Tue | Jun 15, 2021

A legacy of racism

Published:Friday | August 6, 2010 | 12:00 AM

There are many people who claim racism in Jamaica is a thing of the past, but that what we see now is lots of class prejudice. They must have their heads buried in the sand, for racism is alive and well in Jamaica.

I can understand why many people would think so. Ever since slavery, there has been a strong link between race and class in Jamaica, and maybe the two have become confused. For it was the Europeans (the whites) who owned the land and their African slaves (the blacks). Thereafter, in Jamaica, the 'haves' have been light-skinned while the 'have-nots' have been dark skinned.

Emancipation, the 176th anniversary of which we celebrated last Sunday, may have made slaves legally free, but it did not break the link between colour and class in Jamaica.

In fact, Emancipation may have made matters worse, for the former slave owners received big money in compensation for the loss of their slave property, while the former slaves received nothing - zilch - in compensation for the loss of their freedom and their homeland. Whereas in slavery the masters were responsible for feeding and clothing all their slaves - including the crippled and the aged - in freedom the slaves - overnight - had to begin to fend for themselves, including the crippled and the aged. Whereas in slavery the masters were responsible for feeding and clothing the children of their slaves (their property, after all!), in freedom the slaves - overnight - had to begin to support their own children.

And with what would the ex-slaves support themselves and their families? They had no land and no education, and there were no jobs to speak of, outside the same plantations on which they were slaves. This is where the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' was its starkest!

And the former masters needed the labour of their former slaves, and they made sure that enough manual labour labour was always available by restricting educational opportunities.

Guess who

Make no mistake: Emancipation (and 'full freedom' four years later) did not bring equality. To vote, or to be a juror, you had to own land. To be a candidate you had to own even more. Guess who had the land, and guess who couldn't vote for more than a hundred years more! This sort of thing is what perpetuated the link between colour and class.

And so, since colour was linked to wealth and status, many internalised the value that 'light-skin is better than dark skin', that 'straight hair is prettier than kinky hair', and so on. And then many seek to make themselves appear as light-skinned as possible. Why do so many dark-skinned Jamaicans bleach their skin? Why do we so rarely seem to select black women to represent us as 'Miss Jamaica'? Racism is alive and well in Jamaica, and it is within.

Many women seek alliances with lighter-skinned men to improve the skin colour of their children, and possibly their own social standing. This is true even in the Jamaica of 2010. Too often, I am approached by beautiful black women who offer to "make a little brown baby" for me. It seems that black consciousness has been on the back burner for some time now.

There is a danger that we will look at Emancipation as something that has already happened, that is somewhere in the past. The truth is that Emancipation is a process that is not yet complete. Many of us are still to free ourselves from the way of thinking of our former masters. Many of us are not happy with the way we look. Frankly, many of us hate ourselves. We could call it "auto-racism".

Negative feelings

And, if we are honest, many darker-skinned Jamaicans harbour negative feelings about lighter-skinned Jamaicans. And I am not just talking about kids who scream out, "whitey" or "white man" at passing cars; I am talking about many in the black intelligentsia, who deeply resent lighter-skinned Jamaicans, and who let it out in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Slavery was a defining period in Jamaica's history. It operated here for more than 300 years and had its values woven into the fabric of Jamaican society. Even though slavery has been officially abolished for many decades, it is a living social memory for many, and the legacy of slavery still negatively impacts the vast majority of Jamaicans. Our national motto, Out of Many, One People, is more a wish than an accomplishment, and we should treat it as a goal towards which we continue to strive.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a human-development consultant. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com