Colourism In Barbados: But You’re Not Even ‘Black’!
N: 1 A FORM OF BIAS BASED PRIMARILY ON SKIN TONE AND HAIR TYPE; 2 PRESENT IN CULTURES ALL OVER THE WORLD; 3 OCCURS ON AN INTER-GROUP AND INTRA-GROUP LEVEL 4 AN EVIL THAT MUST END.
When I was fifteen or so years old, I was put into one of the smallest classes in the history of the fourth form at The Combermere School. I think there were maybe only fifteen or sixteen of us, and I remember there being only two boys.
Our form teacher was The Beast. The infamous Mr. Gittens that anyone who attended The University of Waterford during the 80s and 90s will remember without prompting. Who could forget The Beast?
Mr. Gittens and I, God bless him, used to debate history and sociology (although this last was not on the syllabus) with a ferocity I don’t think he was expecting from a fifteen year old.
He told me once privately I was the only student that challenged him in class, but I was one of the few that actually cared about history. His history class was always a favourite for this reason. He fueled my intellectual curiosity and our debates were always measured and in the end we were almost always in agreement through analysis. I think I argued with him because the text books were so much bullshit, and he enjoyed these debates because it allowed him to get into the other material that is left out.
Forgive me if I am wrong — many of my classmates from that year are with me on Facebook, so sure they can corroborate — but for the most part, The Beast and I argued alone.
I got the sense the rest of the class were barely following the conversation (some of them were just keeping up with the syllabus and The Beast and I were arguing at what would be considered a University level of discourse).
One day, after a particularly ferocious round of debate on an inaccuracy or ‘glossing over’ in the text book, one of my classmates — one across and two down (I will not reveal her identity) — said to me in an incredulous tone, “How you can you even argue about this? You’re not even black!”
I turned to her and said, “I am black, but I am other stuff too.”
The Beast added, “There is more than one shade of black.”
She looked unconvinced. She was relying on the cultural idée fixe in Barbados, indeed you find this across the Caribbean, that mixed race people were not ‘Black’. Which is always amusing, since in Africa, Caribbean people and so-called ‘black people’ from the ‘Americas’ are not ‘African’. Of course, the whole ‘house nigger’ thing is still an issue.
I didn’t get how they could say I wasn’t black, and tease or look down on me for being ‘red’, and be in the bathroom at break and lunch time using Nadinola bleaching agents. Cause, yeah, that’s what it was.
Contradiction after contradiction.
This issue of colourism in Barbados is one of my life’s defining aspects.
When I went to Barbados from Trinidad and entered the public school system around five or so, this was my first experience with not just other kids, but the teachers: Virulent self-hatred manifested in a very twisted kind of physical and mental abuse of children that echoes slavery in so many ways: Slave-overseer-massa.
I was sent to the Grace Hill Primary School in Spooner’s Hill. I was, in 1978, a milky looking red girl, with bright red (seriously carrot topped), picky-picky ‘nigger hair’, with a long African name that noone could pronounce.
Add to this the fact my family lived a little way away from the school, in a house that was known in that area as the ‘big house with the long driveway’. We were, to the others at the school, considered to be wealthy, despite this being the absolute furthest from the truth.
At five, I learnt a lot at school in Barbados. Not mathematics or English. The school system taught me almost NO academics at all. I learnt far more at home than I did at school. This was when I learnt about colour, class and institutionalised ignorance.
My father Mansa Musa, was one of the men that helped to lead the 1970 “Black Power” coup in Trinidad & Tobago. Daddy spent time on Nelson Island or his revolutionary activities and my parents were part of the whole world wide Black Power movement for years. Not just part, but active organisers.
I was raised with that rheteoric, steeped and soaked in those politics, I don’t remember feeling outside of the struggle, I was in it, a part of it and I felt it deeply even at such a young age.
In the public system, I was called ‘white girl’, ‘red nigger’, ‘grey goose’, ‘ecky becky’, ‘red legs’ and a wide variety of other racial pejoratives. A teacher, Ms. Barker (nasty bitch) used to beat me in front the class for anything, and tell me while beating me, “You feel you better than me because you red and you live in a house with a long driveway?”
She beat me viciously for nothing at all and took a perverse pleasure in humiliating me. After a while of this, I began to dread her. She hated me and called me a red bitch, but I didn’t even know what that meant. I could feel her hatred and couldnt understand what I was seeing in her beady, wicked, piggy little eyes.
One day, I made a maths error, and she called me up in front of the class to humiliate me,. I stood there enduring her vicious words and then I saw the three foot long (looking) wooden ruler coming, and at five, I wet myself.
The class burst out laughing.
Ms. Barker began to beat me for peeing the floor. I stood there and took it, crying my little heart out. Then, as it has ever happened from then until this day when I have had enough, a switch went off in my head.
I don’t think I made a decision exactly. I remember feeling a bit disconnected for the first time, like I was there, but it wasn’t quite me there. I felt like I was watching myself.
I calmly walked over to the shelf where the bags and lunch boxes were and picked up my red Aladdin hard plastic lunch box (you know the top loaders where the flask rode in the top?), then walked back to where Ms Barker was standing.
I pulled back my little arm and hit that bitch as hard as I could in her knee (where I could reach cause I was always a tiny little thing), then walked back to the shelf, grabbed my bag, walked out of the class room passing the teacher who came to see why that cow was hollering so hard, down the corridor, out the side of the building, out of the side gate, and into Bush Hall, St. Michael.
I was off the reservation.
I walked for a long time… I remember the heat, the discomfort of the pee drying on me and the dust sticking to me and I had no clue which way to go (never mind we lived like four five minutes walk away). I just wanted to go home and crawl into my Grandad’s lap.
Most of all though I remember an overwhelming sense of freedom. That was the moment I got addicted to standing up for myself, and I can’t stop, won’t stop, haven’t ever stopped.
Someone eventually found me and took me home that day, but the incident taught me that in school, like life, there is no justice unless you make it.
I learnt that although at home ‘Black is Beautiful’ and I was black (my mother told me so and Marcus Garvey, Tony Martin, Cheikh Anta Diop and other luminaries of the movement on our bookshelf told me so), I was not black in Barbados and definitely not at school.
I was removed from Grace Hill, after three more years of that kind of shite by the way, after it was renamed Lawrence T. Gay Memorial and placed at the Ursuline Convent. This is a stush, private school run by nuns that was very different from the public system and not in a good way.
I have written some about my time at the convent in “School Yard Bullies & The Lady Warrior Of The Sea” so won’t go over it, just link to it and encourage you to read.
Short version: It wasn’t better at the Convent. Going to school with privelaged white and black kids, is not ‘better’. It’s just a completely differently angled set of prejudices. I went from not being black to discovering I was actually a ‘nigger’. At seven, this was confusing.
I met yet another self-hating teacher there, Mrs. Harris. A Negropean of the first order, who argued with me once that Columbus discovered the Americas and sent me to the principal for saying that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard her say.
She fawned over the white kids, sidelined and openly mocked the brown kids. Again, because I sat and called her on her teaching methods, she punished me unjustly for all manner of nonsense. I was constantly accused — quite rightly too — of rank insubordination. I was grossly insubordinate whenever I could.
These experiences are why I have almost no respect for the people who are teaching. I have respect for the profession and indivuals who are teaching with sensitivity and a passion for children. However, I can count on one hand how many of those I encountered.
If you are looking for two examples of overseers in a slave system, look no further than Ms. Barker and Mrs. Harris.
Ahh, fuck them both I say.
By the time I got to the classroom with The Beast, and my friend who declared me ‘not even black’, I had come to understand I was an anomoly in Barbadian society. I take enormous pleasure in this now — I have certainly earned it — but it was confusing when I was younger.
The disconnect from my pro-black, pro-African, pro-Amerindian, pro-truth and anti-oppression household and what I was experiencing at school, where for them I was unqualified to defend ‘blackness’ with the passion that I did, became yet another thing to rebel against. Believe me, I rebelled. Too much Black Power & Bob Marley will do that to a child I think.
I learnt to deal.
Barbados at that time was a society grounded in its colonial past and experience, and ‘Africanness’ and ‘blackness’ were just ‘not done’ by my ‘class of people’.
In Trinidad and Jamaica, there were definite, defined ‘black power’ movements, whereas in islands like Barbados, activists the likes of Elombe Mottley had to apply for a police license just to speak in public. This was a clear attempt to suppress this thinking in Barbados and they very much succeeded on that score.
By the time I came along, with the unpronounceable first name and with firey chat about ‘black power’, most Bajan kids I came across just didn’t get me, or where I was coming from. I was part of that first wave of children with African names in the Caribbean in those days. A name is a powerful thing, and my name is powerful indeed. It is the first clue people get that I am not like other folks.
In Barbados, in the late seventies, I was called everything BUT my name. Just like they did to us during slavery. I couldn’t even do the whole Kunte Kinte thing, because I don’t think Roots had even been aired at this point.
I was called: Dominica, Dominique, Delnonico, Delikimo, Domnick, Dollamita, Delafreako, Delnonico, Della Reese, Delmonica well into my teens. It’s hard not to link this ‘mispronunciation’ enforced and entrained as it was and remains, with the kind of renaming they did to disassociate new slaves with their African selves. It becomes even more interesting when you contemplate that this is the seventies and eighties and the conscious choice by my parent’s generation — well the firestarters anyway — to name their children from the motherland, was met with derision across the Caribbean. Now it’s commonplace but doesn’t actually mean ‘African pride’. There are still a lot of Tiffanys an Crystals showing up.
Shucks, my son’s father didn’t want me to give my son an African name because it would, and here’s the quote, “hamper his progress”. The same man wanted me to cut my dreadlocks, and work on my ‘white face’.
Years have gone by since the days of ‘white girl’, ‘ecky becky’ and ‘red goose’. More than thirty. I almost forgot about this, because no one had called me white in so long, that this as a ‘attitude’ a ‘way of seeing things’ hadn’t been something I had actively dealt with or encountered. I got used to being ‘red’ and had made my peace with it.
Until about three or four years ago.
The year was 2012.
I was walking to collect my son from school one afternoon. There is a little girl living in a house near the school, and often she’d be playing outside either in the morning or afternoon and we’d wave and say hello to each other.
This afternoon, I didn’t see her, but she definitely saw me.
“Hey White Lady!” she called out to me from her doorway. I froze in shock and then my heart dropped to my stomach.
I fired back without thinking twice, “My dear, you must learn to see yourself in others. I am not white and we’re the same, just different shades of brown.”
Big deer eyes looked back at me with silence the soundtrack for the moment.
It broke my heart.
It’s not just me either, way back in the day going to school in Barbados I am talking about.
When we were still living in Barbados, my son was enrolled briefly at St. Stephen’s Primary School, in Free Hill, Black Rock.
The principal there at the time, a Mr. Lewis, is yet another Negropean running a slave ship and seasoning slaves for the system. He is a man from a generation of people in Barbados who look down on red people, people with dreadlocks, people with uncropped hair, and pick something… if you aren’t his idea of ‘successful’ you are treated to wrinkled-nosed disdain. He might not have been brave enough to call me a ‘red nigger’ but he sure treated me and my son that way. That is until I pointedly referenced my background during a meeting with him where he went far, far beyond the bounds of our contracted relationship, was rude, dismissive and combative. He boiled down after I revealed my quiet resume and put away his open ignorance and disdain, but that was fear not a change of heart. You could hear ‘red bitch’ in his head when he looked at me, because he knew the day would come when I wrote about him in a public way.
If the institutions of Barbados are still couched in these Team Light Skin vs Team Dark Skin kind of bullshit, even if it’s a silent war as it’s largely been for the last twenty years or so and a six year old sees a white woman when she sees me, what real progress have we made?
I’m inclined to say, very little indeed.
Originally published at www.sunheadmag.com on December 4, 2015.