In 2019 I launched my book Exploring Shadeism — an assessment of the colorism phenomenon. As we rightly focus on #BlackLivesMatter and issues of equity and inclusion, it seems even more pertinent today.
Exploring Shadeism looks at colorism in Barbados and the Caribbean, but it’s an issue that’s common to many post-colonial and post-enslavement societies. I’ve heard people in India and the US talk about how the same issue has affected them.
What is Shadeism?
For those who don’t know, shadeism, or colorism as it’s now more often known, is discrimination based on the shade of your skin. In countries with a period of enslavement in their history, you may find that people with darker skins have fewer opportunities open to them than their lighter skinned counterparts. That certainly used to be the case for my grandparents, and possibly even my parents.
Although things have improved in some ways, in Barbados there’s a semi-segregation thing that happens: people may mix for school or in the workplace, but by and large Black and white Barbadians live very separate lives.
Summary of Exploring Shadeism
Exploring Shadeism looks at the phenomenon of shadeism within the context of the wider Caribbean, focusing particularly on Caribbean history and literature. It also examines two theories that are useful in explaining why shade discrimination has taken root in the Caribbean.
The book includes original research conducted in Barbados, and draws conclusions about the impact of this phenomenon in several areas of daily life. As part of the research, I interviewed people about shadeism. Here are some of the things they said:
“There are people in the older generation who make comments about nice skin and nice hair, and essentially they are talking about the straightness of your hair and the blackness of your skin.”
“I don’t consider that lighter equals more attractive, but I do recognize that lighter often equals more opportunity, more privilege.”
And this quote from the book resonates with the US experience:
“To be white in the Caribbean is to have money, power, and the freedom to do anything or nothing — it is, in many ways, to occupy the top rung of society.”
Racism and Colorism — What’s Next?
In Barbados, the protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder (which we discussed in the Beyond the Black Square episode of our podcast) have sparked another round of discussions on our colonial heritage, with many people openly tackling issues around white privilege, implicit bias, and even the possible remove of a controversial statue.
This column from Barbadian artist Annalee Davis, who’s white, is just one example. She, too, has felt called to talk about the impact of racism and white supremacy in Barbados, and concludes:
“White people today can choose to live different lives, to behave differently, to think differently, to love differently, and to stand up for equity and justice. White Barbados needs to have a conversation with itself. The time has come.”
Black Barbadians also need to have those conversations, as Linda Deane, writer, publisher, co-founding editor of ArtsEtc pointed out at the book launch:
“Exploring Shadeism by Sharon Hurley Hall is a timely contribution to writing and publishing in Barbados…It is timely politically, coming as it does during the debate around race, identity and #blacklivesmatter. It is also timely as a teaching tool, as grown-ups need to find ways to understand shadeism themselves so that they might guide young people struggling with self-esteem relating to their blackness.”
Truly, the time has come.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020