The Caribbean has been tuned into the protests occurring in major cities across the United States of America and Europe in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man, who lost his life at the hands of a white police officer.
Floyd died on May 25 after he was handcuffed and restrained by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. One officer was captured on video pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while three other officers looked on.
The protests have resulted in charges of second-degree murder being laid against the officer at the centre of the incident and charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder for the other three officers involved.
The conversation amongst Caribbean people has splintered into two divisions. Some believe that Floyd’s death and other acts of police brutality against African Americans are issues to be dealt with in the US. Others believe that all Black people (and their allies) must stand with their brothers and sisters in the US, who are being killed unjustly at the hands of law enforcement.
Caribbean people who side with the latter recognize that the system of white supremacy is not just a cup from which Karens and Bobs guzzle racist ideologies. They understand that racism is a tree with roots that run deep, branches that spread wide and fruits that have fed many generations. They acknowledge that from this tree, spring branches that gravely affect the lives of Black people in the Caribbean — that of colourism and classism.
Though it may not be as appalling as a knee on the neck for almost nine minutes or as shocking as a call to 911 saying “there’s an African American man threatening my life”, colourism and classism work to achieve the same goals of the racist agenda, albeit in more covert ways. The effects of colourism are often subtle and over the years have become so ingrained in the consciousness of islanders that sometimes it is easy to miss how the tree of racism has planted seeds so deeply into the minds of Caribbean people.
The effects of colourism show up in the homes when parents train children to associate lighter skin and curlier hair with being more beautiful than dark skin with tightly curled hair. When the one fairer-skinned daughter with a loose curl pattern is repeatedly told by her mother that she has “good hair” or told to “keep outta the sun before yuh get too dark”, this is colourism at work.
Colourism filters into the school setting when dark-skinned children are labelled by their classmates’ with nicknames such as “blackie”, “burn biscuit” and even “black like tar”. They are given a rude awakening into the world of how colour functions.
It is seen in the community when dark-skinned neighbours and friends gradually move up into the fair-skin category with the assistance of skin-bleaching chemicals. Jamaican entertainer, Spice, summed up perfectly the experience of being a darker-skinned female in the entertainment industry when she released ‘Black Hypocrisy’ — a personal account of the fight to find pride in dark skin amid intense pressure to join the clan of “prettier brown skin girls”.
The effects of colourism, as well as classism, are felt across some recreational spaces — those bars, restaurants, shopping malls and beaches where individuals from a particular social or economic bracket are never told outright that they are not welcomed but they understand these spaces are reserved for certain types of people.
Perhaps the one aspect of Caribbean life where the stifling grip of colourism and classism is most considerably felt is within the economic and business landscape. The region is a vast melting pot of African, European, Indian, Chinese and Syrian people and culture, yet those who sit within the elite — the property owners, business owners and executives — are rarely from the African subset.
It has been a long time since ‘Massa’ used the ‘paper bag test’ to determine who would be a house slave or a field slave. Centuries later, colour is still being used as a measure to decide how black Caribbean people are treated and what resources they can have access to. In a letter from a Birmingham, Alabama jail in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
So while black people in the US march, kneel, shout and shed tears in the fight to put an end to racial injustices; Caribbean people will stand in solidarity, advocate for equal opportunities within their respective islands and work on dispelling internal beliefs that associate being black with ugliness, poverty and illiteracy.