Colorism, generally defined as discrimination or prejudice within an ethnic or social group against individuals of a darker skin tone, has been and continues to be a source of pain, division and self-loathing for many Bahamians.
The colorist mindsets and attitudes we see and experience today in The Bahamas stem primarily from the messages we are taught in the home that are affirmed in society — either openly or implicitly — about worth, value, goodness and beauty based on one’s skin tone.
These messages are so deeply ingrained in many of us that we may not always be conscious of them and how they affect the way we see ourselves and others.
For the adult who was treated differently than another sibling, grandchild or cousin because he or she was dark-skinned, the scars can manifest as insecurity about one’s level of attractiveness and self-worth.
For the adult who was teased in school and by relatives because his or her skin was dark, or lips were thick, or nose was fuller or facial features were strong and defined, loving the skin one is in and the reflection one sees in the mirror can be a challenge and a lifelong struggle.
For the adult who as a child was put on a pedestal because of his or her lighter complexion, only to later not be taken seriously and be viewed more as a mango-skinned trophy than a real person, similar struggles with identity and self-worth can abound.
Mothers who may mean no harm spend hours pressing or perming the kinks from their daughter’s afro-textured hair so as to make it straight, “presentable” and “pretty” — giving their girls the message that who they are is not good enough, and must be radically altered in order to be worthy of acceptance.
Some mothers warn their lighter-skinned children not to stay too long in the sun so they don’t “get black”, and girls and boys were and are encouraged to date and marry light-skinned mates with curly hair so that they could give their parents pretty or handsome grandchildren — the messages there are clear.
Is there any wonder why unspoken tensions in our country exist about skin tone and the perceptions surrounding it?
Our parents and their parents and theirs were victims of the times they lived in, and likely did not understand how messages of self-hate they learned to adopt would injure the souls of their children for generations to come.
Colorism in society
In children’s books and cartoons, evil and violent characters are portrayed with darker hues, while the good and wholesome characters are portrayed with lighter hues —subliminally conditioning children to the notion that darker-skinned people are ugly, bad and untrustworthy.
These images are often replicated in movies and television programs that portray dark-skinned men as ignorant, animalistic or criminals, and dark-skinned women as rambunctious, unattractive and inferior to their lighter-skinned counterparts.
Workplaces and education officials have, over the years, deemed hairstyles where afro-textured hair is expressed as unkempt, unprofessional or nasty, even as business places preferred lighter-skinned employees for certain positions.
The lasting effects of colonialism, traditional standards of beauty promoted by western media and upward social mobility provided to those of lighter skin tones are factors that have led to a multi-billion-dollar global skin bleaching industry, notwithstanding the risks including cancer and liver damage associated with commercial and black market skin bleaching agents widely used in The Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean.
So damaging is the growing trend of skin bleaching that countries have moved to ban the importation and manufacture of the products.
Last year, the East African Legislative Assembly passed a resolution to ban the manufacture and importation of soaps, cosmetics and beauty products containing hydroquinone, an ingredient often used in skin bleaching, according to U.S international broadcaster Voice of America.
Rwanda, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are among African countries that have moved to ban skin bleaching agents, including pills pregnant women are taking in the hopes of lightening the skin of their unborn child which could result in fetal brain damage.
In recent months, colorism made its way to mainstream and social media discussion in The Bahamas because of public comments made by individuals affiliated with the country’s two major political parties.
But, as is often the case, partisan bias dominated the debate and opportunities to tackle the sensitive issue of colorism in our country were missed and thwarted on the altar of political expediency.
The issue has since become the subject of political sparring and jokes, but did anyone stop to think about the people who are hurt by this?
Culturally, we avoid having open, honest and mature dialog about human interest matters that affect us, mostly for fear of offending individuals or touching on painful or concealed matters we do not want exposed or put under scrutiny.
More often than not, we talk around and at these issues instead of looking them square in the face and addressing them for what they are as opposed to what we choose to believe they are.
In so doing, we rob ourselves and the nation of the chance to mature as we live under the delusion that the way we see ourselves and one another is not important enough to be given national attention.
As an evolving consequence, Bahamian politics today is woefully deficient in the area of social consciousness, where parliamentarians take the lead in raising awareness and bringing meaningful change to issues impacting family life, community development and race, ethnic and gender relations.
It would have been encouraging to see the country’s political leaders take the opportunities presented by the recent controversies of Bennett Minnis and Patricia Deveaux to address colorism and its effects on our society head on, and to both demonstrate and propose how we can work to bring about an era of dialog, healing and understanding on this issue.
This would have shown that those who wish to maintain or assume power understand that the way we see ourselves as Bahamians has everything to do with why we stumble at the task of building a stronger Bahamas.
But change of this kind cannot rest solely with the political class.
We cannot change what we are unwilling to acknowledge and speak about.
And if we want a better future, we must start by nurturing the minds of our nation’s youth.
Our schools and centers of higher learning should become safe spaces where dialog about issues such as colorism can take place, with the aim of teaching our children and young adults the historical roots of colorism, and why it is both wrong and built on false premises.
Our churches should also become such safe spaces.
Though churches preach that Jesus loves us all, they are nonetheless filled with parishioners who are struggling with self-love and self-acceptance because, with respect to colorism, people who mattered in their life told or demonstrated to them that the skin they are in is ugly, unacceptable or a deterrence to progress and happiness.
Civil society must also raise the standard in tackling issues such as colorism, and channel the collective power of its knowledge and experiences into elevating the ethnic and racial consciousness of Bahamian society.
As a country where the majority are of African ancestry, more emphasis in school curriculums should be placed on teaching students a broader view of world history that educates them on the rich and proud history of Africa as the cradle of civilization.
Growing bodies of research find that children of the African diaspora see greater value in lighter skin tones because they, through traditional educational systems, have been miseducated to believe that anything great and of consequence in the world came about because of Europeans — a historical falsehood, but a pervasive one that would understandably result in a feeling that being closer to whiteness is being closer to greatness.
Being separated from one’s history and one’s lineage leaves a person lost in the world, and if more of our children knew and understood that their history did not start on a slave ship and that their African ancestors were leaders among civilization’s great inventors, explorers, intellectuals and developers of commerce, progressive systems of government and the arts, it could revolutionize how our children see themselves and their peers.
In the home, parents must work to become conscious of their mindsets about skin tone and hair texture, and the messages they are passing on to their children as a result.
The often shared quote, “A mother who radiates self-love and self-acceptance actually vaccinates her daughter against low self-esteem”, comes to mind at this juncture.
Given that mothers are the first teachers of their daughters and sons, it is critical that they examine and resolve their thoughts, feelings and insecurities about skin tone so that they teach their children to love themselves just as they are, and so that they don’t treat their children differently because of skin tone or hair texture.
Images in western media which so heavily influence Bahamian culture are beginning to move toward a greater level of diversity, with darker skin tones and afro-textured hair presented and celebrated as standards of beauty and strength — an encouraging trend but one that can never substitute for the influence of a parent.
It takes time to undo generations of damage to the psyche and identity of ethnic and racial groups, particularly those of the African diaspora, but with time and intentionality we can ensure that Bahamians young and old have a country where the skin they are in is celebrated.
Yes, color does matter
In an attempt to react to sensitivities about racial acceptance in the western hemisphere, a trend emerged promoting the idea that we should be “color blind” and teach children that skin tone or race does not matter.
To teach that we should be color blind (which is not realistic or possible) is to suggest that there is something wrong with a particular skin tone and so to compensate for that we should pretend we do not see it.
And to teach that skin tone is irrelevant is to teach a child that he or she should not embrace their uniqueness and celebrate it for the richness it brings to the world.
We need not pretend to be blind to what makes us different.
We should instead honor and respect our differences, and teach children that no matter one’s skin tone we are all special, and that who we are is more than just skin deep.
We need not tell children that how they show up in the world does not matter.
It does matter, and what matters about it is that our differences make the world a beautiful and interesting place, and are not what we should use to bring another person down or prevent a person from enjoying all that life has to offer.
We should teach children to see each other with eyes wide open, not closed or blinded to the realities of who they are and who their peers are.
In so doing, we should teach children and adults that whether dark, light or shades in between and whether one’s hair is naturally straight, wavy, curly or kinky, we all are equally worthy of love, respect and acceptance.
When we see colorism in ourselves and in society we should check it and call it out, and not allow our denial or silence to continue to give consent to others being treated differently because of the amount of melanin their cells produce.
There is no shame in acknowledging that one holds colorist ideas — the shame is in continuing to hold on to those ideas after acknowledging their place in one’s heart and mind.
Love the skin you’re in.