Discrimination and Skin Bleaching: Jamaica’s “Brownings” Controversy

With some degree of discomfort—because of the media’s recent stress on racial discrimination and skin-bleaching in Jamaica, as if this were only occurring on a single island—I am sharing several articles related to discriminatory practices in hiring and Caribbean society’s reinforcement of preference for light-skinned faces for “front counter staff” positions.

In a recent article, “Brownings, please,” Tyrone Reid wrote about discriminatory requests by some employers in Jamaica who are requesting that trainees be brown or light-skinned as a prerequisite for employment in their firms. He cited a source from The Sunday Gleaner, who pointed out that the prejudice surfaces when employers are seeking trainees to fill “‘front counter staff’ positions as those persons are deemed to be the face of the organisation.”

Reid also quoted psychologist Dr. Leahcim Semaj, CEO of the Job Bank, who explained that skin-tone discrimination is still clear and present, although not usually articulated: “Years ago it was more specific for front-line positions such as receptionists and those dealing specifically with clients. There was a time in Jamaica [when] it (being of a light complexion) was one of the criteria to work in a bank. [. . .] Jamaica is still a black country (therefore) it is not something they can come out and say, but they will find subtle ways.” The psychologist stated that many people in Jamaica are still of the opinion that persons with lighter complexion are more attractive.

As a follow-up to this article, Zadie Neufville (IPS News) writes (in “Wanted: Light-skinned Only, Please”): “Revelations that proprietors are requesting light-skinned workers from a government training institution are putting a new spin on Jamaica’s so-called obsession with skin bleaching [. . .] reviving age-old resentments along with memories of sexual exploitation and a time when only light-skinned people held certain positions.”

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

Neufville’s article also points to the phenomenon of bleaching in Jamaican society, “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.” She quotes Professor Carolyn Cooper, who attributes the spread of the skin-bleaching on “generations of colour prejudice.”

She also quotes women’s rights activist Glenda Simms, who believes that much of the bleaching is due to the desire to be accepted. In “Brownings, bimbos and other drivers of underdevelopment,” Simms argues 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.”

Neufville adds that entertainer, Adijah “Vybz Kartel” Palmer, has embraced the practice 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.”

[See previous related posts Jamaican Dancehall Star Vybz Kartel Bleached Skin?, Vybz Kartel, Beyonce, Skin Lightening, and Racism: A Renewed/Old Obsession? and Andrea Shaw on the Vybz Kartel Controversy: “Coloring with Cake Soap”.]

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing these items to our attention.]

For original article, see http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20110911/lead/lead1.html

For Neufville response, see http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=105261

For another reaction to the original article, see http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/Was-the–Browning-request–story-on-target-_9761206

Photo: Ebony Patterson’s questions the bleaching phenomenon prevalent in dancehall culture in her series “Ganstas for Life;” see http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20100808/arts/arts1.html

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