underestimates the very real advantages lighter-complected POC receive in the US. I was recently reading an article about colorism in the Latinx community and it highlighted several of these privileges, including the fact that light-skinned Latinos make more money, have a lower unemployment rate, live in more affluent neighborhoods, have higher levels of education, and are considered to be more intelligent and beautiful by White people. These facts are not insignificant and show that there are substantial privileges afforded to light-skinned POC even though they, too, may be affected by racism.
Finally, the author ended with a discussion of how she was able to overcome the effects of colorism and learn to find beauty in herself. She discussed an encounter with an older Jamaican ex-pat who was trying to convince her to buy skin bleaching cream to “fix” her skin.
But I cannot criticize her for being ignorant or superficial, since none of it is her fault. I saw my old self in her, fleeting like an image caught in a mirror inside another room. I was given the privilege of going away to a college with a handful of conscious, educated blacks empowered to fight against internalized oppression. She was not. Our history hasn’t permitted us to see beauty in ourselves, much less each other.
With this quote, I’m reminded of the importance of critical consciousness-raising work. I feel so lucky to have had access to books and professors who have really challenged my previous views of the world and enabled me to fight against my own internalized oppression. I feel strongly that we need to spread that knowledge, in accessible ways of course, to others through our work. Like the author discussed, it wasn’t too long ago that I had thoughts that reflected the same theme of internalized oppression that was present in the words and actions of the older woman (and sometimes I still do). If I hadn’t had access to various books and empowering professors, I don’t know what I would think right now. Spreading this knowledge is an important form of fighting against oppression because society hasn’t only negatively influenced the social and economic advancement of POC. It has also deeply impacted our thoughts and feelings, and in order to love ourselves and others more fully, we have to tackle this internalized type of oppression as well.