History, Literature, postcolonial studies

Skin colour discrimination in Jamaica during the era of decolonisation

by Henrice Altink, author of Public Secrets: Race and Colour in Colonial and Independent Jamaica.

On 9 August 2014, Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African-American man, was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. This shooting led to major unrest that lasted for more than a week and did much to solidify the Black Lives Matter movement. That same month, the thirty-one-year-old Jamaican construction worker Mario Deane died while in police custody in Montego Bay, a major tourist resort on the north coast of  Jamaica. Deane had been arrested on 3 August 2014 for possession of a marijuana cigarette and was refused bail. He died three days later after being brutally beaten to death in his cell. Initially only several  inmates were charged but in 2018 three police officers on duty were charged with manslaughter, misconduct in a public office, and perverting the course of justice – one of them had allegedly ordered the cell to be cleaned before the arrival of investigators of an independent commission of investigation. So far, however, none of the officers has been sentenced as their trial has been postponed several times, most recently up to March 2020.[1]

That eventually the police officers on duty were charged was largely because Deane’s family was represented by the same Florida-based law firm that also represented the family of Michael Brown. As in Ferguson, the Mario Deane case triggered protest against police violence. A few who contributed to the public debate in Jamaica about Deane’s killing suggested that this was about more than police brutality.  According to Dr Dayton Campbell, the MP for North West St Ann, ‘shadism’ was at play here because a ‘bwoy from uptown, wid dem brown self and pretty hair’ would never have been arrested for the same crime.[2] ‘Shadism’ is a locally-used term for colourism – differential treatment according to skin tone. Campbell thus suggested that Deane’s dark skin had singled him out for arrest and had also influenced the officer on duty’s decision to deny him bail.

Campbell was one of very few Jamaicans who openly dared to state that skin colour discrimination played a role in the Mario Deane case. In my book, I argue that skin colour discrimination in Jamaica has long been a public secret –something that everybody knows exists but for one reason or another people cannot easily acknowledge it. I focus on several case studies in the decades before and after Jamaica gained independence, including the labour market, education, marriage and the criminal justice system, and demonstrate the existence of different forms of ‘shadism’ as well as white-on-black discrimination, and explore their impact as well as how these were talked about, ranging from denial and minimisation to using more euphemistic terms, such as referring to ‘shadism’ as ‘classism’. I also explore what happened to those Jamaicans who transgressed the unwritten rule not to talk about race and colour, and in a final chapter examine the salience and silence of skin colour discrimination in Jamaica today and offer some suggestions how it can be reduced.

During the era of decolonisation, dark-skinned Jamaicans made considerable inroads in the labour market, particularly in the public sector. Yet even long after independence they were still the least likely to be hired or promoted in particular fields. For example, it was not until the 1950s before Barclays and other banks hired the first African Jamaicans but it took until the 1970s before African-Jamaican staff managed to reach the most senior levels in banks. I argue that this was less the result of overt discrimination than implicit biases and race-neutral practices – practices devoid of racial content, such as educational qualification, experience and other hiring and promotion criteria.

To get a well-paid job in Jamaica during the era of decolonisation required a good education and a social network, both of which were provided by a small number of elite secondary schools. I show that it was very difficult for dark-skinned children to get into one of these schools, especially before the adoption of a Common Entrance Examination in 1957 when interviews by school boards were very common, and that the experiences of those who did manage to get into the schools were largely shaped by race and colour, ranging from relations with their teachers and peers to the curriculum taught. Even long after independence, it was common for students in these schools to sit next to those of a similar ‘shade’ and for teachers to have higher expectations of light- than dark-skinned children. I argue that the elite secondary schools not only practised discrimination but also limited opposition to it because their graduates, steeped well into the 1970s in a British academic curriculum and (white) middle-class norms and values came to look down upon the lower classes, who were mostly dark-skinned.

But schools were not the only place where children learned about race, the family home was another important site of racial formation. I pay considerable attention to the ways in which children were taught by their family members about the meanings of race and the rule not to talk about race and colour. In addition, I also assess how adults navigated race and colour in the private sphere of the home and in hotels, churches and other semi-private spheres. I demonstrate that while adults were very colour conscious – colour played, for instance, a major role in decisions around marriage, where to live or who to invite for dinner – they were also colour-blind – refusing to accept that someone’s skins colour was the reason why they were denied entry to a hotel or a sports club or why their church appointed mostly white or light-skinned ministers.

In the book, I also explore the correlation between race and colour and the enjoyment of civil and political rights. I demonstrate that even though more and more politicians and judges were African Jamaican in the years leading up to independence and that following independence nearly all politicians and judges were of African descent, this shift did not translate into growing racial equality as lower-class and invariably dark-skinned Jamaicans struggled more than others to exercise their civil and political rights. They were disproportionally disenfranchised initially because they did not meet the property qualifications or later because they lived in urban areas where voter IDs were implemented or moved so frequently in search for work that they were left off the voters’ lists. They were also more likely than middle-class and predominantly light-skinned Jamaicans to be convicted of a crime and given a harsher sentence.

In the last chapter of the book, I provide an explanation why race and colour have been an ‘absent presence’ in Jamaica up to today. I argue that race and colour discrimination in different domains – employment, education, criminal justice system etc. – are linked, and that because of cumulative (dis)advantage – (dis) advantage in one domain (e.g. education) having a positive/negative impact on other domains (e.g. work) and accumulates over time –  many race-neutral practices have exerted racial effects which, along with differential treatment based on race and colour, have upheld a racially-stratified society with a small number of whites on top, light-skinned people in the middle, and dark-skinned people, who make up the majority of society, firmly placed at the bottom.

[1] https://petchary.wordpress.com/2019/08/01/protest-in-remembrance-of-mario-Deanee-on-august-3/ (accessed 13 September 2019).

[2] http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/lead-stories/20140812/class-colour-root-mario-deanes-death-mp (accessed 13 September 2019).

About the author
Henrice Altink is a Professor of Modern History and Co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre at the University of York.

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