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JAMAICA: Wanted: Light-Skinned Only, Please

Kingston, Sep 27 2011 (IPS) - Revelations that proprietors are requesting light-skinned workers from a government training institution is putting a new spin on Jamaica’s so-called obsession with skin bleaching.

A Sunday Gleaner headline, “Brownings please,” referring to the specification by some employers and their agents for applicants with light complexions, is also reviving age-old resentments along with memories of sexual exploitation and a time when only light-skinned people held certain positions.

The criterion, the article said, has been articulated both verbally and on application forms for the placement of trainees from the HEART Trust/NTA, Jamaica’s national training agency.

The article continues to invoke indignation more than two weeks after publication and has been dubbed Jamaica’s 9/11 because it ran the same day and side-by-side with memories from the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Now, public defender Earl Witter is demanding the names and details of the offenders and has opened an investigation.

Favouring colour above all

Some say bleaching is a throwback to traditional ideas of beauty, and the status given to Jamaicans with lighter complexions. In this nation of 2.7 million people, tradition seemingly dictates that colour determines beauty, privilege and wealth.

"I grew up with the instinct that people who have straight noses and long hair are better," said Tamara Bailey.

It is not uncommon here for mothers to encourage their children to seek light- skinned partners.

Bailey's father, for instance, told her to "marry a white man".

Many men and women are not shy about their preference for 'brownings'. Actress and women's rights activist Afolashade pointed to popular entertainment as the driver for the growing trend. Preference for the lighter skinned female, she said seems stronger now than it was 25 years ago.

While entertainers continue to champion the desire for 'brownings', women continue to seek the 'pretty pickney'. Stories have been told of Kingston's upwardly mobile young men who travel to Jamaica's south coast to select their wives from among the light-skinned descendants of Irish and German settlers.

"The preference for the browning is a powerful statement about the devaluing of black womanhood and the continued dumbing down of the society so that Jamaica, a country with a large majority of black people, will be unable to move beyond its third world status and mentality," said sociologist Glenda Simms.

“It should be brought home that racial discrimination in any form should never be tolerated in Jamaica,” he told journalists. According to him, the request constitutes a breach of the Jamaica’s constitution and in particular, the newly instituted Charter of Rights.

On April 7, 2011, the constitution was amended to include the Charter, which, among other things, guarantees the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of colour and social class.

Few express confidence that the culprits will ever be named. In fact, corporate Jamaica has remained silent even as Labour Minister Pearnel Charles promised action and opposition leader Portia Simpson Miller urged people to boycott businesses lacking black faces.

Bleaching: “An epidemic of colour prejudice”

While some seem stunned by the discriminatory requests, for others they are confirmation that colour and class discrimination are endemic and remain a reality in modern Jamaica.

According to Karl McKenzine Chin, a 24-year-old construction engineer, “Nothing has changed. There will always be a request for brown people over people of my complexion.”

Chin, who admitted a “level of preference” for brown girls, noted that in addition to the fact that the brown people have more money and influence, preference could be linked to the level of violence in the society, he argued.

Tamara Bailey, on the other hand, is of the view that the prejudice is endemic.

“Even your parents let you believe that you have to be a certain colour… then the society also gives that impression and people point it out so often that you begin to believe it, and want to do something about it,” the 27-year-old said.

Although she hasn’t done so herself, Bailey noted that particularly for young women, doing something often means bleaching.

Similarly, Carolyn Cooper, a noted cultural commentator and university professor, blamed the skin- bleaching epidemic sweeping the nation on “generations of colour prejudice”.

“If we really want to control the spread of the skin-bleaching virus, we first have to admit that there’s an epidemic of colour prejudice in our society,” Cooper wrote in an article.

Skin bleaching is particularly prevalent among members of Jamaica’s poverty-stricken inner-city communities, and despite both the health ministry’s awareness campaigns about the dangers of bleaching, skin-lightening products remain in high demand.

At least one popular entertainer, Adijah ‘Vybz Kartel’ Palmer, has embraced the practise in deed and song.

“Look on my face. The girls love my brown cute face. The girls love my bleach-out face,” Palmer, who launched his own line of skin care products, sings about his ever-lightening complexion and the reaction of his female fans.

Sociologists have argued that the preoccupation with bleaching, especially among poor women, is a manifestation of self-hatred and low self-esteem caused by poverty. Social commentator and women’s rights activist Glenda Simms believes much of the bleaching is due to the desire to be accepted.

“They bleach so that they can be accepted in the front office of even the most disorganised and rat- infested haberdashery downtown or uptown,” she said.

In a Sep. 18 newspaper article entitled “Brownings, bimbos and other drivers of underdevelopment”, Simms argued that corporate culture, where light-skinned girls are valued above others, began in the cane fields and with the rape of slaves to produce girls of mixed race who frequently became house slaves, mistresses and prostitutes.

The culture remains, she says, because “big men want the browning girl with or without brains or abilities. He wants a ‘gyal’ for his sex toy and as a generalised titillator to entice the customers who all have been socialised to prefer light-skinned people.”

Challenging custom and beyond

Witter is confident that his team of investigators will get the information it needs to pursue the case, although there have been few other challenges to local laws based on discrimination and no legislation that prohibit discrimination based on gender or race, aside from the constitution and specifically the new amendment.

“Prior to the Charter of Rights, the government was the sole guarantor of fundamental rights, which meant that only servants or agents of government could have infringed the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. That’s no longer the case,” Witter said.

Social commentators believe, however, that while discrimination may not be promoted, it is definitely practised. They point to a recent “Police Standing Orders” – the document that outlines rules and regulations governing the force – banning braided hair and any form of locks, among other things.

Jamaica’s corporate culture, they say, evolved from plantations, and today’s business community consists largely of the ancestors of the slave owners of colonial Jamaica. In fact, the biggest businesses have their roots in slavery.

Chin believes the situation will not change because “the brown people who have the money and make the rules” are the ones who “own the biggest companies”.

Others believe outrage will dissipate over time and offenders will remain anonymous, despite the labour minister’s promise to “throw the book” at the perpetrators. It remains, however the desire to erase the signs of blackness – the lips, nose, hair – that keeps the prejudice alive.

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